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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  • Monday, October 03, 2005

    Touched by Fire

    Next, the estimable Bonnie Calhoun. Her novel is called Touched by Fire. "If it's received well in the publishing world, I'm planning a series. I'm working on the second entitled E-Bomb, and I have the outline for the third called Nanotech Virus."

    Here's the synopsis. It's a very complicated synopsis, so I have added comments all the way through. Tough to read, I know, but I want to give you an idea of what I was thinking as I read through it.

    With a Ph.D. in Earth Science and Astrophysics, Captain Barbara Hamilton can't understand why she has been reassigned to Hansen Air Force Base in Florida. [I can't understand why she can't understand it, because I don't know much about the Base or about her doctorate subject.] She was stationed there previously when she helped to implement the High Altitude Auroral Research Project (HAARP), but now the base is a Homeland Security unit. [OK, I sort of understand now, but it shouldn't have been difficult to understand in the first place.] Her first job is to investigate destructive weather and geological anomalies plaguing the United States.

    Excitement at finding strange pulses emanating from the moon is quickly replaced by overwhelming fear as the lab is assaulted by an earthquake and swallowed by the San Andreas Fault. [Crikey!! But this is in Florida, isn't it? And the SA Fault is in California? Sorry, I'm not sure of my US geography.]

    Meanwhile, back at Hansen, General Hershel McKay, worried about the confirmation he expects from Captain Hamilton, [confirmation of what?] is also being plagued [change the verb] by protesters against the upcoming shuttle launch. Irony lies in the fact that the shuttle doesn't need to carry the items being protested, but they are the only public reasons for sending up the shuttle. [I am confused. I don't know anything about shuttles or items at this point. I sort of understand the shape of the irony, but not the reasons for it - or if this situation is going to be important.]

    As McKay waits for Barbara's return [but I thought she had been swallowed up in the San Andreas Fault?], the group of protesters and their leader, Jim Morton, are detained by Base MPs for disorderly conduct. Upon returning to the base, Barbara sees her former boyfriend, philanthropist Jim Morton. [Is this a different Jim Morton? Perhaps: "the group of protesters and their leader are detained ... Barbara discovers that their leader is Jim Morton, her former boyfriend."] For the first time in ten years, she realizes that she never quite got over him; the feelings are mutual with Jim, but they both try to hide it.

    Barbara, after receiving a promotion [why?], finds out from McKay that the HAARP has a twin system operating on the moon as a "black project", and the system seems to be wreaking havoc on earth weather. Her feelings are fractured [not great] by trying to control her response to the dangerous HAARP project [I have no idea what the project is or why it is dangerous - is this the Tesla geoforce thing?], the emotional hardship of avoiding a relationship with Jim, and a mother who tries to convert her to Christianity by repeatedly exhorting [lecturing] on the nearness of the end times.

    Barbara gets a reprieve from a relationship with Jim because he travels to New York for a conference. He runs into a friend from Israel, Jacob Ben-Meir, who is now working for Alexander Romanoff, the President of the United States of Europe [and we all thought it would be Peter Mandelson]. Romanoff, upon meeting Jim, offers him a temporary job in Israel setting up an agro-fishing project, which is Jim's specialty. Unbeknownst to anyone except his well-paid cohorts, Romanoff has commandeered control of the HAARP project on the moon, in a diabolical bid to destroy the United States and rule the world. [BLIMEY! That DOES sound like Mandelson. This is turning into a Clive Cussler novel.]

    Tensions heighten as a tsunami roars through the Indian Ocean, and multiple volcanoes erupt around the globe. McKay sends Barbara to investigate steam vents at the former site of the seismology station that was swallowed by the San Andreas Fault in San Diego. She barely escapes with her life at the birth of a volcano.

    Once Romanoff is exposed as the culprit [of what? Is he causing the natural disasters? How?], the CIA, with Barbara's help, recruits Jim Morton, because of his new position in Romanoff's organization. Romanoff recognizes Barbara as one of the original forces for the HAARP project and worries that her intervention will thwart his plan for the United States. When he realizes that she is also involved with Jim Morton, assassins are dispatched to kill Barbara and then Jim. An undercover agent in Romanoff's office foils the plot and supplies the location of the illicit HAARP control center, hidden in Russia [the secret agent seems rather convenient].

