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 01 May 2013, 23:23 #166804 Reply To Post
Each month on editors from Random House, Bloomsbury and Orion, provide an indepth critique of up to three highly rated Top Ten novel openings from budding authors, and provide mini-reviews for the rest of the top ten youwriteon stories. Random House publish authors such as Dan Brown and Terry Pratchett.
This post was last edited by ProfessionalCritique, 02 May 2013, 00:20
 01 May 2013, 23:24 #166803 Reply To Post
Random House Editor Critique of The Only One

Dear Siobhan,

I have very much enjoyed reading your sample of The Only One, it’s the sort of title I can see working well in today’s market, and there is a lot to like about it. I do have a few notes, which I hope you will find useful.


She’s an interesting character, and I like how haunted she is by her past, as well as what I see happens to her from reading your synopsis. Having said that, I do wonder if she’s quite developed enough at the moment. I didn’t really warm to her, and whilst I know you’re establishing her as wounded in these opening chapters, I think we do still need to see a real warmth to her. Perhaps you could introduce this more through the flashback elements, showing her as more of a carefree teenager before things change so drastically? It would be lovely to see a real difference in the teen Kate to the present-day Kate.

In general, I think that her voice and her personality should be very distinct to James’s and Sofia’s, which I think you have got for the most part. But I worry that she’s not coming across quite as strongly as the other two at the moment. I wonder whether in part, this is because she isn’t opening up to us so we don’t get to know her very well. Maybe we could see more of her reaction to things, be let into her head just a little more than we are at the moment.

Yours is a fascinating, character-led plot so each character really needs to earn their place in the novel and be as well-rounded as possible. You’ve created a quite epic story for your characters to work in, so I just would be careful not to give us too big a cast to keep track of.

The setting

This tumultuous period of history is one that readers are continually fascinated by. Because of this it can be quite hard to make fiction set here stand out in the way it needs to. However, you’re writing about a side of the period not often explored and so I think you can afford to milk this even more than you are at the moment. You set the scene of Hong Kong nicely, but I think it could be even more evocative, atmospheric and 3D to really bring it to life for the readers. What are the smells and sounds of the place – what are the ‘normal’ people like etc? Maybe you could show us the farmers planting rice rather than just telling us about them?

I love the very brief mention of the ghost when Kate and Ah Chun are in the garden together. More touches like this would be lovely, to show us how different the culture and customs are for Kateand those she comes into contact with.


Reading your synopsis seems to show that you’ve paced your novel very well in terms of what comes where, and the flow of events, but at the moment I don’t think the highs and lows you have in your plot are completely reflected in your writing. Your style is very accomplished and beautiful in places, but in the more action-packed scenes (such as the typhoon I read about in the synopsis, and the scene early on when James and Sofia meet) I felt like we needed more of an immediacy and urgency. Perhaps this is something you might want to look at as you revisit the novel?

Show rather than tell.

As I said, you write beautifully and so I felt that there were points where you might want to show us the turn of events as they happen rather than telling us about them in your narrative. I was fascinated to see the relationship between Sofia and Leo, for example, but at the moment we know the way it is before we really see any interaction between them. Obviously you can’t show us everything, but I think perhaps there are a few key scenes you might like to pull out and explore in more depth than you do at the moment.

And I think that’s everything I wanted to mention here. The very best of luck with your writing; hopefully I will see The Only One on the reading lists of book clubs in the future.

The Devil of Ilha Grande by Fred Hebbert

This is an accomplished piece of writing, that I found very intriguing and with a real sense of setting and atmosphere. Such is the atmosphere you create, in fact, that I found it a surprise to be reminded of the modern year the book is set in. The tone and feel of the book isn’t a modern one at the moment – I wonder if you might be able to reach more of a balance with this?

O’Hanlon and Sister Sarah are both fascinating characters –and I was very interested to read how they develop in your synopsis – but at the moment I don’t feel like we get to know them in the way we need to for a literary novel of this sort. I’d actually suggest you slow the opening down a little in order to allow yourself the space to develop the characters, to allow them to reveal themselves to each other and to the reader. At the moment we move back and forth between their perspectives, which perhaps prevents us getting a deeper insight into them and their lives. I’d love to know about their backgrounds, to know why they came from Ireland to be in the situations they now find themselves.

I really did enjoy this read; the opening is strong, and I found myself gripped throughout – congratulations!

A Million Pebbles on the Beach by Lin Forrester

This is something I can see working well in the current market – the legions of Gone Girl fans will, I imagine, enjoy your novel very much!

The narrative voice is immediately arresting, and your writing continues to be pacey and snappy – perfect for the genre. I did wonder whether the style meant that we plough through events just a little too quickly in these early stages of the novel. Perhaps you could look at developing certain interactions and scenes a little more to add a real sense of Faye’s terror, as well as the fast-paced tension we see – maybe when we meet Jock, Betty, and some of the other characters, for example, as they go on to play such a significant role in the plot.

I’m finding Faye’s character a little hard to get to grips with at the moment. Reading your synopsis and seeing the fantastic twist you have at the end of the novel, I can see why you had kept Faye slightly distant from the reader, but I think as you’re telling the novel in first person we do need more of a sense of what’s going on in Faye’s head, and how she feels about the events that are unfolding to make her a vivid and real (if unreliable) leading lady.

