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 06 Jul 2018, 13:42 #238751 Reply To Post
Displayed below are the Bloomsbury editor critiques for those judged to be the critique winners from the Competition Period for October to December 2017. Thank you for your patience as we are had a change-over in some of the editors doing the critiquing. For those that got a critique, many congratulations. For those that did not, you are welcome to try again and it was a great achievement ranking so highly in the YWO top ten.

There will be further critiques from a Random House editor in a few weeks for the Competition Period October to December 2017
This post was last edited by YouWriteOn, 06 Jul 2018, 13:47
 06 Jul 2018, 13:48 #238752 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor Critiques

Darkness in Their Hearts by Lill A. Gubben

A great opening sentence – it really grabs you, it's so bald and shocking.

Throughout you often refer to 'Africa' rather than a country – this seems a bit... strange. Surely the narrator would refer to Ghana specifically, rather than an entire continent? It rang false that he wouldn't refer to his home country – and then made me question if he was withholding it from us deliberately. And likewise, I don't think Churchyard would refer to Africa rather than Ghana.

The voice is interesting and unusual; it's almost child-like – or childish? - letting us understand that the narrator is either perhaps not properly educated or has some kind of special needs, a result of the brain injury he mentions having received. The simplicity of this voice alerts the reader to the possibility that the narrator is vulnerable and open to deception, or that this seeming simplicity is a front and they are being disingenuous, and tricking the reader. Either way: it is intriguing, and flags up to the reader to expect to have to read between the lines to get the full story and not rely on the narrator. Likewise, his religion-inflected speech flags up to the reader that the narrator is not a straightforward character and that he may have a skewed vision of the world and a fixed and traditional set of moral standards.

The opening chapter is really strong – you sow the seeds of intrigue. From the narrator's brain injury, to the deaths of his father and godfather (not to mention their deaths), there is a lot for the reader to be pulled in by and look forward to having uncovered.
In the second chapter, I did wonder about a few things. Readers of crime fiction love authenticity and for the novels they're reading to seem well-researched. Would someone as high up as a Detective Inspector be holding this initial interview? Why is he not being interviewed at the station? Regardless of her position or of what stage of the investigations this interview is at, would she be there alone - or would she have a partner with her? She also seems to be asking questions that are more rooted in psychology than finding out facts. And would he not insist on his lawyer being there?

Churchyard also leaves very abruptly; there is neither a natural end to their conversation nor an obvious reason as to why she would leave so suddenly. I'm inferring from the narrator's misogynistic and simplistic view of her and her body language that he is misreading the situation and that she isn't actually attracted to him? A small thing, but I'm afraid I'm not entirely convinced by the title of her PhD. Furthermore, would the title of her PhD actually be online anywhere, or would you just be able to see that she has a PhD? I also worry that the title gives too much away. We're going to suspect fairly quickly that Churchyard believes our narrator to be responsible for the murders, but do we want it spelled out so clearly and unambiguously so early on?

I don't think the tone of Churchyard’s diary extract is quite right. It either needs to be a police report - and list such details that you include such as name and address and use this more formal language - or if it is going to be extracts from her personal diary, her language needs to be more relaxed and seem less written for a report. Whichever one you go for, I don't think she would refer to 'my gay colleague' - she would name him, and not refer to his being gay. If she’s writing in her diary, why would she explain this too herself? I also think that again, you're giving us too much, too soon. Does she really find Nana attractive already? Why not let the attraction build more gradually? It will be more interesting and tense. If you give us everything immediately, you won't have anything left to bring out. I'm also not sure about her medical language - make sure you use the correct terminology. 'Spastic arms' stood out as dubious in particular.

Chapter Three: are you sure you want to do this via the voice of Nana? He was the unborn child, so how is he seeing all of this happening? It might be interesting to have the earlier sections narrated by Nana's father. That could be really compelling. You would just have to be extremely careful about differentiating between the two voices; otherwise the father and the son will merge into one and the reader will come to suspect both voices are that of the author, rather than two separate characters. This option would require quite a bit of reworking from you, unfortunately, but I think it could really pay off in the long-run. The reader won't question the narrator, and therefore won't step out of their engagement with the world and characters you've created, and you'll also be adding another layer of intrigue to your novel. Then we can have more of the father's frustration at being trapped by his eventual wife – but does he feel trapped? Is he in love with her? How controlled does he feel by his family? By switching to his voice, you would have all this to explore. Not to mention being able to delve properly into the story of his relationship with the godfather. I want to see the first time they meet, for example. I want to see how the relationship grows, what the balance of power is. You would then have the added advantage of not having to state that 'it was a catastrophe for Granny and her daughters when they realised I was not 'normal''. If we have it from that father's perspective, we can see the effect it has on the family, their having a child who has cerebral palsy. Growing up in such an environment will have had an effect on Nano - this will let us see that. Does it make him stronger? Bitter? More reliant? More determinedly independent? You've set up a really rich background to mine. 'If you were a baby like me, you were not welcome to life and to live among your brethren ... both families I was born into had a clear view: for my mum to be able to live a decent life and blossom as a young woman, I had to be put away to rot.' This is heartbreaking and exactly what we need to sympathise with Nano if it does emerge that he is a murderer. To grow up surrounded by fear and prejudice cannot help but have an effect on someone. It could make them great; it could make them twisted.

