My experiences at the Writing Workshop of Chicago (see posts here and here) were invaluable. Perhaps one of my favorites was having my first ten pages critiqued by Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, and Under a Dark Sky. It’s a struggle for creatives to share their work, but how will we ever get better (or published) if we don’t? I’ve had my first ten critiqued before and made so many changes as a result that I couldn’t even say they’re the same first ten pages. I consider this a good thing.
So what did Ms. Rader-Day, Anthony Award and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, have to say about my first ten? Here are a few snippets with her comments in bold.
A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for children and adults alike, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were educational explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. One infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life…You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother…Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all. (LORI: IS THIS A REAL EXHIBIT? THE QUESTIONS SEEM SO…CONTRIVED.)
Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed at the signage.
“Fitting,” he said.
As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead. Two police officers stood nearby, their profiles reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of Laurel, then Hardy. “Avery.” (LORI: NOT REALLY FITTING WITH THE TONE OF YOUR BOOK, IS IT? DESCRIBE THEM INSTEAD.)
“Dunleavy! How’s life?” Chapman smiled cheerfully.
“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene, as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA. (AWKWARD PHRASING. MAKES IT SEEM LIKE THE TRUNK WOULD STILL BE ON HAND BECAUSE OF TRACE DNA, NOT THAT THE TRACE DNA WOULD BE USEFUL WITH THE NEW TECH OR IF THEY STILL HAD ONE OF THE TRUNKS…)
“Any guesses on the time of death?”
“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.
“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”
Avery tossed his head across the room. (LORI: READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN. DOESN’T IT SOUND LIKE HE’S THROWING A HEAD ACROSS THE ROOM?)
“The brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”
Ms. Rader-Day also provided me with other comments, like how the transition from my opening scene to the museum scene was jarring because the opener feels historical and it seemed as if I were jumping time. But she also said this:
“I’ve marked a few moments where I was taken out of the story for some reason or another, but my silence during most of the pages is actually good news for you. I didn’t see a lot of amateur hour stuff that I would normally have to comment on—I was just reading a story, and getting lost in it.”
And there it is. Some pretty obvious mistakes which are slightly embarrassing (my students will love the head-tossing example), but some promising feedback that is a perfect example of why sharing is necessary to move forward: we need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and for creative types, we really need to be reminded to see the good. If you have an opportunity to take in a writing conference, do it. You won’t regret it!