Playing What-If: a review of ‘The Heartless City’

As writers, we all play the ‘what-if’ game. What if . . . someone used standing stones to go back in time in Scotland? What if . . . there were vampires/werewolves/werecats/werewhatevers? What if . . . the world’s greatest art thief got caught and started working for the FBI instead? What if . . .

About a month ago, I walked into my local coffee house and saw a sign on the wall announcing a local author who would be doing a book signing soon. That’s cool – but we’ve frankly got a lot of local authors, most of them self-published. What stopped me in my tracks was the cover:  cover1000-1-678x1024

Yeah. Remind you of anything? Maybe this?

9781416975861

The Infernal Devices trilogy is my favorite Young Adult series ever (so much better than Mortal Instruments – more depth, more character development, more conflict!). So I had to go.

Andrea Berthot lives right here in my home town, and she was gracious and lovely. When I admitted the reason I was curious about the book was due to the cover, she laughed and said she loved it for that reason, too – when they asked her what she wanted for the cover, the only thing she could think of was a boy and the London skyline.

And she plays the ‘what if’ game. For her first novel, The Heartless City, it was a historical and fictional question:  what if Dr. Jekyll was real, and what if his experiments didn’t end where Robert Louis Stevenson said they did?

The Heartless City is the first book of Berthot’s Gold and Gaslight Chronicles series. It’s a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. It starts in 1903, thirteen years after Dr. Jekyll’s experiments went horribly wrong, resulting in the creation of more Hyde-like monsters – and a total quarantine of London. No one out. No one in. The Lord Mayor has taken over as a quasi-king; Parliament has moved to York; food is rationed and no one has news of the outside world.

In this world lives Elliot Morrissey, the son of the Lord Mayor’s personal doctor, and his best friend Cam (the Lord Mayor’s son). Elliot, due to a misbegotten experiment of his own, is an empath – he can feel every emotion of every person around him. Handy, when there are monsters to avoid. Not so handy, when people desperately need to hide certain things.

After going to a ‘dance hall’ for Cam’s birthday, they meet Iris, who is also not what she seems to be. Together, the three will have to figure out if there is any way to cure the Hydes – and who has a vested interest in not curing them.

As a writer, it’s difficult to review books – I always want to offer constructive criticism, as if I’m nothing more than a beta reader and there’s still time to change things! I think it’s more difficult for writers, in fact, than people who are only readers. Those who don’t write really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. The hours you spend on research, putting fingers to keyboard, editing with red pen in hand – those are hours you’ve chosen to subtract from other areas of your life.

So writers have a bit of empathy for fellow writers that often stays our hand when we might otherwise be harsh. Because we can read a scene and even if it doesn’t sound quite right to us, we know that the author probably spent hours and hours and hours in rewrites on it. We also know that agents and editors have to have their say and (I know this is heresy, but . . .) those changes may not always be for the best.

There was a lot to like in The Heartless City – the friendship between Elliot and Cam, the way Berthot handles the overwhelming emotions Elliot feels, and his real conflicts about what to do about it. Philomena sparkles on the page as the comedy relief/bad-ass girl rebelling against her heritage and station in life. Iris – well, truth be told, I’m still unsure what I think of her; sometimes she didn’t feel ‘real’ to me. It’s Cam and Philomena that most resonate on the page – Cam’s desperation to know more of the outside world – to be freed of the hell that London has become – is palpable and I sympathize with it completely. (Truth be told, I found Cam more interesting than Elliot, and I hope that the third book will focus on him.)

The story flows smoothly, though I admit I did lay it down for several days after about chapter 4 – it felt a bit slow to begin – and the Hydes seem to get lost after a time. The main antagonist is believable – a bit two-dimensional, but we all know people like this (cough-Trump!-cough), so that didn’t bother me too much, either. Honestly, part of me prefers a villain I can just hate. 🙂

One of the things I disliked about the book was something that I dislike in a lot of YA – or even a lot of adult books, for that matter – which is what I call “Twilight Romance Syndrome” (TRS, for short). This is when the two main characters fall in luuv instantly, without knowing the slightest bit of information about the other – basically the idea that “he/she is hot, he/she is fascinating/brooding/unavailable, so I MUST fall in love with them NOW!” Thus it was with Elliot and Iris, who were declaring love after only knowing each other for a few days.

