Monday, 30 November 2015

Page 1 critique - "WC513" by Mike Hillcoat

I'm critiquing some page 1s - read about it here.

First the disclaimers.

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

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Prologue

Dancing candles sent shadows flickering.
The man who called himself Grouvz stood before Hanulib in his private quarters. Grouvz’s manner had always bothered the Magnate. It was more than his strange clothing, the long grey cloak he wore covering layers of deep black tunic and leggings of a fabric that looked visibly soft. His headdress like an overturned bowl and the short hair atop his crown, cut in a style unlike the fashion of the Tribes or Cities of Ellnive. He not only looked out of place but seemed of a time not yet borne, at odds with the elegant tiles and reliefs of the Magnate’s chambers, the ornately carved wheel of candles, which hung above them.
            Grouvz
            Hanulib idly wondered, as he did, if Grouvz might hail from the Deep Easts, where the Kalimas in the North fell from the sky and the Greater World and the East Kingdom were joined. But he had decided the strangeness arose from Grouvz’s offer, which enticed him beyond all measure. Hanulib raised hands from flowing robes and clasped them, resting his chin on his knuckles, thinking deeply.
            Moments passed.
“I think you a student of simple power,” he said at length. Grouvz betrayed nothing save a small grin, seeming at once imposing and unconcerned.
            “I once was, Magnate, I once was,” Grouvz said, shrugging his shoulders but keeping his strong poise, hands behind his back. The man seemed a predatory creature, concealed in the garments of a jester. “Then I met… men, of a kind, from lands far away. I became their willing servant, humbly accepting their mastery. Now I wish only to spend what life I have left to live accomplishing their bidding.”
            The horror of what Grouvz had told him coming to pass...
“You cannot think… this can’t… it’s impossible. It won’t happen!” Hanulib said, his voice stretching to a shriek. “The Inquisition fought their war for Eastern Jurel and won. You waste my time.”
Rather than respond immediately, Grouvz the silence eat at the Magnate’s conviction. If nothing else, the riches this man spoke of demanded consideration. Riches to drown cities and souls. Who was Hanulib to cast them away?
            “Are not the hearts of all men so simple, Magnate? The Merchant Council will purchase the support of the City Watch. The Inquisition may have won these lands but they will not hold them. You, Magnate, are the lever. Though the East Kingdom has never considered it, Magnate, you are the fulcrum of their power. The portal through which they rule,” Grouvz said.
            Hanulib was not a fool. The Council would cast him out if he did not accept Grouvz’s offer. But at what true cost?
“Why should I do this for you?” Hanulib asked. Grouvz smiled something wicked.
            “I offer you coin, Magnate. Isn’t that all we desire?”
            Simple coin. But the man offered him the key to all earthly ambitions.
            “You offer me the wealth of whole cities, tribes, kingdoms. And all you wish for me to do is wrest control of Eastern Jurel from the East Kingdom’s Inquisitors?”

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This page came with the request: PLEASE BE RELENTLESS AND BRUTAL

Prologue

Dancing candles sent shadows flickering.

It's pretty enough but it's not a great first line. It begs no questions. It's a generic setting line. Shadows and candles ... and?

The man who called himself Grouvz stood before Hanulib in his private quarters. 

This would be a better opener. Not great, but better. Why waste 5 word on 'the man who called himself'? There's nothing in what follows to suggest he isn't called Grouvz, nor does any doubt established over his name serve any purpose on this page.

Grouvz is a painful name to pronounce - you may have gone too fantasy there.

Grouvz’s manner had always bothered the Magnate.

So ... the man who had always called himself Grouvz? That seems even more evidence for him being ... Grouvz.

 It was more than his strange clothing, the long grey cloak he wore covering layers of deep black tunic and leggings of a fabric that looked visibly soft. His headdress like an overturned bowl and the short hair atop his crown, cut in a style unlike the fashion of the Tribes or Cities of Ellnive. He not only looked out of place but seemed of a time not yet borne (born?), at odds with the elegant tiles and reliefs of the Magnate’s chambers, the ornately carved wheel of candles, which hung above them.

