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ProfessionalCritique
 14 Jun 2011, 12:51 #120434 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 May 1st for 2011
ProfessionalCritique
 14 Jun 2011, 12:52 #120435 Reply To Post
Orion review of THE WATERCOLOURIST

Dear Louise Galvin

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your early pages of THE WATERCOLOURIST 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. I broadly discuss the main elements of your narrative, as well as refer to specific page references to illustrate some of my points.

Structure:

Structure is the backbone of any story. If the skeleton of your narrative is sound in structure, this will enhance the pace and flow of the story. While the structure of these early pages was fairly straightforward, in that it was linear, it’s important that it doesn’t feel too one-directional. I think by structuring the narrative from both Samuel’s and Florence’s perspective will help with this, as it will create texture and variance, and ensure that the reader never tires of one strand before it switches to the other POV.

Another concern is that the structure feels rather fragmented at times. I wasn’t sure if this was perhaps intentional to reflect Samuel’s fractured state of mind, but if so, this can be quite a tricky literary device as it can seriously compromise the reader’s engagement and risk distancing them from the unfolding drama. This is something to pay attention to as the novel progresses. I discuss in more detail below the ‘fragmentary’ nature of some of these opening pages.

Plot:

The essence of the story – that an aspiring artist has to give up his dreams, and a possible chance at love, to go fight in the war – is one that is potentially full of drama, passion and intrigue. Yet I didn’t feel that these early pages fully capitalised on that. Parts of the story felt very rushed. In particular, Samuel seems to decide to go to France on a whim and then is suddenly there, and its depiction feels very superficial. There is lots of reported drama rather than playing it out for the reader to experience, and this will really distance them from your story. It almost felt like you didn’t know where to begin, so just gave an overview of Samuel’s experience. You have the bones of a good story here but it’s like you don’t have the confidence to approach the really dramatic scenes head on, and instead just skirt around them. But you need to bring it alive for the reader so they are experiencing it alongside the characters.

While well-written, your first chapter didn’t grip me. The first few pages are absolutely crucial in determining whether you engage a reader or not. You really need to pull them into the story and sit them alongside the characters. The opening of the first chapter felt like it was too concerned with setting the scene and marking this out as a ‘literary’ novel with its artistic descriptions. Instead focus on dropping the reader right into the middle of the drama.

While accomplished, these early pages don’t have that compelling, page-turning quality to them that a lot of literary historical novels have. I think by playing out more of the drama for the reader, you’ll really open up the story to the reader. In short: ‘show don’t tell’. See my page notes for specific examples.

Characterisation:

While the plot is dramatic and engaging, this feels like more of a character-led novel that plot-driven one. And so the success of your novel hinges on your characterisation.

While Samuel is an intriguing protagonist, he felt somewhat underdrawn in these early pages. You really need to work on getting under his skin as a character and exposing what is unique and individual about him. In short, he lacked charisma. I didn’t really believe in his passion for his art – it felt a little lacklustre, and he was all too willing to accept that he wouldn’t become an artist after he is turned down for a scholarship. He needs to feel more tortured in his pursuit of art, not so ready to give it all up. There needs to be more tension in his decision to go fight in the war. It’s important that the reader feels fully invested in his story if they are to feel compelled to follow it through to the end.

Likewise, the tentative romance between Samuel and Florence felt rushed and almost like you were skating over the surface. There needs to be more tension, as at present it feels like neither of them is really interested in the other one. The first portrait sitting needs to have more chemistry and to feel more charged. And then the promise of what might become something real will feel all the more tragic and poignant when Samuel is torn away to fight in France.

The scenes that are set in France felt rather narrow in scope. Samuel is friends with one person, Cal, and there is little mention of any of the other soldiers. I think you need to bring in more personalities here, for the reader to experience the camaraderie between the soldiers, and also how they can affect each others’ spirits. What are they really feeling? It’s hard to get a sense of their true emotions as the scenes are presented in quite a matter of fact way.

You state that Samuel wrote ‘long illustrated letters’ – why not feature one or two of these throughout? This would not only bring more texture and variance to the structure of the narrative but also serve as an alternative means to really expose how Samuel is feeling. And often more can be read into what he doesn’t say than what he does (i.e. if he wishes to veil the dark reality of war from the letter’s recipient).


Setting:

While setting is the backdrop for any story, when you are setting your narrative in foreign climes, and especially when it is set in another era, setting becomes an important facet of your narrative. It is a way to place your story, conjure up a vanished world and really transport your reader there. Given that your protagonist is an artist, I expected your prose to be similarly artistic and poetic in its description of the setting. But while your prose should be evocative, it should also feel natural and at one with the style and tone of the novel.