I’ve posted about this particular pet peeve of mine before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Authors, please, do us all a favor:  your characters can fall in love all they want, but for heaven’s sake, let them do it gradually! Make it real. Make it believable.

For some reason, I actually found Cam’s romance with . . . um, someone, must not give too many spoilers! . . . more believable, maybe because I saw it coming a mile away. Or maybe because it was hinted that this romance had developed over the last several weeks or months – again, gradually.

Rant over. Back to the review:

One other thing I think Berthot could have worked on more was her use of language, particularly dialect and accent. Anyone who’s read a lot of Victorian literature knows it’s a very specific style of speaking (and the upper and lower classes had their own ‘dialects,’ even), and since London had been under quarantine since 1890, I would expect much more Victorian-esque speaking. But except for a bit of Cam’s good-natured jests, there wasn’t much of that here. The characters don’t even sound particularly British. If you watch any good British shows like Downton Abbey or Doc Martin, you get a feel for how true Brits speak – the rhythms, the sentence structure, the words. There just wasn’t any of that here, and that’s something true Anglophiles need. (A good example of someone who does this well is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

But overall, as a debut novel – especially one in the alternate history/paranormal realm – it’s a good first effort. Solid characters, solid plot, solid writing. And in the age-old game of ‘what if,’ it excels.

 

The second book in the series, The Hypnotic City, which follows Philomena’s adventures in New York City, is available.

A link to the Curiosity Quills Press’s homepage for the Gold and Gaslight Chronicles:  https://curiosityquills.com/series/gold-gaslight-chronicles/

 

 

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Goodreads Profile: YA Author Debra Dockter

Things got hectic this weekend, so instead of me going on and on, please enjoy this selection from YA author Debra Dockter. 🙂

debra dockter

Just answered questions from Goodreads members about books and the writing process. Check it out on my Goodreads author page and as always, happy reading and happy writing!

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Announcing . . . the cover for Deadly Design!!!

Have to share!

Today is the cover reveal for Debra Dockter’s YA thriller Deadly Design, and here it is, on the Bittersweet Enchantment blog:

http://www.bittersweet-enchantment.com/2014/10/cover-reveal-deadly-design-by-debra.html#comment-form

Plus, there are ARC giveaways! So head on over — it’s an amazing cover, and an even more amazing book (I should know; I’ve read it already!).

As always, you can follow Deb on Twitter:  @DebraDockterYA, or on her blog at debradockter.com.

Yes, once I get published, I expect the same shameless publicity from her, too. 🙂

Being a Good Beta Reader: Writing Good Critiques

It’s easy enough to tell someone how to give a good critique. But unless you see them for yourself and have practice writing them, it can be daunting.

So I wanted to share a few snippets from a friend’s story I edited earlier this year. This is Deb Dockter’s YA novel Deadly Design, coming out next June from Penguin (YAY!! Happy step-mom dance!) FYI, you can follower her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, and find her on her website, www.debradockter.com

When I edit and critique, I do a little of everything. I’m a grammar Nazi, so I always (naturally) look at spelling, punctuation, run-on sentences, fragments, etc. I also love a perfectly-crafted sentence, so I’m constantly looking at ways to improve them, make them more clear, give them more punch. I’m a firm believer that every paragraph needs to move the story forward and contain one major thought, so I will often give suggestions on how to rewrite them. I’m also looking for ways in which characters act out of character, and comment if there seems to be no reason for them to do so. And then, at the end, I will sum up with my own thoughts about the novel, where it’s heading, overall story arc and character arc, and whether there are plot holes.

And before you ask, YES, I’m every bit as hard on myself as I am on others — even more so. Last fall when I taught Creative Writing, I took drafts of my own novels, complete with red and purple and green ink, for my students to see. They were suitably frightened. 🙂

So without further ado, here’s an example of a paragraph I suggested rewriting. This was the original:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean. He’s the quiet but tough guy. He doesn’t need anybody else, doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks. He’s a bad boy.” She gives me a sideways glance.

I consider this, then nod in agreement. “Yep, that’s me. I’m bad to the bone.”

I suggested it could be:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean?” At my blank look she says, “Seriously? East of Eden? Rebel Without a Cause?”  She gives me a sideways glance. “Really?”

I shrug. “Rebel without a cause. Yeah. That’s me.” (But, that’s just me – my suggestion – I have an idea most teens even today will know the “bad boy” reference from James Dean and maybe the movie title.)

