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ProfessionalCritique
 27 Sep 2011, 16:53 #130924 Reply To Post
Orion are part of the Hatchette publishing group, whose authors include Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer and Ian Rankin.

Each month on YouWriteOn.com editors from Orion and Random House provide an indepth critique of up to three highly rated YouWriteOn Top Ten novel openings, and mini-reviews of the rest of the top ten stories. This aims to assist all authors in their story development by giving feedback as to what editors are looking for in novel submitted to them.


Click here to view the story extract links for the stories reviewed below which are listed under August 1st for 2011
ProfessionalCritique
 27 Sep 2011, 16:55 #130925 Reply To Post
Dear Thomas J Winton

Orion Editor critique of THE LAST AMERICAN MARTYR

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading your early pages of THE LAST AMERICAN MARTYR and thought these early pages showed much promise. While I don’t think the material so far needs a huge amount of reworking as it is already in fairly good shape, 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, and what to pay attention to as the novel progresses.

Structure:

Structure is the backbone of a novel. It gives shape, focus and drive to the narrative. If your story isn’t sound in structure, this will show in your narrative. Whilst I thought the first three chapters were well-structured, I found the fourth chapter rather jarring. You jump ahead, describing Jake’s reaction to the memoir. You need to stay focused on the present at this point, rather than flashing forward. I think it would be more effective to start this chapter with the excerpt from Thomas’ novel, and intersperse these sections with Jake’s own thoughts on it.

It was hard to get a sense from the synopsis of how the rest of the novel would be structured. I would warn against over-relying on the memoir excerpts too heavily. You need to pull the reader back into the present and into Jake’s story too.

Plot:

Your style of storytelling is quite slow, letting the action slowly unfurl, but it also feels very assured and you manage to hook the reader and sustain their interest in these early pages. As I have said above, I thought the first three chapters were very strong but had issues with the fourth chapter.

I think your biggest challenge in the novel is the excerpts from Thomas’ book. We know that he is a Nobel Prize-winning author, so there are instantly expectations that the extracts will be profound and insightful, and to be frank, these lack the potency needed to convince the reader that this could have been written by such a man. This early section of the memoir was entirely reported and not presented in an entertaining or engaging way. It seems like you have tried to summarise Thomas’ life in the quickest way possible. And given this is such a key part of the novel, it’s absolutely crucial this gets serious consideration when you come to rewriting. This has got to be presented more like an engaging narrative rather than a dry and precise summary of Thomas’ life.

A small point but you do have a tendency to sometimes overstate the obvious, such as with lines like: ‘Talk about getting caught with your mitts in the old cookie jar! I hadn’t the foggiest where this was going from here. I’d never felt so uncomfortable in my life. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I should get out of this chair…’ This felt like padding, rather than bringing something new and fresh to the narrative. And again with ‘What could this possibly be leading to? I had no answers…’ – the reader already knows this so no need to over-state the obvious. Remember that less is more. Stay focused on the unfolding drama.

Characterisation:

This is much more of a character-led rather than plot-led novel. Its success very much lies in the power of its characterisation. And from what I’ve read so far, I think this is the strongest element of your narrative. I really warmed to both Jake and Thomas. However, I did feel that their exchanges needed further work.

We’re told that Thomas is a very taciturn and private man, yet he seems only to happy to open up his whole life story to someone who’s almost a complete stranger to him. This seems to conflict with what we’re being told about Thomas, and doesn’t quite convince. At times I found the exchanges between Thomas and Jake felt rather stilted and unnatural, as though the dialogue was there for the reader’s benefit, to fill in backstory, rather than it feeling like a natural evolution in the characters’ relationship. It’s important that Thomas’ decision to confide in Jake doesn’t feel rushed if it is to ring true. I think it needs to be played out for longer, and to keep the reader guessing as to what Thomas’s story actually is. After all, you describe this as a thriller, yet it lacks suspense or intrigue. I think less would be more in these early exchanges if you are to keep the reader hooked. You need to be tantalisingly enigmatic early on, and so it’s important that Thomas in particular seems like a more mysterious, shadowy figure. You lay him bare to the reader much too quickly, and so all sense of intrigue is instantly dissipated.

A small point but avoid over-using ‘McClure/Soles’ – it’s fine in the first instance but doesn’t need to be repeated, as this can be quite jarring and pull the reader out of the prose.

Setting:

Setting can very much be a character in its own right. I thought this was a very good portrayal of small town life and small town mentality – how everyone knows everyone and nothing goes unnoticed. But I felt that there could have been a bit more descriptive prose about the novel’s particular setting in Maine to really conjure up Jake and Thomas’s world and transport the reader there.

