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ProfessionalCritique
 23 Feb 2015, 21:32 #184544 Reply To Post
During Competition Periods on YouWriteOn.com editors from Random House, Bloomsbury and Orion, provide critiques on youwriteon. Random House, Bloomsbury and Orion publish authors such as Dan Brown, Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling.

The following critiques are for the stories which were top ten on the 1st January 2015.


ProfessionalCritique
 23 Feb 2015, 21:34 #184545 Reply To Post
Random House Editor critique of Skullduggery, PA – Mike Madden

Congratulations on being the top rated story this month! This was a very fresh and amusing read, and judging by your synopsis there's a lot more fun to be had in the rest of the story as your cast of misfits and oddballs band together whilst simultaneously plotting against one another. Your synopsis for the remainder of the novel reminded me of an old-fashioned farce, in the very best way.

Plotting

In these early chapters you're really introducing us to your main characters and setting out your store for what's to follow. I think you generally do this very well, but I'd also encourage you to think about ways in which you can let elements of the backstory of the characters and their town come out in other ways, rather than you just having to tell the readers what is relevant as this can sometimes slow the story down just at a point where you want the pace to be whisking us along, further into the story.

Is there a way, for example, that we could get a sense of Milton's history through conversations with the other people at the bar? In fact, do we actually need to know everything you tell us right at that point in time, or is it enough that we get the impression he's one of those slightly pompous men who is in love with the sound of his own voice? Don't feel pressurised to tell us a character's entire backstory the second we meet them – think of when you meet someone new and how you learn bits and pieces about them over time, filling in gaps each time you meet them. Rarely does anyone just present you with their entire life history without being prompted.

I think it's a smart, confident touch that works really well to tell readers that yes, that roof is going to collapse and let us imagine exactly what is going to go on when it does; I think it works so much better than just heavily hinting through the creaks and groans we hear.

Writing

Your writing is generally imaginative and energetic, and laced with a dark humour that is bound to both amuse and horrify readers. You've done a great job in creating a very vivid picture of the town and its inhabitants; I could really imagine the snowed-in strip joint and everyone crowded round the bar, having the same kind of conversations they'd been having for years. There's a really lovely strain of black comedy humour in the opening paragraphs in particular, as you set out the history of the town, and the various families; the Cole's St Patrick's Day freak accident was a particularly lively touch and I loved the contrast between the Philadelphia and the Skullduggery emergency plans when the snowstorm hit.

Do try and get yourself in the habit of very carefully proofreading your work as you don't want to give a reader a reason to stop reading, especially if, at one point, you're considering submitting your work to an agent. Mistakes such as 'You're mom lives on West Pratt', rather than 'Your mom' or 'The Holt brothers continued debate on the origins' rather than 'The Holt brothers continued to/their debate on the origins' or 'Louise Lane' rather than 'Lois Lane' (although I wasn't sure if the latter was a joke at the Kelley twins expense) may feel like quite small slips, but as they accumulate they become harder to ignore, and you really don't want anything to distract people from the quality of your writing or plotting. If it's something you find a bit tricky, I'd suggest finding a really good friend who can read it through solely to look for typos or grammatical slip-ups and not to comment on the writing or anything else.

Just as a quick aside on song lyrics as you use these throughout Kaitlin's stripping scene: if you reproduce any song lyrics, quotes from books, etc in your professional writing you will need to clear permission from the copyright holder to do so, which will involve paying a fee to that copyright holder. Lyrics in particular, are notoriously very, very expensive to clear permission to reproduce, so I'd always strongly advise writers against including them unless it's absolutely necessary and keeping the number of words quoted to a bare minimum. Some authors have actually discovered that the entire cost of their advance for a book can be swallowed up by paying permission fees!

Characterisation

You obviously have a real affection for your characters which really shines through in your writing, there's humour at their expense as well, but I liked the fact that you clearly weren't sneering at them, no matter how messed up they all were. Kaitlin and Pasquale both came across very vividly on the page, and really endeared themselves to me; I think you'd got the blend of criminal and victim of circumstances beyond their control just right.

Try and be as varied and imaginative as possible when describing your cast of characters; Derrick is introduced to us as 'flabby, with massive biceps and a tight ponytail' and then his brother, Shane is described as 'a shorter, flabbier version of his brother' and I'd like to see you employ a different word to describe one of them. Really show us how creative you can be!