Here you spend a whole paragraph on page 1 describing this guy who so far means nothing to me.
The fact his sartorial tastes don't match the Magnate's decor doesn't seem too much of a crime...
Rather than tell us his haircut doesn't match the fashion of the Tribes or Ellnive ... tell me what it does match? I don't know what the Tribes or Ellnive are.  I don't know if the Magnate belongs to either.
When it comes to description words like 'elegant' or 'ornately' are pretty blah/generic. I'm sure I'm guilty of using them, but they don't offer that much. They also seem slightly at odds. I guess my main gripe though is that I don't really care about the ornateness of the candle wheels - page 1 is where you give me reasons to care, reasons to turn to page 2.

            Grouvz
            Hanulib idly wondered, as he did, if Grouvz might hail from the Deep Easts, where the Kalimas in the North fell from the sky and the Greater World and the East Kingdom were joined. 

Hanulib (it would be better to stick with his name or his rank rather than bouncing between them) shouldn't be wondering idly on page 1. Page 1 is not a place for idle. Make it IMPORTANT. Either way 'as he did' has no place in your writing. That pulls me right out and reminds me this is a story and someone is telling it.

A Magnate sounds important. A man whose manner had always annoyed him and who dresses distinctively ... shouldn't he know where he hails from? And if he must wonder then don't turn it into a geography lesson. Hanulib is not thinking his thoughts to educate the reader and as soon as he does (Mark thought of his home in Bristol, not far from the Welsh border, that land which stretches to the Irish sea that washes about the divided isle of emerald) it becomes obvious and distances the reader.


But he had decided the strangeness arose from Grouvz’s offer, which enticed him beyond all measure. 

The strangeness that has always bothered him arises from the offer the man has just made?

'enticed him beyond all measure' feels over-written in context.


Hanulib raised (his?) hands from flowing robes and clasped them, resting his chin on his knuckles, thinking deeply.
            Moments passed.

Rather too much mechanical detail. You need to be taking hold of the reader. You're spending hugely valuable page one real-estate on taking out hands, clasping hands, resting chin on knuckles ... and then passing moments.

Hanulib rested his chin upon his hands.  -- if you must.

“I think you (are?) a student of simple power,” he said at length.

I'm not sure this was worth the wait. It doesn't make much sense to me.

 Grouvz betrayed nothing save a small grin, seeming at once imposing and unconcerned.

WAY too much ornamentation. This says 'Grouvz gave a small grin.' Don't layer it with so much reading into it - unless that turns out to be Hanulib's important super-power.

            “I once was, Magnate, I once was,” Grouvz said, shrugging his shoulders but keeping his strong poise, hands behind his back. The man seemed a predatory creature, concealed in the garments of a jester. 

OK

“Then I met… men, of a kind, from lands far away. I became their willing servant, humbly accepting their mastery. Now I wish only to spend what life I have left to live accomplishing their bidding.”

OK

            The horror of what Grouvz had told him coming to pass...

What? This sentence doesn't make sense grammatically. It doesn't make sense in the context of what we've seen so far either. What Grouvz told him just then? a) not apparently horrific b) coming to pass 0.5 seconds later ... or at some previous time we didn't see?  a) cheating b) confusing. 

“You cannot think… this can’t… it’s impossible. It won’t happen!” Hanulib said, his voice stretching to a shriek. “The Inquisition fought their war for Eastern Jurel and won. You waste my time.”

I don't mind not knowing what's going on with part of a conversation but here I feel I don't have the information to understand any of it. Additionally the insufficient information I am being offered feels like an info-dump. I expect both these men know 'the Inquisition fought their war for Eastern Jurel and won' ... so why say it?

Moreover ... Eastern Jurel? You took the time to load me up with the Deep Easts, The Eastern Kingdom, Kalimas, the Tribes, and the cities of Ellnas ... and none of that helps me ... we're talking about Eastern Jurel now!

Rather than respond immediately, Grouvz (let?) the silence eat at the Magnate’s conviction. If nothing else, the riches this man spoke of demanded consideration. Riches to drown cities and souls. Who was Hanulib to cast them away?

It's hard to know whose point-of-view we're in here. 

What riches? Nobody has mentioned riches... 

'drown cities and souls' feels over-written here.

            “Are not the hearts of all men so simple, Magnate? The Merchant Council will purchase the support of the City Watch. The Inquisition may have won these lands but they will not hold them. You, Magnate, are the lever. Though the East Kingdom has never considered it, Magnate, you are the fulcrum of their power. The portal through which they rule,” Grouvz said.

So we seem to have dropped into the middle of a conversation and as readers are being forced to reconstruct the important part that we missed...

Why not let us arrive a little earlier and hear the important portion? 