    Special Ops commandos are dispatched to destroy the center. Opposing forces set the installation on self-destruct [?], setting off a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands, which spawns a deadly tsunami that inundates the entire East Coast of the United States.

    Even though Barbara's USAF Base is a safe distance from the Florida coast, the tidal wave causes an earthquake, collapsing the underground Command structure. A falling beam strikes Barbara and she lays trapped as Jim and others try to free her. With delirium skewing her perceptions, Barbara thinks that her loved ones are being raptured away, leaving her behind because of her self-sufficient attitude toward God.

    Barbara wakes up twenty-two days later, thankful that she has a whole new perspective and an opportunity for a relationship with the Lord. [Lawks. Suddenly it has become a 'religious' thriller; it's gone into a special interest category. At least, that's what booksellers will think. So as an editor or agent, my ability to sell the book has diminished alarmingly.]

    It's very, very complicated, isn't it? This synopsis is almost as detailed as the novel it is supposed to be summarizing; almost, because Bonnie can't, obviously, include every single plot point; so it's full of conundrums and apparent non sequiturs. It just needs a broad outline of the plot and some sense of the exciting things that are going to happen in it.

    The fact that the ending turns on religious faith does seem to me to limit its appeal. This would certainly be an impossible book to sell in the UK market, purely because of that - this is a very secular market. In the USA, there would be a market for this sort of novel, but it would certainly be smaller than the 'mainstream'. This means it would have to be very carefully targeted and marketed from first to last.

    I mentioned Clive Cussler above because that's who this synopsis made me think of. The book of his I read involved dashing James Bond-style Dirk Pitt, who worked for something splendidly incongruous like the Sea Kelp Survey Board but who secretly saved the world from, ooh, all sorts of things. In Atlantis Found, it turns out that A Nazi Conspiracy Saved Hitler's Brain, or something, and the Whole World Will Be Destroyed, but then Dirk saves the day. Bonnie's book appears to provide the same sort of thrills, which is all to the good. (I do worry slightly that it might be over-plotted.)

    Let's have a look at the excerpt.


    April 12

    Captain Barbara Hamilton played with the ends of her chestnut brown hair that she had pulled back tight in a ponytail. While her legs dangled over the side of the stool, she stared with little hope, at pile upon pile of useless seismic data from the last few weeks. This time she had come up empty. She had no answers for General McKay.

    The only satisfaction she'd gotten from this assignment, other than the work on her tan, had been wearing jeans and desert boots rather than her uniform. Civilian gear was much more conducive to traipsing around the San Andreas Fault than her military issue. Besides, the General threw in the perk to entice her into this assignment. That, plus the unlimited use of an Air Forces SR-73 test jet with her own pilot.

    In frustration, she kicked the leg of the seismograph spool rack. A wide metal reel clattered to the floor, leaving a trail of paper in its wake.

    Barbara rolled her eyes at the reel as though it had made a mess just to add to her annoyance. She hopped down from the stool, picked up the half-empty reel and sat back down to rewind it by hand. She flipped the reel over and glanced down the length of the tape. A startling discovery came to light.
    The seismic pen had drawn a straight line for about fifteen seconds and then jumped a high spike. This repeated for as far as she could see down the length of unrolled tape.

    "Hello....what do we have here?" Her stomach tightened.

    The Earth appeared to have developed a heart beat.

    I'm not loving the style. It needs to be listened to more, and the odd graceless sentence needs attention. "While her legs dangled over the edge...", for example, is an odd opening for a sentence, because it leads the reader to expect something that contrasts with legs, dangling or edge in the second half. Instead, we find that she is staring at documents. Because it's been set up as a statement of contrast, it is odd to find that it is just a statement of two unrelated things happening.

    Or "Barbara rolled her eyes at the reel as though it had made a mess just to add to her annoyance" - this is too much explanation. She's obviously annoyed, so it could read 'made a mess on purpose' or something.

