Finishing your first draft is the most important part of writing a book. This author hasn’t actually completed her book, but would like some pointers on how she’s getting on. That’s okay. I’m going to include the submission on the site because I’d like to explain why I think it’s a bad idea to get any critique before you’ve finished at least a first draft.
Title: The Gift Of Immunity
Genre: Science Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Zara hasn’t seen another living soul in six months. She thought she was the only one left.
She was wrong.
Fighting to survive, Zara sets a plan in motion to disappear. She isn’t prepared for the web of lies, conspiracy, and deceit which begin to unravel along the way.
‘The Gift Of Immunity, Our Gift To You. – Hayden Pharmaceuticals’
Zara shook her head bitterly as she walked past the familiar sign at a bus stop. Taking the crumpled map and marker pen from her pocket, she marked her position. Looking to her left she spotted her target, a corner supermarket she had picked out the day before as a new location to gather supplies. It looked fairly small, but it would be worth checking out.
She hadn’t wandered further than a half mile radius from the small flat she had taken refuge in for the past six months. Food was plentiful in the beginning but now getting a balanced diet was becoming more difficult. When news of the virus was released by the government everyone had panicked, rushing to stock up on food and water, so the supermarkets had been bare then, let alone six months later. The fresh meat and fish had been the first to spoil, it’s putrid smell making it difficult for Zara to even walk into a shop. The fresh fruit, vegetables and bread had been next leaving only tinned and packet foods. Zara had since taken quite a liking to carrot soup, hopefully, this shop stocked it, although chances were she would be stuck with mushy peas.
Zara trudged on to the shop entrance, keeping her eyes sharp to her surroundings. The streets had a familiar eerie silence and emptiness. Cars lay empty, although neatly tucked into parking spaces, they had a layer of grime covering them from being untouched for so long. If you looked closely, weeds had started to weave their way up through the cracks in the pavement and birds were circling the bin outside the shop, in search of decaying scraps.
‘London will be like a jungle in ten years’ Zara muttered to herself.
Inside, she wandered up and down the aisles, carefully tucking items into her rucksack. She packed in batteries, two small bottles of water and a chocolate bar. Zara tried not to be greedy, she knew she potentially had years and years ahead of her, so it made sense to ration now. Her shoulders sagged with relief as she spotted a few cans of tinned vegetables, something she would have protested at eating a year ago but now it was a matter of survival. Within the last few weeks, she had really noticed the change in her body. She had always been very slender with almost a boyish figure for a seventeen-year-old but her bones had become more pronounced than before. Her face had become gaunt and hollow, with a greyish tinge and her blonde curly hair hung lank and lifeless around her shoulders. Lack of food and constant paranoia was starting to take its toll.
Throwing the last few essentials into her bag, she slung it over one shoulder, testing the weight. As she walked back towards the exit, she felt the familiar pang of guilt. Not for taking the food without paying, she had made peace with that a long time ago, but guilt knowing the owners of the shop were upstairs, probably in bed, dead and gone. Zara shuddered, this was the reason she was starving. Plenty of food was available in the cupboards of virtually every house in the area but she just couldn’t bring herself to walk into people’s homes. It felt wrong and of course, the smell was getting worse every day although her nose seemed to be adjusting to it. Zara knew eventually, probably soon she would have to leave her half mile comfort zone and wander further into London for supplies. This is what scared her the most.
Taking a series of back streets and alleyways, Zara headed back to her flat. Although there was no one around she still felt uncomfortable being out in the open, constantly suspicious she was being watched. She now knew all the paths well, having studied her maps every day looking for new locations to gather food.
Adjusting the, now, heavy bag on her shoulder, she rounded a bend in the path before skidding to a stop, panic rushing through her. A large black and tan dog, a German Shepard stood in front of her. Zara used to love dogs, she’d had three at home, but she knew now that since these animals hadn’t had any human interaction for such a long time and due to the shortage in food, she should steer clear. She stood frozen on the spot, unsure of her next move as the dog let out a deep growl, lowering its head and baring its teeth. Zara quickly looked around her, for an escape. A wooden fence to her left seemed her best option, she lunged towards it pulling herself up, struggling with the wet, slippery wood and the weight of her bag. Thinking of the much-needed food, she couldn’t afford to leave it behind. She swung one leg over the top of the fence, just as the dog lunged forward. It sank its teeth into her other dangling ankle, almost pulling her trainer off in the process. She cried out, tugging her leg away as she balanced on the top of the fence. She dog gave in and dropped back onto all fours, leaving behind deep gashes to the side of her ankle. Satisfied the dog could not climb over the fence, she pulled her injured leg over and lowered herself down onto the grass the other side.
Gingerly, she put weight on her foot with gritted teeth. It stung a little and the wound was not bleeding too badly, but she was more worried about infection. She bit her lip, unsure of what to do. She looked around the garden she had intruded. Although now a mass of weeds, she could tell it was once cared for and loved. Garden gnomes littered the overgrown grass and a bird table stood abandoned filled with green, slimy looking water. She turned her head to the small bungalow at the end of the garden, she noted the upstairs curtains were pulled shut, no way could she venture inside.