But my interpretation doesn't make sense - if the Magnate had already been offered load of money to betray his (conquerors?) he wouldn't be idly wondering about his guest's origins and studying the fashion of his hair cut... so when was this offer made? I'm lost!

Also ... Hanilub is a lever and a fulcrum and a portal? Too much.


            Hanulib was not a fool. The Council would cast him out if he did not accept Grouvz’s offer. But at what true cost?

Who are the merchant council? How did they know about this? What's a true cost? I'm even more lost than I was a few lines back.

“Why should I do this for you?” Hanulib asked. 

I thought we'd established 'riches enough to drown cities and souls' ... what's he asking?

Grouvz smiled something wicked.

This is either colloquial language which doesn't sit well (Dude! that hurt something wicked.), or just poorly worded.

            “I offer you coin, Magnate. Isn’t that all we desire?”

            Simple coin. But the man offered him the key to all earthly ambitions.

This is hard to parse but I'm reading it as Hanulib, who already knew he was being offered wealth, now understanding a second time that he's being offered lots of money (for services that aren't very clear) and equating coins to the key to all earthly ambitions.

Hanulib is welcome to be wrong - but the idea that many earthly things worth having can't be purchased is quite a common one.

            “You offer me the wealth of whole cities, tribes, kingdoms. And all you wish for me to do is wrest control of Eastern Jurel from the East Kingdom’s Inquisitors?”

So this could quite easily have been line 1. Sitting here it feels like repetition for the 3rd time at least. I still have no idea where Eastern Jurel is (though I'm starting to think they're sitting in it) or who the East Kingdom's Inquisitors are to Hanulib or why everything has to be east.


+++++++++++++++++


So, since you asked for brutality...

...this doesn't work.

You've dropped us into the plot rather than into the story. They are not the same thing. Moreover, the plot is deeply confused.

The conversation doesn't flow. Several lines are spent on simple mechanics one moment, and the next moment we spend too many words deconstructing a grin. We get almost no insight into the PoV's state of mind, aspirations, worries etc. We're laden with the names of strange places and given no way to connect them or attach meaning to them...

You failed to make me care about either of the two people involved and hence about the things that they are doing.

Hanilub is our PoV. Does he want to throw the Inquisitors out of East Jurel? Does he want a lot of money? Is he married? Children? Cowardly? War-like? Is he worried that if he accepts the money he'll fail and die horribly? Does he trust this man? Why? Why not? Is he old? Young? Is he happy with his life and wants this all to go away? Is he unhappy and this is a great opportunity? Did the Inquisitors hang his grandmother? 

Bottom line: He has to want something and have a reason for wanting it. That's fundamental - without that you've no chance of making me care about him.

You can certainly start a story in the middle of some important negotiation - if it's the kind of story that demands it - but then you'll need to skill to simultaneously paint both parties as human and interesting, and to show us what's at stake on a personal level as well as politically. That's very difficult to do.

This is why I often advise starting with a character in a relatively simple situation, including some threat/action that is easy to grasp and interesting, and to let that character hook us _before_ they walk into the war-room or whatever it is that's going to draw us with them into the big picture (if it's a big picture book).

As this stands it's two name-tags exchanging awkward and conflicting dialogue about some name-tag places.  And that won't fly. In my view.




Thursday, 26 November 2015

I don't travel!

The TL:DR version is:  I don't travel.

This is my daughter Celyn

Here she is in her wheelchair handing over cheques from sales of her book to the Children's Hospice I visit with her.

She's 5 days old in this one.

By my calculation I've been more than 10 miles from Celyn on 3 occasions in the past 11 years, all of those being swift trips to London which required enormous amounts of arranging. 

Celyn has no use of her limbs, she's doubly incontinent, registered blind, she can't speak or eat or drink, she has epilepsy, she suffers from scoliosis, her hips are displaced and her wrists and one ankle turned in. She has no emotional filters, and she suffers multiple sources of pain. She wakes between 5 and 10 times a night and needs turning over, or changing, or settling, or all three.

She is also clever, interactive (once you learn her signals), enthusiastic about life, loves stories, and likes to laugh.


She spends a lot of time in hospital for various appointments.


My wife, who suffers her own significant health problems, can't lift her, or turn her. So all of that means I'm required to look after Celyn whenever she isn't in school. We have carers come to the house for respite care but I need to be around even then to help lift Celyn when she needs changing or wants to go for a walk (she loves walks).