I enjoyed this very much!

The Apocalypse in Little Worthington by Julian Green

This is a great, original premise, and I really enjoyed reading the sample. Your writing is sharp and accomplished, and I like the characters you’ve created very much. I do think we need to have more detail and context sooner on the set-up, however, because it is so unique. You could possibly be giving us hints and clues from the outset about why the four brothers are on Earth and what they have been instructed to do.

As I said, I do like your characters, and Hunger’s voice is strong, but I don’t think his brothers are quite as strong yet. They have slightly caricatured personalities – this could be them trying to fit in to the Earth they now find themselves in, but I think it’s a little unclear at the moment whether this is the case. I’d love to see more interaction between them, and Hunger. Perhaps you could even have some chapters from their perspectives?

I love the contrast between the high-fantasy elements of your plot, and the Middle England the four find themselves in. I wonder if you could make even more of the black comedy of the situation – I’m sure you could craft some laugh-out-loud scenes beautifully!

Ruth, Editor, Random House[/b
 01 May 2013, 23:24 #166793 Reply To Post
Each month on editors from Random House, Bloomsbury and Orion, provide an indepth critique of up to three highly rated Top Ten novel openings from budding authors, and provide mini-reviews for the rest of the top ten youwriteon stories. Random House publish authors such as Dan Brown and Terry Pratchett.
 01 May 2013, 23:25 #166794 Reply To Post

Dear Fred Hebbert

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers. I enjoyed reading these early pages of your thriller novel THE DEVIL OF ILHA GRANDE. I thought that these opening chapters were very readable but I did think they could benefit from further work. What I hope these editorial notes will do is provide you with some useful pointers as to how you can hone and develop the existing chapters, as well as give guidance on what to pay attention to as the novel progresses.


Structure is the backbone of a novel. It helps to provide shape, focus and drive to the narrative. If your story isn’t sound in structure, the very foundations of your novel are compromised. And while I thought your structure was very strong in these early chapters, I did think how you structure your plot more widely needs some consideration. But I will detail my comments on this in my notes on plot below.

From these initial chapters, it seems like your narrative will be structured from the alternate perspectives of different characters. This is an effective device that will not only open up your story in terms of scope, but will also ensure that the reader doesn’t tire of any one character or storyline. And this technique helps instil a greater sense of pace to the flow of your narrative.

A small point, but I would consider restructuring your subheadings so they are simpler, with the day first (e.g. Wednesday 12 October, 2005). Also, by stating ‘two days earlier’ and the date feels like an unnecessary repetition. Perhaps just one rather than both?


I thought the opening scene was really good – well written and vividly described, and tense enough to make the reader feel compelled to read on. I did wonder whether it was necessary for you to reveal the identity of the man (Sebastio Alves da Silva), especially in the very first line. Not only is this quite a mouthful of the name, it interrupts the flow of your opening line somewhat. Also, by withholding his identity, you would make the prologue seem more ambiguous, and in turn more menacing, if the perpetrator is not named, regardless of whether your protagonist knows his identity or not. In a thriller, it’s crucial to keep the reader guessing and invested every step of the way. And by withholding certain key facts, even if some of the characters are privy to them, will help build a more intriguing edge to your narrative.

After the dramatic opening, I found the first chapter a little underwhelming. There seemed to be too much of a focus on introducing the characters and expounding on religious ideas. It is key that the first three chapters of any thriller novel grip the reader completely, pulling them in and immersing them in the unfolding drama. And to be completely honest (and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t!), there was nothing thrilling or gripping about your first chapter.

Equally, chapter two felt somewhat lacking in any real tension or drama, with the concentration seeming to lie with gradually introducing the reader to your fictional world and its inhabitants. Again, if you really want to grip your reader, you need to immerse them in your narrative from the get-go, not guide them by the hand as you introduce each of the characters. Drop them right into the middle of the action. If you don’t capture your reader in the first three chapters, you very well may have lost them.

It is only in the third chapter that the narrative seems to pick up in speed, drawing the reader in more effectively. When you come to rewriting, you need to look at how you can hook the reader much earlier on, and maintain a heightened sense of drama throughout these opening chapters.

The fact that an American nun was recently killed in the jungle is only really mentioned as an aside in these early chapters. This is a crucial piece of information, and one that is full of potential in terms of drama and tension. I think more needs to be made of this earlier on, so the reader begins to fear for Sister Sarah’s own safety.

From reading your synopsis, my main concern is how you will create a greater sense of menace and drama, and maintain it for the duration of the novel. It’s hard to get a sense of the unfolding drama from the synopsis alone, but it seems like the main driving force behind the novel is the identity of the ‘Devil’ and Sister Sarah’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. There needs to be more fuelling your story if this is to work as an effective thriller. Will there be any sub-plots? And twists and red herrings. Out of all genres in commercial fiction, thriller writing is perhaps the most formulaic in terms of what literary devices to employ to keep your reader gripped.