    Suddenly, the quake hits:

    The rumble came from deep within the bowels of the earth, working its way up, jerking and separating the strata layers as it rose. A shockwave broke through the surface, the still evening air exploded around the seismology station with a deafening roar. Inside the building, the evacuation sirens roared to life.

    The ceramic floor tiles in the lab erupted, popping like machine gunfire as the floor twisted like a rope of licorice. Barbara's feet caught up to her brain. She hopscotched over heaved sections of floor tile as she sprinted for the front door. Her arms instinctively went up over her head to protect herself from the gritty plaster silt filtering down from the vibrating overhead beams.

    Along with the churning rumble came a groan that expanded into a tremendous crunching crackle of splintering wood. The wall shelving jack hammered itself loose from the anchor bolts and hung precariously at a forty-five degree angle to the wall.

    "Aughh! The disk!" Barbara skidded to a halt and darted back to her station. In the distance, personnel yelled for everyone to evacuate the building.


    Barbara sprinted down the hallway coughing and wheezing, her lungs able to filter out only small wisps of oxygen from the enveloping cloud of dust. Blood pounded in her head and her heart threatened to rip through her chest.
    It sounded like a train bearing down on her. Right before the outside door, she tripped over debris and lurched forward, arms spread out to cushion her fall. An airman running from the other direction caught her and guided her out of the crumbling building.

    All of the Air Force personnel cleared the disintegrating building just seconds before it slipped into the gaping Rose Canyon Fault. At the same time, it seemed as if the earth had eaten its fill, and the tremor abruptly subsided.

    Barbara inhaled great gulps of sweet fresh air as she bent over, hands on her knees, trying to get the blood to her brain and stop the dizziness.

    Whew, Barb old girl, that was a close one! You must have nine lives. But you made it. You won! Thank you, God.

    With no warning at all, the ferocious growl of Mother Nature changing positions again ripped through the night air. All seven people took off running but one by one they realized the ground had ceased shaking. They reassembled into a group as the fault yawned. A few creaks and a couple of groans and the episode ended.

    "Wow, everything is just, gone!" The young Airman next to Barbara gasped.

    "Not everything." Barbara continued to breathe hard. She looked down at the disk clutched in the dusty palm of her right hand. Like usual, she had solved it herself. "Is everyone accounted for, Airman?" She surveyed the group of rattled technicians.

    The young Airman glanced at each member of his team. "Yes, Ma'am, they're all here."

    I think it's a hard sell. The prose will need a good deal of work, some rewriting, lots of polish. However, I'd look at the structure first - start with the synopsis and try to simplify and strengthen the bones of the book. With this kind of book, storytelling is more important than art. From the synopsis, I'm not getting an impression of a really good story, but rather of a succession of slightly confusing crises. What is the story of the book? Could you describe it in just a couple of paragraphs? That's what the book buyer will most likely have to go on.
    Torgo, 8:42 pm


    Military types prefer to get out of uniform whenever possible, and that, or a need for mufti should be the reason given, because, in fact,work fatigues would be more conducive to trotting around the San Andreas fault than civilian clothing.
    I think Barbara should be a colonel at least.
    "The earth had developed a heart beat" is a good line.
    You can't say it doesn't open with a bang.
    Blogger Bernita, at 10:31 pm  
    Check the earthquake factoids. As someone who has lived in that area and has been through several earthquakes, I was having credibility problems. The earthquake was "too Hollywood." The San Andreas fault moves side to side, not up and down, so it's not that likely to slip into the canyon--more likely, if it's on the fault line, it'll be pulled apart (that part of California will eventually be an island).
    Quakes generally last for about ten seconds, so it's doubtful if they had enough time to get all the way out of the building before the earthquake stopped. The advice we were always given was get in a doorway or under a desk--not to run outside where falling debris is likely to kill us.
    Blogger Linda Adams, at 11:25 pm  
    Thanks, Torgo for the great reasoning of an editor. I've printed out this post so I can work it. The synopsis started out so long because the first publisher I was sending it to wanted a detailed, minimum two page synopsis. So I expanded on what I originally had. And yes, you are correct about the market. I am marketing this as Christian Fiction. In the USA, Christian Fiction has turned into a billion dollar industry with no end in sight, most all of the large secular publishers have bought or created Christian houses. For example: Harlequinn created Steeple Hill, Random House owns WaterBrook, and Harper Collins bought Zondervan, just to name a few. You made me laugh a few weeks ago when you made a comment about not liking inspirational books (or something like that) I said "Ooops!" Sorry! I guess you never visited my blog....it's kinda' hard to miss that I'm a 'born again' christian...:-)
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 12:14 am  
    Oh...I forgot...Thanks Linda for the info. I have someone just like you in the second chapter saying the same things....there are a lot of bizarre impossibilities going on here until the HAARP is understood. And yes this is a REAL gov't project in the USA using Tesla's theories....check out all the conspiracy theories on the web! And Linda....I also birth a volcano at this same site in San Diego (Yikes!!!)
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 12:45 am  
    Actually, a person can cover quite a lot of ground in just 10 seconds.
    Blogger Bernita, at 1:38 am  
    lol Peter Mandelson...the world is not ready.
    Anonymous Koala, at 2:28 am  

