Fall 1st Page Critique Blog Hop

(Or ‘autumn’, if we’re going by UK English ;))

The wonderful Michelle Hauck has kindly organised a 1st page critique blog hop, where we get to critique the five blog entries below and ours in the linky on her page. It’s open to all fiction writers, regardless of genre or age category.

Here’s mine, taken from Of Jackets and Phones. Because, why not? Paying forward critiques are awesome. Of course, if you want to critique and you’re not part of the hop, do so anyway. 😉 Updated, as of 12/11/14

YA Murder Mystery

A police car blocked the main road into my school’s burnt umber brick and whitewashed doors. I raised an eyebrow at it, nibbled a nail, and tripped out of the school minibus.

For April, the spring air rose way too crisply and held grass thick with swords of dew, and I struggled with the starched collar of my uniform as moisture crept up my arms and into that annoying air pocket between jumper and shirt. I loosened my tie and shook the wrinkles from my skirt.

“Agnetha! Come on.”

I jolted. Whilst I preferred Vera not laughing at me, I winced at her whining tone. Like I cared if we were late. First lesson on Fridays was Spanish, and I was already failing.

I walked to where she stood and rested a hand on one of her wrists with a nod towards the main entrance.

“Look.”

As she froze to follow my now-absent gaze, I wandered ahead and kicked at the flowerbed along the front lawn path. I’d have dived into the mushrooms and roses there instead of bumbling my way to class. I snapped off one pink-faced fool and tossed it into the mud, and then lifted a mushroom, shifting earth and shoe-dirt and wilderness as I tucked the fungus behind my ear.

A hand on my shoulder, and Vera had caught up. She skipped past me, bubbling with incessant words. “What’s up with the police car?”

“You think I know?” I eyed the blue, yellow and white chequers. Police cars had a weird kind of beauty.

An idea of St. Christopher's school exterior; St. Edmund's School, Summertown

Beautiful People: Agnetha

I’m editing her first adventure at the moment, so I think it’s appropriate that I tell you a little about my favourite – and first – protagonist via the Notebook Sisters and Further Up and Further In monthly meme.

I turned my attention to the question of names – and my realisation was bitter. Inwardly, I cursed at the simple word Leonard. And how joyful I was when toothbrush-moustache came through the double doors, clutching his informative clipboard of the random facts nobody wanted to know.

Oh, hai, Agnetha King.

She could totally be Stitch.

1) What does your character regret the most in their life?

I suppose Agnetha’s greatest regret would be that she never got to know Josh Craig as much as she thought she did. You know? That realisation that you’re never going to see someone again and suddenly every little thing of theirs becomes the most important thing in the universe. She finds it difficult to conventionally make friends, and so losing one best friend is a blow to the soul, definitely (soul being my word, not Agnetha’s). Students her own age are moronic and self-centred, but maybe later she’ll regret never making those close friends when she had the chance.

2) What is your character’s happiest memory? Most sorrowful memory?

I guess Agnetha’s happiest memory (or one of; it’s very difficult to pin-point one exactly, and thus I’m going for the most obvious in answer to this) is one she reflects on in Of Jackets and Phones: when she first meets Josh Craig in the corridor of her school. It’s that kind of electricity that warms one’s soul (“cue the pyrotechnics, Steve!”) and that connection of knowledge and self.

Her most sorrowful memory? When she loses him. That exact moment DI Leonard says those words died in suspicious circumstances. It influences a lot of her future actions, though I’m not sure that’s a good thing when it interacts with the facets of her already-personality, such as the petty kleptomania*. However, as we’ll later see (when I get around to writing it), she plays with the ring she steals from his house before making any massive decisions, as if she wants to channel Josh and his good heart.

3) What majorly gets on your character’s nerves?

Her mother and brother. They don’t quite get her love of unwinding mysteries and trying to crack puzzles. Although (by the third book) she no longer talks to her father, she might get her logical mind from him, whereas her mother and brother are more…simple and down to Earth. They take things at face-value.