Editorial comment: Okay, so let me elaborate on what I said at the beginning. The most important thing about writing the first draft of your book is to finish it, to write a complete book. For every draft MS that does come stumbling out of the darkness, there are probably a hundred, a thousand times that number half written, abandoned, lying forgotten in a drawer somewhere. Ideas for stories are easy. It’s actually getting down and writing it out that’s the hard part. You’ve seen the quotes, read the memes – “Writing is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, “The hardest part about writing is sitting your bum on the seat”. Anything that can interfere with the gradual progression of your novel from “just begun”, to “halfway through”, to “almost done”, to “finished”, is to be avoided at all costs. Get the first draft down on paper (or screen), then think about revising it, or getting other people’s opinions on it.
Why? Because people will have an opinion. They’ll say things like “Well, that’s pretty unbelievable” or “I don’t like this character”, or “This is pretty slow”. They might be right, but they also may be wrong. The danger is that if you pause your creative processes and go back and assess what they’ve said and start tinkering around trying to fix problems that might not even be there, your creativity is going to grind to a crashing halt, and you’ll not be able to pick up the thread of your story again when you come to continue it. Writers are bad enough at second-guessing themselves. Finish your story, then stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Then, six months later, drag it out again and start revising it. At some point in the future you might want to ask someone else’s opinion on it, but that point isn’t now, when you’ve only got a third written.
Having said all that, you wanted a critique, so I’ll give you one. I would caution that you should pay absolutely no attention to it at all, and if you read on further, don’t come crying to me in six months time that you haven’t written anything else since. 🙂
The writing is okay. You need to brush up on your sentence structure and punctuation, but it’s fine, really. You’d catch a lot when you come to revise (which is not your concern now). You are probably aware that the dystopian/zombie apocalypse/virus-killing-99%-of-humanity stories are numerous, and that therefore competition to attract an agent’s eye in the genre is intense. It really has to stand out, with brilliant writing, or a unique angle/perspective. What if the only person to survive the plague was in a wheelchair? What kind of unique challenges would they face?
I’d be more concerned with this aspect of your story – what’s going to make this stand out amongst many, many other similar manuscripts.
There’s a lack of real and imminent threat, to Zara, that makes me think the story is rather slow to get started. You say in your synopsis (that needs work – too confusing. What is Zara’s problem and what is she going to do about it?) that she hasn’t seen another human in six months, and she thinks she’s the only one still alive. So … why the paranoia? Why has she kept herself to one tiny mile-wide circle? What has she been doing with her time? Just snooping off to the shops and pilfering cans of carrot soup? This is not an interesting heroine. The lack of any real drama is evidenced in the language. She’s holed up in a small flat. Where’s her ambition? She wanders about in the shop, up and down the aisles. She tucks things carefully into her rucksack. She worries about getting a balanced diet (and her hair has lost its shine, too – bummer). This isn’t a girl who appears very traumatised by the collapse of civilization around her. There were 14,999,999 other people in London before the virus hit. They’re all now dead. She’s just quite resentful that they are starting to smell so bad. But hey-ho, she’s getting used to it. If this girl were a librarian, you sense that she’d still be turning up for work, sending out more and more irate “Books overdue” notices.
There’s a small frisson of danger with a dog. Okay, but it is only a lone alsatian, and they’re not exactly shy of biting people in real life. What would an unpopulated London be like after a year? It would be overrun with feral cats, dogs, foxes, deer. Rats the size of taxis, would be my guess. All those rotting people up in their bedrooms with the curtains closed – yum! But she confronts a lone alsatian, fails to escape, gets bitten, and frets about infection. Well okay, that could be a life-threatening incident in this situation, especially if the dog had been munching on the feet of Mrs Jones (six months gone, upstairs front bedroom at number 21 down the street, paisley curtains), but you do feel that Zara would be more concerned about her torn sock.
Not riveting enough for me, I’m afraid, but …
Pay no attention to this. Finish your first draft. Write your story. Tell us what happens to Zara that makes her survival just the most important thing in the world. Then drop it in a drawer for six months, then drag it out and start revising. On your third or fourth revision, come back to read this critique. Chances are you’ll have dealt with most of these issues yourself in revising. But if you don’t carry on and finish (which you’ve clearly the talent to do), you’ll never have a book to critique.
Can you write a book? Yes, you certainly can. Are you “any good”? Well, it’s a little early to tell, but there’s nothing here that says you shouldn’t try. For all my perceived problems with Zara, she is at least consistent, so you can tell a story and make the protagonist real. It’s just that Zara, in this incarnation, is a bit of a drip. Instead of Lara Croft, all skin-tight leather cat-suit, official tombraider and death-dealing adventurer/assassin, we’ve got Zara from the suburbs, who “had nice hair once” and now worries about her skin tone.
One option that’s open to people who really are unsure of their own abilities is mentoring, by an editor. This is a bespoke arrangement whereby the writer sends material they’ve written to the editor on a periodic basis, for review. The editor will hopefully be able to give them guidance on certain aspects of writing craft that they may be slipping up on. It doesn’t suit everyone, or every editor, and it can get expensive, but it’s something to consider. Honestly, I don’t think you need that level of help.
Thanks for posting.
When we invite critique it’s best to assume the brace position. Then learn, shake your feathers and move on. As Richard says “The hardest part about writing is sitting your bum on the seat”. A great writer/ storyteller offered the thought “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open”
All the best