Tone:

As I often tell aspiring writers, tone is one of the most important elements of a narrative, but also one of the hardest to master. If the tone isn’t pitched right, or feels slightly off-key, this can seriously affect the reader’s emotional engagement and enjoyment of your novel. The tone of these early pages felt quite intimate and even confessional, as both Jake and then Thomas are confiding to the reader. The reader instantly feels privy to information that other characters in the book aren’t aware of, and this instantly places them alongside the main characters.


Genre/Market:

You describe this as a thriller, but this lacks all of the essential ingredients of a thriller: pace, intrigue, suspense and tension. As I mentioned above, you need to work on making these early pages more enigmatic and intriguing, drip-feeding the reader tantalising pieces of information slowly, rather than laying it all bare in one swoop. There needs to be a real sense of urgency if the narrative is to have dramatic drive and that much-needed page-turning quality. You go some way in doing this with the final chapter line: ‘You don’t know how badly I wanted somebody to read this in case…well, in case something unforeseen happens to me’. It doesn’t need to be as explicit as that, but just subtle inferences and a hint of menace will really inject the narrative with the suspense and intrigue that it’s currently lacking.

I would suggest reading as widely in this area as possible. After all, you have to be a good reader to be a good writer and get a sense of what does and doesn’t work in the market.

Synopsis:

I had reservations about your synopsis. By saying ‘This last happened in 2008…’ makes it sound like this is based on a true story, especially to a reader who is not familiar with what the novel is about. Also, the use of phrases such as ‘horrid scene’ and ‘bounce all over America’ make your synopsis seem a little too informal and almost like you’re not taking the content of the book seriously. This language is at odds with the style and tone of the actual novel. You want to summarise the plot of the novel and also give the reader a taste of what it’s like.

Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think the material so far is in good shape, and this marks a promising start. With some polishing and developing as you go along, I’m sure you will be able to make this leap off the page. I wish you the best of luck in making that happen, and hope you continue to enjoy writing.

Best wishes

Natalie Braine
ProfessionalCritique
 27 Sep 2011, 16:57 #130926 Reply To Post
Orion Editor mini critique for Travelling North by Morgana Jones

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your historical novel and thought they marked a promising start. By alternating the narrative from both girls’ perspectives, this will give the story more depth and texture, and hopefully ensure the reader never tires of one storyline. And from reading your synopsis, it seems the story will be full of drama, intrigue and heartbreak. My only real criticism would be that Anna and Tamar don’t seem distinct enough in these early chapters. They could easily be interchangeable. Their portrayals felt somewhat underdrawn, rather than highlighting was is individual about each of them. I understand you want to show how two girls from very different backgrounds can be so similar, but it’s important that they feel captivating and individual in their own right if you are to really engage the reader. Another small comment – I wondered why you opted for such an unusual and uncommon name like Tamar but something instantly recognisable and familiar with Anna?

Orion Editor mini critique for Fait Accompli by Elizabeth Warner

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your novel. The scenes with Bryony and her sisters were intriguing, enigmatic, with an underlying hint of menace. It also felt dreamlike and surreal, almost like a dark adult fairytale where the reader is unsure what is going to happen. From reading your synopsis, I did have some reservations about how the novel would progress. It sounds quite small in scope and more fitting to a novella than a full-length novel. I was unsure how you would maintain the pace and drama of the narrative for the length of an entire novel. I also found your description of James rather odd: ‘multi-faceted’ – isn’t everyone multi-faceted? And ‘he personifies charm coupled with the dangerous taint of predator’ – this sounds somewhat overblown and melodramatic. Remember that less is often more.

Orion Editor mini critique for The Kiss by Tash Bell

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your novel. Suicide is a difficult subject matter to address, but you explore it through humour (often gallows humour, with Kit’s sarcastic remarks) and romance (it’s slowly revealed that the reality of Dan doesn’t live up to the fantasy Kit has created over time, and that in fact Paul has hidden depths to him). The structure of the novel, which is played out backwards in three main parts, has the potential to be an effective way of poignantly showing what Kit is leaving behind – and how she came to the decision she has reached. One piece of advice would be to watch out that your attempt at humour doesn’t diminish the emotion of the scene. Don’t be afraid to confront Kit’s pain head on.


Orion Editor mini critique for Life Class by Claire Whatley

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. You really get under Judy’s skin. The premise of the story is simple but its execution is effective. The reader will be able to empathise how it is all too easy to succumb to and even be duped by your own fantasies, only to have them shatter unexpectedly and have reality come crashing in again.
ProfessionalCritique
 27 Sep 2011, 16:58 #130927 Reply To Post
Orion Editor Critique of HONESTY

Dear L Lauren

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your early pages of HONESTY and thought they showed much promise. While I don’t think the material so far needs a huge amount of reworking as it is already in fairly good shape, 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 what to pay attention to as the novel progresses.