4) Do they act differently when they’re around people as opposed to being alone? If so, how?

Agnetha, especially as she gets older, has to subdue herself around others. Her personality does almost a complete flip. In OJAP, she’s definitely a ponderer on the inside and bolshie on the outside, a rebellious little fourteen-year-old; by OOLE, the third book in the trilogy, she’s a lot more of a thinker on the outside, and has to hold in her own opinions when in the working world. Agnetha’s finally learnt that authority is (not so much) out to get her. At least she’s not pulling punches and pulling pistols on people by the time she’s eighteen!

5) What are their beliefs and superstitions?

In Of Jackets and Phones, Agnetha has yet to have a religion, but she is fourteen and teetering on the brink of depression, so that’s acceptable. However, she believes in fatalism and this influences her pessimistic view of life.

6) What are their catchphrases, or things they say frequently?

Whilst Agnetha doesn’t have a definite catchphrase more than fidgeting habits, she does tend to make the most facetious of remarks. A couple of times in OJAP, she makes references to mystery writers (as per a little satire I’ve attempted to weave), including one of my favourites, Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse books are (coincidently, I promise!) set in and around Oxford.

She’s also kind of a compulsive sorter, since physical ordering things allows her to mentally reorganise without using up conscious energy.

7) Would they be more prone to facing fears or running from them?

Running from them, most likely. Whilst physical fears – such as her claustrophobia and facing off against villains – and, actually, one of my favourite scenes from the middle book, Of Moscow Mysteries, is the final fight scene between Agnetha and the antagonist – she seems to face, her inner fears and her emotions she runs from. And those inner demons quake her very shoes.

OMM concept drawing of the fight

OMM concept drawing of the fight

8) Do they have a good self image?

Far from it. I’m not sure if I’ve kept the phrase, but in the first draft, Agnetha studies herself in her bedroom mirror and complains about her blemishes as “a battleground, marks against the perfect snow-white blanket of youth. I’d always been a pale child – a tan never stayed on my skin more than ten minutes.”

9) Do they turn to people when they’re upset, or do they isolate themselves?

Similar, in fact, to #4 and #7, she isolates herself because she’s an introvert and goes so far as to even mock those who are dramatic or possibly overdone in their emotions. She’d never turn to people because she can’t rely on people, though she does occasionally turn to her rabbit, Cinnabun, when she wants to be listened to without interruptions.

10) If they were standing next to you would it make you laugh or cry?

Am I allowed to offer ‘cringe’? Agnetha is likely to make me laugh and cry simultaneously. I can imagine her tossing out her blonde hair and making up some hodge-podge remark as she studies her nails.

*I am well aware that this is probably a linguistic oxymoron.

AgnethaIllustrated_AlexB

Ready. Set. Write! Update 18/8

Ready. Set. WRITE! is a summer writing intensive that encourages goal-setting and accountability, and provides an opportunity for us to cheer each other on wherever we’re at in our writing—planning, drafting, revising, or polishing. This year, RSW hosts are Alison MillerJaime MorrowErin Funk, and Katy Upperman.

 

How I did on my goals last week:

1. Edit Of Jackets and Phones, in particular chapters thirteen and fourteen. Almost done. 🙂

2. Polish and send chapter seven of OJAP to CP. Done and chapter eight.

3. Start writing out my fantasy-horror crow short story. Plan accompanying scarecrow short. In progress.

4. Write more of NA uni romance? Nope, but that doesn’t matter so much.

5. Send out another query for WTCB? Well, one.

My goals for this week:

1. Edit OJAP. Chapter fourteen and tiding up

2. Write more of fantasy-horror short story. I might abandon the accompanying story because I simply have no time for that.

Favourite recent paragraph from my WIP:

Another thought shuttled into my mind, pushing aside the others unceremoniously. “I know Josh was a cufflink short of quiet, but did Andr— Mr. Smythe ever have his moments of staring into space and thinking about…nothing?”

Josh had only ever risked his sanity for entertainment because pondering the future reminded him of his sister in the past.