Review continues next post
ProfessionalCritique
 14 Jun 2011, 12:52 #120436 Reply To Post


At times I felt the descriptive prose was over-written and too descriptive and verbose. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is ‘less is more’. If you truly capture the essence of a scene in succinct, crisp prose, the economy of your writing will allow the vividness of the description to really shine through. If you are too descriptive, the prose becomes meaningless and the words start to lose their impact. See some of my page notes for specific examples.

Genre/Market:

You rightly class this as historical literary fiction. But the term ‘literary’ conveys a certain complexity and exploration which your story doesn’t quite touch upon in this first draft. While well-written, it didn’t feel particularly inspired or insightful. You need to work on revealing the unexpected, expressing the story in fresh, original prose, and really bringing your characters to life if this is to work as a literary novel.

In terms of market, this will largely appeal to a female demographic, but potentially quite a large age-range. But you need to work on making your narrative flow and creating a page-turning pace to the story.

A small point but literary historical novels are often meaty, epic, sweeping stories. At 80k words, yours seems like it will be quite short. But hopefully through rewriting it and really playing out the drama for the reader, it will broaden your story and make it feel more epic.

Synopsis:

I thought your synopsis was succinct and concise. It is focused and gives the reader a real taste of what the story is about. But one small piece of advice – don’t feature a poem in a synopsis. The synopsis should only focus on the plot. A few other points:

You state ‘In 1920 Samuel McKenna sets out on a journey from Lancashire to Languedoc’ and in the next paragraph, you state the year in 1914. Six years seems like a leap in time.

You refer to the novel as ‘The Half-Known Road’ which I assume was the original title? It is absolutely crucial that your synopsis is up to date.

You describe the story as ‘a quest for a colour’ – what does this mean exactly? This sounds rather vague and meaningless.

Your synopsis states that before Samuel leaves for France, he slept with Cal’s fiancée. This wasn’t actually clear in the story. I just assumed it was a girl Cal was keen on, not actually his fiancée. This needs to be made more significant in the story if it is to have emotional impact later on.


Page notes:

p.2: ‘To his mother this was all an indulgence and a weakness in him that she would not indulge’ – is the repetition of indulge intentional here? Doesn’t read well.

p.2: ‘He was on a promise there. Arthur Russell had put his hand down Florence’s blouse... She promised she would sit for Samuel.’ This feels like a non-sequitur. How are these sentences related? A promise of what? And why did she promise to sit for him because Arthur had put her hand down his blouse. This paragraph felt a little muddled to me.

p.9-10: in this exchange, I lost track of which character was saying what. Be more clear, otherwise you risk pulling the reader out of the narrative.

p.11: this was a good chapter end.

p.18: ‘They spent the night in tents in the rain. It dampened their martial spirits’ – you tell the reader rather than show them. If you were to reveal how the characters were affected, it would feel more immediate and more vivid to the reader. Instead, by reporting what happens, the reader is kept at a distance from the characters.

p.18: ‘They entrained inland in cattle trucks with instructions to keep the noise down. Samuel spied on France through wooden slats. There seemed to be a lot of empty villages and waterlogged agriculture’ – again, this feels rushed. There is a lot of information but it’s presented in quite a superficial way. What is Samuel feeling? What about the other soldiers.

p.19: ‘It was all a bit of a disappointment, all a bit of a non-event’ – again, show the reader this, don’t tell them. Your statements feel a bit too overt at times. They would be more powerful if this is shown through the unfolding events, not merely stated.

Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think the material so far is in relatively 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
 14 Jun 2011, 12:54 #120437 Reply To Post
Orion Reviews

Professional mini critique for Becoming Lola by Harriet Steel

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading these early chapters of your historical novel and I thought they were well-written and engaging. I was also impressed by the breadth and detail of your synopsis, which really gives a taste of what is to follow. But if you intend to submit the first three chapters with synopsis to a literary agent, they normally request that the synopsis is no longer than two pages, so yours will need to be substantially condensed.

While I thought the prologue was a fitting opening, I think if you really want to hook the reader, it needs to be a little more dramatic. With a literary device like a flashforward prologue, you need to grip the reader and compel them to read on and find out what happens to Lola. The drama needs to feel more heightened, as though it is building up to something unexpected.