A good exercise that will help you hone in on potentially weak areas of your narrative and also see which areas are stronger is to storyboard your novel – either scene by scene or chapter by chapter. Then you will be able to see more clearly the shape your plot takes, and where the drama and tension might tail off too quickly.


While Sister Sarah is an intriguing character, she didn’t really leap off the page in these early chapters. From having read these opening chapters, this seems like it will be more of a character-led thriller than a plot-led one, and so it is imperative that your characters not only draw your reader in and make them empathise and align with them, but also are compelling enough to carry the weight of the narrative and fuel the progression of the story. You need to get under their skins and reveal what is unique and distinctive about them. Each character needs to be memorable in their own way.


Setting is of course only the backdrop to a story, but it can be a character in its own right too, helping build atmosphere and even tone. Your descriptive prose is very good, so it would be nice to see a few more details about the setting woven through the story, to really bring alive your world for the reader. These need only be small brushstrokes, but the more vivid they are, the more quickly you’ll transport your reader there.


Tone is one of the hardest elements of a narrative to master, but also one of the most important. If your tone feels off-key or discordant with the rest of the narrative, you risk alienating your reader. The tone of most thrillers is one of brooding menace and dark intrigue. And while these opening pages have shades of those occasionally, overall I felt the tone was influenced a little too much by the piety of some of your characters, making some of your writing feel a little too earnest. Remember that less is more. In a thriller, even a religious thriller, your primary aim is to grip your reader, keep them guessing as well as tensely turning the pages to find out more. And I think you have some way to go before achieving that.

When you come to rewriting, consider the tone of your writing, and how that affects the reader’s experience as the story progresses. Also, read other thrillers with a critical eye, analysing their tone and how they manage tension and suspense throughout. As much can be learnt from reading as it can from writing.


As I’m sure you’re aware, thrillers are one of the most popular genres in commercial fiction, but they are also one of the most crowded, so it is absolutely imperative that your book is able to stand out in a competitive marketplace. Also, religious thrillers don’t have the appeal as they once did (in the height of Dan Brown), so you need to consider this and ensure that your book is as thrilling and dramatic as it can be if it is to snare readers.

Line notes:

‘… he thrust her under again. Again …’ – repetition of ‘again.

‘You do not know the perils of the other’ – great last line to your opening scene.

‘saucer-like face’ – not quite sure how a human face can resemble a saucer? Seems like a bit of an odd description. Perhaps something else here?


I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think these early pages mark a promising start but this first draft does need a fair amount of work. As well as reading as widely as possible, have you considered joining a creative writing group? Receiving regular feedback from writing peers can be an invaluable way to hone your writing skills. I wish you the best of luck in your rewrites, and hope you continue to enjoy writing.

Best wishes

Natalie Braine
 01 May 2013, 23:26 #166795 Reply To Post
Professional mini critique for Hilda’s Assets by J McGuire

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the opening pages of your novel. It’s an interesting premise with much potential for comedy. I particularly liked your opening, which sees Hilda cleaning the bathroom with Ernest’s flannel! There were also moments of unexpected poignancy, such as when Ernest reveals that he knows Hilda has been doing such things to get a reaction from him, and when he agrees to her scheme to ‘rent’ him out on the condition that she doesn’t divorce him.

While the tone is obviously very playful and tongue-in-cheek, the story still needs to feel realistic if the reader is to suspend disbelief. And I did feel some areas were lacking somewhat in credibility. Such as how readily Ernest agrees to Hilda’s idea, which seems to contradict what we’ve been told about him, in that he likes to stay at home and not interact with other people too much. And also his club of ‘Tae Kon Trol’, which feels a little over-egged. Remember that less is often more, especially when it comes to comedy. Sometimes subtle humour can pack a more powerful punch than an overstated joke…

Professional mini critique for Yesterday’s Shoes by Celia Micklefield

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading the opening pages of your novel. Your writing is very atmospheric and visual, instantly placing the reader where the story is set, alongside your characters. While I found these opening pages engaging, my concern was that they were a little slow burning for the beginning of a novel. It felt like there was a too much preamble and focus on setting the scene rather than dropping the reader into the middle of the drama.

From reading your synopsis, it seems like Marianne’s own personal story has much potential for drama and emotion. And I wondered if perhaps it might be stronger to open the book with a prologue from her perspective? It is hard to gauge from the synopsis alone, but will Marianne’s story be told in her own voice, or through Karen? Because if you are showing the historical scenes in an immediate way for the reader to experience, then it would be more powerful to have them show from Marianne’s POV (point of view) rather than reported second-hand through Karen. And also, by having two protagonists and two separate – but interlinking – storylines will give your narrative more texture and depth.

Professional mini critique for The King of the Castle by Julian Green

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. It had a playfulness to it, even though it could also be quite dark and macabre. I liked the twist, and how you played with the reader’s expectations with the final last red herring that Rosemary is to blame for her previous husband’s death, only to reveal that it was the story’s main perpetrator all along – Jack, the dog! I did feel that the second half of the story was stronger than the first, and had more pace and drive to it, while the first half could have been more streamlined and focused. Also, some of the humour felt a little forced, rather than evolving naturally from each scene. I thought some lines were great (such as Jack ‘tenderising’ Bernard’s thigh with his sharp claws, and wondering why dogs ‘can’t do the decent thing like cats and bury their excrement so only kids playing in sandpits come across it’!) but others a bit unoriginal (‘seismographs would be twitching in Hawaii’).

