Friday, November 6, 2015

On the Block #22: CHECKS AND BALANCES 12:30 PM

TITLE: Checks and Balances
GENRE: Thriller

The scheming, antiheroine wife of a British dictator in the idealistic run-up and brutal aftermath of a UK military coup.

I stepped out of the rickety lift and into the Treaty’s underground control room, fighting to keep my breathing under control. It never ended well when David summoned the officers of the Treaty together. What desperate plan or restrictive new decree did he intend to announce today?

David stood under the screen that showed our hacked CCTV camera feeds. Years of outdoor living and physical labour had given him the muscular tone and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic. I pushed through the massed ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in hardy, unflattering outfits, and took my exalted position directly opposite our leader.

Michaela leaned against the reinforced metallic wall of the abandoned mine. Her wavy obsidian-black hair had grown out of the practical cropped style we all sported, into an elegant bob. She’d swapped her usual guerrilla uniform for a vintage silk gown someone had decided would pass muster in London. The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues.

David crossed his arms. “I’m sending Michaela to Somerset House. She’s going to find her way into the First Lord’s presence. She’s going to charm him and allow herself to be seduced. She’s going to gain his trust and steal his secrets. And when the time is right, she’s going to kill him.”

His unblinking eyes and fixed mouth dared me to defy him in front of his supporters. He should have known I could never resist a challenge.


  1. So many things to love about this! The descriptions, which can so often be static, are evocative and voice-y, and the situation is shaping up quickly. Plus, that last line made me laugh out loud and promises lots of conflict to come.

    The only two nit picks for me. One: I can't tell for sure if the narrator is a man or a woman. I'm assuming a woman, since s/he comments on David's physique, but it's rendered in a just-neutral-enough way that I'm not sure.

    The other is simply that it feels "packed" - the author is setting up the caper as well as introducing three characters. That said, I'd certainly turn this page!

    Good luck!

  2. I love books in this genre, and this bit made me want more. I like it that give us a problem for the MC to solve immediately. We're off and running on an adventure. The scene setting gives us a good feel for the situation. LOVE David's speech at the end, which helps set the tone.

    What could improve:
    Name and identify the speaker in first paragraphs. As is, I'm identifying more with David, since you did such a good job on his characterization. I'd rather see more focus on the MC, his/her emotions.

    If I'm reading this right, it starts in First Person, then shifts to Third. If Michaela is your MC, then stick with one or the other. The Third works for me, but it's your choice.

    I'd switch most of the second paragraph for the third. This will put emphasis on your MC, and describes her from the start.

    The writing of this is dense. Each sentence has several things to chew on, slowing the reading, IMHO. Most sentences do triple duty to explain things. It wouldn't hurt the story to slow it, expand it. Let us savor the setting, the mission and the players.

  3. This does a good job of throwing us straight into a scene with conflict. World-building details are woven nicely into the narrative. I would keep reading to learn more about what is going on.

    That said, I have a few nitpicks:
    - I would cut the last line of the first paragraph and leave the reader wondering what it means that things don't end well when David summons the officers.
    - In the second paragraph, I'd like to see something more specific than "hardy, unflattering outfits." Are we talking about flannel shirts and jeans or hand-woven tunics and trousers?
    - Like SanWrites, I was confused as to whether the third paragraph had jumped from first-person to third. Assuming Michaela and the narrator are not the same person, you could clear that up by saying where Michaela is standing in relation to the narrator.

    Also, it's not critical here, but the logline doesn't give any indication as to what the story is actually about. It identifies a character and setting. If I were trying to decide whether to buy this book, I would want to know what that character does in the story.

  4. This sample took some close reading for me since you've got a lot going on, but when I did it it really paid off because you've layered in a lot of information very cleanly, so you've *definitely* got the knack for dropping in background information without it sticking out weird. yay!

    My two nit-picks are: "The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues." Because the prose is so dense, when I first read this this sentence made me not sure about what she's wearing right now. maybe: "beauty that had always shown through, even when she wore army fatigues" to give it a clearer sense that the statement is a comment on the general state of things and not just what is happening in this moment?

