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, November 07, 2005

    Devil's Honor

    Here's the synopsis for SW's book, Devil's Honor.

    Ten years ago, SHIRO KURODA came to New York from Japan in the service of the Harada zaibatsu, a criminal empire of drugs, prostitution, streetfighting and contract killing. [My understanding is that a zaibatsu is a corporation?] Now, he participates in an organization originally comprised of five Houses--one for each borough in New York--as a fighter. In the ring, he is known as Akuma...the devil.

    Though he enjoys the thrill of the crowd and the heat of battle, Shiro is growing uncomfortable with his role. He is bound by honor to serve his shujin: TOMI HARADA, leader of Staten Island's House Pandora. And the matter is compounded when a match gone awry results in the death of a fighter from another House--with Shiro to blame for causing it.

    This sounds like the setup for an action movie. There's going to be some difficulty for SW in showing the fight scenes to the reader in this medium... see Instinct below.

    As punishment, Harada orders Shiro removed from the fighting roster, and then presents him with a tanto, a dagger used in ritual suicide. Instructed to keep the dagger with him at all times, Shiro is warned that he will soon be given a task to complete--and if he fails, he will be ordered to take his own life in shame.

    For the sake of his honor, he cannot refuse the command.

    While Shiro is being instructed in his new duties as part of the House security team, the dead fighter's House seeks retaliation by attempting a drive-by shooting on ANGEL, Shiro's best friend and founder of the fledgling House Phoenix. Fortunately, House Prometheus' fighters have abysmal aim, and Angel escapes their wrath...for the moment.

    Abysmal aim is a bad plot point. It's never good to have a serious story that hinges on the incompetence of the bad guys... perhaps think of a different way for Angel to cheat death.

    It isn't long before Harada assigns Shiro his task. Three years earlier, a fighter by the name of SHONEN betrayed the organization by rigging its annual tournament and fleeing with the five million dollar prize. Now Shonen has returned to New York, and Harada wants revenge. Shiro is ordered to hunt him down and kill him.

    Shonen is a dangerous man: trained in the art of assassination, deadly with a blade or bare hands, and utterly devoid of a moral code. Compounding the assignment further is a fact known to few outside House Pandora's walls: he is also Shiro's brother.

    Is it over-egging the pudding somewhat to have them be brothers? It's also sailing rather close to kung-fu movie cliche.

    He has been spotted in Manhattan, and since that borough is the home of both Angel and JENNER--Shiro's sensei, who was formerly employed by the Harada clan--Shiro concentrates his search there. But Shonen has allied himself with the leader of House Prometheus in Brooklyn, and is using his newfound influence to breach the inner circles of the organization in his own pursuit of revenge.

    I can't say I really believe the secret fighting tournament house system. It's fine on screen, but it'll get ten times less credible set down on paper.

    By the time Shiro realizes what his brother's intentions are, Shonen has managed to travel to the island off the coast of Staten Island where House Pandora is located and strand his pursuers on the mainland. Shiro, Angel and Jenner commandeer a boat and give chase...but when they reach the island, Shonen has murdered Pandora's head of security and seems to have disappeared.

    Why has he killed the head of security rather than Harada himself? Or Shiro, for that matter? Either there's lots more plot there or it's kind of facile.

    Believing that he has failed those he cares about, Shiro does not protest when Harada orders him to carry out the suicide ritual. With Angel as his witness, he prepares to take his life in dishonor -- but a phone call revealing Shonen's location stops him in mid-thrust.

    He finds Shonen hiding on Harada's yacht, and gives him the chance to redeem his honor by performing the seppuku suicide ritual, offering the dagger bestowed to him by Harada.

    Shonen, of course, refuses.

    The brothers, equal in skill and dexterity, engage in a swordfight on the rain-slicked deck of the yacht. Shonen manages to disarm Shiro, but as he lunges to deliver the death blow, he is mortally wounded by the dagger meant for Shiro. The knowledge of his impending death restores Shonen's honor, and he implores Shiro with his last breath to act as witness to his seppuku. Shiro agrees.

