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.
  • Click here to find out what this blog is all about.
  • Thursday, October 13, 2005


    Hello everyone,

    I'm over the 'flu, which is nice. It's rampaging around the office - coughing, stuffy people everwhere. However, I'm not posting for a bit.

    We have a book scheduled for next year that absolutely can't be late. It needs to go out to repro (i.e., text and design all done prior to proofing) in about a month's time. Unfortunately, the editor who was writing the text is leaving, with about 50 pages still to do. I got asked today if I could step in, drop everything else, and write the remainder of the text within the next two weeks. It's not quite NaNoWriMo, but it's close...

    So, I'm sorry, but I'll have to put the site on hold until it's done. Apologies to everyone who's waiting.

    When I'm back, I'm going to bump a few people up the list who are regular readers and commenters on the site, as otherwise I wouldn't get to them for a while and it seems fairer to them.

    In the meantime, why not check out some of the free Science Fiction currently available on the web? Or read the best historical fiction ever ... some really good detective stories ... or something more literary?

    See you soon!
    Torgo, 9:22 pm | link | 14 comments |

    Sunday, October 09, 2005

    Touched by Mucus

    Eeew. I have the 'flu. As a man, I believe it's my prerogative to have the 'flu, rather than what the so-called Western medical establishment would have me believe, which I'm guessing would be a head cold. Mountebanks, the lot of them.

    While I'm still struggling to fight off the Avian Death Flu, please stand by.
    Torgo, 8:05 pm | link | 19 comments |

    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 | link | 18 comments |

    It Takes Turning 50

    Lydia says: "I am enclosing a short essay that I wrote, which I am thinking will expand to a book."

    It goes a little something like this:

    It takes turning 50, to start wearing ponytails for the first time in your life, and finding that they actually look good on you! To look in the mirror and see a woman who you actually like, and can be proud of. To (finally!) know what you want to be when you grow up, and to realize that you are already there. To know that you are doing the best you can every day, and not be afraid of what you can't do.

    It takes turning 50, to look around and realize that you have so many blessings -- regardless of the horrors you had to go through to get them.

    It takes turning 50 to find yourself, and others. To love your sons, but let them go. To know that you have raised two fine young men - they still need you, but in different ways... and that it is ok!

    It takes turning 50 to "find" yourself -- and to realize that you were never lost in the first place. You were just traveling the road before you, at the best speed you could manage each day. You might have deserved a speeding ticket or three, but life is like that.

    It goes on like this. My feeling is that this isn't an essay. An essay, and to a lesser extent a story, has to have an argument; this is a collection of aphorisms, or rather a collection of variations on the same aphorism. We don't find out, for example, why any of this takes turning 50, or what (if anything) these situations have in common.

    Once that's in place, it's possible to make a book out of it. As it is, it is a mass of inspiring anecdotes with no obvious Big Idea to connect them, and that seems to me to be the wrong way round. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is a singularly witless bit of writing, yes, but it summarizes the whole with the simple, intuitive title, a really good sense of the message of the book. It sold umpteen million copies.

    I can't see exactly what the book would be or who might publish it; perhaps this isn't an idea for a book.
    Torgo, 6:34 pm | link | 5 comments |

    Juan Nakai

    Gary has sent in his 'YA Multicultural Novel', Juan Nakai. Relatively quick, this crit, as there's not too much wrong with it bar the beginning:

    Chapter 1

    Juan Nakai's black Yaqui eyes flashed in anger as he watched his mother mixing the tortilla dough in the shade of her guamuchil tree. It wasn't exactly clear why he said, "How'd we get this casa, mama?"

    Not a great opening paragraph. Eyes flashing in anger is cliche, and 'It wasn't exactly clear why' is weak and fuzzy. (If you're going to have someone do something for no apparent reason, don't draw attention to it!)

    Rosa looked like the kind of woman who had four kids to raise. She was plump and brown from the Sonoran Desert sun, with arms strong enough to embrace or cuff a
    cranky child, her long dark hair tied in back with a piece of sisal string. She glanced at the house of upright mesquite poles tied together with jute.

    "This casita? Your father built it." She frowned. "You want to know about your father?"

    Something she had never said before.

    Juan hadn't said anything about his father.

    "I like to know where is he now."

    Perhaps he asked about the house because he wasn't sure how to go about asking about his father; that fuzz in the first paragraph is actually making this unclear. If we had a better idea of that, an expression on Juan's face for instance, the conversation about the house wouldn't feel like a false start. I think the one-sentence paragraphs are rather clunky, too.

    Rosa picked up the lump of wheat-flour dough with both hands and slapped it down hard on the rickety plywood table. She said, "He went to Mexico City to make some money right after you was born. He said when he made enough money he's coming back and build us a big house."

    "I'm going to be fourteen in two months. Did he die--" he didn't want to say it, "or what?"

    She sighed. "I don't know. He changed after you was born, started drinking. It took him over."

    "Started drinking after I was born?"

    "Oh, at first he was proud. I never seen a man as proud as your father the day you was born. When you was three weeks old he took you around the pueblo, showing
    everyone his own little Yaqui warrior." Her hands stopped kneading. She looked toward the silent Sierra Madre in the distance but her eyes did not see the mountains.

    "You think he's still in Mexico City?"

    "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not."

    She pinched off a ball of dough and patted it into a tortilla, keeping her thoughts private, and her visions. She had taught Juan to look for signs, that was good, but visions, seeing things that hadn't happened yet--no.

    To make money Rosa made tamales with sweet potatoes and chilies from her garden. Rolled them in cornmeal from her plants grown in the hot earth, wrapped each one in the corn husk, tied the ends with a strip torn from the husk, and then steamed them.

    For as long as he could remember Juan Nakai went around selling his mother's tamales on the streets and in the cantinas of Alianza. He'd say, "You want to buy tamales? For you--almost free."

    On Saturdays he'd drive his uncle Teofilo's pickup truck loaded with fruits and vegetables to the public market to sell them. Then sit on the tailgate drinking coconut juice through a straw and practice reading comics. Capulina the chubby clown was his favorite, always dreaming up new ideas, like selling Pancho Villa's sombrero to the tourists.

    Late afternoon Teofilo would put the unsold vegetables in a box and say to Juan, "This's for your mother."
    It's not bad. Juan decides he's going to Mexico City in seach of his father, which seems like a pretty promising setup for any number of stories, and I'd want to have a look to see what happens next. The style is fine - Gary needs to guard against cliche, which creeps in now and then, and to find more elegant ways to blend in the little bursts of social and geographical information that he needs his readers to know:
    Juan picked up Spanish from his customers. Most of the Yaquis spoke only Cahita. The pueblo isn't much different than it was a hundred years ago. Dogs and pigs and chickens run free. No school. No electric lines or running water or telephones. Cars or trucks parked in front of one out of four houses. A third have a bedroom. Most houses belong to a woman, more than half don't have a husband. But no orphans. Every child is part of the community.

    Doesn't quite jell, does it? But for the most part, this looks fairly promising.
    Torgo, 1:30 pm | link | 9 comments |