Conclusion

I think you've got a great opening to a story here and what I'd strongly encourage you to focus on next is polishing your writing - try and catch any grammatical errors and I'd also suggest you investigate the rules for how to punctuate dialogue correctly. This may seem far less fun than the actual creative writing side of things, but it's absolutely vital that everything underpinning the story itself is working correctly.

I actually think the story deserves a quirkier title that gives readers a hint as to what's about to unfold – Skullduggery initially made me think of pirates, whereas I think you could go with a really odd, refreshing title that made people do a double take whilst also giving them a stronger sense of what was in store.

Good luck for the future!

Alison,
Senior Editor
Random House
ProfessionalCritique
 23 Feb 2015, 21:37 #184546 Reply To Post
Random House Editor Mini-Reviews


Layla Bunch/Sharon Schlesigner

This was an interesting read for me, as I was joining part way through the story, but your characters have such strong personalities and their desires and dislikes were so vividly drawn that I didn't feel at all at sea; I loved the detail of Helstrom only ironing the part of his shirt that was visible when he wore a jacket, it tells you so much about him, and your description of the tension draining away like she'd just 'kicked off a pair of tight shoes' was extremely effective – well done!

You have a terse, dramatic, almost elliptical style that generally works very well to keep the tension building although I did find the odd missing question or speech marks ('Why's she on the floor', '”Some snotty kids came after her. I tried to help') could be something of a distraction from the story itself, so do try and really check over your writing with an eagle eye; it's such a good habit to get into.

On a small plot point, I was a little confused as to why she seemed so doubtful that someone homeless may shelter under an overpass, I'd have thought she might have seen people sheltering there herself or at least know that desperate people will have to sleep in very dangerous or inhospitable places?

Good luck with the remainder of the novel!

Social conscience/Stuart Martin


Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month! I wasn't quite sure of what to make of your story’s conclusion – was the implication that we should take justice into our own hands or were we meant to start to question our opinion of Mr Priestly, who we'd previously thought to be a decent, moral man? I think the latter is a really interesting option so if that is the case, I think you might want to consider expanding the final scenes so that’s absolutely clear to readers. I did find the ending a little uncomfortable, Brett Palmer is clearly a violent bully, but an adult taking a teenage boy prisoner, and encouraging another teenage boy to attack him with a length of pipe – and actually murder him? - was quite shocking and I really wanted to feel that this was the point you were making, and not that Brett deserved what happened to him.

One thing I'd like you to think about for the future is making the shifts in time and scene a little smoother. In the first few pages we jumped around a lot, which can make it tricky for a reader to get caught up in a story as, instead, they're constantly having to work out where we are now and how much time has passed. I think it might work a little better if we spent a little longer in each scene; in its current form it can feel a little as if we are given the relevant point for each scene – Andrew seeing Mr Priestly's vandalised house, for example or delivering his story to the paper – and then we're straight on to the next scene, whereas you really want to give your characters time to react and your readers time to absorb what has just happened and its implications. A little more time and a little more context could really help your story come alive.

This is a very small point, but I was a little surprised that a greyhound would be strong enough to lift a labrador by its neck? I wouldn't have thought they were physically very strong whereas a labrador is quite sturdy.

Good luck with your future writing!

From a great height/John Paulson

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month! Espionage novels continue to be of interest to many readers so I wasn’t surprised that this had had such a good response on the site, although John le Carré's wonderfully bleak Cold War thrillers have set a very high standard so any writer looking to compete with these and other existing books will need to ensure that their story is in the very best possible shape.

There are some wonderful elements in your opening, but I felt that the overall pace was a little slower than I'd have hoped for – for me, there were just a few too many moments where characters told other characters about conversations they'd heard about, when what I really wanted as a reader was to see those conversations for myself. I think it would be far more involving, for example, if we actually saw Philip's interview with the golf club for ourselves, rather than read about two other characters discussing what had happened. The maxim to 'show, don't tell' has become something of a cliché, but it's absolutely vital if we are to really find ourselves drawn into a story and what I'd strongly encourage you to do is look back over these opening chapters and set yourself the challenge of actually writing one of the scenes that you tell us about; I think it will make for a much more exciting read whilst not losing the overall intelligent tone and feel of your book.

Good luck!