    His brother's honorable end serves a dual purpose: Shiro's task is complete, and his familial obligation to the Harada clan is absolved. Disgusted with Harada's actions and his treatment of those in his service, Shiro informs his shujin of his intent to join Angel and House Phoenix. Though Harada is enraged by his decision, he can do nothing to stop him.

    At last, Shiro is free to live his life by his code, and to retain the strength of his honor.


    Let's take a look at an extract - Shiro's been in the hospital after a beating from one Captain Wolff, but he's back at his day job now.

    One month after his release from the hospital found Shiro behind an austere mahogany desk in the fifteenth-floor office he shared with his mentor. Behind him, a window stretched the length of the wall, offering a panoramic view of lower Manhattan made dreary with a morning fog that refused to lift. Before him lay a case file on a patient with a bizarre and inexplicable fear of shoes, who had begun treatment sometime during his three-month absence.

    Hold up. Shiro is a psychiatrist with a fifteenth-floor Manhattan office? Does that not conflict with his activities in the murky world of devilish chop-socky?

    But Shiro barely saw the words on the pages. His mind insisted on returning to the conversation he had the previous evening with Harada-sama. The one in which his shujin informed him that he would be on the fight roster for tonight--and then all but called him a coward when he insisted he was not ready.

    Intellectually he knew the reasoning was sound. It was the same remedy as the one for falling off a horse: Get up. Try again. But the part of him that was Akuma--his fighting name, the Japanese word for devil--carried vivid memories of anguish and humiliation. The images filled him with dread that his sense of duty could not penetrate.

    For the first time in his life, he was not looking forward to a fight.

    Shiro bent back to his work, then glanced up a moment later as the office door opened to admit a shadow in the guise of a man. [literally: a shadow disguised as a man. Really?] The age of the gaunt, angular East Indian who approached the desk was indeterminable, for though his nearly unlined face pegged him in the summer of his life, the plait of silver-steel hair that hung beyond his waist suggested otherwise. The hooded eyes that saw everything and gave away nothing, a startling stormcloud gray out of place against dusky brown skin, glittered with untold knowledge.

    All things twisted and cunning and dark, every nuance of humanity that transcended the bounds of normalcy and entered the realm of madness, could be defined in one word: Jenner.

    Crikey. SW might be laying Jenner on a bit thick here. He's got the waist-length plait of silver-steel hair, the stormcloud-grey-hooded-untold-knowledge-glittering eyes, plus he's the embodiment of all things twisted, cunning, dark etc.

    The elder psychiatrist approached the desk and tapped a finger on the open file. "Any new developments?"

    He's a psychiatrist TOO? Curioser and curioser.

    Reluctantly Shiro shook his head, avoiding his sensei's gaze. Talk of the shadow organization to which they both belonged was forbidden at the office.


    The single sharp word was a command that could not be disobeyed. Shiro lifted his eyes to behold the thunderous frown and the piercing scrutiny that was Jenner's trademark--an expression that never failed to wither the soul of its recipient.

    Definitely too thick. Trademark, piercing, soul-withering scrutiny is too thick.

    The look lasted a long minute, [literally?] and then Jenner folded his arm[s?] and his features softened somewhat. "I see your thoughts are elsewhere today."

    Shiro nodded, letting his stricken gaze speak for him.

    We've got some 'telling' here, in a bad way. Enough just to have Shiro gaze at him, I think.

    Striding around the desk to stand at the window, Jenner surveyed the sprawl of the city below in silence. At length he said, "I have an errand for you."

    "Oh?" Surprised at his mentor's sudden mood shift, he turned to regard the man at the window.

    "Yes. And this is something I believe better suited to your current frame of mind."

    "All right." Pushing his chair away from the desk, Shiro stood and brushed a stray lock of dyed blond hair from his forehead. "What is it?"