Structure:

Structure is the backbone of a novel. It gives shape, focus and drive to the narrative. If your story isn’t sound in structure, the very foundations of your novel are compromised. Whilst in essence I thought the simplicity of the structure worked well, in that the narrative was told in a linear fashion as Elizabeth made her way through adolescence, at times it also felt quite meandering and unfocused. Almost like a stream of consciousness on the protagonist’s behalf. So this is an area that needs some consideration when you come to re-writing. It might be useful for you to plot the narrative progression by summarising what happens in each chapter, so then you can really see the direction of the narrative and where its strengths and weaknesses lie.

I wasn’t entirely sure that the way that you’d structured the novel worked: by having an adult Elizabeth narrating her childhood and giving the added perspective of hindsight, and even asking the reader rhetorical questions (such as ‘I don’t know. Do you think of such things at eight?’). I think it might be more powerful, and more involving, if each scene was narrated by Elizabeth in the present. And in that way, the reader will be able to witness the change in her as a character as she is affected and forever changed by events beyond her control, and soon how reckless she becomes about things she should have more control over.

I thought some of your chapter endings were particularly strong, in terms of emotion, drama and poignancy, such as the end of chapter three, where Elizabeth admits to only finding out the reality of her family’s personal dramas at school, through the whispers of others. However, some of the openings of your chapters weren’t as strong, such as chapter five, which begins ‘At ten it was breast to be concentrated on’ – firstly, this doesn’t flow grammatically, and it’s also quite a jarring opener that doesn’t really pull the reader in to the story.

You do sometimes have a tendency to switch scenes in quite a jarring way, such as at the beginning of chapter four, where Elizabeth is talking about the day she first starts her period and cannot go swimming, and then the scene suddenly jumps to her swimming in a gala and almost drowning. This is an instance where the plot seems unfocused, as you veer direction in a way that doesn’t feel natural to the narrative or assured in its execution. This is something you need to watch out for when you come to re-writing.


Plot:

A girl’s formative years are an area that is ripe in dramatic potential. It is an age that readers will remember only too well – that awkward transition between discovering who you are and who you want to become. But this is also a well-worn narrative, and so your novel really needs to feel fresh and original if it is to stand out from others in its sub-genre. And at present I don’t think these early pages are strong enough to really captivate a reader. It feels too familiar and not distinct or individual enough. You seem to use quite clichéd events, such as the character’s mother leaving her, her first, potentially dangerous, encounter with the opposite sex, and present it in quite a superficial, predictable way. In short, it feels too formulaic, rather than original and imaginative.

A lot of the plot felt reported, which is something you really need to ensure you don’t over-use, as this can seem like lazy storytelling. At times the narration almost felt like a monologue or stream of consciousness and often felt like it lost structure and focus (as I have mentioned previously). It’s crucial that you play out as much of the drama as possible for the reader to experience first-hand, not be told about second-hand, otherwise you risk distancing them from the unfolding story. For example, the section that begins: ‘I fell in love a few times. I was leaving school soon...’ felt very rushed, and almost like you were trying to paraphrase a lot in a short space of time. Other events felt rather swept over too, such as her mother leaving. We don’t really see the emotional fall-out of this, and so it loses its dramatic potential.

Characterisation:

This is very much a character-led novel. The success of the story relies totally on the reader’s engagement with Elizabeth as the protagonist. They have to invest in her story and want to follow it through to the end. And while I warmed to Elizabeth as a little girl in these early pages, there was something a little bit underwhelming about her. She felt like any other young girl, rather than a memorable, unique character that would step off the pages and pull the reader into her world.

Elizabeth narrates her story in quite a knowing voice and also in quite a detached, almost emotionless manner. Whilst you want to convey how she is old beyond her years and has had a premature sexual awakening, it’s absolutely crucial that there is still a warmth and innocence to Elizabeth if the reader is to emotionally connect with her. She sometimes comes across as quite heartless (such as with the line ‘I got a great deal of satisfaction out of knowing how much I was worth’). While I understand that you want to convey how Elizabeth has developed a thick skin as a way to cope, and to almost act like she doesn’t care, to conceal that she really does. But it’s a fine line between portraying this and the reader interpreting her as quite cold and unfeeling.