 01 May 2013, 23:28 #166796 Reply To Post
Professional mini critique for Visiting Hours by Jonathan Skinner

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. It was a simple tale that leaves the reader to ponder by the end. However, I did think perhaps it was a little on the brief side. I thought it could be fleshed out a little more, with details about the wine tasting, as well as building upon the characterisation a little more. I was also expecting some kind of twist or revelation at the end (such as it was the protagonist that had caused the car accident or Cheryl and Tony’s relationship wasn’t as it seemed, or the protagonist had another agenda for wanting to visit). But it ended on somewhat of an anticlimactic note, which I didn’t feel revealed that much about your protagonist. We know that his visits have become a part of his routine, something to fill his days, but we don’t really get an inkling of a sense of whether he feels grief over Cheryl’s death, why he really keeps visiting Tony, or anything of real emotional resonance. In short, I was a little underwhelmed. But I thought this marked a promising first draft.

Professional mini critique for Trobairitz by Celia Micklefield

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading the opening pages of your women’s fiction novel. But I felt that it could benefit from further development. For a book about a story within a story, these early chapters lack the necessary hook – in either tale – that will grip the reader (and the truck driver characters) and make them want to read on/carry on listening. There is no real sense of mystery, intrigue or suspense in the beginning of Weed’s tale. There is too much focus on describing the setting, and the dialogue feels drawn out and doesn’t reveal enough about your characters. And as my interest waned, I found it hard to believe that the truck drivers would keep pressing her for more information, so apparently gripped by what is quite an underwhelming opening.

In short, I felt like you were spinning out your tale, interrupting the narrative with unnecessary breaks that brought the story back to the present, and introducing chapter breaks at often quite strange intervals in the story. As I’m sure you’re aware, whether you self-publish or go down the traditional route, a reader’s judgement on your work is very often based on the first few chapters. If you don’t grip your reader early on, you risk losing them for good. I would suggest taking another look at the plotting and structure of your novel by storyboarding it, detailing what happens scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so you can more clearly see the direction and flow of the narrative, and also hone in on areas that are weaker than others and perhaps aren’t furthering the plot in a definite way.

Professional mini critique for In-between Us by Juliet

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your novel but I did feel that they could benefit from substantial further development. While the opening from Madeline’s POV (point of view) was engaging and intriguing enough to compel your reader to venture a little further, I found Rebecca’s scene from her perspective felt tired and predictable. You resort to clichés (you even reference Mills and Boon!), and her intentions – and Flynn’s – are so transparent that there is no sense of anticipation as it becomes increasingly obvious how the plot will unfold. I also found Rebecca a hard character to warm to. While she will inevitably have vices and flaws, she still has to feel charismatic and interesting if the reader is to want to continue reading. And to be frank, I found her quite insipid as a main character.

I also felt, from reading you synopsis, that the reader’s sympathies wouldn’t be encouraged any more for either Rebecca or Flynn. It seems like the reader is being coaxed into empathising with Madeline only. I think it would make for a much more interesting read if Rebecca and Flynn were more complex characters, so the reader would be forced to question what they would do in their situation. Because while there is a dramatic plot development in that Madeline is terminally ill and her marriage is becoming increasingly unstable, this seems like it will be very much a character-driven story, rather than a plot-driven one. And so when you come to rewriting, you need to really focus on your characterisation, making your characters come alive on the page and really getting under their skin and laying bare what is unique about them, rather than just have them play parts to service your story.

Professional mini critique for The Gift by Robert Thayer

Congratulations on being well rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading your short story. It was by turns suspenseful, atmospheric and tense. You kept the reader guessing as to what would happen right until the very end. And the ending was both dramatic and unexpectedly poignant.

The one (small) criticism I would have is that some of your dialogue felt a little overdrawn. Remember that less is often more when it comes to writing. I think you could have made some of the exchanges a little more ambiguous and so make the characters more intriguing. Such as dark, subtle hints as to why the mayor’s wife would act like this. And a greater sense of opaqueness so that the reader – alongside Margaret – doesn’t know who to trust and what are people’s true intentions.

Editor Natalie Braine

This post was last edited by ProfessionalCritique, 02 May 2013, 00:17
 01 May 2013, 23:37 #166797 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor critique of Mistaken Identity

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique. I really enjoyed reading your work, and from the synopsis I can see that you have planned a highly-plotted crime novel. I hope this critique will provide a few ideas that you might bear in mind as you continue to write, as well as some guidance about how you can develop what you have already written.


It's obvious that you have a very carefully-plotted plan, but simplifying it slightly might be a good idea – I found parts of the synopsis for Mistaken Identity quite hard to follow. It includes a lot of detail about every plot point – as it's the first thing that potential publishers are going to read, it's important that it grabs their attention and focuses instead on only the major narrative arc and the character development that will occur during the novel. Too many red herrings can be off-putting for some readers. Your assertion that you plan to interleave the main plot with Browning's visit to his aged 'Aunty Flo' is interesting, as long as it doesn't make the plotting too fragmented and confusing to your readers.

