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ProfessionalCritique
 20 Feb 2013, 17:53 #163181 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury / Random House / Orion Critiques

Latest Critiques January 2013

Each month on YouWriteOn.com 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.

The editor feedback aims to assist all budding authors in their story development by giving feedback as to what editors are looking for in novels and novel openings submitted to them.
ProfessionalCritique
 20 Feb 2013, 17:55 #163182 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor critique of Fear Is the Lonesome Road by Anthony Irvin

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique. The synopsis for your book immediately piqued my interest as I was intrigued by the setting and the scope of your novel. There’s a real spark to this novel that makes it gripping and memorable, and it shows promise.

Structure

I like the way you manage to combine atmospheric, detailed descriptions of the setting with a fast-paced plot. This can often be difficult to achieve as writers tend to sacrifice important, subtle details at the expense of propelling the plot forward, but from these chapters I think the balance between the plot and the scene-setting is right. The prologue sets the scene well, and manages to put the reader on edge before you introduce any action or any of the characters. The temptation is often to throw readers right into the thick of the action from the offset, but your prologue really sets the tone of the novel in a way that immediately grabbed me: it is stark, frenetic, and tense.

From the synopsis, I can see that there will be a lot of plot twists to come, and it’s just worth bearing in mind that, unless you’re writing a crime thriller, it’s good to have sections where the plot and the tension occasionally let up a little bit, just to allow the readers to pause for breath, and for the nuances of the different characters’ personalities and emotions to come to light.

I did find the alternating narrative focus (from Ruth to Juma) slightly disorientating at times, and there were some transitions that perhaps could do with some more developing. For example, in the prologue, I like the drama of the line ‘Kibera is Juma’s birthplace’, and expected the section that followed to be from his point of view, but instead the focus was on Ruth. This threw me a little, and I wondered if it might be better to either introduce Ruth as his mother straight away, or rejig this section so that it starts from Juma’s perspective. The set-up from the prologue makes you think that Juma will be the main focus of the narrative, whereas the first few chapters flip between him and his mother.

Characterisation

There are some very sympathetic, admirable characters in this novel, and the contrast between this trusting family and the shadowy, suspicious people they encounter is often heartbreaking. Ruth is clearly in desperate need of people she can trust, and you can feel her despair that luck is anything but on her side.

There were times when I wished for more insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, particularly after the horrible death of Ruth’s mother. Because events move so quickly, there didn’t seem to be much time for the family to reflect on their trauma or grief. The moments when Ruth begins to realise the magnitude of the journey ahead for her vulnerable family are poignant, particularly at the end of Chapter 2, and I think there could be room to expand on these scenarios and allow the main characters’ emotions to manifest themselves. Ruth’s sense of self does emerge in the course of these three chapters, but it could be even stronger if her inner thoughts and fears were given more space in the narrative.


Setting

It’s an intriguing setting, and a part of the world that I suspect most readers will know little about. The picture you paint of it in the prologue is very vivid, and the punchy, brisk sentences give the reader a real sense of a place that is at once dangerous, chaotic and contradictory. I especially like the way you can build the tension through some strong imagery: the description of the dogs running around, whimpering, really struck me.

The juxtaposition of the world of the comparatively rich (in both Nairobi itself and the tourists that pass through) and the desperate poverty of the millions in ramshackle huts in Kibera makes for sobering reading, and again, adds an unavoidable sense of tension between two worlds that the reader knows will only grow over the course of the novel.

Genre/Market

This book falls into a genre known most commonly in publishing as ‘Reading Group Fiction’: books with a strong plot, often punctuated by emotional and moral dilemmas, and occasionally (as in the case of your book) set in a foreign country, giving a glimpse into a world hitherto undiscovered by the reader. Your book is both page-turning and intelligent, and would give readers plenty of issues to discuss.

Conclusion

Overall I was impressed with the ambition of this novel and found myself increasingly absorbed in the plight of this family as the story progressed. The plot seems very well thought out and with a little more work on developing the characterisation, I think this could be a compulsively readable and moving novel.

Editor, Bloomsbury
ProfessionalCritique
 20 Feb 2013, 17:57 #163183 Reply To Post
Further critiques to be posted as received from the editors ..
andika sasa
 25 Feb 2013, 11:27 #163410 Reply To Post
Quote: ProfessionalCritique, Wednesday, 20 Feb 2013 17:57
Further critiques to be posted as received from the editors ..


I was extremely grateful to receive such a comprehensive (and favourable) critique. It was also gratifying to learn that "this could be a compulsively readable and moving novel."

I am grateful that you highlighted the need to work on the characterisation. I was sub-liminally aware of short-comings in this area but now have a clearer focus on how to address these. Once tackled, I may be emboldened to seek agent representation!

Many thanks for your positive and constructive comments.

Tony Irvin
ProfessionalCritique
 01 Mar 2013, 15:10 #163659 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





FEAR IS THE LONESOME ROAD by Anthony Irvin
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

ProfessionalCritique
 01 Mar 2013, 15:23 #163661 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor Critique

Dear Rosalind Minett

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique. I was very interested to read the sample of A Boy with Potential, which introduces an intriguing premise, and from reading your synopsis I can tell that you have a strong idea about where the story is going to go next. In this critique I hope to provide a few ideas that you might bear in mind as you continue to write, as well as some (hopefully) useful pointers on how you can hone and develop what you have already written.