So. I don't travel. I would very much like to attend fantasy conventions, go to events, have a holiday, even do book tours. But it's not possible. And this is why.

I'm not posting this to make anyone feel stupid for asking. "When are you coming to XXXX?" isn't a stupid question. I just wanted to have a post to link to in order to stop me having to paraphrase this every other day.



Monday, 23 November 2015

A murder of queens!

I'm still hunting the collective noun for queens - but since these are Red Queens I've gone for a 'murder', as with crows.

Anyway, I thought I'd gather together the photos that have come in for DarkSide Books' promotion of the release of Prince of Fools in Brazil.

Darkside are a new publisher but they do an amazing job on social media and have sold more hardcover copies of my work than all my other publishers put together!

On Facebook the DarkSide page has an astounding 500,000+ likes and one of the photos below has already had 4000+ likes and 250+ shares.

Darkside really understand the power of imagery and the appeal of wonderfully made hardcover editions.

I include at the end a drawing that's rather closer to the Red Queen seen in the book!
 




tweeted here <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">&quot;A Guerra da Rainha Vermelha - Prince of Fools&quot; da <a href="https://twitter.com/DarkSideBooks">@DarkSideBooks</a>. HAIL the <a href="https://twitter.com/Allmystuffblog">@Allmystuffblog</a> Queen hahaha! ;) <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/sqn?src=hash">#sqn</a> <a href="https://t.co/8ClQRPiUTy">pic.twitter.com/8ClQRPiUTy</a></p>&mdash; Tyta Montrase (@tyta_montrase) <a href="https://twitter.com/tyta_montrase/status/668461727399456768">November 22, 2015</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>



Desiree Baptista

                

Vanessa Profili, photo by Carolina Sakuma



By Simon Schmidt (more here)







Page 1 critique - "The Hollow Mage" by Ioana Visan

I'm critiquing some page 1s - read about it here.

First the disclaimers.

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

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The Hollow Mage
By Ioana Visan


The carriage pulled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, the knickers of the horses passing through the thin walls, and a moment later, the stocky driver opened the door. “This is as far as I go.”
Allia frowned at the narrow path splitting from the main road and going up the slope to the blue house at the top of the hill.
“But…”
Ignoring her protest, the driver brought her trunk from the back of the carriage and dumped it in the mud on the side of the road. “Off you go.”
 “If it’s money—”
“There’s not enough money in the world to make me go up there.” The man shook his head. “He’s way too weird.”
As if to prove his point, thick smoke rose from the chimney and painted the sky pink.
With a huff, Allia bunched up her skirts in her fists and climbed out of the carriage.
The driver bowed apologetically before returning to his seat. “Good luck, Miss.”
She could have punished him in several creative ways for his insolence, but since she needed to keep a low profile, Allia settled for a glare aimed at the departing carriage.
Drawing in a deep breath, she checked the road. Empty. Everyone had already rushed home for supper, wary of being caught out after nightfall. The recent peace and prosperity hadn’t put an end to the thieves. Allia stifled a shiver brought both by concern and cold.
Okay, time to move. The trunk lay morosely in the mud, too heavy for her to lift it even on a good day. With another glance around to make sure there were no witnesses lurking in the distance, she summoned a gust of wind to lift it off the ground and carry it along with her. The trunk wavered, she hadn’t used her powers since she entered the country, but her determination held it up.
The house became bigger as she approached it. Blue walls the color of the sky on a sunny summer day, darker blue roof and porch, no fence, and no flowers. Despite the sun having gone down over the hill, surrounding the outline of the house with an orange halo, no light cheered the windows. Far from being a palace, as long as there was hot water and a bed, she wasn’t complaining.
Allia set the trunk on the porch, smoothed her cloak, and knocked on the cracked front door. Then waited, and waited. Was he doing it on purpose? He’d been informed of her arrival. Cold and annoyed, she knocked again, harder this time.
“What?” The door snapped back, and a tall, lean man filled the opening. “Whatever you’re selling, we’re not buying.” Violet eyes peered at her, shadowed by the light mauve hair falling down his forehead and reaching to the collar of his blue redingote.
Oh, he was one of those. Allia missed her former master who favored black and wasn’t subjected to mood swings.
“Good, because I’m not selling anything,” she said. “I’m your new apprentice.”


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The Hollow Mage
By Ioana Visan


The carriage pulled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, the knickers of the horses passing through the thin walls, and a moment later, the stocky driver opened the door. 

