Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    Serial Killers and S&M

    Clotje’s sent me the start of her thriller, a serial killer story set in the S&M community. It’s 3000 words long, so I’m not going to post the lot of it, but you can read it here in its entirety.

    We start off back in 1983, in a pretty horrid situation:
    The teenage boy glared at his drunken foster father lying on the sofa. Hate welled up inside him as he watched the fat bastard snore, drool dripping from the left side of his open mouth. The stench of stale cigarette smoke, sweat and flat beer made it hard to breathe. The boy moved carefully around the room, stepping over the numerous empty beer bottles, full ashtrays and newspaper stacks. Yeah right, he thought, as if the old man ever read anything. The only thing he ever read - if you could call it that - was Playboy magazine.
    It becomes obvious that the father has been abusing the boy and his sister, and so the boy sets fire to the house, burning him to death.

    This is another prologue. (Three in a row!) For a really strong hook for a thriller, I suggest getting in to the action right away, starting the book at the point that our protagonist becomes involved in the plot of the book. Take the seminal serial killer novel, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. From memory, this starts off with Jack Crawford asking our hero Will Graham to help him on a terrifying new case. That’s a great hook. We know about as much as Will at this point, and have an opportunity to get to know him as he reacts to the facts of the case.

    Here, I am guessing we’re seeing the serial killer’s back story right up, and we won’t get back to his/her plot for a while yet. Harris likes to put the killer’s back story way to the end of the book. That way, the book still retains some of the features of the traditional mystery thriller – a whydunit instead of a whodunit.

    Stylistically, there’s probably a little too much squalor here, and Clotje’s in danger of actually repelling the reader. If there’s a general style point to be made, it’s that too much detail is sometimes the enemy of description. For example, referring to the ‘cheap synthetic fabric’ feels redundant, given that we’ve already got a good sense of the place. Or, the ‘liquor filled slumber’ – we know he’s dead drunk, so saying this feels like hitting the guy’s unpleasantness rather too hard.

    The story breaks off with the boy watching the flames devour the room, and then we’re in 2004. A woman called Andie is waking up with a hangover.
    She felt as if she had been run over by a truck. The room still seemed to be spinning and the light hurt her eyes. She had a splitting headache and her mouth felt as if she had eaten cotton balls the night before. She vowed she would never drink so much wine again. The bedroom smelled as if she had been marinating in garlic all night. In retrospect that Take-away with extra garlic sauce proved to be a bad idea. She opened her eyes again to have a look at the alarm clock and cursed when she saw the time. Only ten minutes left before she was due at New Scotland Yard.
    Again, might be too much of the hangover here. Over the next few paragraphs we hear about her bloodshot eyes, pounding head, sensitive skin and all sorts of symptoms. As a reader, I’m keen for her to get to work so that the plot can get going, but she has a hard time of it.
    She scanned the street to see if she could spot an empty cab somewhere. Cars were racing by in the rush hour traffic but not one cab was to be seen. Typical. Andie started sprinting to the tube station instead of wasting any more time, dodging pedestrians left and right, all on their way to work. She prayed that the Northern Line would be running without problems for once.

    After leaving the tube station she ran down Broadway towards Victoria Street and New Scotland Yard. Her head was pounding in time with her heartbeat. Her throat hurt from gasping for air and the pain in her side alerted her that she’d have to slow down. A little voice in her head was mocking her, reminding her that it had been months since she had been to the gym.
    Andie, I hear you about the Northern Line.

    Clotje could probably cut straight in to Scotland Yard. This sort of scene isn’t really appropriate at the beginning of a thriller, being, as it is, the sort of thing I go through every Monday morning. If this were a film, it might take up 30 seconds of screen time and serve to establish Andie as a slightly ditzy, Bridget Jones-y character. We’d probably be surprised when she turns up at the Yard. (Actually, why not conceal her job until she gets there?) But here, it takes a thousand words or two, and that’s a bit long.

    When she gets there, it turns out that she’s a DI and we meet the new member of her team, Dave Jameson. It’s very jarring to suddenly shift into Dave’s POV here.
    He waved her apology aside. “I want you to meet your new team member, Detective Sergeant Dave Jameson. He’s just moved to London. Done a good job in Exeter. He’s the officer responsible for solving the Tiverton killer case.”
    Now it was Andie’s turn to raise her eyebrows. She couldn’t believe this was the same guy the media had named “the pit-bull”. She walked towards him to shake his hand.

    A knock at the door interrupted Dave’s conversation with DCS Jenkins. It opened and a slim redhead with blazing eyes entered. A tea stain, the size of a football, covered the front of her blouse, which was probably the reason that she looked like a volcano about to erupt. She was a petite woman; he guessed little more than five feet on high heels.

    For a fleeting moment Dave wondered if she was a member of his new team but dismissed the idea immediately. He was gob smacked when he heard DCS Jenkins introduce her. Not only was she in his team, even worse, she was his new boss. Dave tried hard to suppress a groan. How could someone like that be in charge? Not only did she look like she was nurturing a hangover, she was also an hour late for work.
    I think this book needs just one POV, really. You can do two or more but it’s best to keep them separate; if they collide all the time it can be difficult. Especially as we have ditched Andie entirely and Dave now starts thinking about a tiff with his lover Chris:
    “Thanks.” Dave didn’t know what else to say to her. Best not encourage her by getting too friendly. He had noticed the absence of a wedding band and he was in no mood for unnecessary complications. He had left all of that behind in Exeter. As he watched Rose sashaying back to her desk, he remembered the final altercation he had had with his lover Chris.

    “I don’t believe it. I just bloody can’t believe it. This is the third time you’ve cancelled our trip. What the hell do you think a relationship is? Do you think I’m just here for you to shag whenever you feel horny? To cook for you and do your laundry like a housemaid? Do you think-”

    Dave interrupted the waterfall of angry words. “You know that I don’t think that. Christ, you knew what my job was when we got involved. Weren’t you the one who said that you wouldn’t make demands on me like that? I thought we agreed from the beginning that my work came first when I I’m in the middle of-“
    One difficulty is that I don’t really know who the hero of this book is yet, or what the story is, and already there are some subplots brewing up. So, structurally, the book is going to need some work.

    Clotje might have to have a good comb through for cliché and the odd infelicitous phrase, too. For example, ‘Gob-smacked’ is not that lovely; ‘the waterfall of angry words’ seems a bit off to me.

    There might well be a great story here – without seeing a synopsis, it’s hard to tell. I’d suggest there’s a lot of work ahead before this is ready to be sent out.

    Torgo, 8:57 pm


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