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Request for feedback on first 5000 words...

Calling any SF and/or detective fiction fans!

Army of Me is a a science/speculative fiction novel in which a serial killer has the perfect escape plan: he can slide from the murder scene into an alternative parallel world. He is murdering the same man in these different worlds. Can the victims' parallel daughters find each other, and team up to catch the killer and save other fathers?

It's SF with a strong murder mystery strand, so has to hit the mark for both genres.

I attach the first 5000 words, and I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments from all the lovely clever JW peeps!

- Glyn

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Replies (18)
    • Hi Glyn!

      Thanks for sharing your opening, I always enjoy reading your work. I liked the premise and you've done a great job character building your MC, Saffy. Her father reminds me of Walter Bishop in the TV series, Fringe, an absolutely great character. In fact, Fringe also has parallel universes and other similarities. Maybe you could use it as a comp. title?

      I love the way you write, but I can't help but feel that you're not doing justice to the story or your writing in the opening chapter. Saffy is in her bedroom talking with her boyfriend. Although I got a ton of information about her personality, political views and what's important to her, I wanted more of a hook. 

      I got it at the end of chapter one, but that's way too long to wait. You need to make an agent sit up and listen from the beginning by introducing a question in the reader's mind. You have so many options with this novel. Could you start with Saffy and her father in the lab? I was curious about what he was doing down there and their relationship was really well drawn. Or walking to the club and feeling watched? These are just suggestions and as you know, I write for children, so I may be out of my depth here!

      You've got a great premise and complicated, well drawn characters. Together with your wonderful writing, I'm sure this will be a hit. Good luck!  

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      • I'll check Coherence out and maybe revisit Black Mirror now that you've reminded me of it!

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        • https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/3-key-differences-between-ya-fiction-and-adult-fiction/

          This article might help you decide which category your novel belongs to.

          As for your question as where to start, the pub scene has conflict and drama, yes, but I'm not sure it raises a question in the reader's mind making them NEED to read on and find out. Could you add one?

          With a bit of tweaking, the lab scene might be more representative of SF and there's more room for mystery. It could be an action scene too with tension, if Saffy is helping her dad with a unusual experiment. Just throwing some ideas around, I'm sure you'll come up with something much better! 

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          • Thanks for the link - based on that, it isn't YA. Saffy is too old, albeit not by much, and it's main themes are not those of YA. All useful - it means I needn't be nervous of darker and deeper stuff.

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          • Pretty good. I certainly enjoyed it. I’m not much good at the details and Julie is probably right the hook should be earlier, but I was completely caught up and following all the way. I loved the whole idea of Project Reset and Saffy’s jokes, a nice funny bit in something which, presumably, is about to get dark.

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            • Thank you!

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              • Hi Glyn,

                (I wrote some of this before the other posts, so apol.s if it sounds like repetition.)

                I found a lot to enjoy in this. The characters have life and are distinct. The premise is interesting. The point of view was interesting (more on that later) - it allows you to hop to the fox at the end of chp1 for example, which I thought was rather stylish.

                I didn't see much of the premise in the first chapter, not that it has to be there, per se, but the 'blurb' raises expectations. (I've been caught out by this myself.) Everything you say about the writing is the writing.

                I wondered to what extent I was being 'told' the backstory in the first chapter. Sure, things happen, and there are interesting concepts - the race vs. brexit discussion for example - but I couldn't help wondering if the story is starting too soon.

                This last point aligns with something about the narrative style - it sounds 'pacey', yet the pace... isn't. (I don't know how to describe it.) I think there's potentially something great about the style - a kind of echo of the modern world, where we never have time to
                react to one tweet before, beep, there's another one hogging our attention, but it isn't quite there, yet.

                Third-person present tense is an unusal choice (to me - I suppose it depends on what you're used to). I guess it works for a less-deep PoV, and if that's what you're aiming for, fine. For me, it did seem a little too distant. At the same time, there were a few places where refering to nameless characters (thugs in the pub, mysterious laptop guy) sounded a little strained, and I thought that might have worked better if we'd seen those people through other characters' reactions. I also thought there was quite a bit of obvious 'telling', and that seemed to be mostly around these characters. Getting the distance right would be the key, I feel.