'Knickers' are women's underpants ... the imagery is amusing but I can't visualize them passing through walls, thin or otherwise. You want 'nickers' there. And people know carriages have thin walls - it's wasted description. 'The carriage pulled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, the horses nickering.' does the job.

“This is as far as I go.”
Allia frowned at the narrow path splitting from the main road and going up the slope to the blue house at the top of the hill.
“But…”
Ignoring her protest, the driver brought her trunk from the back of the carriage and dumped it in the mud on the side of the road.

The scene is perhaps too reminiscent of a bunch of vampire (& other films) where a young woman is delivered by an unfriendly driver to a remote and spooky new home.

 “Off you go.”
 “If it’s money—”
“There’s not enough money in the world to make me go up there.” The man shook his head. “He’s way too weird.”
As if to prove his point, thick smoke rose from the chimney and painted the sky pink.

If it were Count Dracula I would buy his reluctance. I'm having a harder job seeing why weirdness wins over money. Pink smoke doesn't seem too threatening...

Since this pink smoke appears to have emerged just that moment (rather than having been coming from the chimney all the while) it might pay to make this clearer - 'a puff of pink smoke broke from the chimney' etc

With a huff, Allia bunched up her skirts in her fists and climbed out of the carriage.
The driver bowed apologetically before returning to his seat. “Good luck, Miss.”
She could have punished him in several creative ways for his insolence, but since she needed to keep a low profile, Allia settled for a glare aimed at the departing carriage.

This seems a little off. Bowing, apologising, and wishing good luck don't hit me as particularly insolent. Such reaction would play better closer to the trunk dumping and refusal.

I don't have a good picture of the setting - I imagine (from my vampire house stereotype) this to be an isolated dwelling in some deserted moor? If true - who is she keeping a low profile from?

Drawing in a deep breath, she checked the road. Empty. Everyone had already rushed home for supper, wary of being caught out after nightfall. The recent peace and prosperity hadn’t put an end to the thieves.

Thieves could be burglars and pickpockets - might want something more threatening like 'bandits'?
Could establish the time of day earlier when looking up at the house. The threat of nightfall is a useful one - removing the possibility of doing much other than going up to the house.

 Allia stifled a shiver brought both by concern and cold.
Okay, time to move. The trunk lay morosely in the mud, too heavy for her to lift it even on a good day.

I would lose 'morosely'. 

Either she's really weak or the driver was really strong! She might struggle to carry it up hill - but to not even be able to lift it when he unloaded it without complaint?  

With another glance around to make sure there were no witnesses lurking in the distance, she summoned a gust of wind to lift it off the ground and carry it along with her. The trunk wavered, she hadn’t used her powers since she entered the country, but her determination held it up.

The house is puffing pink smoke and the driver won't go near. Why is she so scared of someone seeing her do magic?

I can buy her determination + magic holding the trunk up. A gust of wind though? It would have to be a hurricane... just sounds odd.

The house became bigger as she approached it.

I doubt it... but if it really did you need to make more of it. And if this is just perspective / 'things that are far away look small' then it's a waste of time mentioning it.

If she is surprised to discover how big the house is and her first impressions of its size were misleading for some reason - that requires better explanation.

 Blue walls the color of the sky on a sunny summer day, darker blue roof and porch, no fence, and no flowers. 

Despite the sun having gone down over the hill, surrounding the outline of the house with an orange halo, no light cheered the windows. 

This sentence is a bit of a mouthful and the middle bit disconnects the two ends somewhat.

Far from being a palace, as long as there was hot water and a bed, she wasn’t complaining.

And this sentence doesn't really hold together. I know what you want to say but the words don't quite say it. Small additions could fix it: 'It was far from being a palace, but as long' etc.

Allia set the trunk on the porch, smoothed her cloak, and knocked on the cracked front door. Then waited, and waited. Was he doing it on purpose? He’d been informed of her arrival. Cold and annoyed, she knocked again, harder this time.
“What?” The door snapped back, and a tall, lean man filled the opening. “Whatever you’re selling, we’re not buying.” Violet eyes peered at her, shadowed by the light mauve hair falling down his forehead and reaching to the collar of his blue redingote.

There has a been an awful lot of colour description - all about the house, the smoke, the walls, the roof, and the man's hair, eye, and coat. Some other types of visuals would be good and also some non-visuals (textures, sounds, temperatures, smells) - replacing some of the colour-stuff perhaps rather than additionally.