    Sorry. I can't get past the whole office-job thing. Shiro is not only a no-holds-barred killer chop-socky enforcer, he's also a psychiatrist with a blonde dye-job. Could Shiro's, or for that matter Jenner's, patients place a lot of trust in these menacing/outre-looking people?

    More effective to have them look just like typical Japanese/E Indian salarymen - in William Gibson's cyberspace thrillers, for example, the cloned ninja killers look just like that, which makes them all the more believeable as assassins and makes it more shocking when they slice someone in half.

    "I need you to visit my new associate, to find out what you can about this--" He stopped, making an obvious effort to rein in a swell of frustration. "This business venture he is so determined to undertake."

    Shiro grinned in spite of himself. Jenner was sending him to Angel's gym. Though the younger man's decision to open the place displeased Jenner to no end, he had no choice in the matter; he had agreed to act as Angel's lieutenant.

    Who had agreed to act in this way? Not quite picking up on the politics or background. It's difficult to get this in here without a plain old infodump, or worse an 'as you know, Bob' conversation, so maybe this isn't the place. The exact ramifications of this request could be worked out somewhere else where it'd be more natural.

    Maybe, in fact, this scene is the wrong way to put across any of the information the reader needs to know - it's basically just two guys talking in a room to move the plot along.

    Besides, Shiro had not seen Angel since the week before his release--and he missed his friend.

    "It would be my pleasure, sensei," Shiro said.

    Jenner's upper lip curled in disgust. "Of course it would. Now go," he said, motioning with impatience toward the door. "I expect a full report before tonight's activities."

    Offering a slight bow of acknowledgement, Shiro left the office with Jenner's ardent condemnation cautioning him that he may not like what he would find.

    Kind of clunky.

    I have my doubts as to whether this is going to work. The setup is cartoonish in a way that would work nicely for a fun B-movie (or even more successfully for a comic book), but will be very hard to pull off in prose. The fight scenes will be a particular problem. I'm thinking now of memorably good hand-to-hand or sword fights in novels and not coming up with many.

    The world of the book is larger-than-life - the secret fighting clans, run by bizarre people who also hold down professional jobs - and a thriller does tend to depend on some hooks into reality. At some point, you have to draw the line between what is familiar and what is excitingly exotic, but here the line is too far on one side.

    Good thrillers often work because they present a simple situation. A few examples: the classic McGuffin plot, where some object is being sought after by lots of bad guys, and the one good guy has to come up with it. Or the Fugitive plot where the hero is himself being pursued by all concerned and has to clear his name. You set up some simple rules in those such as This Falcon Statue is Incredibly Valuable or The Cops Will Put Kimble Away If They Catch Him and That's Bad. The reader can pretty much fill in the rest of the world from their own experience; and the more claustrophobic the bind that the hero is in, the more tense and exciting it is.

    In this synopsis, I will have to be told all of the rules, and they're quite complicated, involving the politics of a clan system I have no experience of, bushido etc... I worry that as much time will be spent explaining plot points as is spent actually showing us the action of the plot. It's going to be difficult to be excited about Shiro contorting himself to jump through the various hoops because I can't really put myself in his place.

    As far as the prose goes, it oscillates between being quite a flat narrative style and rather overdone detail and imagery. I see a lot of manuscripts in this particular voice and I wish I could describe it better. It just doesn't excite the ear very much and you only tend to notice it when it occasionally slips into bathos or clunkiness. Needs to be listened to carefully.

    A difficult sell, then, I'm afraid.

    Torgo, 1:33 pm


    PS. Sorry to have taken so long. This book I'm doing is kicking the crap out of me.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:49 pm  
    Hooray! My first professional shredding! Torgo, thank you so much for taking the time to analyze this for me (and I'm sorry to hear about your troubles with the book!). I have to agree with just about everything you say.

