Peer Review for Improving Writing

A few postings ago I asked if anyone was interested in being involved in an on-line peer review group. I wasn’t inundated with takers – only one – but it’s hard to know if that was due to lack of interest or lack of readers of my blog. It occurred to me that I haven’t done much in a long time to bring people to my blog – and, in fact, have not had an active blog to drive anyone to!  My bad!

The one person who was interested agreed that even if it’s only two of us, we could start small and see if we gain momentum along the way. That seemed like a great idea. She said she was busy with other commitments at the moment but would send me a piece of her work for critique soon.  I will post at least part of that (depending on how much she sends) for open input.

Meanwhile, I sent her 6 chapters of my new novel-in-progress, Sentimental Journey.  It’s too long to post in full, but I will share the first 10 pages here.  It’s already been reviewed professionally for grammar, so my hope is to get feedback on a higher level. What works for you? What doesn’t? Would these first ten pages make you want to continue reading the book? If you skimmed the first few pages in a bookstore, would you be compelled to buy it?

Here goes:

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY

By Dawn Lajeunesse

Chapter One

Meredith Fields had the perfect life. She lived in a large, center hall colonial in a coveted suburban development with her handsome, successful husband, two children – Michael and Betz – and two dogs adopted from the shelter. She boasted an accomplished career as a romance author. She volunteered at a nearby wildlife refuge and was certified as a wildlife rehabilitator. Daily workouts kept her body and mind in shape as she aged. She had her hair done monthly by the most expensive shop in the area – the one who did all the local newscasters – and her nails every two weeks. Life was good, right?

And then it all went into free fall.

It didn’t happen all at once. Rather, pieces began to erode and crumble, until one day the bottom fell out. And she wasn’t entirely unhappy about it. 

She stared at the blank screen. The cursor blinked, mocking her. The computer’s digital clock silently moved forward, 11:05, 11:06, 11:07. The outline for her new novel was several weeks overdue. Her stomach clenched – frustration, fear, and vague annoyance. Annoyance at what? Or whom? She wasn’t sure. Perhaps at having to create on a deadline – again. Still. That nagging sense of unease. What was it?

“Meredith, what’s going on? It’s not like you to be late.” Phil Jackson, her agent, said from her speaker phone. Discussions with Phil rarely were short, and she found it tiresome to hold the receiver to her ear. “At least tell me what your general idea is and when you’ll get it to me.”

She sighed. Looked down to see her fists were clenched. Took a deep breath and consciously relaxed her hands, her body.

“You know I don’t like to share my story lines until I’ve worked them out in more detail. I could change the whole theme by the time I get to the end of the plan. Characters could disappear…or take over, changing the story completely.”

Silence from the speaker, other than what sounded like some background paper shuffling.

“I’ll have the complete outline to you next week,” she said finally, always the first to end a silence.

“What day next week? And don’t tell me Friday. I’m under the gun too, you know.”

Today was what? Monday? No, Tuesday. If she worked through the weekend she could have it to him Monday. No, make that Tuesday to allow for the unexpected.

“I’ll email it to you on Tuesday, Phil. I should be able to pull it together and finalize a couple of question marks by then.”

A couple of question marks? More like a couple dozen. Maybe a couple hundred. The truth was she didn’t even have an idea to develop. For the first time in her industrious writing career, she was blocked.

Truth be told, she was tired of her usual genre. Romance sold well, but after nine in as many years the plots all sounded the same to her. She was bored. She felt like she had to keep all her old outlines around her when she worked, not so she could copy from them, but so she could avoid repeating names, settings…situations. Basically they all were the same. Same formula. Same ending. Different people, different details, but otherwise, same.

The problem was she couldn’t come up with a better idea. And even if she came up with something totally different, Phil would get nervous because it wasn’t her “sure thing.” Her novels sold well. They’d never win a Pulitzer, but they brought in a comfortable, steady income. For her and for Phil. He wouldn’t want her to risk that security.

