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Literary Professional Critique of Clouds Gather by James Stevenson
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 14 Mar 2006, 13:55 #3486 Reply To Post
Please click below to view the chapters Clouds Gather by James Stevenson:

The professional critique of Clouds Gather by professional author Phil Whitaker is displayed below.

Note about the reviewer: Phil Whitaker's Eclipse of the Sun won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Triangulation won the Encore Award for best second novel. His third novel, The Face, is currently being developed for film. Phil is an occasional tutor in novel writing for the Arvon Foundation; previous appointments include external assessor for the creative writing MA at UEA and judge for 2003 Betty Trask Awards. He is co-founder of the manuscript appraisal service Literary Intelligence. His fourth novel, Freak of Nature, will be published in 2006.

CLOUDS GATHER by James Stevenson


Congratulations on qualifying for one of the first ever professional critiques on YouWriteOn. To have achieved this your work has won the admiration of a wide selection of your peers. This should be hugely encouraging to you: what you are doing with your fiction is clearly working. My role here is to try to help you develop it further. There isn’t space to deal with minor line edits, nor can I mention every aspect that might benefit from revision; I shall focus on the big areas I think are crucial to take this to the next level. This process might feel overwhelmingly negative, so please balance it by keeping in mind what a tremendous achievement it is to have got to this stage.

Criticism has the potential to be both inspiring and fatal. I read and critiqued this extract blind, without looking at other reviews, but I’d suggest some rules of thumb. Spend a few days mulling on any criticism before drawing conclusions. If a criticism strikes a chord with you, act on it. If it doesn’t, but if several critics have touched on the same thing, consider very carefully whether to act on it. If a criticism really doesn’t strike a chord, and particularly if no one else has picked up on it, probably ignore it. Lastly, you may find critics evenly divided on an issue, as many pro as con. These are the trickiest to navigate: go with what your instincts tell you.

Right, on with the show.

First and foremost, I want to dwell on ‘Chapter One’, in which Blanche attempts to deliver the Spitfire. This is extremely well written. We start to get a clear idea of Blanche’s character (a rather bold young woman, with an appealing mix of devil-may-care and vulnerability) and also a sense of Peter and what he means to her. We do so through scenes narrated with a highly authentic historical atmosphere. Your research, or your knowledge of flying, is given just the right weight: enough to convince us of the period; not too much that it bogs the story down. Furthermore, the facts of the flight, and the mounting sense of unease as it goes wrong, lend a terrific sense of tone and pace, which strike me as being nigh-on perfectly judged. Well done.

For me, the other chapters (both labelled ‘Chapter Two’) were much less successful. In discussing why, I hope you’ll see how to make this novel as good as it promises to be. First, look at what Chapter One achieves in terms of exterior plot B essentially just the one thing, that Blanche tries to deliver a Spitfire to Exeter and ends up in France. To advance this solitary exterior plot point, Chapter One takes up about a third of the total material in this extract, yet at no stage does it drag. This is because you use incidental detail really well to launch us into Blanche’s interior B we get to know her character, and about her and Peter’s relationship. Your narrative viewpoint is effectively close third person (i.e. ‘she’, but where the narrator is closely identified with Blanche’s own thoughts and feelings). At the same time you maintain a nice tension - Blanche has clearly got herself into trouble; how is it going to pan out? - which keeps the pages turning.

The subsequent chapters reverse the ratio, particularly the last at Mme Cazalet’s. They are heavy on exterior plot points (Blanche falls into French hands; the intention of her captors is ambiguous; they’re going to use Blanche for some purpose, the Eagle project; she’s going to stay at Mme Cazalet’s; Mme Cazalet wants Blanche to become involved in honey-trapping German officers; there’s something called Directive Forty; Mme Cazalet also harbours RAF airmen; Blanche is a nurse as well as a pilot and she's going to assist at an operation; etc etc) and at the same time we rarely enter Blanche’s interior again - so much so that when she learns of Peters death, all we get is a bland half-dozen lines of summary about her feelings ‘fluctuating between grief and rage, lust for revenge and depression’, as opposed to being shown the effect of this news on her. The narrative viewpoint has shifted from close third person to omniscient (i.e. ‘she’, but where the narrator is distant from the character’s interior).

Ironically, while one might think that a flurry of exterior plot development would create a cracking pace, it does precisely the opposite here. We’re no longer engaging with Blanche as a character, we no longer feel we’re reading her story. She’s become the mere focal point as we move through the author’s story about her. These are two very different reading experiences, and, for my money, the former beats the latter hands down every time.