I had to look up 'redingote' and I suspect most other people would have to as well. Better not to throw strange words at the reader where more common ones would do.

Oh, he was one of those. Allia missed her former master who favored black and wasn’t subjected to mood swings.
“Good, because I’m not selling anything,” she said. “I’m your new apprentice.”

+++++++++

I put a fair amount of red in up there. It's all pretty minor stuff. My impression is of a rather light-hearted book and as such the tension you present (apprentice having to move in with weird magician) serves. Though perhaps if his weirdness runs to more than a taste for garish colour schemes we could get a hint of what it might entail.

It might help the reader to get invested / attached to the character if she showed some trepidation or aspiration / anticipation. If she were worried or excited or hopeful that makes her more interesting (to me) than her irritation with the driver.

But yes I can see a fan of Diana Wynne Jones turning the page to see if you can capture them by the end of the chapter.

Offered in the spirit of fun - this from the pen of Helen Forte




Monday, 16 November 2015

Diversity!

People from particular racial groups (along with people owning particular sexual preferences or gender identities etc) want to see their experiences reflected in fantasy. It's something I don't really have to think about as a reader since white/straight/male is the fantasy default.

My question regards what that representation entails.

'Famously' Ursula Le Guin's main character in the Earthsea trilogy is a person of colour (often described by a white skinned point-of-view character as dark skinned and (I think) possessed of a reddish skin tone) that was white-washed in the TV series, much to the author's annoyance.

I also noted that that character was effectively white-washed on the cover of the book I've owned since I was a child:


By catching him mid-illusion with white companions (I'm not sure they were white either) his skin colour is dodged.

This of course still goes on. Rick Riordan had to battle his Russian publishers after the first printing of his recent book went out with the black character made white on it!










Anyway. My question concerns the level and type of representation.

It's sparked by the discovery that in the Low Town trilogy by Daniel Polansky (an under-appreciated gem) the main character, the Warden, is in fact of mixed race.

I had assumed throughout that the Warden was the 'default' race for the city he lived in - the same race as the majority of the patrons in the bar he owns. I hadn't given a lot of thought to what that race was, but if pressed I would have guessed 'white' since the city contained ethnic groups noted for black and Asian skin tones (IIRC) and he wasn't a part of those groups.

Now it turns out that I wasn't being particularly unobservant on this point. In books 1 and 2 his race isn't mentioned at all. In book 3 it's mentioned in one off-hand line.

So my question is - is this what diversity means? The Warden's race was such a 'non-deal' that it wasn't mentioned for two books. What if it wasn't mentioned for 3 books and Polansky just told someone afterward in an interview?

JK Rowling told the world after the event that Dumbledore is gay. There was no need to mention it in the books - it didn't come up. So ... after reading seven books with gay Dumbledore and no mention of it ... do gay people feel represented?

If Tolkien rose from the grave for 60 seconds to mention that, by the way, Gandalf is black ... would that be delivering diversity?

Or does diversity mean seeing black people's experience (in itself a vastly diverse thing) represented in fantasy - and the fantasy world needs real-world racism imported so the reader sees that particular aspect of black people's experience?

In my trilogy, The Red Queen's War, the main character is of mixed race. It's not mentioned very often - though he does meet someone in the frozen north who mocks and intimidates him over his 'dirty' skin. In the trilogy I'm writing at the moment, Red Sister, the world is reduced to an equatorial corridor hemmed in by advancing ice. All races are mixed and have been for thousands of years. There are many skin tones and it's of no more note or interest than hair and eye colour. Does a person of colour reading that feel represented - or does the failure to connect with the prejudice of the real world mean that they don't feel represented?

I don't know. I'm asking.

I'm not writing these books to promote diversity or represent anyone - the worlds and characters are just the way they are - just how the pieces of my imagination and logic meshed together on these particular occasions. But the question interests me.

There's a comments section below - share your thoughts?









Page 1 critique - "City of Sons" by James Shoemaker

I'm critiquing some page 1s - read about it here.

First the disclaimers.