These early pages, while enjoyable, felt rather unstructured at times. Over three years goes by but there’s little sense of time passing and her mother remarrying felt somewhat rushed. If you want to condense stretches of time, it needs to be done in a succinct and coherent way. I was also worried that Eliza as a small child often seems rather petulant and spoilt. It’s crucial that the reader feels aligned with her in these early pages; her vices need to be balanced by endearing traits too.


Professional mini critique for Good for Him by J R Minett


Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading these early chapters of your novel. I thought they were well-written and convincingly told in a child’s voice and from their perspective. But despite their many strengths, I found these opening chapters didn’t fully engage me. The rivalry between the two boys felt very overstated, and the plot seemed to circle around the same points. While Kenneth was well drawn, he felt a little stereotypical as the bullish older boy. Likewise, as the protagonist, I found Billy rather weak as a character. He is placed as an observer to the unfolding drama and I think you need to work on injecting more character into his portrayal if the reader is to want to follow his journey through to the end.


Professional mini critique for In Pale Places by David Charles

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading these early pages of your novel. I thought the opening was particularly intriguing and would serve as an effective hook to the reader. I found the interview exchanges particularly involving but in comparison the main unfolding narrative lacked the drama and cohesion of these passages. The boardroom scene felt rather mired down in superfluous detail. It’s important that these early pages feel slick, fast-paced and focused.

On another positive aside, it’s clear from reading your synopsis that the narrative will be complex and multi-layered and you should keep the reader guessing as to what will actually happen.

ProfessionalCritique
 14 Jun 2011, 12:55 #120438 Reply To Post
Orion review of MATCHBOX MEMORIES

Dear R M Simpson

Congratulations on being selected for a professional critique by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading your early pages of MATCHBOX MEMORIES 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. I broadly discuss the main elements of your narrative, as well as refer to specific page references to illustrate some of my points.

Structure:

Structure is the backbone of any story. If the skeleton of your narrative is sound in structure, this will enhance the pace and flow of the story. The structure of these opening pages was varied and almost unexpected, keeping the reader guessing and in turn pulling them into the narrative as they want to learn more. The switch in time frames makes the story feel pacier and sharper.

Plot:

You have the bones of a really great story here: a dysfunctional family are brought together and forced to confront long-held grievances – and reveal their own personal secrets. But while the story in essence has great potential, I have reservations about the execution. In short, it seems like you are too focused on extracting the humour from each and every scene and exchange, and less about letting the real emotions play out. While engaging and at times very funny, I do need to stress that less is more. It seems like you’re too intent on mining the comedy value out of every line, and in turn, some of the humour falls flat as it’s quite obvious. By being more subtle and understated, the wit and humour will be able to shine through more. At present it feels a bit too frantic. I will go into more detail about this in my notes on tone further down.

There are numerous references to what is to come – Ian knows but the reader is kept in the dark as all is gradually revealed. But I found it a little odd that Ian ‘dreams’ his aunt’s memories. I think this would work better as a straightforward flashback rather than Ian’s dream. Maybe you could consider structuring the novel from Ruth’s POV too, even if it is only through a series of flashbacks?

I like the idea that all the characters have secrets that will be revealed, such as the reason behind Julie’s animosity towards men. And of course the twist that not only does Ian have a son he never knew about, it’s revealed that his two sons aren’t biologically his own. But that did make me question his own attitude to Ruth and Harry. If he never viewed them as his parents as they weren’t biologically his, does that mean he doesn’t view Chandra’s children as his own? Your synopsis states he does but this seems to contradict Ian’s argument. And would Chandra not get angry after his comments in these opening pages about ‘biological’ parents? This really needs to ring true if it is to be believable.

A small point but I’m not entirely convinced about setting up the ending of the novel to make way for a sequel. Sequels in this area of the market don’t usually work. This is something you need to think carefully about.

Characterisation:

This feels like it will be much-more of a character-led than plot-driven novel. Your characterisation is definitely the strongest aspect of your narrative from reading these early pages. I thought the first exchange between Ruth and Harry was really well-told. It was engaging, it really revealed their natures, and it had both an edge of comedy and tragedy to it, which is a hard balance to master.

Julie is also a great character: acerbic, brash and frank yet you can’t help but warm to her as she’s clearly a straight-talker and suffers no fools. You’re great at really capturing a character with just a turn of phrase or one or two lines. Which taps into my comments above – less is more, and then these great lines will really stand out.

Setting:

Setting is of course only the backdrop of the story, but it’s an important element in conjuring up your fictional world for the reader. Only small details are needed, but they can really place your story. For example, little description is given of Ian’s home or his office.