I'm afraid I was a bit confused by your description of the novel's planned denouement – that the attacker of the lawyers, the property speculator and the building contractor will in the end be revealed as our protagonist's own Aunty Flo. You’ll have to work hard in order to convince readers that an elderly woman resident in a nursing home could possibly be responsible for such violent attacks on healthy grown men – it also seems to be a coincidence too far that Ray Browning's own aunt would turn out to be the criminal. I was concerned that readers would be disappointed with this explanation for the attacks, especially given all the twists that have occurred before this surprising reveal – to avoid this you'll need to be careful about creating suspicion around her during the novel, and creating a convincing motive for the attacks. If they are simply explained by her anger against the legal system, her removal of their 'private members' seems quite extreme!


I thought the set-up for Mistaken Identity was intriguing, and the short chapters that I have read so far create a punchy and readable narrative. However, is the fact that Ray Browning is a physical therapist relevant to the plot apart from as a mechanism that will allow him to be mistaken for a private investigator? It seemed unlikely to me that several people would make that same mistake in such quick succession! Perhaps you could consider making Browning an actual private investigator, a more conventional premise in crime fiction? This would also allow for the possibility of him becoming a recurring character and investigating other cases if you decided to write more crime fiction after this book. I was interested by your decision to use the second chapter as a kind of flashback, but while it creates a striking opening it doesn't allow you to establish any details about Ray's character before the first crime scene. I also found it made for a slightly tangled chronology – reading the second chapter I had to remind myself a couple of time that Ray has not yet visited Emily Roberts' house and found her elderly neighbour's murdered body.


I was slightly unsure whether the novel is supposed to be written in American English; vocabulary such as 'faucet' implied that it is. If so, be careful to remove English idiom such as 'Aunty'. On a similar note, the idea of 'Physical Therapist' as an occupation is, I think, unfamiliar to a British audience. Of course, novels written in American English can be successful here (and vice versa), but I thought you might usefully consider where your primary readership might be and tailor your writing accordingly.

In this kind of hard-boiled crime fiction I would focus on making your prose as tight and punchy as possible. To that end, the description of the door as having 'too much gleaming brass on it' in the opening line seems clumsy – something like 'heavy with gleaming brass' might be more effective. Your use of Ray's thoughts to reveal expositionary detail about Emily Roberts' house is a common device employed by crime writers, but isn't quite realistic – would he really discern all that information about Emily and Rose's characters from a brief glance at a photograph of them, and is the detail that St Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge feature in it at all relevant?

When you reveal that the tap is stained red with blood, surely Browning would have noticed that before he looks at his fingers? Think about trying hard to avoid cliche and these kind of clumsy details that might jar slightly with your readers – your description of the sun 'warming the flowers and the cockles of young hearts', for instance, and the recurring digression about the robin in the garden of Browning's office are unnecessary distractions from the action. The description of the arm 'showing on the right side near [the tree's] base reads a little awkwardly – on reading it for the first time it was unclear to me whether it was a human arm, and whether it was attached to a body? That said, I really liked the gradual description of this first crime scene, the slow reveal as the reader sees the body through Ray's eyes.


I thought from reading your sample that Ray Browning has the potential to be a really strong character. However, in a crime novel such as this, readers need to be heavily emotionally invested in the progress of the protagonist right from the beginning – think of how we identify with Ian Rankin's Rebus or Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, for instance, almost before we find out about the crimes that they are investigating. I didn't from reading the opening of Mistaken Identity get very much of an impression of what Ray Browning looks like or what kind of person he is. It's important to include some kind of expositionary information about him so we can engage and empathise – you mention in the synopsis that he has moved to Florida after the death of his wife, murdered in Boston – this is the kind of detail that you should use early on to create a well-drawn character from the beginning. Where did he move from? How did his wife die? What does he look like? I appreciate that by plunging us into the first crime scene straight away you have created an attention-grabbing opening, but think it would be more meaningful if we knew a little more about Ray Browning first. I was also struck by the lack of shock that Browning displays when confronted with a brutally-murdered body, given that he is unfamiliar with such crime scenes.


Hot and humid Florida is a great setting for the book, and one that you evoke well, despite my slight misgivings about your lapses between English and American English. I also was convinced by Browning's isolation in this small-town community where everyone knows each other – perhaps the problems relating to being a 'fish out of water' after his arrival from the big city is something that you could consider exploring in the rest of the novel.

Market and Conclusion

From reading the opening of Mistaken Identity it is obvious that you have a good idea of where your story is going. As I have mentioned, the creation of a sympathetic and engaging protagonist is crucial to the success of this kind of book, especially if Ray Browning is to eventually become a recurring character in a series. In terms of commercial appeal, this kind of genre fiction can be hugely successful, but I think it's worth considering again whether every twist of your plot will convince your readers and hold their attention. Very good luck with it – I hope that some of my thoughts on the opening will be useful as you continue to write.

