Review from a Writer's Prospective: Death Spiral by Janie Chodosh
Coming soon: YouTube interview & Janie reading her first chapter!
The Package: Premise, Beginning & Ending
Getting your manuscript in front of an editor or agent is easy; it’s called the slush pile. Getting them to read it with interest is a whole different story. There is a fun, if painful, game called the “Gong Review.” I’ve seen it live at Dallas Fort Worth Writer’s Conference. A large group of editors and agents sit at a table with Gong Show gongs in front of them. Then someone reads anonymous first pages, or query letters etc. The reading continues until the gong is struck twice. Even anonymous, it is a painful game as 95% never get page the first two paragraphs. The publication world is not for the faint of heart. Buck up and learn. (BUL) Warning to the gong bong holders, "We learn more about you than you learn about our books." Want to see an agent revealing their true feelings? Check out a Gong Show Review.
In the real world your manuscript may not get read past the first line, the first paragraph, or the first page. Your goal: make the reader never stop reading. Then you’ve got something that is marketable.
This takes years of writing experience, a chest high writer's toolbox, and sufficient skill and tough skin to not simply write a great story but present a great story.
- Option 1: you can be an unskilled klutz and blow all three of those.
- Option 2: you can be a great marketer and sell yourself past initial pitch sessions—but you have to deliver the goods. No great story—pack up and go home (PUGH).
- Option 3: sadly, you can also have the great manuscript, but not nail the pitch, the synopsis, the premise & everything else they are looking for in a prospective author. That’s how a fantastic manuscript dies for want of a second (in parliamentary terms.)
Janie Chodosh delivers as a skilled writer and a marketer.
HER HOOK is longer than most, but it works:
“The only good junkie is a dead junkie. They’re at the bottom of everything. Down there with hookers and drunks. When a junkie dies, no one investigates. They call it an overdose and close the book. I should know. My mom was one.” Test one, I’d keep reading and so would you.
HER PREMISE continues with…
“The day after my 16th birthday there she was, my mother, dead on the bathroom floor. Just out of the shower. Her hair still wet. I remember that. Thinking if her hair was wet, she couldn’t be dead. But she was dead, and just like that, the only thing left of my mother was her stuff. I called Aunt Theresa, then the cops. An officer poked around our apartment and scribbled a few notes. Heroin overdose was listed as the official cause of death. Of course, Mom was a junkie. What else would she die of? Everyone bought the story.” Test two, I’m still on board and wanting more.
Janie Chodosh provides an immediate strong youth voice. Example: “[On her mother’s death] Sometimes for like ten seconds, twenty on a good day, I forget. For those few winks I’m like ‘Hey, life isn’t so bad. I have my own room. Munchies in the fridge. TV.’ But then the thing is back. And I pick it open again. Let it bleed.” In Janie’s tight writing, we know the main character is not in danger; she’s safe, but she’s hurting deeply inside.
Janie opens with a typical high school hallway and classroom with friends, etc. and segways into a plot & subplot appropriate science discussion—Genetics. If you knew you had an incurable disease would you want to know? BUT every scene should do three things in my opinion. Janie rises to the challenge and introduces a male compatriot into the mix with a scene invested in a verbal battle between the two characters. TENSION while introducing characters. Great work!
As a reader, the author shows me she is competent. I want to know what happens next.
What happens next? Her crime fiction thread introduction—and a secret. (Every character needs a secret!) She finds a mysterious letter from her mom’s junkie friend. Her safe, but grief stricken world tilts and, with the Poisoned Pencil twist, hard reality too. Does the junkie friend have information on her mom’s death or is she looking for a handout? You know the main character is going to visit her. You can’t wait to find out what happens. You can’t wait to return to the slums of drug addiction haunts. OK, my preference here? I felt it was too long following the family and friend angle before she starts that quest, but it’s the author’s prerogative. I trusted her to get me there.
Janie also inserts a continuing beauty element in Chapter Three—a subplot thread concerning an albino bird. Just a nice little extra giving a sense that beneath the genetic science this book will provide something more.
Test three, the editor/agent is still reading… If you can do that with your manuscript? Great job!
Great premise, great beginning, and now on into what the writer’s call the Great Swampy Middle. As a writer, you don’t want any swamp, but it always shows up. How you navigate it is another matter and another book review.
Endings shouldn’t pitter-patter, jibber-jabber around. You want the reader (usually) to hit the top of the scariest mountain bobsled run and leap into the ride. That means there has to be a build to that scary point. That means you need a fast, dangerous slide down. On the way? You nail your plot and your subplot endings, grabbing them as you slide through the switchbacks. And when you hit the bottom? Complete exhaustion and satisfaction. You WANT to climb back on again. You WANT a series (if there is a series) to continue! Janie does this in Death Spiral with great skill.
Many writers fail in this execution. S/he simply never reach the emotional height needed before the descent. Instead, s/he roller coasters up and down, rather than zigzagging straight down. You don’t want the slow down near the TOP, but inches from the safety barrier! This is a huge debut author fault. You read it over and over in manuscripts—forgivable, but sad. Janie’s ending delivers.
The second common ending error is failing to engage reader to the main character. Someone or something intercedes to solve the problem. Dah. She’s called a protagonist, not a bench warmer. Get your main character at risk and in the action. Again, Janie’s ending delivers. Score. Slam Dunk. Job done.
So there you have it: PREMISE, BEGINNING, & ENDING. Grab your highlighter and Janie’s book and get to work peeling back the scenes. How would you make it better? What tools in her writer’s tool box does she best use and how?
A few interesting quotes from Death Spiral:
Example of Janie’s scene depiction: “…first thing I notice beside the trash and chain link is a big graffitied wall and the words ‘Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light.’ I don’t know what it means exactly, but I like it.”
Example of Janie’s character emotion: “Heat and pressure bubble up from my gut, turning sadness to anger like graphite to diamond, the hardest substance known to mankind. I look around for something to smash.” For a science mystery, I loved the graphite to diamond bit.
Example of character interaction and use of fault—always a good indicator of a competent author: “[Jesse] tries to lay down a rhythm. I look around, totally embarrassed because Jesse’s not that good. But Jesse’s not at all embarrassed. He doesn’t give a crap about who’s watching.”
In Death Spiral, the main character writes a fairy tale synopsis of her deceased junkie mother and her caregiver aunt. “…the synopsis would go like this: Once upon a time there were two girls who lived in a small house by the Hudson River. The older sister was level headed and calm, born of a soft September breeze, while the younger sister was wild and angry, born of ocean waves and thunder. The older sister listened to female singer songwriters and R&B. The younger sister listened to death metal and rap. The older sister liked to stay in and read. The younger sister liked to stay out and party. The older sister turned eighteen and got into college. The younger sister turned eighteen and got into drugs. The end.”
Enjoy Death Spiral by Janie Chodosh, published by Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press.