                The title is great - a knowing 'loan' from Bjork? Linked to the text in some way?

                Certainly keep going! You've got some great characters, an interesting premise and - for want of a better word - the core of a brilliant style, which deserves to make it through onto the page.



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                • Thanks for your perceptive comments. I chose third person to allow switching different points of view - this happens more as the story develops. And I chose present tense for immediacy and because it tends to focus the writing on events rather than authorial overviews.

                  I too wonder if I should start with the murder... it is is as it is because I wanted to establish Saffy's normal world, and some themes. The murder happens about 5% of the way into the novel as a whole. That would be in the first five minutes of a film, which doesn't seem too late for the inciting incident. The question is whether the first 4% is engaging enough to pull you through to the end of the chapter.

                  And yes, Bjork. I doubt I'd have come up with that title without her. But it absolutely fits with what unfolds.

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                  • In thriller/crime fiction the inciting incident is often expected to take place very quickly. For example:

                    * In Will Dean's First Born, it opens with the MC doing something that very quickly established her oddness, and by the end of chapter 1 she receives the call which is the inciting incident

                    * In Robert Harris's Red Dragon, the opening chapter set up Will Graham's world in Florida and at the same time delivers the inciting incident which is Crawford going to see him to ask for his help with a serial killer.

                    * In Guy Morpuss's Five Minds, the opening chapter set up the world while at the same time delivers the inciting incident which is one of the consciousness discovering that one of the other consciousness has agreed to a bad deal.

                    To extend on one of Slago's points — it sounds pacy but it isn't. The pace and the narrative are being slowed down a lot by too many stage direction and blow by blow description of people's movements. It's great that you have a clear picture of your story and scenes, but too much of it and it inflates the word count and slows the pace when the genre you are writing relies on a pacy narrative.

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                    • Hi Glyn, I love the premise for this story. A lot of the writing is very good too -- the character depictions in particular. I agree with everyone's comments -- the story on the page isn't quite delivering the premise. It feels like a somewhat different novel from the one offered. Julie picked up YA and I wondered that too. I don't know enough about SF but I felt there should be a stronger hint that this is also an SF story.

                      Here are my quick thoughts. I started reading this as a murder mystery, which might have been the wrong approach. In my mind a murder mystery requires a more cut-to-the chase approach on the opening couple of pages. I don't think that means you need the murder very early on but at the moment, as Slago says, the pace isn't pacey. I didn't feel any real sense of threat.

                      I think there's too much background info on Saffy's character. You indicate very well in a few words that Saffy has a strong personality with firm convictions. I'm confident you have the skills to draw these out as the story progresses. I didn't need so much up front. At the moment the story is getting lost in detail that could come in later chapters.

                      So, for example:

                      "Saffy throws her pen at the wall. Its lid is on, so it doesn’t mark any of the clippings and printouts covering the wide pinboard. [Lovely scene setting.] She tightens her fists, and words squeeze out between clenched teeth. ‘I can’t take any more of this!’ [Great start.]

                      Joe looks up from his laptop. ‘Aw babe,’ he says. ‘Any more of what?’

                      ‘Do not call me babe.’"  [Very good characterisation, even if she's not really cross with Joe.]

                      PERHAPS cut here and go straight to "The photos show small groups of demonstrators sitting on the steps of energy company HQs, on garage forecourts, outside government offices, holding placards with slogans like “Re-think, Re-set”, “No Going Back,” and “Last time covid, next time fire”. One of the demonstrators is Joe, whose placard is more literary: “Not with a bang, not with a whimper, not at all.    [I'm guessing this is what the story is about, its theme,, regardless of genre and plot?]

                      "There’s one of her, too, sitting in ripped black skinnies, her lopsided half-shaved hairstyle falling over one eye. She won’t give up the Lisbet Salander look even though her friends are now in flares. She wears  a black t-shirt with a white slogan: “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t yet understand what I’m saying”, the words getting ever smaller down the front. Her own placard follows the same pattern: “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?” Saffy knew it was too many words when she wrote it out, but she feels responsibility strongly." STOP HERE? and restart with "‘Even the mad professor agrees on the need for a reset,’ Joe adds. [Neat intro of 'mad professor' and emphasise of reset idea.]