I also found that Elizabeth’s voice wasn’t always convincing. She switches from knowing and observant one minute to ignorant and immature the next. Whilst you want to convey how she struggles to be a young woman when in reality she’s still just a girl, it needs to be executed in a way that is believable and true to the character. Another small point: I don’t think Elizabeth is named at all in these early pages. I think it was only reading the synopsis that I discovered what she was called. Was this deliberate to leave her unnamed?

Setting:

Setting of course is only the backdrop to your story, but it can be a character in its own right. It can very much help build atmosphere and even go some way in influencing the tone of the narrative. And I felt this was an area that could benefit from a little more emphasis. Not much description was given to Elizabeth’s childhood home, her school, or her neighbourhood. And it opens in the sixties, which is an era that marked a real cultural shift in England, and it’s important to convey a wider sense of what was going on in Elizabeth’s world too, not just her home life. Whilst the setting might be a familiar landscape to the reader, it’s equally important that you capture what’s different and unique about it, if it is to come alive on the page.

Tone:

As I often say to aspiring writers, tone is one of the most important elements of a novel, but also one of the hardest to master. If the tone of a novel isn’t pitched right, it can seriously compromise a reader’s engagement with the story. While this is inevitably quite dark in tone, given the abandonment of Elizabeth by her mother and her subsequent need to feel loved and wanted, it’s important to ensure the narrative doesn’t become unremittingly dark. I think if you work on warming Elizabeth up as a character, this will help the tone immeasurably.

Genre/Market:

As you have rightly stated, this is women’s fiction. And women’s fiction is one of the most competitive areas of the market, as it is saturated with novels aimed at this demographic. And so your novel really has to stand out from the crowd if it is to get an agent and publisher’s attention. Reading as widely as possible in this area will give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t work in this genre, and hopefully an idea of how to make your novel really shine out.

Synopsis:

I had a few issues with your synopsis. Firstly, avoid using excerpts from the novel in the synopsis. The synopsis is supposed to summarise the plot for the reader, not lift lines from the actual narrative. When you come to submit to a literary agent, they usually ask for the first three chapters of a novel and a two-page synopsis. So your synopsis has got to be concise, focused and succinctly summarise what happens in the rest of the novel. I would also avoid describing Elizabeth as ‘a vamp’ at eleven. It almost sounds like you’re making light of what happens to her.

Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think the material so far is in fairly good shape, and this marks a promising start. With some polishing and developing as you go along, I’m sure you will be able to make this leap off the page. I wish you the best of luck in making that happen, and hope you continue to enjoy writing.

Best wishes

Natalie Braine
winton
 27 Sep 2011, 19:12 #130935 Reply To Post
Dear Natalie,

Thank you so much for the time you spent reading the opening chapters of The Last American Martyr. That time and your in-depth critique are both deeply appreciated.

Right after TLAM became a bestseller here on YWO, I did one last draft before self-pubbing it on Amazon. After seven weeks it has been on the Kindle suspense "Hot New Releases" chart and is now ranked in the top half of one percent of all Kindles on Amazon US--without yet having a single big promotion.

I believe this is partially due to my previous YWO bestseller, Beyond Nostalgia, which was published in February. It was on four Amazon bestseller lists at once--Lit Fiction for two straight months--and is close to entering the list again.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you a second time as well as all the reviewers here on YWO who helped me tweak both of my novels.

Quote: ProfessionalCritique, Tuesday, 27 Sep 2011 16:55
Dear Thomas J Winton

Orion Editor critique of THE LAST AMERICAN MARTYR

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I really enjoyed reading your early pages of THE LAST AMERICAN MARTYR and thought these early pages showed much promise. While I don’t think the material so far needs a huge amount of reworking as it is already in fairly good shape, 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, and what to pay attention to as the novel progresses.

Structure:

Structure is the backbone of a novel. It gives shape, focus and drive to the narrative. If your story isn’t sound in structure, this will show in your narrative. Whilst I thought the first three chapters were well-structured, I found the fourth chapter rather jarring. You jump ahead, describing Jake’s reaction to the memoir. You need to stay focused on the present at this point, rather than flashing forward. I think it would be more effective to start this chapter with the excerpt from Thomas’ novel, and intersperse these sections with Jake’s own thoughts on it.

It was hard to get a sense from the synopsis of how the rest of the novel would be structured. I would warn against over-relying on the memoir excerpts too heavily. You need to pull the reader back into the present and into Jake’s story too.

Plot:

Your style of storytelling is quite slow, letting the action slowly unfurl, but it also feels very assured and you manage to hook the reader and sustain their interest in these early pages. As I have said above, I thought the first three chapters were very strong but had issues with the fourth chapter.

