The Fiction Portal
Antonia Morton, Book Editor
Examples of Fix Notes
Fix Note 1 | Fix Note 2 | Fix Note 3 | Fix Note 4 | Fix Note 5 | Fix Note 6
Fix Note 2
This sample fix note was created for fiction writer Sean, author of a noir-type thriller
This is certainly an interesting story concept, and has some good ideas in it.
I like the fact that the action cracks along briskly; that you have lots of dialogue; and that – as well as the human characters – you make the exotic setting of New Orleans play a big role in the story too. This could be a really good read for people who enjoy gritty crime stories.
Pretty well everything about your story DOES work; so let’s take all the good stuff as read, and focus right away on the things that can be done to make it better. (And take heart: almost none of the things I mention here are specific to you. Most of the faults could come from a textbook of “common mistakes that beginner writers make”!)
What are the biggest problems? As I see it there are several, of varying degrees of seriousness.
1) Your opening needs work. Don’t feel bad about this (or about anything I say here!): I’ve never yet read an MS that didn’t have issues with the first chapter. It’s always tough for authors to get readers into a story properly; and your "immediate action" approach certainly beats the pages of dull exposition I so often see. And presenting your readers with a mystery to be solved, which turns out to be just as much of a mystery to the guy it’s happening to, is a strategy that works well too.
However, your opening suffers from the main fault I notice throughout the book: the tendency to wordiness and excess detail. It needs to be trimmed, made much tighter (see below).
2) Your plot. When book reviewers comment favourably on this genre, they say things like “tautly plotted thriller.” I’m not sure the proper adjective for your story is “taut”! Sometimes the action feels like a muddle, with the characters dashing around to no purpose. Ferdinand Alejo comes out of nowhere to be the bad guy; Officer Mellon is a turncoat, despite the fact that this isn’t set up in the story; the whole belated Visfors backstory … those things feel a bit haphazard to the reader, rather than satisfying and inevitable.
3) No explanation. The whole story, I kept waiting for you to describe to us exactly what happened at the Milan Street Wharf … and you never did. I thought that by the time we got to the end, for sure you’d have explained exactly what went on there – what took AA to the wharf, why he thought it would be a good idea to set the fire, what the Ben connection was, etc. That’s a serious omission, and you really need to remedy it.
Also, can you please locate that missing gem? Treasure is made to be found!
As well, you only explain to your readers what the medallions are in your epilogue. Since the missing gem is the McGuffin that drives your action, your readers might be happy to have some idea, during the actual story, what the title refers to. As it is, you first mention the word “medallion” only on p. 131, when AA and Barbara are talking with Elizabeth – and she gives us very little info there. The next reference is on p. 159, when Smythe mentions “the Middage Medallions.” It’s a catchy name; but you don’t explain how they got it.
It’s okay to make your readers wait a little bit for the mystery to be solved; viewers didn’t find out what the Maltese Falcon was until later in the film, for instance. But I personally would like to have some idea earlier in the story.
4) Points of view. As I mentioned in my email, you often suddenly shoehorn another character’s POV into the middle of a scene involving someone else. This is disconcerting for the reader. Here’s an example:
“What’s your name?” asked Littlefield, making an effort to assess the extent of his possible concussion by asking him simple questions.… She looked back at August, knowing procedure forbade her from leaving August now, despite her frustration with the delay of the gurney.
In fact, you switch over to Becky’s POV so often, in your opening, I thought she was going to become a major character – possibly the love interest. But then she just vanished from the story. Spending so much time on her in your first pages weakens the focus on AA, the guy we should be paying attention to.
Authors and editors call POV switches “head-hopping.” Consistency is important for your readers; and I’ve noted a whole bunch of places in the story where you, the author, suddenly hop into a different head. Smart writers know how to keep their POVs from getting mixed up like that.
5) Writing style. I hate to say this, but yours is extremely wordy. Like most new authors, you have a tendency to overwrite; and this genre of fiction, in particular, demands a terse, no-nonsense, understated style. As I read the story, I was mentally pulling out whole handfuls of unnecessary words – deadwood and weeds that clog the vigour of your situations and characters.
One strategy all authors need to learn is how NOT to overload your sentences. One sentence, one idea – it’s a pretty simple concept, but often difficult to put into practice! Even your opening sentence tries to pack too much in:
“The hardest part of setting fire to a small warehouse office at the spur of the moment in order to escape from a bad situation lies in its execution.”
Those 29 words contain two sub-clauses – “at the spur of the moment” and “in order to escape from a bad situation” – that detract from what would otherwise be quite a punchy sentence. You’d be better to write just: “The hardest part of setting fire to a small warehouse lies in its execution.”