                      I could be wrong of course -- it's your novel! And I'm a menace for cutting other people's prose. But maybe a little bit of deleting...?

                      Third person, present tense: I like it, and as you say it's flexible. Slago has a good point - some of the writing is distant. Saffy is your main character, at least in this section. Let us get inside her head a bit more: 

                      "There’s one of her, too, sitting in ripped black skinnies, her lopsided half-shaved hairstyle falling over one eye. She won’t give up the Lisbet Salander look even though her friends are everyone else is now in flares. She wears  Her favourite black t-shirt with a white slogan: “If you don’t agree with me, you don’t yet understand what I’m saying”, the words getting ever smaller down the front. Her own The placard following the same pattern: “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?” Saffy She knew it was too many words when she wrote it, but she feels responsibility strongly every single word had been too important. You couldn't just avoid stuff for convenience."

                      I hope this helps. As I say, they're instant reactions. I could be off track. I do like the premise though. Very compelling.

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                      • Sound advice - thanks.

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                        • Hi Glyn,

                          First, like the others, I really enjoyed this. The characters are interesting, well differentiated, much of the repartee is engaging, and the premise is intriguing. I don’t know the genres involved that well, so can’t make the kind of commentary Laure did. But you yourself seem familiar with when the inciting incident needs to come. As I read, I indeed felt that you established a particular world which the characters were quite attached to and which was about to be turned upside down, and that you did so skilfully. If you began with the murder, you’d have to establish Harvey’s character with backstory, and I doubt that would be as successful or even desirable. Maybe that doesn’t matter ; I don’t know how important it is to care about the victim in this kind of writing, but I did feel a lot for Harvey. Maybe you could start with the lab and pare down the passages on Saffy and Joe just a bit, so the father and daughter are more of the main focus from the outset – unless Joe becomes equally important in the story.

                          I can probably be most useful commenting on the writing. I agree with the kinds of cuts that Libby suggested. While hers had mostly to do with character, I’ll focus on action and actions and try to dig into what several people have said about pace.

                          The problem as I see it is not simply that you have too many details and too much information – though I agree with these points. Your style at times weighs down instead of imitating’ the action it’s intended to express. Take the second sentence of your first paragraph for example. ‘The lid is on, so it doesn’t mark…’ This expresses cause-effect, but you don’t need to set that out. What’s important is a brief, sharp action. With Libby’s caveats in mind – this is your novel – I’d suggest something like : ‘Lid is on, the stuff on the pinboard stays unscathed.’ Twenty-three syllables reduced to twelve, but equally important, all the words except for two are a single syllable. Another possibility : you could omit the sentence and give Saffy a stronger verb in the first : ‘hurls’, ‘flings’. I’ll come back to ‘stuff’ in the suggestion.

                          Shift to the intruder walking catlike. I’d make ‘The key fits the lock.’ one sentence to give it punch. ‘since’ is another explanatory word, underlining cause and effect, and you don’t need it either. ‘Neither Harvey nor Saffy has bolted inside, and the door opens,’ eg. You might consider cutting the next sentence ; the beginning of the next paragraph (‘A slim torchbeam…’ could imply it) unless leaving the door ajar is important.

                          Once Saffy wakes, much of the writing is faster paced. But when she actually confronts the intruder, you could strengthen the writing in the ways I’ve already suggested. Verbs need to be more vigorous. Couldn’t the figure ‘loom’ rather than ‘standing up’ ? She ‘lunges’ and so does the figure. You needn’t describe him twice, and the description in the second line has better possibilities : ‘a masked hulk’, eg. (With the mask, anonomity is implied.) It’s distracting to show Saffy’s thought process at this moment. You could cut straight to ‘He holds her shoulders…’

                          A word about POV and the narrator. I thought the POV was close third for the first seven pages, and it was wrenching when we saw the thugs, which Saffy couldn’t, and then she suddenly barged through. You need to establish POV sooner. One possibility might be the lab scene with Harvey’s reaction to the Project Reset rather than having the narrator explain it.