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:14 am  
    The problem I have with the religious aspect of the story is that it's sprung on the potential reader at the end, out of nowhere, and it seems to be the ending but it doesn't actually resolve anything. It feels like it's been tacked on simply to give the author an excuse to submit it to a Christian publishing house.

    At least in the synopsis, there's no mention beforehand that Barbara might be struggling with her beliefs (except for a conversation with her mother and we don't know Barbara's opinion, just her mother's) or contemplating the existence of God or anything like that. I hope that the story itself reveals the religious aspect a lot sooner than the synopsis does.
    Blogger born_liar, at 5:40 pm  
    Yes it does Bethany, actually it runs all through the story in non-preachy snippits of her struggle and loathing for anything God. It's a secondary plot. I also run through her motivation for that. But alas, in trying to create a synopsis, like Torgo says, it should really just be a broad overview. In the rewrite, that line will be amended to say something like 'testing the faith of each character', which is how I originally had it. It was expanded on because a publisher that I was going to submit to wanted specifics. Thanks for the imput though.
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 2:35 am  
    I guessed it was a religious story once I reached the part about the evil President of United Europe. That seems an article of faith amongst many premillennial dispensationalists.

    I don't think there's a problem with the earthquake being too Hollywood - the book isn't going to be read for its accurate physics. :)
    Anonymous Chris, at 8:28 am  
    Oh, good! You might want to work that into the synopsis somehow, just to avoid that jarring "poof, religious conversion!" bit at the end. I think your synopsis would make a better impression if it made clear that the ending comes naturally out of the story.

    And I have to agree with bernita, I really like "the Earth had developed a heartbeat". Great line.
    Blogger born_liar, at 2:58 pm  
    Actually Chris, evil men are a staple down through history....Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini etc. Evil men are also a staple amoung action, adventure stories. Clive Cussler, who Torgo referenced, usually has a really evil dude, so does Tom Clancey and Nelson Demille. They are all secular published. I am drawn to the inner workings of bad guys; their motivation is sometimes so simplistic. My evil man, although he is a maniacal meglomaniac, is motivated by personal revenge (but you don't find out that until the second book) :-) And the "religious conversion" at the end consists of one sentence....Barbara says to her mom, "I think it's time we have that talk about God."

    Torgo was so right about the way I wrote the synopsis. I created way more questions than I had answers. I'm learning! LOL
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 11:31 pm  
    Chris said: "I don't think there's a problem with the earthquake being too Hollywood - the book isn't going to be read for its accurate physics."

    I'm a native Californian. I'm sorry, I laughed out loud at this earthquake. And yes, BTW, the San Andreas is in California. I've lived on top of it most of my life. I was in Modesto, which is about 150 miles from the Bay Area, during the '89 Loma Prieta quake (7.5 on the Richter Scale) and we felt it that far away. The problem isn't the geology (or physics). The problem is that this description is so unrealistic that no one who's ever been in an earthquake will read past the first bit before putting it down in disgust at how silly it is.

    The writing itself needs work, too. You're going to need to be more concise in an action passage like the beginning chapter. The words are slower than the event because of things like the long descriptions. Read it out loud. It feels silly, but it works. You'll hear the problems with rhythm better that way.