Alison,
Editor,
Random House
ProfessionalCritique
 23 Feb 2015, 21:37 #184547 Reply To Post
Thank you to everyone. Further editor reviews will be added once received.
YouWriteOn
 10 Apr 2015, 23:54 #184989 Reply To Post
Editor Mini Reviews

Professional mini critique for Trey’s Version by Sean Hayward

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. It was simply told and the story was involving. However, I was expecting something more was going to happen, (particularly with the package for Trey’s grandfather) so the ending did feel a little anti-climactic after the initial build-up. But I liked Madison’s sharp, concise version of events at the end of the story, which brought a tongue-in-cheek tone to your narrative. The only minor quibble I would have is whether a girl of her age would use expressions like ‘a dirty magazine’ and ‘caught with his pants down’. Although I guess this is something she could have overheard from adults…


Professional mini critique for The Petalman Program by Bill Bock

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. I thought your opening was strong and effectively drew the reader in. Particularly with your mention of ‘the million dollars’. You clearly know that less is more, especially in the opening of a novel. You want to give the reader enough information to pull them in, but withhold just enough to rouse their curiosity and make them want to know more. And I also thought the ending was equally strong, tying up the narrative in a way that felt neat and cyclical – much like solving a mathematics equation!

But (there’s always a but!) I have to say that I found the tone of your short story was a little off-key, to the extent that I was never really invested in your story. In trying to be humorous, your narrative began to lose credibility. I would suggest taking another look at the email exchanges between the two characters and thinking about reworking them in a way that doesn’t forsake believability in the pursuit of comedy. Because even though any work of fiction requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, ultimately, your reader still has to believe in your story and your characters…


Professional mini critique for Should Have Dug a Deeper One by Sean Palmer

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading these early pages of your novel. I thought the initial opening could be stronger. Perhaps you might consider cutting the scene in the auditorium completely, and just have Christopher being escorted to the dean’s office, wondering what is happening? Because the line ‘We killed him, didn’t we?’ is so fantastically dramatic that I feel it needs to appear earlier. You need to hook the reader from the get-go, and I think as the opening currently stands, it lacks intrigue and drama until you get to this point. Worry less about set-up and introducing your characters, as this can come later, and focus more on dropping your reader right into the middle of the action.

I thought you ended the first chapter on a really strong note that will instantly make the reader want to turn the page and find out more. But after the dramatic revelation of Si’s death, you segue into quite a lengthy character description of him. Remember that less is often more, particularly in these crucial early pages of a novel. You don’t need to overwhelm the reader with details about Si straight away. In fact, by withholding more, you actually inject intrigue and mystery into your novel, as the reader instinctively wants to know more about him and why (and if) he killed himself.

Christopher had a strong, clear voice, but I worry that he is perhaps a little too bitter and caustic in these early pages. He needs to have a bit more warmth and a few more redeeming features if the reader is to align with him and want to follow his story through to the end.


Professional mini critique for The Fifth Streeter by Mike Madden

Congratulations on being well rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading these early pages of your crime thriller novel and was incredibly impressed with the confidence of your writing. This is one of the best openings of a novel I’ve read on here for a long time. It’s clear you are a natural, instinctive storyteller. Your writing is tightly plotted, sharply written and well paced. Your opening chapter snared me from the very first line. You brilliantly set the scene, instantly transporting your reader there. But what really sets your writing above a lot of other crime thrillers out there is your characterisation. Roman is a brilliantly drawn protagonist, with just the right mix of swagger and self-deprecation. There is a dark humour running through your narrative that really makes your story zing.

It’s actually hard to find fault and offer constructive criticism, as this very much read to me like a published book by an experienced writer – not an unpublished debut writer. The only thing I would say is that I was surprised that you would describe your own work as ‘tawdry’ given that this has negative connotations of being vulgar and tasteless. As your writing is anything but that…


Editor Natalie Braine
YouWriteOn
 10 Apr 2015, 23:56 #184990 Reply To Post
Editor Review of BLACK CARAVEL

Dear Harry Nicholson


Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers. I enjoyed reading these early pages of your historical action novel BLACK CARAVEL, but I did think they could benefit from further development. What I hope these editorial notes will do is provide you with some useful pointers as to how you can polish and evolve the existing pages, as well as give pointers on what to pay attention to as the book progresses.



Structure:

It is hard to get a true sense of how you have structured your narrative from these early chapters and your synopsis alone. But this is an area of your storytelling that should never be overlooked. Structure is what anchors a story and gives it shape, focus and direction. Alongside plot, this is one of the first things you must consider before you begin writing a novel. A useful exercise, before you both begin writing and as an aide-memoire for while you are writing, is to storyboard your narrative, either scene by scene or chapter by chapter. Not only will this ensure that your narrative is carefully plotted out, you will be able to more easily identify areas of weakness within your story. You narrative needs to feel balanced as well as have drive and pace.