Nick, Editor, Bloomsbury

This post was last edited by ProfessionalCritique, 02 May 2013, 00:05
 02 May 2013, 00:09 #166802 Reply To Post
NUMBERED by Bill Scott

Firstly, your plot from reading the full synopsis is fantastic – high-concept thrillers are proving very popular at the moment (from movies like Looper through to books like The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes) and your idea about a boy who can see ‘death dates’ imprinted on faces is very creepy and original. And The Jinx harvesting the souls of young boys to keep her from aging is a contemporary twist on the horrifying Elisabeth Bathory story that makes her a compelling ‘bad guy’.

You have a cracking story set-up – but I don’t think the beginning of your book as it stands quite does it justice. There is next-to-no background info to the characters, which I found disorienting. There’s a killer line early on - “The guy bleeding to death right in front of you” – and then we hear some shocking details of the event, like the blood stinging his eyes, but as everything is reported retrospectively, it doesn’t pack the immediate, dramatic punch it should. I wonder whether you could look into re-writing the first part of the book as a flashback to the actual death, with Jacob in the middle of the action? A short, snappy, shocking opening to really hook your readers in from the first.

Our introduction to The Jinx is similarly opaque; Jacob pedals faster past her field – “For all I knew she was coming for me” – but we don’t know anything about her, so instead of this being a terrifying very-real-possibility, it is a little baffling for the reader. When Jacob sees the numbers on Karen’s face for the first time, I wanted him to have a more emotional response – more of a sense of rising panic as he sees the numbers on people’s faces everywhere he turns and can’t explain them away. I think part of the problem is that we haven’t had enough scene setting of the normal world and Jacob’s normal life for this turn of events to feel shocking and ‘other’. Jacob’s realisation that the numbers are “on the gums leading up to my teeth. The number were coming from inside of me” is such a scary concept – and we need to see outright panic descend. This will crank up the pace and keep your readers turning the pages feverishly. There can be few things worse than everyone around you believing that you’re having a psychotic breakdown when you know that you’re sane but that there’s something dark and potentially dangerous going on – really capitalise on poor Jacob’s predicament by showing him have an angry, frustrated response to his doctor and mother’s probing.

Can I make a plea for you to feature Karen as much as possible – she’s a great character with some sparky, sardonic one-liners!

You absolutely have a brilliant structure for your story in place and I think with some work on the beginning to establish your characters and lay a solid setting that can then spin out of control, you’ll have a great book on your hands. I wish you the best of luck with it, and hope you’ve found my suggestions useful.

Lauren, Editor, Random House


I so enjoyed reading the sample chapters, and the synopsis of the entire book – this is a hard-hitting but beautifully written account of a boy’s struggle to escape his impoverished background and peacefully achieve much in life. Your description of the Kenyan coastline – “deserted white beaches and an Indian Ocean of ever-changing greens and blues” – is beautiful and immediately transported me there – I’d encourage you to add as much lush description of the various surroundings throughout the book as possible. This will really awaken the senses of your reader and bring the world you are painting alive.

Your writing really kicks up a gear when we are ‘in the moment’ and can see characters engage with each other rather than hear events reported retrospectively. The horrible encounter between Ali and Ruth, where he threatens to beat her and Patience before fleeing into the night, is rendered powerful and pacy through staccato dialogue, and I’d suggest adding more immediacy to the narrative. Instead of telling us “Weeks turned into months and still there was no sign of Ali. Gradually the family relaxed”, let’s see how different their lives were after he disappeared. Did Juma come out of his shell a bit? How did he feel about Ali not being there – did he have mixed emotions? Glad to be rid of him, but worried about their safety and how they’d survive financially?

Sunil is such a great hero/character; calm, composed, moral and hard-working – everything Ali is not, and it is really touching to see Juma be so inspired by him when he is treated in hospital for malaria. I think that is one of the things I liked the most in the section of your book I have read so far – in amongst some dark, violent, horrifying times, are flickers of light and hope for a better future. I am certainly keen to read on and root for Juma throughout! I care about these characters from just a short sample – great stuff.

Best of luck with your writing.

Lauren, Editor, Random House

KNOTS by Frank Sligo

Short stories are notoriously difficult to make a satisfying reading experience – you need an economy of scale that can leave the reader feeling unengaged with the characters and unfamiliar with the setting. But you absolutely transported me to Ireland in 1904 from the beginning – “fierce heat and a whiff of sour milk” in the kitchen, to the “weak sun” in the sky, the remote rural location.

Eileen’s desire for a more glamorous life as a “celebrated chanteuse” in America, away from the drudgery of her work and the unwelcome attention from O’Dowd is heartbreaking and so far removed from her reality. But her spirit remains unbroken, through the beatings from O’Dowd and her eventual realisation that she is set to be a farmer’s wife for ever. I did wonder whether the story could do with a change in the pace of Eileen’s delivery – she does feel quite one-note and perhaps we could see her break down/get angry at some point? She says that “I’d be reminded every so often by a sickening sensation of the ground rushing under my feet” and I’d suggest making more of this. When she hears that Susanna and Mickey are bound for America, can she have a more visceral reaction? They will be living her dream, while she is stuck behind in Ireland with a husband she hates and a suspected hex on them meaning they can’t have children. A desolate, lonely situation and future stretching ahead of her, indeed. When that “velvet curtain” comes down for good the night that Eileen sings at the American Wake, can we see the extent of her devastation? I think generally I would be keen to see more cracks in Eileen’s stoic mask – this would endear her more the reader and provoke a more emotional response to her plight.

