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 26 Mar 2011, 10:13 #114117 Reply To Post
Orion are part of the Hatchette publishing group, whose authors include Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer and Ian Rankin.

Each month on 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 March 1st for 2011
 26 Mar 2011, 10:15 #114118 Reply To Post
Orion Editor critique of THE EVE NATION by Laurinda Luffman

Dear Laurinda,

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your early pages of THE EVE NATION 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 is some useful pointers as to how you can hone and develop the existing chapters, and what to pay attention to as the novel progresses. My notes take the form of over-arching comments on the basic elements of the narrative, followed by page-by-page notes to illustrate some of my editorial points.


The prologue acts as a precursor to the main narrative, as it is set twenty-two years in the past. From what I have read from these opening chapters and from what I can gauge from reading your synopsis, it seems the narrative will adopt quite a linear structure, in terms of chronology. To prevent your story seeming too one-directional, it’s important to interweave sub-plots into the main body of the narrative to create texture and depth. It also helps to ensure that the reader doesn’t tire of the main storyline as there are different narrative strands to also focus on.


I thought this had an intriguing premise. It’s set in a fascinating imagined future where there is not only a matriarchy but where women completely reign and men are subjugated and hidden away. It is an apocalyptic, dystopian vision, given the virus that many of the men have succumbed to, and the desolation that claims much of the area where the story is set. The idea that the main character must hide the fact that she is carrying a male is full of dramatic potential. And her determination to find out what happens in the male facility and her intention to help Moses and the rest of the men housed there, is a storyline that is fraught with danger and intrigue.

But what will really set a novel of this ilk apart from others is its execution. And at present, I think that this is an area that needs considerable development. If you’re looking for your novel to have a commercial edge to it, it needs to be pacier, snappier and more focused. For example, in the prologue, there was too much unnecessary detail, such as: ‘The two escorts moved to the rear of the vintage ambulance, a 1980s Ford so the driver had told him, easy to maintain and convert to bio-fuel’. The reader doesn’t need this level of information at this early juncture in the novel. The focus should be on the immediate drama that is unfolding. You need to work on hooking the reader and intriguing them, not feeding them contextual details right from the beginning. Again, you don’t need to give the reader the name of the hospital in the prologue or even that the female escorts are civil servants. By holding information back and being more enigmatic, the reader will actually become more involved as they struggle to work out what is going on.

As I often tell aspiring writers, the best piece of advice is that less is more. Don’t over-explain; you can keep the reader guessing, and interweave details as the narrative progresses. In this way, they will be actively involved in the story, rather than distanced observers.


While this is a fairly high-concept, plot-driven narrative, the characters are no less important than in any other novel. From reading these opening pages and the synopsis, it seems that Kyra is not only the protagonist, but the driving force in the novel. Things don’t happen to her so much as she takes action and forces change herself. For such a powerful narrative, Kyra needs to be a strong, charismatic and memorable protagonist. While I found her engaging in these early pages, she didn’t quite captivate me as a lead character. She needs to feel more distinct and individual, if the reader is to emotionally connect with her and want to follow her story through to the end. You need to work on really getting under her skin so she feels realistic and tangible. And she needs to be rendered in such a distinct way that she seems to step off the page.

Moses is a potentially fascinating character, but I don’t think he was depicted to his full potential in these pages. He felt somewhat underdrawn. Like Kyra, you need to work on getting under his skin more in the prologue and placing the reader alongside him so they really experience what he is feeling. He’s quite a shadowy figure when Kyra first meets him, which is understandable given his experience of women. But like my comments on Kyra, I felt he needed to be more charismatic and intriguing in this scene. Yes, he has been incarcerated by women, but he has managed to make a name for himself in the outside world, and as such, his reputation precedes him. He is set up as this almost mythological figure, and the reality of this first appearance after the prologue didn’t quite match reader expectations.

While I thought Cathy was an interesting and likeable character, hers and Kyra’s relationship didn’t feel completely organic or believable. For example, their exchange towards the end of the third chapter felt like an unnatural conversation for two close friends to have and instead it felt like they were having this conversation for the reader’s benefit so as to fill them in on the background information. These details need to be incorporated in a more subtle and seamless manner, otherwise you risk pulling the reader out of the narrative.


While setting is the backdrop to any story, in a novel like this that is set in an imagined world, the setting needs to come more to the foreground. The reader’s engagement lies in whether they become fully immersed in your fictional world and are able to suspend disbelief for the duration. So you need to build a backdrop that is believable, detailed, intriguing and vivid. And you need to transport the reader in a way where descriptive prose doesn’t overpower the narrative but is interwoven in a seamless yet evocative way.