Just for the cufflink short of quiet. 😉

Dramatic, no? Anyhoo, Charles Xavier or an approximation of Josh Craig from OJAP

The biggest challenge I faced this week:

Concentration. Sometimes I can’t work in silence when editing, despite how much I’ll try. Another challenge is getting the first couple of pages to be snappier and more YA starting. I need to grab another Beta for this manuscript, since the Beta I currently have has read a previous version of chapter one.

Something I love about my WIP:

I love Agnetha’s sense of humour. I think it’s as mature as it can be for a fourteen-year-old – but there’s also her quirkiness of phrases that I think adds something more to OJAP, and how easy it to write her…well, better drafts excluded.

Five Years of Jackets and Phones (and murder and explosions and poisonings and Agnetha…)

It’s almost Easter 2014, and, aside from the obvious to celebrate, I realised that I technically have a writing milestone to celebrate: five years since I decided to write a novel and succeeded. Well, pretty much.

So, how did I really become a writer? What was my story beyond being an only child who sat on the hill in her garden talking to herself and wrote A Bug’s Life fiction in bright pen*?

Barmy to think it, but it’s been five years since the completion of my first proper manuscript. I’d written before, sure – hey, I’d written a full script (as well as three shorter ones) by the time I was eleven – but I’d never written a full book** before.

Holidays seem to be my inspirers – in the Easter of 2009, I journeyed to the balmy sand-dunes of Jordan, to casually tell my story of the mystery game we’d played in our school library. Death in the library. How very Christie, as Agnetha would remark in her sniping tone.

When it was suggested I write down what I had narrated, I don’t think I first took the comment in true seriousness. Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to write, but I was writing in the back of my school notebooks (I was thirteen at the time) without chapters, without thought to progression and arcs and tone.

Look out! it’s a nerd

Look out! it’s a nerd

When it was time to copy the story from the notebooks and into a Word doc, I did the same, absent-minded activity, checking for SPG, but not so much for the right way to tale or the elegance of foreshadowing. I’m sure every writer remembers the brilliance utter rubbish of that first novel. Agnetha was maybe not as Mary Sue from the outside as she could have become, but both my poor MC and the tale that unfolded were Mary Sue-ish in their reflection of everything I’d repressed.

I’m sad to say that it took me good time to realise. To even know what a Mary Sue is and that aggressive, selfish, self-depreciative, and dare-I-say-wise Agnetha represented a good part of me.

It sucked.

And I cast it aside for a good two years or three, partly in total fear of having to scrape through the mess I’d made of the prose (by this point, I’d joined a writing site and was starting to realise I was not so much of a genius as a underdog flawed in so many ways), partly because writing every day hadn’t become a task of mine at that point and the kind of stories I focused on were my new drafts and the collaborations in which I found myself. At least this meant I had an acute objective eye for editing by the time I told myself I needed to do a serious rewrite…and beyond the ‘draft three’ I’d tried.

I’ve been going back and forth on the story (I’m not brave enough to call it a ‘manuscript’ yet) throughout this academic year – sometimes out of pure curiosity (because I miss the tale), sometimes to take my mind off WTCB and its might-be-mess. I umed and erred over the shape of the first chapter again this week, but, quite by chance and boredom, I started on a much-less-than-perfect (read: full of telling and indirect writing) chapter. I blinked. And there I was, taking the suck out of the succubus*** and adding secrets that readers would only knew if they read on fully.

It definitely came in dribs and drabs. I can’t remember how, once upon a time (!), I changed from draft 3 to draft 4 – but I guess that’s why I don’t really like to use draft numbers. When I opened the manuscript earlier this week, however – for what better way to procrastinate is there than to lose one’s self in a mirror? – I was starting to marvel at the quality of 54,000-ish words.

I’d lost the drooling 13-year-old’s hilarity of tone. Things were getting serious. And – possibly – my black humour, or some flavour of it, was starting to infect the novel. In a good way. Black humour kind of needs to infect.

