A Critique of Ink & Insights
The Keeper of Fire was recently entered into the 2018 Ink and Insights writing contest, which concludes in August. A panel of four judges reads and reviews the first 10,000 words of your book (in my case, the prologue and chapter one), and they receive a one-page summary of the book's remainder. I didn’t think anything of it; my publisher has entered my book into several little contests. So I was surprised when I got my “feedback” from Ink and Insights via email. Four judges. Seventeen pages of scoring per judge. (I have not included any of their names in this article). While some of it (okay, very little of it) was actually positive or constructively helpful, the majority of it was exceedingly negative, and surprisingly harsh, given the limitations that reading only the first chapter and a brief summary bring. They even admit this on their web site: “Due to the word-count limit, judges occasionally have difficulty knowing where a story is going, which could affect some of the scoring. (Especially for longer novels that have barely gotten started by the end of the sample.)” The judges made some fairly perplexing statements. To begin with, they acted like I didn’t write things in that were most certainly there: You could have easily just hinted that Deiji didn't like her Aunt Micid and let us find out how horrible she is by reading their interaction. (Literally the first page of chapter one – ‘Rarely was she free from her stiff, old-fashioned, fat and ultimately proper aunt Micid… who kept her on a short leash… Micid, the short-tempered spinster.”) Besides her choice to dive for the silver to escape her fate as a bride, Deiji is very passive. She's not actively fighting against her aunt. (‘”No,” Deiji said loudly and firmly. “I will not.” Micid’s nostrils flared. “You do no have that right.” Page 25. Deiji continues to argue, then her aunt literally beats her into submission on page 26.) She has no conflict about going on this journey. There is nothing at stake here. (“What if I do leave? I could run away… be free of this! Though my mother will surely die…” Page 27.) There is a lack of urgency in the plot. There's nothing immediate hanging over Deiji's head. (“The vizier Telius will be sending for you soon. I suggest you pack your things…” Pages 25 & 26.) They also seemed to disagree with each other a lot. An example: I like Deiji's attitude and the way she handles herself, however she's not very likeable. She didn't seem to have any faults. She'd seem more real with some faults. It would make her more unique. Deiji is a great main character. She shirks social norms but is kind. She’s got a hint of temper in her interactions with her aunt and Maia, so we know she’s not perfect, but she’s still a likable character.
Another Example: Is Deiji's purpose or goal to end the fever, defeat Relant, or both? Or is it to bring her father back? I know everything will be accomplished by defeating Relant, but what is Deiji's goal? Why is defeating Relant so vitally important to her? What is her motivation? Why is it something that she has to do? Is it a matter of life and death for her? Why must she act? You’ve set up some great motivators for Deiji that come out in her conversation with Mowat. It is obvious in that conversation that Mowat’s promise to restore her parents and to give her freedom are very important to Deiji.
This is just about where I am right now...
They seemed to want to know more than the first chapter contained – almost as if they expected me to put all the pertinent information of the entire book into that first chapter! They wanted spoilers galore – and not just from this one book, but the whole series! (Each book stands independently, but there is also one big picture here)! I mean, don’t get me wrong, but leaving the reader with burning questions that go unanswered until the resolution of the series is an actual writing tactic, isn’t it? What is the main conflict? Is it Relant or is it the fever? Or is it both? Or maybe is her conflict just to avoid being married? I was just confused as to what it was exactly. Also will Relant put other obstacles in Deiji's path besides the foes she goes to face? Sadly, I was never fully immersed in the story and I think that's because I was just trying to figure out what was going on. I was confused a lot. (Me too, Sharon. Me too). With some of your secondary characters, like Maia, I questioned what their purpose was. Was she just there to show the life Deiji didn't want and get her in trouble with her aunt? (See page 253 for Maia’s overall contribution to the plot). The shimmer that she called a Dragon is never explored. What did she see? Was it Relant hunting her since Mowat chose her? Was it something from the Deep Forest? Did she imagine it? (No mysterious elements to the story line allowed. Must know it all NOW)! If something evil is seeping into her home because Mowat's attention is on her, then that could be explored a bit. Did she abandon her village to an evil doom? It also sets up a nice parallel at the end. Have you read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? When they finally return home, Saruman's forces have overtaken The Shire, and the hobbits, basically, have to be heroes in their own right and dislodge the enemy to restore peace to their home. It's a common trope that the