And still the cursor blinked.

She looked around the room, as if she could draw some ideas from the walls or the furnishings. That wasn’t likely. Her home seemed as boring as her genre. The room décor was plain, untouched from her mauve period, with mauve mini-blinds on the windows, hardwood floor with a couple of faded mauve and blue scatter rugs. The walls were a creamy color and needed to be repainted. She eyed the telltale marks where furniture had scraped along the wall the last time she got restless and moved things around. The scar in the woodwork. The dent from the doorknob from when Betz, her fifteen-year-old daughter, was much younger and used to blast into the room when she came home from school. The discount store framed prints of flowers that fit the color scheme. Stark, simple, practical furnishings – a blond wood table for a desk, a plain tan metal file cabinet, a couple of bookcases filled with paperbacks and hardcovers she couldn’t bear to throw away. The nicest piece was the old rocker she had taken from her mother’s house after the nursing home placement. Now that she thought about it, there was nothing creatively stimulating about the room. Maybe she needed to work someplace different, to shake things up a bit.

Sighing, she pulled up the list of ideas she’d generated a couple of months ago when she started working on book number ten, thinking back then that the deadline was a month away and she had plenty of time. She scanned the list, much of which consisted only of key words. Most she couldn’t connect with a larger idea after all this time.

Damn! When did everything about her life fall into such a rut? She used to enjoy creating the fantasy lives of romance novels. She took pride in her home and family. They used to do so much together. Vacations in the Adirondacks and the Maine coast. Sunday dinners – home or out, they were part of a comfortable routine. When did they stop? Family projects – when did they start farming everything out to contractors? They were hard work but gave a sense of accomplishment and togetherness. Like the night sky in Betz’s room. She’d had such a fascination with the constellations after they visited the planetarium in New York City. They spent weeks planning it and an entire weekend creating it. They’d all felt so connected. Michael wasn’t there, of course. That was his first year of college. Hard to believe it was five years ago.

She sighed. Michael had drifted so far from the family. She knew it was expected. They’d raised their children to be independent, so his creating his own separate life was a good thing, right? It wasn’t that he just didn’t want to be around his family. At least, she preferred to believe that.

Still, she missed those simpler days.

Of course, they didn’t seem simple at the time. Juggling two children of such different ages, eight years apart. Two careers. And her obsession with maintaining a perfectly ordered home. That came from her own mother, along with her belief that whatever she did wasn’t quite good enough. Meredith wasn’t as good a cook as her mother. But why would she expect to be? Her mother had run a restaurant almost single-handedly from when her father had died, when Meredith was just two.

Goodness, her mind was all over the place. Everywhere but where it should be, developing a plan for her next novel. She debated making a cup of tea before getting back to it.

Keith entered silently. Her back was to the door, but she smelled him before he spoke. Lately he’d been wearing way too much aftershave. It was overpowering. She should tell him that, but he could be so sensitive, always complaining she was too critical.

“Hi,” he said, barely peeking his head around the door. “Am I interrupting?”

Of course you’re interrupting.

Biting her tongue, realizing she was on edge, and it wasn’t fair to take it out on him, she sighed and turned to face her husband of almost twenty-five years. They’d be celebrating their silver anniversary in a few months. So far they had no plans for the occasion.

His good looks hadn’t faded with age. Other than a few streaks of gray and the inevitable lines around his eyes, there was little about his appearance that admitted to his fifty-five years. He ran his fingers through thick dark hair lightly streaked with gray and averted his deep-set brown eyes.

“I’m just trying to meet a deadline,” she answered more pleasantly than she felt. Smiling and motioning to the rocker she added, “You’re home early. Home for lunch? What’s up?”

He folded his six-foot frame into the low seat of the rocker. He looked at the ceiling, over toward the door, down to the dark, hardwood floor. He made no eye contact. “Uh….” He rocked, and his eyes made their rounds again.

“Crash the car again?” she asked, trying to inject a little humor.