    Also, because every sentence in David's speech has the same format, to me he comes off sounding a bit like a robot. Maybe you could add in a gesture or two within the speech to give us a sense of his delivery?

    Hope those help at least a little. Good luck!

  5. This was very, very info dense. I definitely have a picture in my mind! My only qualm regarded the last line. I was a bit confused as to why the MC loved a challenge when it was Michaela who was being sent out on assignment. Is the challenge proving David wrong? Or is the MC providing support for the mission?
    Good luck!

  6. Underground control rooms; tanned, muscular men; beautiful assassins; defiant MC... what's not to love?

    We're getting two descriptions of people who are not the MC on the first page. It's sort of pulling me out of the important meeting I feel like I should be focusing on, and I'm a little bothered by how the descriptions are back to back without much lead-in, which doesn't feel very organic.

    So you have a paragraph that starts "David stood" and his description, followed by a paragraph that starts "Michaela leaned" and her description. It's really Michaela's that comes out of nowhere, and at first, I got confused and assumed she was "our leader" the MC is opposite of.

    It might help the issue to rearrange a bit to give Michaela a lead in"

    [["David stood.... opposite our leader.

    He crossed his arms. "I'm sending Michaela to Somerset House."

    Michaela leaned....

    "She's going to find her way into..."]]

    And maybe cut way down on Michaela's description to speed up the pace.

    I do like that he's daring her to defy him and that she's going to rise to the challenge, and the situation seems like it could be very exciting.

  7. Don't stop now! I want to read more!

    Great opening, packed with a lot of info, but you seem to pull it off. I like the protag already. One comma comment: I think you need a comma here:

    wavy, obsidian-black

    And perhaps just go with 'obsidian' and assume that your reader knows it is black. It might sound stronger.

    Great start!

  8. I like the atmosphere of mystery and danger from sentence one. I also like the contrasts and how you make the protagonists shine through. What's not to like in this entry?

  9. The voice in this piece is charming. Based on that, I would keep reading. I wanted to know more about the MC though. What's going on with her? After the first paragraph, she only focuses on the people around her.

  10. The last couple of paragraphs were powerful. I agree with the comment earlier that I also couldn't tell if the narrator was male or female. However, I am intrigued and I'm usually not a reader of military fiction. Good luck!

  11. Interesting premise.

    I like short and sweet sentences in the opening paragraph, so I can dive in and get a sense of what I'm reading without little effort. I found some of the sentences in your opening paragraph were a bit long and wordy.

    David stood under the screen that showed our hacked CCTV camera feeds. Years of outdoor living and physical labour had given him the muscular tone and hearty glow he could only have dreamt of in his old life as an academic (Would your narrator really know this? It seemed a pretty personal view, applied to another person, and popped me out of the story). I pushed through the massed ranks of stern-faced men and women dressed in hardy, unflattering outfits, and took my exalted position directly opposite our leader. (Hearty and then hardy so close together made my brain do a little flip. Perhaps choose a different word for one of these?)

    Obsidian-black. Cut the word 'black'?

    'The emerald dress showed off her curves and emphasised the youthful beauty that shone through even in army fatigues.' I think the last part of this sentence needs editing.

    'She’s going to' - there were too many of these for me.

    Your last two sentences got me - I'd read on. :)

  12. Thanks everyone, there are some really useful comments here.

    To clear things up:

    -the narrator/MC is female and a different character to Michaela.

    -Her name is Melanie (or sometimes, Marianne - she has an alias).

    -It's her first-person POV right through this extract and through the whole novel.

    -David (rather than Michaela) is the "leader" than the MC refers to.

    - At the end, the "challenge" the MC can't resist is simply to argue against David's plan, rather than to do anything more physical. The next paragraph probably makes this clearer:

    "I bunched my fists. “That’s insane. The First Lord has his pick of the girls in the capital. Even if he did choose Michaela, she’d be a moment’s entertainment to him, not a military confidante, and she wouldn’t get within a mile of him with a weapon. Worse, there’s a chance that far from seducing him, she’ll be seduced and used against us. Julien can be very charming, very persuasive.”