I didn’t feel fully invested in your story in these early pages, as I found Kyra’s world hard to properly envisage. There needs to be more detail to really bring the setting to life. It needs to feel both familiar and recognisable to a reader and yet extraordinarily different. And in these early pages, there seems to be conflicting details that the reader is being fed (see my page notes).

Critique continues next post
 26 Mar 2011, 10:15 #114119 Reply To Post


As I often tell aspiring writers, tone is one of the hardest elements of a novel to master, but also one of the most important. If your tone isn’t pitched right, it can crucially compromise the reader’s engagement with the story. Whilst this isn’t written in first person, the reader is still placed alongside Kyra, and this is very much her story. Inevitably, Kyra’s mood and outlook affect the tone of the novel. This should give the narrative a variation in tone as Kyra’s mood changes. And it’s important to balance moments of darkness with lightness too.


Whilst I thought your synopsis was concise and well-written, it was a little brief. If you intend to submit your material to a literary agent or publishing house (if they accept unsolicited submissions), most will ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis. So your synopsis not only has to give a taste of what the story is about and summarise the main plot points, it also has to intrigue a potential reader and hopefully compel them to read on. And I think you’ve gone some way in achieving this. While less is definitely more, as you don’t want to over-explain, you could have incorporated more detail into your synopsis to really distinguish it.


I thought the title was great. It was memorable and really captures the essence of the novel.


There has been a real upsurge in women’s fiction with an apocalyptic twist. A lot of female readers want to read about stories that matter to them, but also ones that offer complete escapism in a different way from the other light offerings out there; in short, something that’s darker and edgier than a lot of contemporary women’s fiction.

While you rightly categorise your novel as Women’s Fiction, there is also a thriller element to your novel, as the main character will face extreme danger in her fight for what she believes is right. And I think you need to work on the key ingredients that are in any great thriller, which is pace, suspense, tension and urgency. I found the opening chapters a little meandering and felt they lacked the focus to make this a snappy and compelling opening. It also needs to be thought-provoking and multi-layered for this to elevate it above other similar novels.

Page-by-page notes:

General note: just in these early pages alone, there seemed to be an awful lot of references to Kyra’s curly hair. Try not to overuse as it can become grating.

p.2: ‘Year 40, March, 22 years later’ – you don’t need to state that it’s 22 years later. The reader can work this out for themselves given that the prologue was subtitled Year 18. You need to give your reader credit; don’t overstate the obvious.

p.2: the subheading of the first chapter is March, but the news reporter says it’s 15 January – is this a deliberate inconsistency?

p.5: suggest denoting the speech of the Scottish commander, either with quotation marks or italics.

p.7: ‘Normally Kyra would have been glad for such an easy manner from someone of higher rank, but her face felt tight’. Non-sequitur? The second part of the sentence seems completely unrelated to the first.

p.10: ‘I would hope you and I could be friends’ – why would Kyra think that when the men are kept separate? The reader is being told conflicting things here: that the women and men don’t mix as the men are incarcerated, and in fact Kyra has had little contact with males, yet Kyra believes they could be friends. How exactly? This didn’t ring true.

p.12: as discussed above, the exchange between Kyra and Cathy needs some development if it is to feel believable. For example, lines such as: ‘You can’t keep blaming yourself for what happened, Kyra. You were only fifteen. And from what you said, there was nothing you could have done’ felt like they were included for the reader’s benefit rather than being a natural part of their conversation. Remember, less is more…


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
 26 Mar 2011, 10:15 #114120 Reply To Post
Professional mini critique for Skin Book by Dan Holloway

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. I thought it was intriguing, enigmatic and thought-provoking. You really experimented with the style and structure of the story, which could make for a challenging reading experience for some readers. You describe the story as about a lonely girl who still mourns her dead brother and a lonely man filled with perverse thoughts which he never acts on. But actually there could be more than one way to interpret the story. Initially I thought it was a tale between the brother and the sister, and then I thought that perhaps it was a story about just the sister, but who has invented the thoughts of her dead brother to react and respond to. While it’s dark, surreal and often uncomfortable reading, it will provoke a response in your reader, whether positive or negative, but every reader will have an opinion and a reaction to it.

Professional mini critique for Soloman Says: SMFA by Timothy Saint

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. I thought it was well-written and really captured the tone and perspective of the protagonist. There’s a dark undercurrent of malice, as the reader becomes aware of how unhinged the character is, and his murderous intent. Even though the reader knows how it’s going to end, it is that dreaded sense of anticipation rather than predictability. I wondered what the ‘SMFA’ of the title meant, which all becomes clear on the final page...

