Harper Collins review now in, based on the section submitted to Authonomy and amounting to only 19,000 + words – several of the reviewer’s concerns would, in my view, have been answered by reading the full manuscript. For instance, the question of motivation on the part of Marcus. I don’t accept it is necessary for a reader to understand what, if anything, made Marcus the sociopath he evidently is. His reasons for the vendetta against a particular family group are explained at the end of the book, but he’s not a misunderstood person or a child abuse victim, he’s just evil. I discussed this aspect of his character with a HC editor recently – she was unable to accept the concept of evil without the underlying causes being set out. My background has afforded me many opportunities to meet people with sociopathic natures; there’s rarely understandable justification for the way they are. Some people are hard-wired differently, they’re just evil. I have met many such people in my working life.
The question of Donna’s complex nature is also bought out more fully at a later stage, but I accept the reviewer is basing an opinion on only four chapters. As for the ‘too much happening’ reference, my concern has always been that the main thrust of the action takes place later, in particularly the end chapters, and that the early chapters would not have sufficient dramatic thrust – just shows how wrong I was! Too much, then, ah well.
I’m happy with the review in broad terms. I can’t argue that the book still needs work, I’ll never be entirely happy with it, the curse of any writer. Burn, Baby, Burn was my first book, written 8 years ago, and I’ve written two books since then with another at an advanced stage. I feel I’m a better writer now than I was at the time this book was written, but as my ‘firstborn’ I have a particular regard for Burn, Baby, Burn and will look at it again with a fresh eye.
Congratulations on making it to the top of the authonomy pool. Obviously you’re succeeding at an author’s top job: grabbing the reader’s attention. Psychological thrillers are tricky – you need to balance intriguing characters with unique plot hooks and engineer both with lightning-fast pacing, but they’re also really popular. Which is good, because it means there’s a big potential audience for your writing. Unfortunately, it also means that publishers are seeing more submissions than ever. So to get publishers’ attention, you need to set yourself apart. My suggestions for your book focus on plot, character definition and perspective, three aspects of the manuscript where I feel that some careful honing of Burn, Baby, Burn could pay off in a big way, helping you to increase that initial pull and keep readers hooked until the final pages.
I love a manuscript that starts with a bang, but I found that I was a little overwhelmed by the number of bangs I encountered in the first pages of your manuscript. Balancing two alternating points of view is always tough in terms of maintaining balance, pacing and tension, but when you’ve combined multiple storylines within each of those two perspectives, it begins to become taxing on the reader. For example, in Marcus’s storyline, we learn that something happened with his father, that he was involved in a previous triple murder, that he’s threatened an unidentified woman with murder, that something’s happening with a young girl named Celine, that somehow her aunt is involved, that something happened to his sister and that there’s someone named Clive involved. And then, of course, there’s a quite chilling Mummy moment. With all of this in the first 20,000 words, there are too many threads for the reader to balance. I wonder if there’s a way that you could develop Marcus’s storyline in a more straightforward, action-based arc that would string out the connections gradually for the reader. It sounds counter-intuitive, but introducing these twists and turns more organically would actually help with the tension and pacing of the book – drawing it out for the reader rather than weighting it all at the beginning.
While the twists and turns of a thriller are what grab attention, all of that action needs to be anchored in complicated, believable characters. There were moments for me where I felt uncertain about Donna’s character, in particular. She reminds me a little of Angie Gennaro or of Lisbeth Salander: she’s a tough female character operating on her own terms in a very male world. I find those qualities in her really appealing, but she makes decisions in the manuscript that don’t feel rooted in her character. For example, when she lashes out at Dexter, I recoiled a bit, not because I didn’t like what she was doing, but because I didn’t understand why she was doing it. Dexter is Donna’s protector – he helped her get her job and has taken her under his wing. And Donna seems to trust him, which feels like it might be a rarity for her. So why does she lash out at him? Small details like this one are what separate interesting characters from characters that really come to life on the page. Try to examine the motivations of your characters and make sure their actions reveal who they are in a way that feels natural. This isn’t to say that characters can’t surprise us – that would make for intensely boring reading! But they need to surprise in a way that feels believable. The same goes for Marcus. Because we see the story through his perspective, there’s no secret about who perpetrated the crime of Celine’s abduction, so the real mystery needs to lie in why Marcus is the way he is. Even though he’s a psychopath, he needs to be a believable psychopath with deeply rooted (if detestable) motivations.
I’d also suggest that you look carefully at the frame of each character’s perspective. Donna’s feels more natural to me than Marcus’s, but it’s key that you make decisions about how the perspectives will work and then be consistent about applying them. For example, in the opening scene you anchor us immediately in Marcus’s perspective with the line “Marcus was special. He’d always known it,” which is something I’d suggest only Marcus would know. But then you take us outside of his perspective with a line like “a wristwatch would have confirmed the accuracy of his estimate to almost the second.” It’s a very fine distinction, but one that will lead to a fuller sense of voice in the manuscript. Once you’ve decided about how limited your perspectives will be, then also take a look at the language you use in descriptive passages. If you’re going to be writing strictly within a character’s perspective, tailoring your description to match how they would see the world can be a really effective way to subtly develop a stronger sense of character.
I hope that you’ll find my comments helpful as you revise. You’ve certainly got a talent for the creepy – there were a few moments when Marcus absolutely made me shudder – and for those cliff-hanger moments, which will serve you well in this genre. Congratulations again on making the editor’s desk, and good luck with Burn, Baby, Burn.