    It's so easy to assume as a writer that everyone understands your story as well as you do and has all the background in their heads, so it's really helpful to know where I need to make things slightly clearer.

    If anyone else has any thoughts, please keep them coming.

    Thanks again, Georgiana

  13. I, too, thought this overly dense, and I wondered if "I" and Michaela were the same person. I know they're not now, due to your explanation, but you know what they say, If you have to explain it, it isn't working.

    I'd suggest slowing this down. Give us a sense of who she is (the wife of the man who just, or is about to, overthrow the government isn't enough. Did she agree with what he did? Was she against it? Has she changed her mind? Is she a partner in ll this or just wifey going along ?) And then give us a sense of where they are. Again, an old mine isn't enough. Describe the mine. Where is it located? How is it fixed up?

    I get that you have to make it exciting in 250 words, but it'll be stronger if you build your world and characters a bit more before plunging in.

  14. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the logline yet. Then again the opening was really powerful, sweeping us along for what sounds like will be a rollicking ride. I agree with what most people said, I'd slow down just a little, trim the unwieldier sentences.

    As for the logline, you definitely need to introduce us more than the protagonist. We need her goal and conflict as well.

    Otherwise, this looks very, very strong.

    Good luck!

    1. Hi Silvia,

      Glad you mentioned the logline, as it was something I struggled with. I've got what I like to think is a fairly strong description that I use in queries, but it's far too long to work as a logline, and I couldn't find a sensible way to cut it down. I've pasted that below - any thoughts on how I could turn that into something that does the job but is sufficiently short? Others very welcome to comment too.

      Thanks, G

      In 2035, a military dictatorship govern Britain. The First Lord, Julien St John Helmsley, is charming, charismatic, and utterly ruthless when it comes to consolidating his hold on the country and destroying his enemies, particularly the resistance group known as the Treaty.

      Melanie Bonham, seemingly a dedicated officer of the Treaty and a staunch enemy of the Regime, has signed up for a deadly last-stand. She’ll seek to become the First Lord’s mistress, learn his secrets, and then assassinate him. Failure will mean torture, death and brutal retaliation against the Treaty, but success could restore democracy to the country.

      But “Melanie” has a secret: before she fled to the Treaty in disguise, she was Julien’s beloved but brutal wife, Marianne Helmsley, who has long been assumed dead by all parties. Marianne has no way of knowing whether the First Lord will rejoice at her return or have her shot on sight for treason, and whether she will be strong enough to kill the husband she still loves for the good of the country.

  15. The logline was my first sticking point. I see you've three paras in the prior comment, but even the most complicated films and novels have loglines that are shorter. Pick out the central story arc. Throw in a little setting details, the tension of your protag/possibly other main character(s), and show where the story goes without giving away the ending. I found it helpful to read a book like "Save The Cat" -- it's about screenplay writing, but it has lessons quite applicable for us novelists as well.(No, I didn't write it or have anything to do with it. Just another writer trying to improve. :-)

    Beyond that -- while it required careful reading on my part -- some details were confusing to me, which others have mentioned so I shant repeat them -- I liked your first 250. I'm a little confused when you start in first person and then go into third person. Is this all Michaela? (And also, your names differ in the three paras for your logline, too, so a little confused there as well.)

  16. Love the ending though I think you could be more subtle with him knowing "she couldn't resist a challenge." Sounds a little cliche, as well as the "obsidian-black" hair. I'd just say "black" or "sleek black." Not major, but it stuck out to me. Premise alone sounds fantastic.

  17. Agree with the others who protest about the logline. Very weak, as compared to where your writing is taking us. Others have mentioned the major points I would suggest. Keep chugging, this will be a great read.

  18. I'd like to see the conflict explicated in the log line. Specifically, what's the MC's dilemma/choice? I like this first page, but have a few reactions that might prove helpful. The obsidian-black hair jumps out as a distracting, overwrought detail for me. Also, the detail about her breathing in the first paragraph would put me on alert as a reader.