How can you rectify this? Basically by recapturing the closeness to Blanche’s point of view that you had in Chapter One. Continue to show us things through her eyes, as opposed to the eyes of the disinterested omniscient narrator. Get us back inside her head: what does she actually think and feel about the people she encounters, the places she is taken, the experience of captivity, the proposals that are put to her? In tandem with this, you will need and want to slim the exterior plot points down. You may find a much more simplified schema will work far better. My suggestion would be to focus on just two developments. In the first Chapter Two, Blanche is captured and has to prove her story to Dadan (incidentally, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her game-playing; I would have her play the interview straight until the last exchange, about the meaning of ATA, when she finally loses her cool at Dadan’s insatiable inquisition). In the second Chapter Two, have Blanche taken to Mme Cazalet’s and start to get the sense that, far from repatriating her, the French resistance has some as yet unspecified purpose for her. You could have her notice a variety of pretty young girls there, as well as perhaps being taken to assist with the injured airman, but I would leave all mention of Project Eagle, Directive Forty, and honey traps till later in the book. That will pace the narrative better, and it will also create a much more authentic feel, because the reader will be discovering things through Blanche’s experience and observations, not simply being told them by her French interlocutors.

A final point. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the introduction. From your synopsis, the novel is also going to be about Edward, so he does need to be a narrative presence. However, I would not put him in the first person (‘I’). Like you do with Blanche in Chapter One, I’d put him in close third person (i.e. ‘he’, but where the narrator occupies the interior of his head). I would also make the Introduction less obviously portentous. Lines such as ‘twenty-seven years old and still asking the question that nobody could answer ... Aunt Blanche never spoke about my father and I had no one else to ask about how he died’ simply don’t ring true. They are the author (very obviously) setting up Edward’s story. Let us find out about his father obliquely, through an authentic exchange. Be more subtle.

In terms of genre, you place this in ‘action, adventure’, a traditionally male-interest genre. On the basis of the material presented thus far, I’m not sure that’s right. It has more of a feel of historical women’s or even literary fiction, with Blanche as a promising female lead, and with emphasis on relationships and character as much as danger and derring-do. It could be that subsequent material will take it into straight ‘action, adventure’, in which case this opening is a problem in that it doesn’t establish the genre at the outset. But I hope not. I hope this evolves along the lines presented here. You could end up with something with the appeal of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. To do so, keep the exterior plot convincingly simple, and advance it at a careful pace to maximise its tension. At the same time, explore character and relationship with complexity and insight.

Well done on all you have achieved thus far. I hope my comments help you to take this on. It should be well worth it.
Phil Whitaker
This post was last edited by YouWriteOn, 11 Apr 2006, 17:42

CloudsGather.pdf (34Kb) - 370 view(s)
 14 Mar 2006, 14:40 #3489 Reply To Post
Wow, these critiques are excellent. I've read both your chapters and really enjoyed them but a lot of the points made never occured to me. The detail about incidental detail and developing interior character made me look at them afresh. What did you think of them? Hmm, methinks I should try harder with my own writing ..
 14 Mar 2006, 15:18 #3493 Reply To Post
I'm delighted with this critique from Phil Whitaker. Spurred on by it, and with plenty to get my teeth stuck into, I am encouraged to keep going.

Looking at my piece for the first time, he has wisely identified weaknesses, and explained how they can be put right.

Surely, this is what is meant by the phrase CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM


This post was last edited by 2548196, 14 Mar 2006, 15:19
 14 Mar 2006, 19:29 #3514 Reply To Post
Nice work, James, looks like some really useful pointers for development too.
 15 Mar 2006, 10:07 #3536 Reply To Post
Great stuff, James. This critique says what I wanted to way back when, but in much better terms. Blanche is wonderful - much too good for some boys' own action adventure. . . . Stay with her all the way!
Tons of luck
 15 Mar 2006, 13:34 #3553 Reply To Post
Haven't uploaded as yet as am still writing but wanted to say enjoyed the writing and I read the author reviews. I was stuck on a few things myself and there's some really good insights in them which I hope will help my own chapters get flowing. Really good stories and I agree about the direction being suggested for the book Clouds Gather.
 15 Mar 2006, 14:46 #3564 Reply To Post
Blanche is wonderful - much too good for some boys' own action adventure. . . .

I hadn't thought of that at all while reviewing it, but it's true. She is a really strong character, and the historical detail is great. Action/adventure isn't quite right for that. It's great to see a professional pick out all the details that us amateur reviewers missed!
 15 Mar 2006, 20:20 #3591 Reply To Post
You know what I noticed? That bit about womens historical fiction. I think this is a brief but interesting point as I get the feeling from the reviews the female readers got it more, though I may be wrong. Best stick with the female lead then.
 16 Mar 2006, 10:42 #3619 Reply To Post
Thanks to everybody for their interest. I have already decided to scrap a large part of the complex plot of Clouds Gather (that I had already drafted) and try and keep the reader inside Blanche's head throughout. Phil Whitaker advises a more subtle unfolding of the plot to produce more tension; I think I know exactly what he means so I've bought a new quill pen and a fresh bottle of ink.
 17 Mar 2006, 01:32 #3704 Reply To Post
James - I read your chapters and although not quite 'my genre' thoroughly enjoyed them. Congratulations on gaining a 'professional critique' and it's great that you found it so constructive. I think we can all learn from a critique like this and the other two of the 'Top Three' this month.
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