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The Gray Zone / John R. Little

Bad Moon Books / September 2009
Reviewed by: Martel Sardina

Readers, you are in for a treat. And not just because John R. Little’s The Gray Zone is that good.  (Though it is that good.) I am in the unique position of having read two incarnations of this tale. Today, you’re getting a review of a different sort. I’m going to share my comments from the first time I read this piece and now.

In January of 2009, I attended the Borderlands Press Novel Writing Boot Camp. For those unfamiliar with the Boot Camp experience, each participant in the novel section is required to submit: 1) a synopsis or outline of their novel, 2) a listing of major and secondary characters and their biographies, and 3) the first three chapters of the manuscript. The submission package is sent on to the other participants and the instructors, who will read and critique the stories. The participants and instructors meet in person to discuss the elements crucial to any good story namely: Character/Point of View, Plot/Setting, Grammar/Style, and Dialogue/Narrative Voice. And finally, each participant gives critiques to and receives critiques from the other participants.

When I first read The Gray Zone, it was called “Only Time.”  The critique below is based on the synopsis/outline, character biographies and the sample chapters that John submitted to the Boot Camp.

Working Title: Only Time
Author: John R. Little
Rate the story in each of the following categories using 1 through 5 (5 being the best):  Hook, Conflict, Characters, Setting/Mood, Pace/Style, Resolution, Grammar/Spelling and Overall Enjoyment.
These eight topics, worth five points each, are a good indicator of if a story is publishable or not. The higher the point total, the likelier the story can be sold.  You can use this Crit Sheet for short stories and novels, published or pre-published.  You can also give it to readers and ask them to rate your story.

Low points in categories indicate what needs to be worked on in the rewrite. Don’t submit stories to agents or editors unless you have a score of at least 35.  (Note: I came across this critique format/criteria in a writing class taught by J.A. Konrath.  Reproduced with permission.)
The Hook - Does the story pull the reader in right away and then hold their interest?
Rating = 5
You had my interest from the get-go. The narrator has a distinct voice and I felt connected to him almost immediately.  I wanted to know what was going to happen and was actually disappointed that I wouldn’t find out when I came to the end of the excerpt.
The Conflict - What is at stake in the story, and how is the tension used?
Rating = 4
You’ve got a lot going on here.  I liked the scene where Achmed almost drowns.  I think you described Henry’s effort to save him honestly.  I sometimes wonder how people who have no medical training suddenly become rescue experts when the story needs them to be. You pulled this off without causing me not to believe that Henry was capable of saving Achmed.
When you jump to the first time Henry meets Cassie, I thought the transition worked well.

**Spoiler Alert – Skip the section striked out below**
In reading the outline, I am a bit confused about the deaths of Henry’s mother, Alain, and Cassie.  When you get to Part III – scene 11, you say that Henry realizes that the deaths are the consequences of his actions.  With Henry’s mother, it is his inaction that led to her death.  With Alain, I viewed that as an accident.  How is Henry going to be able to relive his life and prevent that from happening?  Or does acting to save his mother, change the course of his life so that Alain’s death never happens?  I could see how Henry could view the deaths as being his fault.  I just had a harder time classifying Alain’s death the same as the other two, so the thought process in scene 11 didn’t completely work for me.  If you can tweak that so the mother’s death is the one that is the beginning of the downward spiral, I think it will make more sense when you get to this point.
The Characters - Are these compelling, real people whom the reader cares about?
Rating = 5
Yes.  I think you have done a good job of fleshing the characters out and making them “real.”
Setting and Mood - Does the story make the reader feel like they are really there?
Rating = 5
The descriptions of Egypt at the beginning are believable.  I’ve never been to Egypt so I don’t know if your descriptions are truly accurate, but I never doubted that your Egypt wasn’t the “real” Egypt.
Pace and Style - How well does the writer use the words to move the story along?
Rating = 4
I read a good number of thrillers, so in some ways, I expect everything I read to move along pretty quickly.  It’s not a fair comparison since your story is obviously not in that genre, but I think things are unfolding as they should.  I was definitely interested as I was reading despite the lack of action in some of the scenes.  I think it is important for you to do the setup to ground the reader in Henry’s world before the time travel begins.  Having the details of his life before Egypt, contrasted with his life in Egypt makes the dilemma more tangible once the time travel begins.  Now we know what he’s lost and is trying to get back.  Yes, the detail may hinder the pacing a bit, but I think as the plot unfolds the reader will not be disappointed by the payoff.
Resolution - Does it have a satisfying ending?
Rating = ??
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t get a good mark here.  But without seeing how things in their entirety, I’ll pass on rating the ending for now.
Grammar and Spelling - This must be perfect, no exceptions.
Rating = 5
Overall enjoyment - Was this a story you’d actually buy?
Rating = 5
Yes.  I think that this is (by far) the best story in the boot camp.  I can’t wait to see what you do with it going forward.
Total Score = 33 + ?? for the ending.  I don’t think you will have any trouble selling this manuscript.  It’s an original idea and I wish you the best of luck with it.

Since it’s not a secret that I loved this story then, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I love what “Only Time” has become. The Gray Zone is a time travel story. It starts in Aswan, Egypt in 1984.  Henry, a Canadian traveler, is nearing the end of his stay in Aswan. Henry is invited to join his host, Mohammed, and his son, Achmed, on a boat ride down the Nile. It is the first time Achmed has been asked by his father to steer the boat and Henry is honored to accept the invitation. The ride starts off pleasant but turns terrifying after an accident causes Achmed to fall into the river. Henry rescues the boy from drowning. As a thank you for saving Achmed’s life, Mohammed gives Henry a vial supposedly stolen from Ramses II’s tomb. The powder inside, once ingested, will give Henry the ability to travel in time.

Henry moves through time revisiting moments from his past, present and gains glimpses of his future. In the past, the memories are very clear. But as he moves forward and into the future, what he sees and experiences makes less sense, especially as he moves closer and closer to a time, he calls “The Gray Zone” which he assumes is close to the point of his eventual death.

That’s all I want to tell you about the plot of this piece. I hope I haven’t given away too much. In his introduction, James A. Moore wonders why more people aren’t reading John R. Little’s works. “For now, he (Little) is like a little secret. I hope that doesn’t last. Some secrets were never meant to be kept.” This reviewer, for one, hopes that you’ll read The Gray Zone and agree.

Purchase The Gray Zone by John R. Little.

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 02:18PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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