“No, nothing like that.” His crooked grin used to make her melt.

“Then how bad can it be?” What little patience she had was trickling away. The deadline loomed, with so much to complete.

He bolted from the chair and began to pace.

She resented having to look up at him. It made her neck hurt.

“There’s no easy way to do this.” He stopped abruptly in front of her. “I want a divorce.”

She had written stories like this. Her heroines usually cried or got angry. Once she had the protagonist pounding her fists against the husband’s chest. Sometimes she’d dissolve, collapse so the husband had to catch her before she fell to the floor, followed by hysterical tears. There was the nausea. Or just a knot in the stomach that tightened to excruciating pain.

Funny, she felt none of these.

She nodded. “Go on,” she said calmly, manicured hands folded on her brown wool slacks with the perfect crease. There was always more to these stories.

“There’s not much else to say,” he said, hands out, palms up, as if to say “that’s all there is,” like people did with a dog who couldn’t have any more treats. “All gone, Ruff!”

But he sat on the rocker again. Rocked. The chair half on and half off the throw rug made a sound that reminded her of the metronome that used to pace her playing on the piano many years ago. The tock of an old clock: Tick-tock. Tock. Tock.

“I’m in love with someone else,” he stated simply.

That pulled her thoughts back from the metronome era. 

“Anyone I know?” 

He smiled blissfully, as if picturing her in his mind. 

“Caitlin. Of course, she can’t continue to be my assistant once we go public with our relationship.”

Somewhere deep inside Meredith, an irrational giggle was rattling around, trying to get out. Nerves. Or shock. Or…something like that.

“She’s a child!” She struggled to give this discussion the serious attention it merited. “Barely older than Michael.” She shook her head, amazed both at him and at her own reaction – or non-reaction – to his announcement. “You’re a cliché, Keith.”

“It’s not like that,” he objected, leaning forward. “We really connect –.”

“Oh, I have no doubt you connect,” she interrupted, warming to the challenge of this conversation. The giggle leaked out.

“Don’t be crude, Meredith. We have something very special, very deep. Really.”

She bit her lip to hold back another snide remark.

“You’re taking this very well,” he noted, surprise in his voice.

She caught his eyes directly for the first time.

“I’m not taking it at all, Keith,” she growled. “I wasn’t prepared for this, and I can’t absorb it. A few minutes ago I was thinking about our twenty-fifth anniversary, and what we might like to do to celebrate. Guess nothing, huh?”

He cringed at that reminder. He probably hadn’t thought about it, so caught up as he was with little Caitlin.

“I’m sure this will hit me after it sinks in.” It would hit her, wouldn’t it? She’d never pictured herself as a divorcee. It wasn’t part of her vision of the future. Their relationship hadn’t been passionate for some time, but it was comfortable. That’s the way all relationships evolve, right? And that’s not a bad thing. Comfortable is good. No surprises. Until now. But so far she felt nothing. Well, not really nothing. What did she feel? Why was it so hard to admit to relief? But why was she relieved? She didn’t want to be alone in life. But . . . she pulled herself back to Keith, who wasn’t looking nearly as contrite as he should. “When are you leaving?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning to leave until we’re divorced, when I can marry Caitlin.”

“I don’t think so.” She grinned again. It probably looked slightly maniacal to Keith.

“Huh?” Amazingly, he looked puzzled.

“You don’t want to be married to me, so you’re out of here. Preferably tonight.”

“But I don’t have a place yet. You can’t just throw me out.”

“I can’t? You’re throwing me away. Which is worse?”

“Come on, Meredith, be reasonable.”

“I think I’m more than reasonable. I haven’t made an emotional scene. I haven’t been violent. I’m simply telling you go connect with your little Caitlin. Would you like me to help you pack?”

“Caitlin’s apartment is too small for two people.”

“Why do I assume the two of you have already spent a lot of time there together?”

“I can’t just move in with her. It wouldn’t look right.”