So, those are the main points of my critique. In my detailed feedback, below, I’ve broken down comments into three parts: your overall conception, your storytelling strategy, and the mechanics of your story.
It’s a little lacking in oomph, I must say – can you think of anything a bit more catchy? Even The Middage Medallions would be better (provided you then explain their name).
Plausibility and Realism
Things often happen in fiction that usually don’t (or can’t) happen in real life: dragons and witches, the good guy winning, the bad guy losing, everything coming out all right in the end, people finding true love, life having order and meaning, etc. (Yes, I'm being a bit cynical there.)
But even in a story, things should make some sort of sense. Events should have at least an internal consistency; people should behave according to their author-defined natures; no laws of physics or psychology should be broken. Below, I’ve listed some of the things that might well strain an intelligent reader’s credulity.
The "amnesia" thing. It’s not quite an original plot point – the 2000 film Memento used a similar device. (And coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading a novel in which an old woman with Alzheimer’s manages to “solve” a decades-old murder.) Mostly I don’t have a problem with this device of yours, despite its variable effects: AA can remember some things, but not others. The brain, after all, is a mysterious organ; and a bang on the head can have weirdly unpredictable effects.
Since you tell us that AA is suffering from "retrograde amnesia," I looked it up; and it seems that the closer events are to the traumatic incident (the explosion at the wharf), the more likely they are to suffer from the blotting-out effect . But the fact that he’d forget about Barbara's existence seems a stretch, surely? And killing Feders Florg? Usually the further back in time an event is, more distant from the trauma, the less likely it is to be forgotten.
The "cell phone" thing. I found hard to get my head around the idea that for the whole of your story, AA doesn’t have a working phone. For me, that's a real slip in realism: how can anybody be without one nowadays?! Can't AA just nip into the nearest mall and get a new one? How was Coolidge able to track down AA for Elizabeth, considering his target had no phone? Or couldn't Tole give AA one from the police lost-and-found box, so they can keep tabs on him? For that matter, could the police forensic team manage to glean any data from AA's fried old phone?
The "catch-and-release" thing. For me, another odd choice is the fact that – not just once, but twice – the police let AA go; this despite their having no idea how to get him back if they needed to ask him more questions. Are cops really that forgiving, or that careless?
The "setting fire" thing. I’m pretty sure that task is harder than you make it sound like: surely lighting up a warehouse is a skilled job, not one for amateurs! That info also establishes right from the get-go that AA, supposedly the protagonist, is actually an anti-hero. (Something that’s borne out by almost everything you tell us about him later; more on that below, in Characterization.) Since you don’t actually tell us the warehouse story, can you perhaps change it so one of the bad guys sets the fire?
Along the same lines, another skilled task that most people can’t (or wouldn’t) do is killing some random guy (Feders Florg) – with his bare hands, yet. I did find the revelation that AA was a murderer, as well as an arsonist, a bit gob-smacking. How likely was it he’d do such a surely life-altering thing, and then forget about it? It also strains belief that some “other guy” took the fall for the murder. This too needs a rethink.
Other things in the story that made me raise my eyebrows....
Why would Natalie and Ben talk back to their captors, when surely any sensible person would (rightly) be in terror of their life, and keep quiet? This was especially the case for Ben, after he’d just seen his girlfriend murdered right in front of his eyes for being too mouthy.
How likely is it that Barbara – an independent working woman – would be in a position to just drop everything, and spend all her time (and money) with this deadbeat drunken loser who has regular snit fits, and can’t even remember who she is?
Why did Brogan/Alejo assault Ben earlier – did I miss something there? If B/A was an old friend of his dad’s, wouldn’t Ben know who he was, and what his real name was?
You need to fill us in on the earlier scene between Elizabeth, her husband, and AA – then the follow-up to it. Can EF telling him about what happened (the murder of FF) somehow jog AA’s flagging memory, and make him remember it all? Then you could present their two meetings to your readers in flashback form. (An idea: FF got so mad at AA intervening, to stop him beating up his wife, that he had a heart attack and died.)
Oh, but the more I think about this, the more it seems like one of those implausible coincidences (the kind that happen only in amateurish novels). How do those story lines tie together? AA and B/A just happen to be old friends; and AA just happens to become acquainted with EF when he saves her; and B/A just happens to hear about the medallions, and targets EF; and when he steals them, EF just happens to choose an old friend of the thief to entrust the missing gem to.
Have I missed something there? Can anything in this tortuous plot be streamlined to make it slightly less improbable? Can you provide a single connecting thread?