Professional mini critique for Soloman Says: Time for Recollection by Timothy Saint

Again, congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn and selected for a second mini critique. I really enjoyed reading this short story, and was impressed by the confidence of your writing and particularly the depth and realism of your characters. In a scene where only one person is featured, you really capture the state of a marriage, as well as one man’s wistfulness for what might have been and a wife’s inability to completely forgive and forget. The fact that the ‘indiscretion’ happened sixty years ago is a great finale and twist to the story. It really brings home how old wounds never truly heal, and how both parties have become accepting of this one day of the year where the past painfully resurfaces. I thought it was wonderfully true to life as well as quietly poignant.

Professional mini critique for So Red by Claire Whatley

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your short story. It was a simple story but well told, and would no doubt make the reader question what they would do if they found themselves in the characters’ own positions. Despite the constraints of the short story form, your narrative felt like it had both scope and focus. I thought the ending in particular was well done, as you subtly lead the reader to believe the baby is hers, only to reveal it is in fact her granddaughter, so she must indeed have miscarried. But rather than end on a dark, sombre note, it is an ending that hints at hope and optimism.
 26 Mar 2011, 10:17 #114121 Reply To Post
Orion Editor critique of CAIN BONE WHITTLED by Ardin Lalui

Dear Ardin,

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your early pages of CAIN BONE WHITTLED 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. My notes take the form of over-arching comments on the basic elements of the narrative, followed by page-by-page notes to illustrate some of my editorial points.


The structure of these opening pages takes the basic form of one chapter shown from the POV (point of view) of Frank, the following told from Vernon’s perspective, then back to Frank and so on. Frank’s sections are told in third person narrative, while Vernon’s are told in first person, which distinguishes each section and sets it apart. It’s simplistic in structure but given that the story has two protagonists, it’s a sensible device to opt for. But to ensure this vacillating pattern doesn’t become too tiring for the reader, it’s important to introduce sub-plots into your narrative, to bring depth, texture and layers to the main body of the story.

While the structure is solid, the story did seem to meander and lose focus in these early pages. It’s crucial that the story doesn’t feel directionless and languid, but has purpose and narrative drive.

Two small points:

While the sentence structure is distinctive and feels idiosyncratic to the character in that section, sometimes, especially in Frank’s section, sentences can feel quite truncated and staccato. While at times this works, at other moments it can feel rather bitty. And this can make it hard to immerse the reader in the prose as it doesn’t flow naturally.

Another small point is that after the first two paragraphs switches from Frank’s to Vernon’s POV, you need a section break, as otherwise it seems like part of the same section but is obviously disjointed.


Like the structure, the plot is quite a simple one: a lone drifter and a lone adolescent’s paths cross and they forge an unexpected relationship. But beyond the heart of the story is a wider narrative concerned with the socio-political backdrop of this fictional town.

Given that the plot of the novel isn’t particularly ambitious or complex, it’s important to ensure that the simplicity of the story doesn’t compromise the underlying drama.


I thought the characterisation was the strongest element of the narrative in these early pages. This seems like it will be a character-led rather than plot-led novel. While this is often the case with more literary novels, that means that your characters have to be intriguing, engaging and realistically rendered. They have to be memorable and distinctive, and Frank and Vernon in particular have to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story and interesting enough that the reader will want to follow their stories through to the end.

This is a really internalised narrative. The characters are very much placed as outsiders and onlookers and are incredibly observant of what is going on around them. Much of the story is captured in their thoughts, which the reader is privy to, which again makes it feel very introspective. Similarly, these opening scenes are infused with the characters’ voices – it often feels like they’re narrating to the reader directly, which creates a feeling of intimacy between character and reader. Even the prose captures the characters different intonations and way of speaking.

I was impressed with the character interactions. The exchanges really captured the personalities of the characters, and it’s clear you know the importance of ‘less is more’, as while these scenes are told with brevity, they really capture the tone and outlook of the characters.


You really capture the atmosphere and air of desolation in this unusual town. Given that the town is such a key feature in the story, it is almost as if it is a character in its own right. As Orania is not only a fictional town but a highly-conceptual one, it needs to be rendered in a vivid and realistic way if the reader is to suspend disbelief and really become immersed in this imagined world.

Like the settings, Orania figures as a town outside the norm; the small town that the rest of the country has forgotten about. It’s like its own little microcosm, albeit a dysfunctional one. It’s hard to judge just from these opening pages and the synopsis alone, but it’s important to get a snapshot of the cross-section of inhabitants dwelling in Orania. You really need to capture the cloying claustrophobia that small town life can engender.

I read the opening pages before I read the synopsis, and I have to admit that I initially presumed the book was set in small town America. It didn’t really speak of South Africa, and it’s important that the town has its own distinctive identity rather than feeling generic.