The dialogue is authentic and snappy and I really did feel like I was reading about real characters in a vivid time and place. I wish you all the best with your writing.

Lauren, Editor, Random House

 02 May 2013, 00:12 #166800 Reply To Post
Random House Editor Reviews

The Ricochet of Sunbeams – Derek Byrne

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month with what I thought was a very striking, imaginative piece of creative writing. From the title I had expected something perhaps a little sweeter or saccharine, so I was very pleasantly surprised by what I read. You employ some wonderfully vivid descriptions, the 'fingers of the desert' creeping into the car, the boy clinging on to the wire fence 'as if he's trying to claw his way to the top' and there's a sense of menace that runs throughout these first chapters that keeps the tension humming through your writing. It is both appealing and unsettling at the same time, and in many respects made me think of early Ian McEwan books, such as The Cement Garden.

I would generally advise against switching perspective so frequently as it can leave your writing feeling disjointed and unfocused, but I think here it generally works well with the sense of oddness and alienation you're creating. I would keep an eye on it though, and try not to switch between characters too frequently so that readers have longer to get inside the mindset of each character. I'm not sure about putting 'He hates me because he hated my Dad' within asterisks, is this meant to imply that Gavin is thinking this line but not saying it out loud? If so I would put this in italics, not in asterisks, or work it into the narrative in some other way as asterisks aren't a recognised punctuation mark in creative writing.

I thought this was a very strong opening to a novel, good luck for the future!

The Truth about Sally – Adrian Lynch

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month with your bright and lively read. The Truth about Sally had plenty of humour running through it and Sally is a very appealing heroine. Your writing showed some lovely, imaginative touches – I loved her lips pinching close like a startled squirrel and the battle to rescue/release Tilly from Truth's jaws! I don't think I've ever seen a book anthropomorphised so charmingly before.

I would recommend having a quick look at a punctuation guide for advice on using commas as you do sometimes use them where they're not needed. For example the sentence 'The common thing about parties, appeared to be that kids got presents, which sounded nice, and that eating too much cake, made you sick, which didn't sound too nice' should read 'The common thing about parties appeared to be that kids got presents, which sounded nice, and that eating cake made you sick, which didn't sound too nice.'

Ignore the well meaning, but misleading advice about using one wherever you'd pause to take a breath – essentially commas should be used for lists, so 'The girl held grey, yellow and pink balloons'; to connect two separate clauses i.e. 'The cat jumped on the mat, and the girl shouted to her mother to answer the door' or to bracket information which can be removed from a sentence without it disturbing the flow, i.e. 'The cat jumped on the mat, which was a violent green colour, and the girl shouted to her mother to answer the door.' A good punctuation guide is invaluable and getting this straight in your mind will leave you with more time to focus on the creative side of your writing.

Hunted by Shadow – TB Tschauder

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month on YouWriteOn. Your first few chapters made for a very interesting read and the twist when we suddenly jumped into the 'real world' worked beautifully to wrongfoot me and make me eager to read on.

Do take care to read your work through very carefully afterwards – when images are so vivid for you as a writer, it's easy to overlook details that you might have forgotten to communicate to readers. For example, when you wrote that Leyna forgot about her doll and dropped it, smashing it on the floor, I was confused as this was the first we'd heard of a doll and previously Leyla had wrapped her arms around Will, which I would have thought would be tricky if she was already clutching her doll.

It's a strange truth that going into a lot of detail about a heightened emotion – whether that's fear or anger or love – can actually dilute its impact. I found that having Leyna both vomit and then wet herself in fear within just a few paragraphs actually undermined the sense of tension you'd been building since the story began. Sometimes it can be more powerful to give a reader just a few details and let them piece together for themselves how frightening a situation that would be.

One small plot point, Leyla 'settled for November 4th' when she filled out the form for the medical tests, which made it sound, to me at least, like she'd just decided there and then on that particular day but I presume she, or someone else, would have allocated her a birthday as soon as she came into the orphanage for the sake of forms, etc?

Good luck for your future writing!

Alison, Editor, Random House

 02 May 2013, 00:12 #166801 Reply To Post
Random House Editor Critique of Meridian – Ellie Daniels

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories on YouWriteOn this month! I very much enjoyed reading your first chapters; Finlay is a very likeable central character and the flashback to 1275 brought a fantastic new dimension to your story which made me keen to read on and find more about the mysterious Stone and the serpent. Your writing is lively with a real energy to it, especially when it came to chapter endings, and there were some lovely descriptive phrases that really brought your book alive for me.


Your book has a quick pace to it and is filled with lots of incident and intrigue, which keeps a reader eagerly turning the pages. I thought the ending of Chapter Two was a masterclass in how to effectively employ a cliff hanger – I wish more authors had your talent for this! – and I really enjoyed the flashback to 1275, as it showed that the novel would take a very original turn. Depending on how frequently you flash back to this same strand as the story progresses, I wonder whether you might want to put that section in italics to very obviously flag up that it's a different strand to the present day?