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.

The tone of this is quite intimate. It is written in first person and it is almost like Ian is addressing the reader directly at times. It feels almost confessional, as though he is letting them in on secrets that no one else knows. And this effectively pulls the reader into his story and instantly makes them align with them, as they feel privy to personal admissions no one else is aware of.

Sometimes the tone did veer into smugness, almost as if Ian thought he was funnier than he was. It’s conversational in tone, but at times it feels like you’re striving too hard to find the comedy in a scenario, rather than naturally mining it. It needs to feel natural, not forced.

From reading the synopsis, it’s clear the tone will develop as the story progresses into poignancy and tragedy. It’s crucial that the humour doesn’t downplay the emotion of these scenes.

Genre/Market:

I found it strange in your synopsis that you state your primary and secondary target market. There shouldn’t be a ‘secondary’ target market. You should be clear who you are aiming your novel at: not addressing one demographic firstly and then considering another demographic as an afterthought. Your novel will either appeal to a certain market or it won’t.

The fact that your protagonist is male means it is likely to appeal to a male readership, but I agree that is will likely appeal to an older demographic than that of the character’s age, given the style of the novel.

I would suggest reading widely and trying books of this ilk, such as by writers like David Nicholls, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper. They are all brilliant at depicting both the comedy and tragedy of a situation, and handle familial dysfunction with wit and poise.



Synopsis:

I’m not sold on the structure of your synopsis, with subheadings such as ‘setup’ and ‘trigger’ which I found rather distracting. You may want to revisit this. A simple approach is often best for a synopsis.

You state in your synopsis that because Ruth didn’t have her own children, Ian felt unwanted. I don’t quite understand the reasoning in this. Is it because Ian felt that she never wanted children? Or that she didn’t have children because she had to look after the three of them? Be a bit more specific here.

Title:

I liked the title. It’s snappy yet enigmatic, and the alliteration makes it more memorable too.

Page notes:

p.2: ‘airing my thoughts along with my penis’ – great line!

p.5: ‘Shhh! Her eyes point over to the potting bench then glare back at Henry’ – why? Is there someone sat on the bench? I think you need to be clearer here if this gesture is to have significance.

p.6: ‘It was a week of stolen memories, for me as well as for Ruth’ – good scene end. Snappy and enigmatic, making the reader want to turn the page and find out more.

p.11: ‘Some say the best form of defence is attack; with Julie it is unconditional surrender’ – great line! Really sums her up as a character.

p.11: ‘I gave my head a little shimmy’ and p. 13: ‘He shimmied his head’ – avoid repetition. Use another phrase here.

p.12: ‘And you’re needed to operate on him?’- great line.

p.14: ‘attacked the key rapidly about ten times producing machine gun fire’ – humour misfires here. Too overstated.

Conclusion:

I hope these notes have been helpful to you. As I have already said, I think the material so far is in relatively 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
LouiseGalvin
 14 Jun 2011, 15:08 #120457 Reply To Post
Ted, would you please pass my thanks on to Natalie? Her direct and detailed comments show me exactly why I've been getting rejections. I sincerely appreciate that. I only wish that I'd had this review a couple of years back.

Thanks - to everyone that read it - for giving me this chance.

Lou
Chicory
 14 Jun 2011, 18:36 #120478 Reply To Post
Thank you, Orion, for my mini review. In the meantime I've edited.
RMS
 14 Jun 2011, 18:57 #120479 Reply To Post
It really is a privilege to get a professional opinion on my writing - many thanks to Natalie for giving up her valuable time, and to Ted, and everyone who pushed MM up the charts.

I will dissect the comments later, but the standout one is to let the humour flow naturally from the characters rather than try to crow-bar gags in - would be comedy writers take note. I will give this serious thought.

One lesson I would pass on to YWO members is to put more work into the synopsis - I knocked mine out in an evening and I think it shows. Having said that, I found a lot of different opinions on length and content, so perhaps some guidance on length and structure from the professionals wouldn't go amiss here. How about it Ted?

Thanks again to everyone.
But what the hell do I do now, tinker with MM and kindle it or shelve it and just learn the lesson for my next project?
Mmmm . . . . thinks . . .

Ray.
YouWriteOn
 18 Jun 2011, 13:46 #120910 Reply To Post
Many thanks to you all, and we will pass on your feedback. Re synopsis, I think there was at one time a thread on this in the Writers' Tips forum. If anyone wants to add anything from experience re writing a synopsis, they can add or start a new topic there.

Ted
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