At this year’s RT Booklovers Convention, we raffled off 1-on-1 manuscript feedback sessions with yours truly. Book Country member Alys Arden was one of the winners. It’s fitting that she won this package, because the first book I ever read and reviewed on Book Country was THE CASQUETTE GIRLS, which Alys published on Halloween 2013. Now she’s hard at work on the sequel, THE ROMEO CATCHERS. As a big fan of the first book, I was super excited to jump into the next volume.
As usual, reading the work of another writer was very helpful to me in thinking about my own views about good writing. Much of my review will only make sense if you’re also reading her book (which you should!), but I wanted to share a few takeaways that I hope will resonate for the rest of the community as they write and revise their books.
I am not a huge fan of prologues. Writers need to win over readers from the very first sentence, and I think writers have more success when they immediately include concrete details about setting, specific characterizations, and most importantly, strive for clarity. Prologues, on the other hand, tend to be vague and sometimes dreamlike. They often hint at a situation that for which the reader does not yet have a context. This can be confusing and even off-putting to readers. I think the reason Alys succeeds here is because the prologue is a self-contained story. It does the job of hinting to the reader of what’s to come–historical significance, a later threading in of this urban legend–but it’s also enjoyable for its own sake.
THE ROMEO CATCHERS is pitch perfect in tone, which isn’t quite the same as voice, but is similar. The tone here is consistently dramatic, but also charmingly peppered with lighthearted moments. Throughout the excerpt I read, I found it easy to relate to Adele and the various things that she is going through: the narration comes off as sincere, but wry, which feels very true to the genre, and very welcoming to readers of all ages. I happen to like this tone very much, but what I think is even more important to note is the consistency. Whatever the tone of your book is, make sure it maintains throughout.
The drama of the YA Paranormal genre is one of the things that is most attractive to readers about this genre. The stakes are dizzyingly high, to great effect. I love how unafraid Alys is to use the threat of death and destruction, despite the fact that she is writing YA. Whether it’s a fruit seller being thrown off a balcony or a vampire being locked in an attic, the book is full of haunting suspense.
My revision suggestions:
I like simple sentences, each conveying just one or two thoughts, rather than sentences with many clauses that pack in details. That preference is why my my review of THE ROMEO CATCHERS has a pattern of suggesting that Alys simplify sentences wherever possible. I’d rather have a string of many sentences–each of them easy to absorb in quick succession–rather than get stuck on a more complicated sentence.
Furthermore, I noticed in Alys’s writing a wonderful willingness to play around with how to describe things. She resists repetition, which makes the prose lively and idiosyncratic. In the next draft it would be good to focus on narrative flourishes and make decisions about how they affect the voice. This is a hard thing to do because it means that you have to make sure that the narration sounds like a particular character (in this case, a 16-year-old girl) as well as make sure that the prose is varied, fast-paced, and clear, not to mention interesting and fun to read and relate to. A good example of this that I pointed out to Alys in my review was in Chapter 1, when the main character, Adele, says, “The thought of someone coming out to check on me practically made me leap for more distance.” I appreciated how Alys was putting a lot of thought behind the way she wrote this sentence: she’s showing how anxious Adele is (rather than just saying “Adele was so anxious”). However, I didn’t buy that a 16-year-old would describe her feelings that way, especially when talking about her own anxiety. Here I would go with something forceful and believable like “I had to get away from everyone” or “I dreaded the thought of someone coming to check on me.”
Another thing to watch out for with voice is that it can sound too real, and thus too vague, or too colloquial. In the sentence I quoted above, the word “practically” stands out to me. People throw around the word “practically” all the time in American spoken English. “I practically fell off a cliff from surprise,” or “I’m practically married to my job.” In prose I think this word can cause confusion–it’s a qualifier when a reader needs things to be unqualified: Did Adele get away from the church or not? In the next sentence, we find that Adele is indeed fleeing the church. So then why did she say “Practically,” if she did in fact get away? After some deliberation, I think I understand what Adele is saying: she could have leaped from the church, because she wanted to get away so badly, but she didn’t actually leap. This seems like it’s not a big deal, but it becomes really distracting if we as readers are trying to see what Adele is doing. We need to be able to tell very quickly if Adele is moving away from the church, just so anything that happens afterward will make sense. So I think it’s important to make movements decisive. Think about a stage play: during rehearsals, a director will decide where the actors need to stand at various points in the play. The director is never vague about this–each movement has a purpose, and the audience is never unsure of where the character is supposed to be as the scene goes on around them. Writers need to do something similar. Adele describes another scene in Chapter 1: “Isaac came over and sat on the floor in my bedroom–against the wall, one leg stretched out and the other bent at the knee to rest his sketchpad.” I like this sentence because right away I can see what Isaac is doing in the scene. It sounds basic, but I’d like Alys to insert similar “stage directions” into each scene. I think this would make each scene clear in the way this one immediately was.
Calibrate the perfect amount of recap. Alys has a somewhat atypical challenge in writing THE ROMEO CATCHERS: It is a sequel, so she has to figure out how much of the first book she needs to summarize to get the reader up to speed before the action of the second book can really get underway. This is hard. If you ever read Sweet Valley High or The Babysitters’ Club, you might remember that each character and the setting was described at length at the beginning of each book. Back then, people read YA book series out of order much more often than they do now, and it was rare for those series to have overarching plots. Now YA series are more often read sequentially, and it’s not nearly as common for authors to waste precious space at the beginning of a book recapping what happened in the preceding volume(s). However, the modern YA author takes a risk when they presume that they do not need to explain anything that happened in the earlier books. Readers easily forget the details, so reminders are helpful, especially if it’s been a long time between publications. Also, it’s entirely possible that a reader will pick up the sequel and start to read it even if they haven’t read the other book(s). This is especially true of printed books, an expected format for THE ROMEO CATCHERS.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, or Young Adult books check out THE ROMEO CATCHERS. Give Alys feedback on her book as you reflect on strategies that will make your book better, too.
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