And thank goodness the novel is coming together now – five years after I first devised the idea for my own murder mystery. Somehow, I can hope that once I’ve scratched through the layers this time and changed so much more of the draft I currently have, I can call it ‘readable’ for the Betas.

The moral of the tale? Work gets better. It always does.

What’s more – this is the 400th post on the Miss Alexandrina blog! More celebrating to be had!

Oohoo, look what I did for you. I created a Spotify playlist of some sort of ‘soundtrack’ for OJAP‘s birthday, twenty tracks, one for each chapter. Everything from classical to indie rock. There is a point to there being two ABBA tracks, as you’ll get if you’ve been paying attention to detail. I doubt anyone on the blog has read any part of any version of the story, but, just for the record, the tracks aren’t in chronological order. Yes, one per chapter, but I liked the Bach to start – just because. 😉

14-year-old Agnetha fights the police to find her favourite teacher’s murderer, but she might not like his secrets his ex-girlfriend and close-to-death mother reveal on the way.

 

Oh, and a quick extract. 😉

Summer_n

I don’t deal in missing people cases. I bit into my thumbnail to stop the words spewing out.

“Yeah, I’m…sorry. I see why you kept her from me. But,” I added, pointing an upturned hand her direction, “I promise I won’t write about that in the article. I wanted to focus on Joshu— Mr. Craig’s life, not his death, after all.”

“What? Oh, yes: the reason you came.”

“You’re in this with us now, Miss King,” Ms. Peterson said with a sly sideway glance about the flakes of plaster clinging to my roots. I scooted to face her and the mischief glinting behind the layers of mascara.

Maybe they’d never believed the paper cover story.

I sighed. “Look, I’m sorry.” Mrs. Craig reached for her handkerchief and I avoided her glance as she blew her nose. “How old was Joshua when Elizabeth…disappeared?”

 

*True story. I lost the story in the corridors and that makes me incredible sad.

**I was later to find out that what I’d crafted wasn’t a novel, but at 25,000, a novella, and a marred one of sorts.

***That’s a Sims2 joke/reference… I’ve started playing Sims again, not hiring she-devils. Sorry. It just wasn’t necessary.

Comparing Detectives (and Clothing Them)

Agnetha, aged 16-17

Agnetha, aged 16 – 17

As you may know, A Tale of Jackets and Phones is my stand-by project, the one I wish I could work, had it not less priority than WTCB. I was recently thinking about the MC, teen investigator and general busybody, Agnetha, and her style, something which I feel is still lacking. I haven’t yet crafted something so…distinct in the way she dresses.

Granted, she’s a lot more glamorous and easier to dress by the time she’s eighteen (think: a coat like the one Brett is wearing below but in a lighter colour like lilac, and blouses and skirts) and she was a Sixth Form prefect, so that became her well, but, in her fourteen-year-old mind, despite how spotless in logic it might be, she’s not worked out a specific style yet.

And this has always tripped me. I do need something suited to her fastidious mind more than normal, nondescript twenty-first century gear.

So, how does one start clothing the amateur detective?

Well, here I’m looking to, and shifting my inspiration from, my three favourite detectives. Evidently, though I’m noticing a theme that none are contemporary (or, for that matter, contemporaries), each is very different when it comes to their style, both during investigation and in their dress and self-admiration. Laying aside plot, character and dramatisation, the reason these three detectives are memorable to me is because the author has described them exactly. Or, rather: given enough text for costume departments to devise a unique outfit for the character.

On the other hand, modern dress is difficult to emulate in fiction, simply because, unlike the times of Holmes and Poirot, our culture(s) have no ‘set’ design. Still, I believe it’s worth my time devising a new set of outfits for Agnetha to wear in OJAP, since that may well define her in the years to come when she’s met with readers. Besides, as these three show, not only can outfit define a character from their peers, but it can also reflect their intrigue of mysteries. Their exteriors must reflect the order or chaos of their interiors.