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

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THE MEETING

The errant wind descends the mountaintop.  It pushes west headlong towards the flatland and the plains of the southern continent, Pannotia.  It collects the moisture on the upward journey from the great river, dislodging droplets so that they fall, pit pat, to the floodplain below.  Turning north and back east, the wind descends into the wooden city.  Upsetting hair and cloth of Smithic merchants and pilgrims, it careens through the portal called Westgate.  It moves more quickly now, encouraged by urban heat.  Up the east-west artery of the city and past the Great Intersection, suddenly the wind bursts against the body of a man, all of its energy dispersed around this cloaked impediment.  The air chills.   
Dakra Gandaris shivers and clutches the lapels of his cloak.  It is unusually cold for an early spring month.  He pulls his hood up and around his face and walks briskly east towards the river.  The paving stones outside the south entrance of Woodhall give way to trodden dirt along the Decomana. He lifts his knees higher to encourage blood and warmth into his legs.  The dagger in his trousers rubs against his hip.  A small leather sheath protects the blade.  The weapon makes Dakra feel more at ease with the upcoming meeting, as though its mere presence is protection enough.  Though he has been assured that he will be dealing with professionals of the utmost caliber, he is not foolish enough to arrive unarmed.
The Decomana is crowded and unusually frenzied.  Guilders are setting up banners with their heraldry above woven awnings and market stalls.  Two merchants argue over a row of mudbrick amphorae that separate their plots.  Gaolers wear punitive expressions and keep their pike-tips lowered at a threatening angle.  The upcoming Venrachu festival has set everyone on edge, including Dakra.  He turns south into the seventh district of the 2nd Quarter.         
The wind abates in the narrower street.  Dakra follows it as it curves west towards the seventh-second gardens.  The dagger is chafing his hipbone, but he makes no move to correct it.  He follows an alley south and stops at the top of a sunken staircase that leads down to an unassuming door cut out of a woodplank building.  In the lunette above the door is the name “B – B.”  The letters are carved without flourish, as though they were an afterthought.  Dakra enters without knocking. 
It is a tavern, windowless.  There are no patrons.  The only occupant besides Dakra is a pretty bartender who glances at him for only a second before she turns away to wipe out a wooden carafe.  The empty tables are all lit with beeswax candles, and a tallow lantern is suspended above, burning emphatically. Dakra crosses over to a high-backed booth against the far wall and sits down.  He is early. 

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THE MEETING

The errant wind descends the mountaintop.  It pushes west headlong towards the flatland and the plains of the southern continent, Pannotia.

I mentioned the "It was a dark and stormy night" syndrome in a previous crit. It's generally not a good idea to open with weather. It's over-done, and not very interesting. Here it's true that you're doing something more akin to the blown feather opening of Forrest Gump or the 'track the bullet' scene in various videos/movies - then it becomes an interesting 'where are we going'/'set the scene' device ... which is good for scene setting. The question is should page 1 be for scene-setting or reader-seizing? The answer there can depend on whether you've got a following already or are an unknown trying to snag one.

  It collects the moisture on the upward journey from the great river, dislodging droplets so that they fall, pit pat, to the floodplain below.  Turning north and back east, the wind descends into the wooden city.  Upsetting hair and cloth of Smithic merchants and pilgrims, it careens through the portal called Westgate.  It moves more quickly now, encouraged by urban heat.

I like the writing. But it would have to be INCREDIBLE writing to grab me when the topic is the water-cycle and geography.

I'm also questioning why this is in present tense. I like present tense writing, and use it myself - often to emphasize the difference between threads. The strength of present tense is an immediacy and focus though - which seems rather wasted with floodplains and Westgates...

  Up the east-west artery of the city and past the Great Intersection, suddenly the wind bursts against the body of a man, all of its energy dispersed around this cloaked impediment.  The air chills.

Why does the air chill? Was it not windy a moment ago and now it is and the wind is colder than the non-wind? I certainly don't want an explanation, just registering my confusion. Confusion isn't good.
   
Dakra Gandaris shivers and clutches the lapels of his cloak.

I normally whinge about two-name introductions, saying that they weaken point of view and are distancing. Here though we started in a disembodied wind-PoV so I guess this is settling into a Dakra PoV by stages... To be honest though - I have to ask why not open with "Dakra shivers"? What have the wind and the pit pat rain and the floodplains given us? That setting can be introduced here and there as necessary later once you have secured my attention with whatever interesting or exciting thing is happening to Dakra.

When an agent or potential reader picks this up they will have hundreds of other books clamoring for their attention. You need to give them a reason not to put it down. The current opening paragraph shows you can write - but they expect that - and it also threatens that you're going to spend a lot of time on such things, which they might not want.