    Now it's my turn for apology -- since I sent this in to you I have deleted the first four chapters of the book entirely (including the one I sent in with all the telling and info-dump and lack of action and forced description -- even now I cringe looking at it!) and have sold both this book and its predecessor (Fallen Angel) to RockWay Press.

    You were dead-on about so many things and I truly appreciate your comments. (And I suck at synopses writing too!) I'll be able to use your insights to apply to the rest of my writing. Thank you!

    Good luck with the book! You're such a saint to take your time doing this for authors.

    All best,
    Blogger S. W. Vaughn, at 2:28 pm  
    Aha! Having said a tough sell, there's egg on my face in the nicest possible way. Well done, and much kudos to you. Was a bit concerned looking at RockWay's website (a good bit of puff there about how they're the good guys, which always worries me) but there seem to be some good character refs for RockWay on the web and the contract looks reasonable. Good luck!
    Blogger Torgo, at 2:35 pm  
    Nice, fitting title, S.W., and congratulations!
    Blogger Bernita, at 4:02 pm  
    Congrats SW - I don't generally read this genre, but I've developed a sudden craving for the murky world of devilish chop-socky - or was that Kung-Pao chicken?
    Blogger jackie, at 4:21 pm  
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Blogger S. W. Vaughn, at 4:21 pm  
    I put up a thanks and found I'd left one out... so, thank you, Bernita, Jackie and Torgo, for your congrats! I'm excited -- both books are coming out in summer of '06. So many things have happened in such a short time...

    Bring on the chop-socky -- and the Kung Pao chicken! Better yet, make it General Tso's...mmm, spicy!

    Blogger S. W. Vaughn, at 4:24 pm  
    I'm looking forward to reading SW'S book for those fight scenes. As a life-long student of the martial arts, I haven't read many fictional accounts that nail it as well as "Karate is a thing of the spirit" by Harry Crews. I also know how it feels to remove chapters, pages, and paragraphs to hone the story.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 4:31 pm  
    Is it karate that you do, Stephen? I do this weird Filipino stick-fighting thing (essentially my friend Ray, who looks like Bruce Lee except somewhat fitter, chases me around a room belabouring me about the head and neck with a piece of wood.)
    Blogger Torgo, at 6:03 pm  
    I couldn't agree with you more regarding Shiro's hair color, but I'm afraid that's where we part ways. I had the honor of critiquing part of Devil's Honor before S.W. asked me switch over to the third novel in the series (title still tentative), and while I was all too happy to move forward with the characters, I was very reluctant to leave that particular story. The moment I have fulfilled my duties with the third, I cannot wait to go back and begin with Fallen Angel and complete Devil's Honor.

    I can't scroll through the pages quickly enough. The stories are riveting and the characters are so well written, they have walked right off the pages and taken up residence in my office. As I read the first fight scene in Devil's Honor, I shivered and cringed, my eyes popped, and all I could say was daaaaaaaaam! And that was nothing compared to what comes after. I am willing to accept your assumption that it may be difficult to show fight scenes in this medium, but I assure you, S.W. has mastered the art. I could no sooner stop reading this series than I could quit working on my own novel. I am so intrigued with Vaughn's incredible imagination and ability to make the plot, settings, and characters come alive that in spite of the fact that I think you provide a great service, had you not graciously backed down, I'm afraid you would have lost all credibility with me.

    Best regards,
    Lesia Valentine
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:25 pm  
    You are right about fighting being hard to convey on paper, but the key is to concentrate on how each fight advances the plot, and how it also also advances the character's lives.

    Then the set-up of both how and why the fight is taking place and then, afterwards, examining what happens because of the fight is what will keep the story going.

    I spent ten years fighting, and in now writing about that period of my life, it quickly became clear that the single most important thing to convey is what is going on within the charcters mind.
    Blogger Brady Westwater, at 9:38 pm  
    Thanks for stopping by, Lesia. I'm glad for Vaughan that he has such a fan and it's great to hear that the fight scenes work out well.