“You’re kidding, right?” When his blank look told her he probably wasn’t, she continued. “Dear, dear.” She made clucking noises, shaking her head. “Don’t you think you should have planned this a little better? You can’t expect to live here and sleep with little Caitlin.”

“Please stop calling her that.” His voice tightened like it did whenever he was trying to control his anger.

“Fine. You can move your stuff into the back bedroom until the end of the week. Then you’re out of here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a deadline to meet.” She turned back to the computer and pretended to work while she waited for him to leave. When he didn’t move, she looked over her shoulder. “Close the door on your way out,” she told him.

When the door clicked behind her at last, she looked around with a sigh. Usually by this time of day random and disorganized piles of printed pages and handwritten notes surrounded her on the desk and floor. When she was producing something. But today, nothing. She was disappointed not so much because of her looming deadline right now, but because she had a powerful urge to organize. Sort the notes into categorized neat piles. Examine the printed pages and throw out what wasn’t useful, put the rest in some order, ready to be re-read tomorrow. She always did that, printing out the pages she produced, letting them sit overnight, and looking at them critically the next day. But today there was nothing but her list of keywords and the accusing cursor on the blank screen page.

Frustrated, she blew out a disgusted breath and bolted from her seat, startling Muff and Kipper, the two mixed breed dogs she’d rescued from the shelter. They hadn’t budged, not even looked up, during Keith’s visit. She smoothed her slacks and tugged the tweed sweater around her lean body.

“It’s not like I’ve let myself go,” she muttered, flashes of workouts and light suppers fast-forwarding in her head. “Of course Caitlin’s body is tighter than mine. When you’re in your twenties, that’s a given even without effort. She does have that perky, cute wrinkle-free face. How can I compete against that? She’s not the brightest, but I doubt her brain is what appeals to Keith. What more could I have done?” Then, realizing she was a cliché, too, blaming herself for Keith’s infidelity, she retrieved a can of Pledge and a roll of paper towels from the bottom drawer of her file cabinet. If she couldn’t organize notes, she could clean. Muff and Kipper whined at the closed door until she set them free. They ran down the hall to the relative tranquility of Betz’s room.

“I definitely don’t need this now,” she fumed. “It’s not bad enough that my mother’s on her way out, in a nursing home…, exactly what she never wanted. Have to get her house cleared out and ready to sell. Can’t get any ideas flowing for my next book. Phil on my back about that. Geez, now I’m talking to myself.”

Within minutes every wood surface in the room was dust free, and an orange essence filled the air. She tossed the roll of paper towels and Pledge into the drawer and shoved it shut, grimacing at the crash, then reopened the drawer and closed it again properly, as she would have made one of her kids do if they slammed something in a fit of temper.

Leaving her office, she flew down the stairs and into the dining room where she retrieved another can of Pledge, paper towels, and a bottle of Windex from a drawer in the corner hutch. A similar triad of cleaning supplies was sequestered somewhere in every room of the house except fifteen year old Betz’s room, where her compulsive cleaning was not welcome.

Betz. How would she take Keith’s news? She adored her father. And generally had him wrapped around her pinky. Good grief, this family was full of clichés.

Meredith caught a quick look at herself in the mirror over the serving table as she swirled from surface to surface, spraying, wiping, polishing, recalling the white tornado Mr. Clean ads of her youth. She raised the Pledge can over her head and spun an extra couple of circles just because she felt like it.

*******

Have at it, readers!

About Dawn Lajeunesse

I, like so many others, am a novelist struggling for recognition. In Her Mother's Shoes was published in June 2013 - available through Amazon, B&N and iPad, e-book (only $2.99!) as well as paperback. Autumn Colors was my first. My third novel, Star Catching, was released in November, 2016 and has been very well-received! My writings are mostly women's fiction, most also suitable for YA. My website is www.dawnlajeunesse.com. Come visit me there!
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One Response to Peer Review for Improving Writing

  1. Patti Weinberg says:

    I like it better already!

    Like

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