Through the two main characters, the narrative will offer two very different perspectives on the town. Vernon is a boy that has grown up here and this is all he has ever known, but similarly he is getting to the age where teenagers begin to rebel against their roots and seek out new landscapes and experiences. In contrast, Frank is a man who has wandered all over the country and has seen many things, but now he’s in his forties, he’s become somewhat world-weary and is, consciously or sub-consciously, looking for a place to finally call his home.


As I often tell aspiring writers, the tone is a facet of a novel that is often overlooked. But not only is it one of the most important elements of a narrative, it is also a difficult one to master. If the tone of a novel isn’t pitched right, you seriously compromise your reader’s emotional connection and involvement with the story.

Given that the story is structured from Frank and Vernon’s POVs, the tone of their sections will inevitably be affected by the mood and outlook of them as characters. And consequently it can be quite dark in tone, especially in Frank’s sections, as when the story opens, he is a man who has nothing to lose but also very little to live for.

As mentioned above, there’s a real feeling of intimacy forged between the characters and the reader. Not only is the reader privy to their innermost thoughts, but at times the characters are almost directly addressing the reader. It can be a risky device but if done well, can really captivate the reader.


If you intend to submit your material to reputable literary agents and publishing houses (if they accept unsolicited submissions), most will ask for the first three chapters of a novel and a one to two page synopsis. Your synopsis not only needs to give the reader a taste of what the novel is about and succinctly summarise the main plot points, it also needs to capture the reader’s imagination and make them want to read more.


I had reservations about the title. While you have stated that the novel has religious overtones, by having such an obviously religious reference to your title, you’re instantly giving certain signals to a potential reader that may misrepresent your book. Cain Bone Whittled sounds like it will be quite dry and uninspired in its subject matter, as the title doesn’t have that intriguing, ambiguous edge to it. It sounds very biblical, and I think that could potentially put off a lot of readers.


You have classed this as literary fiction, which is a fair categorisation. As discussed above, it is character-led rather than plot-led, and the focus on the socio-political context of this fictional town as well as the religious overtones means it is unlikely to appeal to a wide demographic or a commercial readership. While you should write the book you want to write rather than the book you think might be more successful, it’s crucial that you don’t forget the reader. After all, books are made to be read, and if the reader’s experience and enjoyment of the novel isn’t properly considered by the writer, you risk distancing and even alienating the reader. This is something you need to be conscious of when you come to revising your work; to try to read it afresh and as a new reader would.

Page-by-page notes:

General point: it’s interesting that you don’t capitalise ‘god’ when this is a novel with religious overtones. Is that intentional?

p.1: ‘Fastest way to get north and that’s all he wanted, a thousand miles between him and a woman before sunrise’ – great line.

p.2: should be ‘all he could do to breathe steady’ not ‘breath’.

p.4: ‘Station was deserted. He stared at the sky...’ – example of staccato sentences almost stacked upon each other.

p.8: ‘I love her, don’t get me wrong’ – example of indirectly addressing the reader.

p.10: ‘What price of freedom,’ he hummed. He was humming ... ‘what price freedom...’ – this feels unnecessarily repetitive.


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
 26 Mar 2011, 10:35 #114123 Reply To Post
Would you please give my thanks to Natalie for a positive mini crit. It's much appreciated.

nil desperandum
 26 Mar 2011, 10:41 #114125 Reply To Post
Hi Claire, thank you, I will do.

 26 Mar 2011, 17:19 #114151 Reply To Post
Likewise from me as well, please Ted. I found the mini-crits for both my short stories both positive and encouraging.


Saint. A dead sinner revised and edited.
Ambrose Bierce (1842 -1913)
 26 Mar 2011, 18:58 #114155 Reply To Post
Thank you so much for the time and effort to prepare this feedback Natalie. It is very helpful and encouraging.

I made a book trailer for Cain Bone Whittled now that I'm submitting it to agents. If anyone's interesting in watching it. They are a lot of fun to make!
 27 Mar 2011, 12:01 #114167 Reply To Post
Dear Ted
Please thank Nathalie for her detailed critique and overall guidance.

She helped highlight two points of particular difficulty for new writers - i) making a synopsis tight and pithy, while also providing agents/publishers with enough information about the plot (my storyline goes back in time i.e. is non-linear, but my synopsis didn't explain this)

ii) on a smaller point, it's tricky to provide a clear setting for chapters, while not insulting your readers - originally I only had dates for my chapter headings, but was then told by many readers that they hadn't noticed these or taken them in; so I added "22 years later", which Nathalie says to avoid; not sure what the answer to this one is, as clearly some readers digest time indicators and others don't. Any suggestions on this one gratefully received.

Thanks again to Nathalie and all the YWO readers who've helped me with The Eve Nation.
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