Structure

'I think I once killed a man and I don't know why' is a gripping opening, and plunges the reader straight into the novel's moral dilemma, an idea that is gradually reinforced as we realise that Jake has a preoccupation with violence; he has tortured animals and may well have been involved in the death of 'Snotty Swotty', all in the years before he is found next to the dead man in the church. Of course at the end of this section we realise that he is intent on committing mass murder. It is undoubtedly a shocking conclusion to the sample, but I was slightly unsure about your projected plan to switch from a first-person narrative after this first section – it will need careful handling if you are to maintain the reader's attention. Will you retell the plot that we have already witnessed from an alternative point of view? This would highlight the unreliability of Jake as a narrator, but might be repetitive and confusing for the reader.

Although I was impressed by your use of a first-person narrator, while reading the sample I found myself wondering how old Jake is at the point at which he's telling the story, given the apparent maturity of his voice. I think it might be worth you explaining how old Jake is at the point which he's telling the story in order for his voice to seem plausible. Not many ten year olds would say 'The little lightening of the sky stops my deepest sleep and catches my dreams as I wake', nor use words such as 'shroud' – be aware that this kind of literary language as you are writing as him might undermine the credibility of his narrative voice.

That said, I felt that there were times when his voice didn't feel consistent – given that he is obviously several years older than ten when he's telling the story, he might, for instance, be less naive about his parents' drug problem ('But they take stuff, so I was taken off them. They snort it and steal for it, deal it too'). For me, this raised questions about the structure of the novel – have you thought about signposting in some way something about what has happened to him since, or where he is in the 'present-day', the point at which he is recounting the story? Perhaps this will become clear in the course of the novel, but it's an effective tool that might add another layer of interest for the reader. Another device that works well in commercial psychological thrillers is to set alternate chapters in different periods or from different points of view – it's just a suggestion, but have you considered interweaving this material that is told from Jake’s point of view with the section you plan to tell from the point of view of the authorities? This would allow you to reveal Jake's past gradually rather than in one go, which would add to the suspense and make the book more of a thriller.

Setting

I was grabbed by the idea of a choirboy being found in a church next to a body, but didn’t get a strong sense in your sample about where the novel is set, which felt like a missed opportunity. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, is a short novel with an unreliable and disturbed first person narrator in which the setting in a remote Scottish peninsula is fundamental to the novel's creepy atmosphere. I got the sense from your sample that A Boy with Potential is set in a small town, but perhaps you could explore this more. How does Jake engage with the local community, and particularly the other children in the home where he is placed, and what do they make of him?

Tone

These are minor points, but there were a couple of times when specific words or phrases caused me to lose my focus on the story that Jake is telling. For instance, I was unsure about the reference to a Goosebumps novel – is the series still widely-read, and known about by your projected audience? Equally, the reference to Snotty Swotty being a 'pain in the butt' jumped out at me as an unwelcome Americanism that distracted me from the story. Similarly, you needn't feel that you should asterisks for swearing ('Shut the f*** up') – this represents a barrier to readers that you shouldn't worry about when writing adult fiction.

Jake's emotional detachment from traumatic events is convincingly and disturbingly portrayed. Reading the sample writing provided a convincing portrait of a troubled and unsympathetic character that would work well as a dramatic monologue or perhaps a short story, but I wasn't convinced that the plotting or characterisation is currently strong enough to work as a novel. I was unsure from your synopsis how much of the projected novel this 6,000 word sample represents – it might be worth you bearing in mind that even a short novel is generally at least 40,000 words long.

Genre/Market

Books such as Before I Go to Sleep and Gone Girl are recent examples of psychological thrillers that have performed very well commercially. Think about the importance of twists in novels like these – from reading your sample and synopsis, I wasn't sure how much jeopardy there would be in the rest of the story. You may well have already considered this, but might it make for a more vivid read if some of the action was told in the present tense rather than reported several years after it has happened?

Conclusion

Thanks for submitting this sample of your writing for a professional critique. I enjoyed reading it and can see that you are a writer with potential – while I was not entirely convinced that this is at the moment an idea that sustains a full-length novel, you have skilfully created a narrator who is at once obviously disturbed and yet innocent and naive. The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.

Editor, Bloomsbury Publishing
sport68
 01 Mar 2013, 17:38 #163671 Reply To Post
Thank you, Lauren.
I'm just finishing the second half of the novel and will incorporate your helpful advice when I embark on rewrites.

Bill Scott
tabbycat1
 02 Mar 2013, 15:38 #163700 Reply To Post
Woo-hoo!! for NUMBERED by Bill Scott

I read this beginning about a year or so ago and knew then it was a good one. Congrats for an awesome pro crit. Can't wait for the day I get to purchase a copy and finish it.
D
Happy writing!