I think your biggest challenge in the novel is the excerpts from Thomas’ book. We know that he is a Nobel Prize-winning author, so there are instantly expectations that the extracts will be profound and insightful, and to be frank, these lack the potency needed to convince the reader that this could have been written by such a man. This early section of the memoir was entirely reported and not presented in an entertaining or engaging way. It seems like you have tried to summarise Thomas’ life in the quickest way possible. And given this is such a key part of the novel, it’s absolutely crucial this gets serious consideration when you come to rewriting. This has got to be presented more like an engaging narrative rather than a dry and precise summary of Thomas’ life.

A small point but you do have a tendency to sometimes overstate the obvious, such as with lines like: ‘Talk about getting caught with your mitts in the old cookie jar! I hadn’t the foggiest where this was going from here. I’d never felt so uncomfortable in my life. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I should get out of this chair…’ This felt like padding, rather than bringing something new and fresh to the narrative. And again with ‘What could this possibly be leading to? I had no answers…’ – the reader already knows this so no need to over-state the obvious. Remember that less is more. Stay focused on the unfolding drama.

Characterisation:

This is much more of a character-led rather than plot-led novel. Its success very much lies in the power of its characterisation. And from what I’ve read so far, I think this is the strongest element of your narrative. I really warmed to both Jake and Thomas. However, I did feel that their exchanges needed further work.

We’re told that Thomas is a very taciturn and private man, yet he seems only to happy to open up his whole life story to someone who’s almost a complete stranger to him. This seems to conflict with what we’re being told about Thomas, and doesn’t quite convince. At times I found the exchanges between Thomas and Jake felt rather stilted and unnatural, as though the dialogue was there for the reader’s benefit, to fill in backstory, rather than it feeling like a natural evolution in the characters’ relationship. It’s important that Thomas’ decision to confide in Jake doesn’t feel rushed if it is to ring true. I think it needs to be played out for longer, and to keep the reader guessing as to what Thomas’s story actually is. After all, you describe this as a thriller, yet it lacks suspense or intrigue. I think less would be more in these early exchanges if you are to keep the reader hooked. You need to be tantalisingly enigmatic early on, and so it’s important that Thomas in particular seems like a more mysterious, shadowy figure. You lay him bare to the reader much too quickly, and so all sense of intrigue is instantly dissipated.

A small point but avoid over-using ‘McClure/Soles’ – it’s fine in the first instance but doesn’t need to be repeated, as this can be quite jarring and pull the reader out of the prose.

Setting:

Setting can very much be a character in its own right. I thought this was a very good portrayal of small town life and small town mentality – how everyone knows everyone and nothing goes unnoticed. But I felt that there could have been a bit more descriptive prose about the novel’s particular setting in Maine to really conjure up Jake and Thomas’s world and transport the reader there.

Tone:

As I often tell aspiring writers, tone is one of the most important elements of a narrative, but also one of the hardest to master. If the tone isn’t pitched right, or feels slightly off-key, this can seriously affect the reader’s emotional engagement and enjoyment of your novel. The tone of these early pages felt quite intimate and even confessional, as both Jake and then Thomas are confiding to the reader. The reader instantly feels privy to information that other characters in the book aren’t aware of, and this instantly places them alongside the main characters.


Genre/Market:

You describe this as a thriller, but this lacks all of the essential ingredients of a thriller: pace, intrigue, suspense and tension. As I mentioned above, you need to work on making these early pages more enigmatic and intriguing, drip-feeding the reader tantalising pieces of information slowly, rather than laying it all bare in one swoop. There needs to be a real sense of urgency if the narrative is to have dramatic drive and that much-needed page-turning quality. You go some way in doing this with the final chapter line: ‘You don’t know how badly I wanted somebody to read this in case…well, in case something unforeseen happens to me’. It doesn’t need to be as explicit as that, but just subtle inferences and a hint of menace will really inject the narrative with the suspense and intrigue that it’s currently lacking.

I would suggest reading as widely in this area as possible. After all, you have to be a good reader to be a good writer and get a sense of what does and doesn’t work in the market.

Synopsis:

I had reservations about your synopsis. By saying ‘This last happened in 2008…’ makes it sound like this is based on a true story, especially to a reader who is not familiar with what the novel is about. Also, the use of phrases such as ‘horrid scene’ and ‘bounce all over America’ make your synopsis seem a little too informal and almost like you’re not taking the content of the book seriously. This language is at odds with the style and tone of the actual novel. You want to summarise the plot of the novel and also give the reader a taste of what it’s like.

Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think the material so far is in good shape, and this marks a promising start. With some polishing and developing as you go along, I’m sure you will be able to make this leap off the page. I wish you the best of luck in making that happen, and hope you continue to enjoy writing.

Best wishes

Natalie Braine


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