As I say about the story:

“It[…]will appeal to fans of Poirot and Nancy Drew who like their sleuths with a little more snark.”

David Suchet’s Poirot

Dapper and decisive, Suchet has a different outfit for each scene, but all are filled with the same concentrated intelligence that Poirot carries. In one of his earliest cases when he was still a member of the Belgian police force, he was given the brooch he subsequently wears. Most outfits Suchet wears in his performances include this emblem of his past, though not all pictures do show it, sadly. Much like Nancy Drew (and Agnetha), Poirot does not seem to have a ‘set’ choice of fashion except that of being, as I say, ‘dapper’ in its broader sense. He respects the dress of the times, but also vary from it, partly because of his status as a foreigner, wearing a distinct tie with a plain jacket, or gloves mismatching his colour scheme.

Jeremy Brett’s Holmes

You’ll see that, naturally, Poirot and Holmes have similar dress in basic: gloves, cane, coat, hat, bow tie. Often double-breasted and double-cuffed jackets for respect of society. However, Sherlock is often portrayed in much more muted colours, the blacks and whites of his up-down moods. Especially in the case of my favourite Holmes, Jeremy Brett, his eccentricity central to every detective is displayed through his mannerisms and distinctly aloof behaviour than through the shine and colour of his clothes, whereas Poirot’s is through a blend of both.

Then we come to the stark change of style and gender! After all, the one thing that Agnetha cannot emulate, even through her scant knowledge of the above characters, is their age and masculinity. That’s not who I made her. Instead, I do think of her as some kind of modern Nancy Drew – a grittier, harsher young woman with problems beyond her mysteries, problems which actually link her to her first murder-plot and, though differently, to the last in her original trilogy.

Characters don’t tend to become detectives without these problems and quirks of character anyway. Poirot, one could argue, since he is more straight-edged than most ‘tec characters, has his Belgian disposition and his obsession with cleanliness. Sherlock has his drug problem and “high functioning” sociopathy.

Get me this dress now!

Classy, yet youthful, Nancy Drew’s 50s outfits (she went through many evolutions since the beginning of the franchise in the 30s, but Emma Roberts’ portrayal is my favourite, as I believe she encompasses the entirety of the Nancy in my head) express an individuality – and through it, strange interest in mystery – very different from that of her peers. Nancy is relatable to Agnetha, since they both are constrained by their youth and societal expectations, whereas the two detectives above had their jobs solving crime.

I think what I’m looking for in terms of a modern, fourteen-year-old Agnetha is the mix of all three. I want the femininity of Nancy’s 50s outfits, skirts and neat patterns, but I want a practicality seen by Holmes, whilst keeping a kind of eccentricity displayed by Poirot’s clothes. It’s less a question of blouse/shirt, trousers/skirt, makeup/none (in fact, Agnetha puts on makeup in one scene, so I know for certain that she does doll herself up, even then), and more a question of how I’d like to see her, were she portrayed on the visual medium of screen or stage.

Agnetha, aged 12

Agnetha, aged 12

 

Poirot Quote

Yesterday started the final round of David Suchet’s Poirot episodes (I know I’m going to cry by the end!), but, due to not actually having a TV, I won’t be able to watch The Big Four until the weekend. Instead, I came across this quote from the books on Facebook and simply had to share it. Agnetha would approve at putting truth first – sporadic, wild, dangerous truth. For that is crime fiction.

WTCB September: Lake Placid Phillip

Nobody is entirely pacifist. Even the most trained of religious cannot help intruding anger; even those people who bear calm exteriors have emotions snapping at their heels.

But still we hope for a way to avoid war-like tussles. I myself have seen too many people hurt verbally to let my mouth run riot. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for all my characters. *cough* Agnetha *cough*.