What is your Unique Selling Point? What USP makes you different from the hundreds of others demanding their time. When they come to remember or recommend ... what will they say? So far it will be "That book in the present tense."

  It is unusually cold for an early spring month. 

Don't care. Sorry, but I don't.

He pulls his hood up and around his face and walks briskly east towards the river.

Up? That sounds more like down...  

The paving stones outside the south entrance of Woodhall give way to trodden dirt along the Decomana. He lifts his knees higher to encourage blood and warmth into his legs.

Slow. Detail is good - but dull.

The dagger in his trousers rubs against his hip.

There we have it. A short line that does lots of work. A dagger - it's rubbing, so he doesn't usually wear it - so he's expecting trouble/violence - we have a threat, we have tension!

  A small leather sheath protects the blade.

Don't care. Tell me unexpected things. I expect he's wearing trousers and shoes - we don't need to know unless it's unexpected. If the dagger was naked, or rusty with disuse, or sticky with fresh blood - that'd be worth mentioning. If it's in a leather scabbard ... don't care.

  The weapon makes Dakra feel more at ease with the upcoming meeting, as though its mere presence is protection enough.  Though he has been assured that he will be dealing with professionals of the utmost caliber, he is not foolish enough to arrive unarmed.

Good. Here you could add detail that makes us feel it's real. "Though Sheera assured him" doesn't matter who Sheera is but here a specific name makes it feel real and personal. 

The Decomana is crowded and unusually frenzied.  Guilders are setting up banners with their heraldry above woven awnings and market stalls.  Two merchants argue over a row of mudbrick amphorae that separate their plots.

This is good - yes it's scene setting detail but it's scene-setting detail that matters to Dakra and is in front of him. It's personal, it puts us there with him. Not sure what mudbrick amphorae are - amphorae made from the same mud as bricks are? Sounds like they're made from mudbricks ... which doesn't make sense.

  Gaolers wear punitive expressions and keep their pike-tips lowered at a threatening angle.

Wait what? Where's the gaol? Who mentioned a gaol? Punitive sounds like the wrong adjective. And pikes aren't a gaoler's weapon.

  The upcoming Venrachu festival has set everyone on edge, including Dakra.  He turns south into the seventh district of the 2nd Quarter.         
The wind abates in the narrower street.  Dakra follows it as it curves west towards the seventh-second gardens.

Sounds for a moment as if the 'it' is the wind.

The dagger is chafing his hipbone, but he makes no move to correct it. 

We already know it's rubbing and don't tell us what he doesn't do. If you want to raise tension have him wonder if he has the courage to use it. Has he ever done something like that before? Real people anticipate and worry - if you want to attach us to Dakra's cause consider making him anticipate the meeting and worry about it. He can speculate. What if... to my mind this is better use of space than the wind.

 He follows an alley south and stops at the top of a sunken staircase that leads down to an unassuming door cut out of a woodplank building.  In the lunette above the door is the name “B – B.”  The letters are carved without flourish, as though they were an afterthought.  Dakra enters without knocking. 
It is a tavern, windowless.  There are no patrons.  The only occupant besides Dakra is a pretty bartender who glances at him for only a second before she turns away to wipe out a wooden carafe.

'Pretty' is a bit blah. I'm not sure I would encourage more description here but I'd rather know what makes her pretty to him than that the candles are beeswax or the BB was carved without flourish. It's always good to make writing achieve several goals at once. A little more about why she's pretty doesn't just tell us about her, it tells us about him. Whereas the beeswax just tells us a touch more about the candles.

  The empty tables are all lit with beeswax candles, and a tallow lantern is suspended above, burning emphatically. Dakra crosses over to a high-backed booth against the far wall and sits down.  He is early. 

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So, I slapped down a lot of red ink, but actually the writing is pretty solid and my comments are more about what you choose to do with it.
You use present tense but don't really take advantage of it (tight PoV and action milk present tense for the immediacy it offers).
You introduce a character and a mild tension but there's nothing really unique here to make me remember it or *NEED* to turn to page 2. What is unique about the character or the situation?
Page 1 is valuable real-estate in writing terms. I would be using that space on character, tension, interest rather than show-casing my wind-following abilities. Make me feel Dakra's worry. Let me know what he's hoping to achieve. Why is it important? What's at stake? What makes him interesting as a character?

Those are my thoughts. Hope there's something useful for you there! Good luck with it.