    I stand by my criticisms regarding the plot (I find it very hard to credit pugilistic gangland psychiatrists; although should Jenner ever come out with the line "You're never too Jung to die, Shiro" I will be too busy smiling to care) and about this particular scene, which seems to me to serve little dramatic purpose. That's not to say that the rest of it doesn't shine just as brightly as you describe.

    The purpose of this blog is to evaluate submissions, rather than novels; the idea is to give you the thought process on the other end of the big writer/publisher divide, rather than to say how good a book is objectively. Because I can't read the whole thing, I have to restrict myself to trying to judge the book as extrapolated from the extract - which is exactly what an unsolicited submission is usually asking me to do.

    The unsolicited manuscript is a horrendous literary form to master, and don't even get me started on query letters. Vaughan's synopsis and extract, as it was presented, I would have passed on, but I imagine the good folk at RockWay saw the book to better advantage than me.

    Hey - the system works!
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:39 pm  
    And hello Brady. I agree completely. A good example would be the two recent acclaimed kung-fu movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

    I enjoyed Crouching Tiger much more than Hero, for precisely the reason that the big fight scenes are being used as part of a conversation between the fighters, a philosophical argument even. In particular, the confrontation between Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang in which Ziyi is wielding the Green Destiny Sword and Chow has nothing but a switch: he nevertheless teaches her a lesson, in that he is always going to win, despite the sword, because he is enlightened. Every fight scene deepens our understanding of character.

    On the other hand, much of Hero, and HERE'S A SORT OF SPOILER
    ...consists of invented stories about fights between the protagonists. There's no argument to them, no big spiritual or moral dimension, just senseless gorgeous splendour. As you say, you need to get into the heads of the fighters, but here they are only ciphers.

    My own rather paltry martial arts experience tells me that when you spar with the same person week after week, it becomes as much a drawn-out battle of wits as anything else.
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:50 pm  
    First, I'm going to give you a heads up on S.W. She's female. (wink) A sweet little girly girl with a beautiful face and long blonde hair, which made it even more amazing to me that some of the stuff she's written comes out of her. I was shocked. That is the end of my comments about her, and the rest of this post I am responsible for, so if anyone's knickers get in a knot over it, the blame goes solely to me.

    I really didn't have time for this today, but in the interest of writers everywhere, I'm going to make the time because as you know, we don't often get access to an editor's ear (much less his eyes), and if you can shed some light on this mysterious subject for us, I'm certain we'd all be grateful. All we writers hear is how overworked agents, editors and publishers are and that they don't have time to read for pleasure. And yet, here you are providing this fine service in addition to what must be a crushing work schedule. During regular business hours no less. Kudos to you. Thanks for letting me bend your ear a bit.

    You're a professional, so what I'd like to ask of you, on behalf of us all, is just how the system "works." To us, all that means is that it works for you (and others on your side of the chasm). We don't feel it works for us. We're all frustrated with what we see as a system as slow and bureaucratic as the U.S. government.

    You have just stated that, "The unsolicited manuscript is a horrendous literary form to master." We couldn't agree more. We are somehow expected to sum up our novels, publishing credits, tag line, log line, and biography for you good people in less than a page in order to entice one of you to ask for a look-see of the manuscript. Talk about pressure!

    I personally find it horrendous that the huge book chains are so bent on making an extra buck that they have driven publishers to demand ever smaller manuscripts so that more books will fit on the shelf and that publishers have succumbed to it. As an editor, have you noticed in the past decade that books have no real themes anymore? I'm talking about metaphors like the tree in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Candy's dog in Of Mice and Men. They will be the demise of great literature, yet.

    We are forced to kill off characters to reduce the word count. I would like to know what would have happened had been suggested that Harper Lee kill off Boo Radley because he didn't make an actual appearance in Mockingbird until the very end. Or if it was suggested that Margaret Mitchell ditch Prissy. Her only function in GWTW was that she didn't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies.