Phillip, on the other hand, is calm. Of the various metaphors Aidelle uses, two stand out in my mind from recent editing: the warm sunset and the placid lake, waves of love flowing over its smooth surface. When Phillip is with Aidelle, he is at his finest as a pacifist. Sure, he argues with her, but – annoyingly, according to Aidelle – he never raises his voice to contest her.*

But, as his granddaughter will find out in the third book, Phillip was not always like that. The Continental Almanac records that, in his childhood, he was actually quite a violent person, but that his painting might well have saved his soul. My words, not The Almanac’s*.

“It was wrong. This fancy Costello artifice surely had no place in actual living. Phillip had never understood the arranged marriage system as it was, but now more inconsistencies of the upper-class bled from the perfect wallpaper. As he galloped up the many stairs, forever becoming a certain doom, Phillip scowled at his surroundings, from over-polished rails to the portraits staring at him from every corner. The next year he would let riches tumble from his fingers, for they had given him nothing before. Only one result stood from the wreckage of his upbringing.

Phillip was becoming a pacifist.”

(Lysander Yakinos, short story WIP, prequel to When the Clock Broke)

In this case, Phillip is the epitome of natural pacifism, not trained, monistic pacifism. He is like me – exposed to anger and (verbal) violence at an early age, so looking for a better outcome in the world, through non-violent acts (though, this may or may not extend to his motives. I’m not entirely sure what his innermost thoughts are at times).

One might argue that his pacifism is a theme of the novel, the sole creator of trouble: because Phillip firstly refuses to go to war, he is blackmailed by his brother, cannot afford to lose his money to support Aidelle, and so leaves her for the war, and enrages her, which leads to the breaking of time…etc.

A Beta reader actually said to me that she likes the role-reversal here. I never intended for Aidelle and Phillip to be the opposite of the stereotypes of their gender – men have more testosterone and women are dainty.

Testosterone is nothing to do with Phillip’s will. Mind over body and all that. Aidelle is quick to anger just because she is, as are a lot of my female leads. Call it force of habit, I guess. Phillip, on the other hand, has acquired a skill she has yet to learn: controlling one’s anger. He’s no softy. He can go to a five-year war and not come back with obvious PSTD, unlike his skittish brother.

But war is harsh. Phillip avoided it for a reason: his own good. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, nobody is entirely pacifist. Adopting a scientific eye, perhaps Phillip is filled with the regular amount, or more, of male testosterone*, but he has been suppressing it since he found out how cruel that part of his prenatal personality can make him. Worn down by war, he reverts to his frustrated self at home, being the proverbial vinegar-bicarb-volcano exploding.

Yes, Phillip shouts, he yells, he storms out of a dinner meal after treating his family horribly. He stresses, and, for two scenes, he is angrier than I have ever seen him since.

I’m not trying to prove a point here. Yes, pacifism is a state of inaction, rather than a complete state of mind, but I say this because Phillip defines himself by his pacifism, but he is wrong; nobody can be entirely pacifist, and he is more than simply a man who refuses to fight. Maybe Aidelle is right – by being calm, he is causing more pain to everyone else in the long-run.

Who knows?

UgandaLake_AlexB

Too, despite his now-gentle nature, Phillip bears prejudiced thoughts. He is not the most symbolic of this type of person in the novel – that is Dr. Costello, his father, whose strength is, in fact, weak-mindedness that he believes tradition and his son’s singular words than having the eye to observe change fairly* – but he is ready to lift up an invisible barrier of prejudice when he is anxious.

As his author, I’m incredibly proud: most of this has been his emotional growth, rather than my character development. I’ve talked a couple of times about how I decided to make him indifferent/unshowing of his adoration around Aidelle, but the prejudice and the anger came of my character’s own accord.

I love being a writer.

In a non-related tangent, ‘Lake Placid Blue’ is the colour of a Strat I desperately want. Look how pretty he is!

*The thought occurs to me here: of Dumbledore and Harry.

*One could argue that The Almanac’s words are my words, but, for this post, I’m referring to it as an outside guide to a real world, not a fictional accompaniment to a fictional trilogy.

*Because it’s a fiction that women have no testosterone; the majority of us just have substantially less.

*A little like Carson from Downton Abbey, perhaps?