Character Development and Motivation
I have to be honest: as a female reader (hence not your natural demographic),
I found your “hero” a pretty repulsive character. From the outset you present AA as a destructive criminal, “sullen,” prone to hitting on the woman (Becky) who’s trying to help him, and lying to the police. As the story goes on, we see him frequently losing his temper; swigging cognac on every likely and unlikely occasion; feeling sorry for himself; leering at women’s breasts and buttocks; being mean to Barbara, whom he supposedly loves; and beating up innocent people. Also, see above re the murder and arson. To put it mildly, he is NOT a nice guy!
I suppose you’re aiming for a tough, hard-bitten man in the mould of Sam Spade … but a guy like that can take love or leave it, and usually chooses the latter. However, AA does need Barbara (a fact he only ever seems to remember just after he’s said something insensitive to her). And our culture has moved on from the days when the Spade model of the strong, silent guy was considered admirable....
I think you need to tone AA down a bit, and preferably rethink the murder and arson. Can you perhaps invent a different way for him and Elizabeth to have met one another – something that doesn’t strain credulity quite so much?
Also, you refer several times to his work as a tour boat operator; but you insist that it’s just a sideline, since he’s really an industrial designer. Seems to me that either occupation would be a full-time one – so decide whether you want your hero to be a blue-collar guy, or a white-collar guy. What are the pros and cons of each? If the former, wouldn’t he have a boat that’s his pride and joy? Why does it not feature in the story at all? Was it involved in the wharf explosion? If not, could he not just go and camp out aboard it, instead of staying in expensive hotels on Barbara’s tab?
What does AA look like? You give us only snippets of descriptions of him: hairy, bearded face, receding brown hair, medium frame, lanky body. (I don’t think “medium” and “lanky” describe quite the same build.)
I must confess, to me she seems less of a character than a plot device. Her narrative role is merely to be nurturing, despite the obvious and major costs to her. (Doesn’t AA refer to himself, in one of their spats, as a kept man? Except he seems to do little in return but give her grief.)
Your first description of B is “bosomy,” with “straight ebony hair pulled back” and “dark skin, wide eyes, and a small mouth.” (You also inform your readers that she has “lobed ears,” just in case we confuse her with one of those many lobeless women we meet!) But considering that his first view of her is at a distance, from the top of his front steps, wouldn’t a more general description of her be more accurate – with the details waiting for a closer view? How tall is she, for instance?
Detective Leonard Tole
It’s good that you give him his own POV chapters, because the “bad guy” and the “good guy” (however switched-around those roles may get) deserve some equal time. But I don’t get much of a sense of what kind of person he is. Reasonably fair-minded, obviously: he’s not out to make AA suffer unnecessarily, and he seems to be competent at his job, just wanting to find out what’s really going on. Can you liven him up a bit with some habits and characteristics? Right now, despite his importance to your plot, he’s bland to the point of invisibility.
I got different ideas about her, depending on the scene she’s in. When we first meet her, on p. 68, she’s presented as being rather a bully, forcing Coolidge to do her bidding. You also seem to show her as a rather sexy older woman, going on about her breasts and hips. (How old is she, anyway?)
But later on, she seems to be weak and teary, able only to sob and sigh over her unhappy life. Her late husband was obviously a dick; but why didn’t she just divorce him, as so many other women have done?
The scenes involving her, I must say, made me a bit impatient with the pointless mystification. She tells AA things, but not what he really needs to know: what those darn “medallions” actually are.
Chapter 42 is the first time we get to see the villain of the story, and we don’t actually know who he is until … let me see. On p. 200, AA says “he recognized that voice, but said nothing.” Then on p. 201, he says: “Bold move to be doing this in broad daylight, Ferdinand.” That tells us that the mystery attacker is in fact B/A, whom we’ve heard of but not seen so far. I can’t help thinking, though, that it’s a bit of a stretch for AA to suddenly remember the guy’s voice, when shortly before he drew a blank with the face in the photograph?
And in that scene, why does B/A suddenly seem to hate AA so much? I can see that he’d do anything to get his hands on the treasure; but surely there would be at least some element of regret that, unfortunately, this meant killing a guy he once liked? Also, you tell us nothing about what he looks like, except that he has a red face. Add a few details.
As I said earlier, I had doubts about the plausibility of Barbara’s saintly patience with AA’s bullshit. But in this genre, I recognize that romance is very much a background feature!
Structure and Organization
The good news is, there are no problems with the structure of your story – other than the plot points I mentioned earlier. True, some of your chapters are a bit on the brief side: do they need to be stand-alone chapters, or can they just be set off by text breaks? That’s a feature you don’t otherwise use, so you might find it useful.