    I read for pleasure, and I want to be moved by the story. I want to laugh or cry - preferably both - and be changed by it. I want to come away from it feeling as satisfied as when I've just had great sex. Books have become so small, there's no time to fall in love with the characters anymore. There's not enough space to tell a story the way it should be told. In case any of you guys want to know the truth – yeah. Size does matter.

    I'm not going to cut my own throat here by alluding to a certain sea creature that seems to epitomize key people in the industry when it comes to standing up to the whales, but over here on our side of the gulf, we're well aware that we are being reduced to churning out formulaic fertilizer where all that is necessary is to take the previous novel and insert a new name and occupation for the protag.

    So, please, Torgo, as a professional, would you please enlighten us all to exactly how the system "works." We're dying to know.

    Lesia Valentine
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:04 am  
    Well, I see that there is nothing left to say on this one. so I have one question for S.W. and Torgo

    S.W. I visited your site and in reading posts, you sold this book to RockWay on July 25th, that's my birthday by the way. am I incorrect?

    Torgo are you that backed up that you got this one before July and didn't get to it? Hey....you didn't have this site in July....hmmmm, the Twilight Zone!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 5:23 am  
    Hi Bonnie,

    Thanks for checking that out! No, I don't think Torgo has been backed up since July. :-) I had sold the first one (Fallen Angel) at that point, and was still working on this one.

    As Torgo pointed out (and it is obvious from the sample I sent him) it definitely needed some work! I sold Devil's Honor to RockWay about a month ago -- and I had sent the sample to Torgo when he first started the blog. I originally wanted to know if it worked as a sequel for someone who had not read the previous book.

    This has been quite a lively experience, so thank you to everyone involved!

    Blogger S. W. Vaughn, at 1:20 pm  
    I like the sense of euphoria that streams from your post. Well done, girl!
    Blogger Bernita, at 3:52 pm  
    This morning I can see I took my frustrations out on you and you did not deserve it. You really do provide a great service here, for which I'm sure thousands of writers are grateful. The investment of yor time, not to mention your experience, is far more than that of anyone else in your field and you should be commended. I offer my sincerest apologies and wish you a good day.

    Very sincerely,
    Lesia Valentine
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:19 pm  
    My dear Lesia,

    No, no need to apologise, and you do deserve an answer - I'm sure lots of people feel the same way, and not just from time to time but all the time. I'll get back to you soon on this one.
    Blogger Torgo, at 7:12 pm  
    I have a fencing marshall, a blade master, check out my fight scenes.
    Blogger Bernita, at 11:28 am  
    Hey, you do Filipino sticks? Which kind? I studied escrima for a while with a crazy guy here in Victoria (are all sifu flakey at the start, or does it come on gradually?). He eventually went on to kali and to pan-jat-silat (sp?) going further and further back in the system.
    I really liked it, especially the way everything one learns with sticks can then be applied to empty hand.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:37 pm  
    Escrima. I can't remember exactly which flavour of escrima, to be honest, but then I'm not far enough along that it would make much of a difference. A couple of my friends are really, really good now - they're getting into the rattan stick sparring with minimal body padding, rather than what I do, which is to use the padded sticks, helmet etc.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:57 pm  
    From Chickwrtr

    I find it very distracting to have words used then an explanation of what the word means. This is helpful for knowledge sake but makes the continuity stilted and readers may lose interest before they get into the story.
    Just a thought.
    Blogger Chickwriter, at 10:13 pm  
    Look again, hon, there is nothing but negative words out on Rockway these days. Even Preditors and Editors feels they are in over their heads. How many Rockway books are currently available at B and N? NONE ... How many are available at Amazon.com? ONE - on a four to six week special order basis. Ingram is a wholesaler not a distributor and even they have no Rockway books in stock because other than The Binding - there arent any. Check around at some of the Writer's Beware Sites - write to Preditors and Editors ... they will fill you in.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:40 am  

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