The italics are my comments to Deb. She can take the suggestion or not; I’ve given my opinion. And if you’re writing a critique, it’s your responsibility to give your opinion. That’s why you’re there, after all.

Here’s an example where I’ve found a paragraph that I think isn’t quite right, but I can’t figure out why I think that.  I make a note of it, and then I offer an opinion on what it could be:

“Don’t come if you don’t want to.” His mouth was full of cornflakes, and there was a tiny dot of milk on his chin. “Your mom and I have always been understanding about you not wanting to go watch your brother. But this is his last meet, ever. He wants us there, all of us. But if you think you’ll sleep all right tonight, not going, then by all means, stay home.” (something about this paragraph reads funky – I think it’s the two middle sentences, structured exactly the same.)

Again, it’s always up to the author as to whether they think you’re right or not. But as a critique partner, you have a duty to let them know that something isn’t quite right there. If it reads funny to you, chances are it will read funny to others.

Here’s an example where I’ve commented on plot and structure:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (I haven’t gotten the sense yet in this version that he is in love with Emma. I did – really did – in the old version. We saw it. But I don’t get that at all yet here.)

By this time, I’d read about 25 pages of the new version, and I’d of course read the old drafts; therefore, I had a different viewpoint than someone who may have just picked this up for the first time. Deb and I have critiqued for each other for a few years now, so we know each others’ characters and plots, and we feel comfortable making comments like this. But let’s say this was the first time I’d ever read this. What I might say instead here is something like:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can get score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (Question:  Is Kyle in love with Emma? You’ve hinted at it — on page 10, for example — but I don’t see it clearly. He doesn’t come right out and say he’s in love with his brother’s girlfriend. And that’s a LOT of conflict to keep bottled up! If he is, let us see it, and let that conflict spill over into the story.) 

There. I’ve asked the question, pointed out a potential flaw, and given the author a reason to fix it — to improve the story.

If you know the story well, and the author, you might also feel okay with suggesting small things. Particularly if you get to know the characters well and see an opportunity for them to do or say something that could add context or depth to the story, or at least would be more in keeping with who they are. Like this:

“Could you go wake him up?” she says. “Emma’s coming over this morning, and I’m sure he’s not going to want to be in bed when she gets here.”

“Sure.” (perfect opportunity for a snarky remark like “Actually, I was sure he’d love to still be in bed when she got there,” or something. :))

As a critique partner, one of your jobs is also to pick up on the small mistakes that the author may make. If you’re a writer, you know how close you get to your own story; it sucks you in, and you start to miss things. Sometimes big, glaring things. 🙂 You skip over mistakes, and gloss over plot holes (“I’ll fix it later!”). But that’s why you have beta readers. Or you get into a big rush to finish it, and you make silly mistakes that you don’t catch later. Like this one:

She tilts her head and smiles at me like I’m the world’s biggest pain in the ass. “As you are probably aware, today is May 15th. In approximately seven days, the love birds will be graduating from high school. They will then commence living in a dorm in Manhattan, while they attend the University of Kansas.” (BOY, it’s a good thing you have me here! Manhattan is K-State. Lawrence is KU!)

So as a beta reader, if you know the fix to a mistake, tell the author! Don’t assume they’ll find and fix it later; give them a hand. 🙂 Obviously, if I didn’t know Deb as well as I do and didn’t feel comfortable teasing her, I’d phrase this differently!

And, of course, always be supportive and kind! It’s as easy as making smiley faces when you find something you like, or writing “Good girl!” in the margins when the MC does something you like, or even just dashing off “LOL!” at the end of a paragraph:

If I was a girl or gay, I’d be instantly smitten. I’d be sending him a friend request on Facebook and moving quickly from acquaintance to stalker. I can’t help but wonder if his name is made up, a way to keep the would-be Triagon worshippers from finding his high school and setting up surveillance across from his locker. (LOL!)

So I hope that helps you figure out some ways to give constructive criticism. Next week, I’ll follow up by giving you some examples from my own novel — things my beta readers pointed out to me, and things I pointed out to myself. Like I said, I’m much harder on myself than they are!

(All quotes are from Debra Dockter’s young adult novel Deadly Design, to be published June 2015 from Penguin. Keep an eye out! Again, you can follow her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, or her blog/website at www.debradockter.com. You can also follow me on Twitter — @RobynNHill.)