From what I have read so far, it seems BLACK CARAVEL will be portrayed in third person narrative in a chronological, linear fashion, told from the alternate points of view of the five family members. This device of alternating between character POVs is a common literary technique and one that, when executed well, is a way to inject texture and variation into your novel, ensuring the reader never tires of one storyline or character before the narrative switches to the next.



Plot:

Like with the structure, it was also hard to gauge the depth of your plot from just these early chapters and your rather brief synopsis. Do you intend for the novel to be able to be read as a standalone book in its own right, or is it very much a companion piece to your first novel, TOM FLECK? Again, this is something you need to consider when rewriting.

While you have a nice writing style and it is clear that you have done a lot of historical research, these early pages didn’t capture me in the way that I’d hoped. Your story almost feels a little too careful, as if you feel constrained by the historical genre and feel you must write in a certain way. Regardless of what genre you are writing in, your story needs to have drama, momentum and emotion. And this was somewhat lacking in these opening chapters. I also thought that some of your writing edged a little too close to cliché at times. For example, Tom’s blind daughter Kate, waiting on the cliffs for the return of her brothers from sea… You need to toss aside stereotypes, clichés and formulas from this genre, and try to explore what is fresh and unique about the story that you are trying to tell.



Characterisation:

This is an area of the book that I felt needed particular attention. In these first two chapters, I didn’t get a true sense of any of your main characters, and consequently I wasn’t pulled into their story. If your characters don’t feel well drawn, your reader will immediately feel distanced from the story. You need a strong protagonist or protagonists that are going to draw the reader in and guide them through the story. They need to feel individual and memorable, and have a unique voice. And at present I don’t feel like you’ve achieved that. You need to work on fleshing them out and really exploring their distinct voices.

Another concern was that I sometimes felt that your dialogue seemed like a rather clunky, heavy-handed attempt to introduce historical background details into your narrative for the reader’s benefit. And subsequently, your characters risk seeming like mere mouthpieces for the wider social historical context rather than characters in their own right. Your dialogue needs to feel natural, even when it is serving a larger purpose in terms of the rest of the narrative.



Setting:

Your opening was a little too mired down with description. Yes, in historical fiction, there will inevitably be more descriptive prose than perhaps there would be in other genres of fiction, as you need to capture a vanished world and truly transport your reader there. But remember that less is often more. The setting should never overshadow the plot; it is only ever a backdrop against which the rest of the action unfolds.



Genre/market:

You classify this as action and historical. As I’m sure you’re aware, as well as being quite a niche area of the market, it is also a very heavily saturated one, so a new offering in this genre really needs to be something fresh and unique if it is to stand out from its literary contemporaries. And I think you have a way to go before achieving that. Have you considered who your actual readership is? As I’m concerned that this won’t squarely appeal to either a male readership, because it doesn’t have enough action, nor to a female readership, as it doesn’t have the deft characterisation or emotion to captivate them. Particularly in commercial fiction, your intended reader needs to be kept at the forefront of your mind while you are writing, as who you are writing for will inevitably change your style, content and tone of your writing.



Synopsis:

Your synopsis is a little brief. There is too much focus on the wider historical backdrop and not enough detail about Tom and his family’s personal story. Given that it has been summarised so simplistically and concisely, I worry that there isn’t enough dramatic scope to really fuel your narrative. (See my earlier notes on storyboarding your novel.) A potential reader (i.e. a literary agent who will only be reading the first three chapters) needs to know what else is in store for the rest of the novel.

A small point, but try to avoid phrases like: ‘Our concern … is soon swept away’ as it seems like you are dictating to the reader how they should be feeling and responding to your narrative…

Also, your conclusion – ‘Sight is restored and a new union across race and religion begins’ – feels a little too simplistic and even glib, and again, potential readers would assume that your finale is equally so…





Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you and in no way dishearten you. Many people dream of writing a book, but few actually write one, so the fact that this is your second full-length novel is an accomplishment itself! Writing is very much a craft that is developed and mastered over time, and can always be improved upon. As well as reading as widely as possible in the area in which you wish to write, have you considered joining a creative writing group? Receiving regular feedback from writing peers can be an invaluable way to sharpen your writing skills.


I wish you the best of luck in your rewrites and hope you continue to enjoy writing.



Best wishes

Natalie Braine
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