irresponsible/scorned/unvaluable (is that a word?) member of the village goes on an adventure and then returns as a hero to solve a problem that their adventure has left behind there. It brings a story full circle. (No, I didn’t do that at all. Unless you count page 138, where Relant admits he’s been watching Mount Odel… Or page 140 where Relant attacks Deiji’s farm. As far as bringing things full circle, Deiji’s return to the Odel village on page 243 where she leads them into battle is obviously a glaring plot point that I didn’t write, but need to. [Insert sarcastic eye rolling here]). And then when she's suddenly in the cave, her leg isn't wounded? (If you had started chapter two, that’s literally addressed in the first sentence). And when she gets there, where is the sword she earned from Mowat? Is it sent along on her journey? Why doesn't he mention it? ‘“Then I shall have to get my sword back, won’t I?” Mowat quipped.’ Page 143; ‘“Remember all I have taught you,” Mowat whispered, handing her the sword.’ Page 147. Why is Mowat so invested in earth and in sending Deiji to defeat Relant? What does Mowat have to lose or gain from this? When was the opening of the prologue taking place? When did he know he'd need a chosen one? When did he know the Code would be broken? (See Book Three of the Dolphin Code Trilogy: The Mermaid’s Plight). And a few other gems: Deiji's personality seems to change to fit the scene. At first she's free and happy-go-lucky and then she seems confined by her surroundings and life situations. (Because a person adjusting their attitude to the current situation is completely unheard of).
It's obvious that there is quite a bit more to come since this is labeled as book one in a trilogy, (no shit) but I felt like you barely scratched the surface with your character development. (Because I’m just going to lay it all out for ya in the first chapter). I think your story could really benefit from really fleshing out these characters, building layers and making them come alive to the reader. You started to do this, but go further... (I did. It’s called “The Keeper of Fire, chapters 2 – 12).” When you say dolphin do you mean "Flipper" type dolphin? Or something similar with special powers? (No, I’m describing a taco. A taco with special powers. He just looks like a dolphin in the description as well as background lore).
There's no growth or change in any conversation except when Deiji accepts Mowat's charge to save the world. The relationships need to span a dynamic, not just encapsulate one moment or feeling of them. (Yes, because relationships span a dynamic within moments of meeting for the first time). I was looking forward to seeing how you portrayed the Merfolk in this, and I think that could be one of the high points! I was disappointed not to get to see it yet! (Shame on me for not putting every plot element of the entire series into the first chapter)! The Balla/Arill scene when Deiji is being dragged under is incredible confusing. The pond is described as one for feeding livestock, and those tend to be small and shallow--so they can't drown themselves if they get too deep. How could she not realize how deep it is? Didn't she swim in it when she was younger, before she had to be a lady? Did they pass through a portal or something? (There’s no magic in this book, even though the title page for the submission said “Fantasy.” No magic whatsoever. And don't you dare use your imagination! I will be sure spell everything out for you. Like you're three). I was actually feeling somewhat discouraged over this interaction with Ink and Insights. They seemed so “confused” over my opening chapter that I felt like my writing is just junk and needs more help than it has had to date. I can’t entirely say I disagree – I hate the opening of The Keeper of Fire with the intensity of a fire-breathing tiger. It’s been worked and reworked so many times, keeping the plot of both this single book and the entire series in mind, and this is what we came out with. So I found myself feeling a little depressed and resigned over this feedback. (17 pages! Per judge! Mostly negative)! It wasn’t until I wrote this all out that I glanced around the email they sent me and found this little nugget of information at the bottom: “At the conclusion of the contest, the Judges as Editors Page will list contact information of the editors on the team in case you are interested in working further with any of your judges.” Further investigation on their web site revealed that these so-called “editors” can be paid to edit your work, if their critique hits home with you. Because you obviously need help with that horrific pile of garbage you call a story! It all became clear. Contest or no, it appears to be a moneymaking scheme for editors to pick up some clients. Sure, it’s legit, but it feels somewhat dishonest if that’s their main goal in critiquing. Overall I scored an average of 165/250 per judge. What a demoralizing experience. But I feel better. It’s their job to manipulate you into feeling like you need their professional help to fix your writing. So the next time I get entered into an Ink and Insights contest I’m going to politely decline. If I wanted that kind of help, I’d ask for it, not set myself up for it like that. I really do feel better! I think I’m going out for tacos to celebrate! Magical tacos!