                          At times the narrator seems a bit staid for this particular world, and I agree with Libby’s advice to let us into Saffy’s head more. The description of Mr Beresford is belaboured. Saffy being more ‘concerned’ about her father than the intruder is a bit bloodless. You could keep the narrative but allow the narrator to adopt the tone of whichever character is the POV in the moment. You do something like that in the middle of p. 2 with Joe and ‘Awww…’ and later, juxtaposing stylistically Harvey’s ‘very large brain’ with his only child. And you do it with Saffy’s reflection about Rachel too (‘ah, but…’). That’s the reason behind my suggestion of ‘stuff’ or some other slang in the second sentence. It needn’t devalue Saffy’s project.

                          There is some very deft writing and handling of detail in this piece. If you excised details and information that are unnecessary to your story line and pared the style, with more attention to what any one passage is intended to express, it could be compelling. I hope this is of some help.

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                          • That's all very perceptive, and valuable. Your point about avoiding establishing Harvey through backstory rings true to me, so I think the inciting incident has to stay where it is, structurally speaking. The challenge is to make the preliminaries engaging in themselves. Joe is a vital character, and I feel that overall I've undercooked him - so the balance between showing him and showing Harvey is a tricky one. The other thing I've beenthinking of is setting it on a world parallel to ours, but worse in every respect. Not a dystopia, but even more troubled by war, economic collapse, climate change and culture wars. That will strengthen the themes, and plant it firmly in SF-genre territory.

                            I'm not sure what you mean by the POV problem. I get that we go from close third to omniscient in the pub.  What do you mean by needing to establish POV sooner? Do you mean that I should let the reader get used to a greater distance before the pub scene? Are you saying I should show the lab scene from Harvey's POV, so the readers don't get used to being with Saffy all the time?

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                            • Hi Glynn 

                              I’m sorry if my comments about POV didn’t come across. The POV you establish in the story creates expectations in readers, just as do world building and character creation. As I wrote earlier, for the first seven pages, I thought the POV was close third ; when you switch suddenly to omniscient in the pub, your readers have to recalibrate the angle from which you’re telling your story. They need to know it by then. If they have to recalibrate, their attention shifts from the scene itself to the givens of the narration and that’s a distraction. You don’t want their attention to wander from the scene, especially in this case, where the action is lively, the pacing is good and there’s a shade of darker things to come. In addition, a sudden unprepared shift will signal to an agent that you’re not being so mindful with choice of POV, which is always used with the same care that’s given to choice of detail and language -- or should be. 

                              So, it’s not just that you should let readers get used to greater distance early on ; you do need to do that, but if you’re going to have multiple POVs, you need to think about how you’re going to signal that so that the fundamentals of your story are clear soon on. One commonly used method in a novel with multiple POV is to title each chapter with the name of the character whose thoughts we’re in for that chapter. You might not want to do that, and if you want to mix within chapters, you need find another way anyhow. My example of using Harvey in the lab was a suggestion about where that could be done ; but it wasn’t a ‘should’. As Libby said, this is your novel, and the decisions are yours. I hope this is clearer. You’re welcome to say so if it isn’t.

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                              • At the risk of confusing things, and without re-reading all the previous pages, this use of omniscient POV here seems fine to me. It's in its own section (I'd remove the indent for extra clarification) but more importantly I think the omniscient POV here is only a small slide further 'out', in terms of omniscience, from the three paragraphs starting, "The Markwick Arms is not one of their usual haunts, ..." 

                                It can be tricky, such narrative slides being dependent on where the text appeared to rest before the POV moved! Different readers and writers may have different perceptions. But unless I'm missing something, I think all should be well. I could be wrong though.

                                Same subject but different novel: Ordinary People by Diana Evans is on the next Radio 4 Bookclub. Ordinary People switches to an omniscient POV for a particular scene that came quite a long way into the story. The scene concerns a racially motivated attack in a London park. The new viewpoint was very effective, I thought when I read it. The whole novel is good so I'm taking the chance to give it a plug :)

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                              • My early drafts have concentrated on telling the story. It's great to have this feedback on things like character and POV - thanks to you all.

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