    A comment on the synopsis: I think you need to rethink this. If you have to stretch to synopsize a novel in 2 pages, it's likely you don't have enough story for a full novel. I'm also not seeing much about the people. I'm not seeing why I should care whether Barbara is swallowed up by the earthquake or not. I know you care about her. She's your character. But that's not enough motivation for the reader. I need a reason to care about her.

    Lastly, a bit of advice on receiving critiques--don't defend yourself. Print the crit. Read it once. Put it aside for a day or two so you can get some distance from it. Then look at it again, strictly to see if anything in it rings a bell. Is there anything they said that you think might help improve the work? Try different things and see. You can always change it back if it doesn't work. You won't improve if you don't learn to get past the sting that a strong, honest crit can have. It takes a think skin for a writer to improve.

    Good luck!!
    Blogger Mama Rose, at 9:15 pm  
    Mama Rose, thanks for the imput, but by the time you get through the second chapter, you understand why the impossible is possible.( Think about a Tsunami, 150 eathquakes, 5 volcanic eruptions, 3 typhoons, and 2 killer hurricanes-one of biblical proportion, all in the space of 10 months...can't happen? Check out the US Geological Survey- it all happened)Ans using Tesla's theories that kind of earthquake can happen also. But that's not really important....I'm writing fiction for entertainment.

    I didn't stretch the synopsis, I shrunk it to the two pages they originally wanted that's why I wound up creating so many questions.

    I don't think there's enough room in a synopsis to do a study so that you care about my character...that makes for a whole book.

    And lastly, I'm not at all thick skinned...dark skinned, but definately not thick skinned. I think you missed the part where I said I agreed with Torgo's complete assessment of my synopsis. I would love to have him read more, but he's jammed up for multiple months.

    Thank you for the imput...see you on the blogs.
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 3:23 am  
    Mama Rose...our favorite agent showed me how to do a character study, for a synopsis, in three sentences. I'm workin' it. Sorry if I seemed snarky! :-)
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 4:39 pm  
    Keep in mind as well that the Rose Canyon fault is completely separate from the San Andreas. The San Andreas fault (or at least one fork of it) runs through the Salton Sea -- roughly 150 miles east of San Diego.

    On the other hands, it looks like the Rose Canyon fault stretches north, changes names, and cuts through the center of the Los Angeles Basin. Much fun could be had there...
    Anonymous Sharon Mock, at 7:40 am  
    If a story is not plausible, I find it hard to read on, and it doesn't matter which aspect of it feels wrong - characterisation, worldbuilding - if it pulls me out of the story I am unlikely to go back.

    Any institute in California that does not have at least one automatic off-site backup in adifferent part of the country isn't worth its salt, and someone sprinting back into a burning building to save the disk with all the data on is *so* eighties. I was laughing when I read it, which is not the effect you need. Sorry.

    I'd recommend Desmond Bagley as proof of how research need not get into the way of a good story if you're worrying about being too infodumpy - but if your novel centers around a character discovering a mystery in any field, you need to present something that's odd, tell us how the character knows it's odd, show her working through potential explanations, and follow her as she finds a solution. You can't do that without reading up on the subject and having a plausible theory.

    I think the writing will need a lot of tightening up. If 'character rethinks her relationship with God' is one of your storylines, then you missed a prime opportunity when this (supposedly atheist?) character escapes danger and thanks God out of habit.
    Blogger Catja (green_knight), at 12:44 pm  
    Bonnie, have you considered putting a hint in this first chapter about the peculiar nature of the earthquake? Something like 'Barbara stood paralyzed. Earthquakes shouldn't happen like this. [One sentence to describe what a normal Californian earthquake feels like if you're in it]. The earth shouldn't shake like a pinball machine. But the Earth shouldn't have a heartbeat, either. Part of her mind whispered: HAARP. She ran.'
    Readers who know about earthquakes would then know that you know that Californian earthquakes don't happen like this, and that it's not a credibility problem but an important part of the plot. With a bit of luck they might even think 'And what on earth can HAARP be that it can produce a different kind of earthquake? Yikes' and then they might read to the second chapter where you can tell them.
    Only a thought.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:01 pm  

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