Where possible, do try to resist the temptation to tell the reader everything straight away; it's absolutely fine to let readers piece together information for themselves so don't feel that you have to tell us about Finlay's past, why he's come to Cornwall, what he's been doing over the past few years all in the first two pages. Drip feeding information can be a really good way of encouraging readers to engage with your book as they make their own guesses as to what's happened in a character's past or what a certain, elliptical comment may refer to – the passing reference to 'Home wasn't a place I was welcome now, and there was no going back' is a great example of this. Readers love a challenge so don't worry that they will lost interest if everything isn't spelled out straight away.

On a side note, I was a little surprised that Diggory and Richie don't appear to have waited to help Finlay as he ran from the tidal wave – I can understand how frightening it must have appeared, but it sounds like he was just feet away from them so wouldn't they have tried to haul him to safety?


Finlay has a very likeable, self deprecating narrative voice, which helps a reader quickly warm to him. I thought you did a good job of letting him roll his eyes at the mysterious Arthur Hemming's warnings of an earthquake, without making him sound too flippant so we were on his side from the start whilst accepting that this was a slightly farfetched idea he had been sent to investigate.

I wasn't quite clear why he volunteered to help look for the Rector when he'd just been reflecting that he needed to get hold of Gus and some clothes, and lie down somewhere, especially when he was only dressed in a sheet! Were we meant to read this as him feeling compelled to help out or that he thought this might be the best way to get hold of Gus? It might be best to add some small note of explanation.

We only have brief glimpses of the other characters, but I thought the awkward Rector had plenty of potential to be a very interesting foil to Finlay, both physically and mentally, and I liked what little we saw of the 'pink girl'. I presume she is being set up to be Finlay's love interest, but I was very pleased to see that Finlay didn't need to rescue her at the start of the book, and she actually seemed more in control than he was.

Quality of Writing

You use some lovely descriptions in your work – I could so clearly imagine the 'curtain of jackdaws' and the trail Finlay left behind him, 'like some great sea monster', and I thought the wood burner puffing out smoke, as if it was sighing in dismay at Finlay's lie was a lovely line that told us so much about what Finlay himself was feeling at that point. The location of your book was one of the most appealing aspects for me as it's not an area I know well, so I loved the details of the landscape and the setting that you wove through your writing.

I'm not sure if I've misunderstood the context, but I couldn't quite work out how Diggory had 'riddled the wood burner' as I can only think of riddled in the sense of something being riddled with holes. Have I misunderstood?

As with my comments above about plot details, do try and let the physical descriptions of your characters slip out gradually, in line with the story itself. I thought it worked very well, for example, when you had Finlay ruefully reflecting that 'I arched my spine... At six foot five, I wasn't built for airplane seats and cramped hire cars' because the physical description was directly related to the action of the story, whereas the girl 'homing onto my own damaged eye – most of the green obliterated by the black distortion, which made my pupil huge and strangely bird-shaped' felt a little more clumsy, as if it had been slightly shoehorned in. I don't have a problem with her noticing his eye – as it's clearly something very startling – but the comment about how his pupil appeared just didn't feel like something Finlay would think to himself, at this point. What would probably work better at that point would be an emotional response that gave us a sense of what this damaged eye means to Finlay: is he annoyed or embarrassed by the girl staring at it?

As a side note, as you tell us the date in just the first few lines of your opening section, 'It'll be September 11th, Saint Michael's Mount. An earthquake' I don't think you need to have the date and the location at the top of the chapter as well, it feels a little like unnecessary repetition. The flashback is in the same location, so we don't need that to be stated here either and I wonder whether it might not be more intriguing if you left it to readers to try and work out when it was set? The clues you give us should be enough to identify that this is occurring in the past (especially if you were to put these sections in italics, as suggested) and do readers need to know exactly what year it is at this point in the story, or is this something we could work out gradually?


I thought this was a lovely opening to a novel, and I can certainly see why other readers have enjoyed it so much. The success of Kate Mosse's 'timeslip' novels, such as Labyrinth, indicate the large audience out there for intelligent, pacy reads that blend the contemporary with the historical and I'm sure your story would appeal to fans of those books. Finlay is an appealing central character – intelligent, resourceful, self-deprecating but with a tragedy in his past – and I would happily have spent longer in his company.

I'd recommend looking at ways in which you could drip feed information about Finlay's past and his presence in Cornwall gradually throughout the story, rather than explaining everything to us immediately. People rarely give us their whole history when we meet them for the first time in real life, so it can feel a little clumsy when an author gives us what seems to be a character's entire backstory in the first few pages. Remember that it's far more fun for readers to put together a few tantalising clues than it is to have everything explained to them! I'd like you to think about ways in which you could reveal this information through other means; could someone see Finlay's photograph of Anna, for example, and ask about her or where it was taken? Could Merryn ask Finlay in the car what he was doing in the area and why he needs to rent the cottage?

I hope these comments are helpful for you as you write, and good luck for the future!

Alison, Editor, Random House
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