Chicory
 02 Mar 2013, 16:30 #163701 Reply To Post
Quote: ProfessionalCritique, Friday, 1 Mar 2013 15:23
Bloomsbury Editor Critique

Dear Rosalind Minett

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique. I was very interested to read the sample of A Boy with Potential, which introduces an intriguing premise, and from reading your synopsis I can tell that you have a strong idea about where the story is going to go next. In this critique I hope to provide a few ideas that you might bear in mind as you continue to write, as well as some (hopefully) useful pointers on how you can hone and develop what you have already written.

Structure

'I think I once killed a man and I don't know why' is a gripping opening, and plunges the reader straight into the novel's moral dilemma, an idea that is gradually reinforced as we realise that Jake has a preoccupation with violence; he has tortured animals and may well have been involved in the death of 'Snotty Swotty', all in the years before he is found next to the dead man in the church. Of course at the end of this section we realise that he is intent on committing mass murder. It is undoubtedly a shocking conclusion to the sample, but I was slightly unsure about your projected plan to switch from a first-person narrative after this first section – it will need careful handling if you are to maintain the reader's attention. Will you retell the plot that we have already witnessed from an alternative point of view? This would highlight the unreliability of Jake as a narrator, but might be repetitive and confusing for the reader.

Although I was impressed by your use of a first-person narrator, while reading the sample I found myself wondering how old Jake is at the point at which he's telling the story, given the apparent maturity of his voice. I think it might be worth you explaining how old Jake is at the point which he's telling the story in order for his voice to seem plausible. Not many ten year olds would say 'The little lightening of the sky stops my deepest sleep and catches my dreams as I wake', nor use words such as 'shroud' – be aware that this kind of literary language as you are writing as him might undermine the credibility of his narrative voice.

That said, I felt that there were times when his voice didn't feel consistent – given that he is obviously several years older than ten when he's telling the story, he might, for instance, be less naive about his parents' drug problem ('But they take stuff, so I was taken off them. They snort it and steal for it, deal it too'). For me, this raised questions about the structure of the novel – have you thought about signposting in some way something about what has happened to him since, or where he is in the 'present-day', the point at which he is recounting the story? Perhaps this will become clear in the course of the novel, but it's an effective tool that might add another layer of interest for the reader. Another device that works well in commercial psychological thrillers is to set alternate chapters in different periods or from different points of view – it's just a suggestion, but have you considered interweaving this material that is told from Jake’s point of view with the section you plan to tell from the point of view of the authorities? This would allow you to reveal Jake's past gradually rather than in one go, which would add to the suspense and make the book more of a thriller.

Setting

I was grabbed by the idea of a choirboy being found in a church next to a body, but didn’t get a strong sense in your sample about where the novel is set, which felt like a missed opportunity. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, is a short novel with an unreliable and disturbed first person narrator in which the setting in a remote Scottish peninsula is fundamental to the novel's creepy atmosphere. I got the sense from your sample that A Boy with Potential is set in a small town, but perhaps you could explore this more. How does Jake engage with the local community, and particularly the other children in the home where he is placed, and what do they make of him?

Tone

These are minor points, but there were a couple of times when specific words or phrases caused me to lose my focus on the story that Jake is telling. For instance, I was unsure about the reference to a Goosebumps novel – is the series still widely-read, and known about by your projected audience? Equally, the reference to Snotty Swotty being a 'pain in the butt' jumped out at me as an unwelcome Americanism that distracted me from the story. Similarly, you needn't feel that you should asterisks for swearing ('Shut the f*** up') – this represents a barrier to readers that you shouldn't worry about when writing adult fiction.

Jake's emotional detachment from traumatic events is convincingly and disturbingly portrayed. Reading the sample writing provided a convincing portrait of a troubled and unsympathetic character that would work well as a dramatic monologue or perhaps a short story, but I wasn't convinced that the plotting or characterisation is currently strong enough to work as a novel. I was unsure from your synopsis how much of the projected novel this 6,000 word sample represents – it might be worth you bearing in mind that even a short novel is generally at least 40,000 words long.

Genre/Market

Books such as Before I Go to Sleep and Gone Girl are recent examples of psychological thrillers that have performed very well commercially. Think about the importance of twists in novels like these – from reading your sample and synopsis, I wasn't sure how much jeopardy there would be in the rest of the story. You may well have already considered this, but might it make for a more vivid read if some of the action was told in the present tense rather than reported several years after it has happened?

Conclusion

Thanks for submitting this sample of your writing for a professional critique. I enjoyed reading it and can see that you are a writer with potential – while I was not entirely convinced that this is at the moment an idea that sustains a full-length novel, you have skilfully created a narrator who is at once obviously disturbed and yet innocent and naive. The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.

Editor, Bloomsbury Publishing

I am very grateful for your thoughtful review of A Boy with Potential. You've not only read it thoroughly but given me several important criticisms which can improve my writing generally, not just tweak this story. It is critiques like this which make the work involved in being on this reviewing site a valuable experience. I shall think hard about everything you've said. I am sorry I don't know your name, but thank you very much. You have helped me a lot.
Rosalind
Uncle Ciaran
 03 Mar 2013, 08:44 #163708 Reply To Post
Congratulations Frank Sligo.
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