Quite often authors overdo these, so it’s good that you don’t. Still, you might actually try inserting a couple, to clarify the backstory (see my earlier note).
Dialogue and Speech
One thing I did notice is that your characters’ interactions move along so very briskly, it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly who's talking. (This is quite a common error, even in books by experienced authors, so don't feel bad.) But any time a reader has to start marking dialogue exchanges by pencilling in the margins: "Bob,” “Ted,” “Bob,” “Ted,” etc., then you know the writer should have thrown in the odd helpful phrase like “Bob shouted” or “Ted responded.”
Descriptions and Exposition
All throughout, clogging almost every one of your sentences, there’s way too much irrelevant detail. You need to make your text much terser and leaner. In particular, the scenes about New Orleans history, culture, landmarks, etc., sometimes feel a bit out of place – as though you’ve stuck a couple of paragraphs from a “Welcome to New Orleans” tourist brochure in the middle of your narrative. Can you work them in more seamlessly?
As well, I’m sorry to say, you have a propensity for wordy circumlocutions – which is the exact opposite (as I said earlier) of the style this genre needs. Here’s an example, from your opening scene.
Next came the gentle placement of a hand on his neck. August brought his left hand up to deflect it but was met with strong resistance as he felt his hand being gently placed down by his thigh. He brought his knees up to his chest as he started to shiver. A searing pain shot from his right knee up to his hip and through his coccyx. The pulsing in his temples grew stronger and pumped blood faster through his veins adding to the violent pain slashing through his head. He groaned as he felt a tremendous amount of pressure build up in his head.
How might that para be rewritten to make it tighter? Let's try this.
August felt a hand gently touching his neck. He tried to deflect it, but the hand just took his own and firmly moved it away.
He started to shiver, and tried to curl up; but a searing pain shot from his right knee up to his hip. The attempt at movement made the pulsing in his temples grow stronger. He groaned aloud as violent pain slashed through his head.
Your original was 105 words, the revised version is 69 – so less wordy by almost a third, while still conveying all the necessary information to your readers about AA's physical and mental state.
As I mentioned in my email, you use explanatory subtitles regularly until Chapter 20-ish; then drop the habit for ten chapters or so; then pick it up in a desultory way. Be more consistent: if one chapter has those notes, all should have them.
Other than that, I have no quibbles. You use paragraphs effectively, some short and some long; and you break up your dialogue appropriately. Top marks for getting those right!
Word Use and Spelling
In my experience, writers tend to overuse certain words. They reach into their verbal toolbox for the mot juste, grab the first thing that comes to hand – and that’s often the same word, time after time. You too use certain words over and over again, to the point where the repetition is obvious to your readers.
One example (a common one) is "walked," of which you have no fewer than 70 repetitions! In fact, characters should only “walk” when the writer wants readers to focus on their specific way of moving – i.e. they’re not running, or dancing, or shuffling. Otherwise, people just go places.
As well, your text is riddled with small spelling errors and typos. Those are the kinds of things you hire editors to get rid of, though, so I'm not so concerned about those picayune matters.
It’s a literary convention, probably left over from the days of chivalry: men can be referred to by their last names, but ladies are generally called by their first names. So Smythe but Barbara (not Tolson); Mellon but Elizabeth (not Visfors).
Also, I can’t fathom – with all the names available for you to choose from – why you gave your detective and your love interest almost the same name! Tole and Tolson; why? And rounding out the T-trilogy is Tole’s assistant. On p. 144, I read these words: “Tole said to his partner, Tess.” Since Tess is a girl’s first name, I assumed the partner was a policewoman; and got confused later when you referred to the partner as “he.” (In fact, it might not be a bad move to make her a woman … but then you might want to rethink the throat-slashing death later on, in the fight scene. Your choice.)
Make Natalie’s last name just plain Mann, it avoids the confusion you always seem to have about the possessive “apostrophe s” at the end.
I like the exoticism of the names Feders Florg, and Elizabeth Visfors – are those names meant to be Dutch, German? Either way, the woman’s name should properly be spelled Elisabeth. Since she’s an old-fashioned woman, why didn’t she take his surname when they married?
BTW, what’s the point of giving AA those assonant names? It’s a bit weird for your readers when we see lines like this:
“Are you OK, Alfred?” said Barbara. August took her hand.
Basically, Sean, this is a pretty good story – it just needs some tweaks. A good line edit will take care of both the overwriting and the spelling errors; for the larger issues, all I can do is tell you about them – and leave it up to you to find the best solutions! Feel free to bounce any ideas off me.