You've set up so much to explore and uncover. How Nano became the man he is – that tough start to life – how his father and godfather met; did they fall in love? Or was there colonial power at play? Not to mention the straightforward power of a rich, older man over a young, poor man lacking in power and social status. How did they die? We haven't yet found out and I'm interested to see how long you'll keep this from the reader and then how you will eventually reveal it. Then, of course, there is the relationship between Nano and Churchyard. How will he manipulate her? Will he be successful, or will she instead rather let him think he is manipulating her while in fact, she is in control all along? With so much to sort out, certain storylines might start to run away with you and dominate the others. Don't forget about one plot in favour of another; otherwise you'll find the tension difficult to maintain, if you have to break away now and again from the main story in order not to neglect side-stories. Look at Jane Robinson's The Dry for a brilliant example of how two timelines and two interweaving narratives are kept under control and used to balance and complement the other.

You have an intriguing central character, murder and backstory. You should have a lot of fun writing the rest of the novel – and fingers crossed that it will all really translate into a gripping and layered book. Good luck!

Marigold, Editor, Bloomsbury
 06 Jul 2018, 13:49 #238753 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor Critique of Missing Sunny Days by Emily Pattullo

How old are Eli and Sunny? Eli's language seems quite childish – he describes his mother as working 'in her glass box at the train station' and candy-floss as 'yummy' but he is also clearly beginning to find Sunny attractive - while Sunny wears a leather jacket, smokes cigarettes and talks about 'kids' as though she isn't one herself (and, we see in the synopsis, must be over sixteen, if she's managing later to pretend to be Robert's wife). I think in this opening scene you need to concentrate more on just Sunny and Eli, building up their relationship, letting us feel the trust, friendship and intimacy between them. When you do go on to portray the mother's violence towards Eli, it needs to be treated in less of a passing moment. She's trying to attack him with a rolling pin - she could inflict real injury on him - but it's all over in an instance, and I don't feel any of Eli's terror (or perhaps his resignation or numbness?). How does he feel to be being attacked by his mother? How does he feel to hear her crying on the other side of the bathroom door? Later, when she attacks him with the broom, then asks for forgiveness in a babyish voice, how does that make him feel? I can't work out if he's angry, disgusted, hurt, scared or anything else. He's being abused by his mother yet I'm not getting any real sense of that having an impact on him. As part of his relationship with his mother, do you have in mind when Eli's father left? Because when you first mention the split, it sounds almost recent 'since they split up ... We haven't hear from him since he left', making it sound as though Eli knew the time before the split. Yet he then questions his mother about his father as though he never knew him. As part of our believing in Eli and investing in his story, we need to see him as an emotional being, one fully rounded, and we need to understand his backstory.

In the synopsis, I noticed that both Eli and Sunny's mum Zoe both separately leave the search for Zoe, too upset. Do you want both to do this? I'm not sure it's a good idea for two characters to react in the same way. I'm also not sure what role the new neighbours in number 32 are playing, unless they're there purely to show that Sunny's father is racist? You already have quite a few characters and plots so I'd be careful about adding storylines that might distract from the main one of Sunny's disappearance.

The main element that worries me is your treatment of domestic abuse. Sunny sympathises with Eli about his mother's violence, but doesn't encourage him to speak up. She is potentially being abused by her father. Her father rapes her mother yet in the synopsis, it seems he's welcomed back into the family fold and left unpunished. The doctor in the hospital when Eli has had his asthma attack does at least some concerned by the bruising on his back, but accepts Eli's excuse unquestioningly. With such storylines, I would be very careful about researching domestic abuse and seeing how it escalates - and how it can be escaped. That will feed into making the characters and their relationships stronger and more believable: we will understand better the reasons they act the way they do. Sarah lashing out at Eli because she herself is being abused; Sunny escaping with her older neighbour, as a weird father-replacement act.

In the chapters I have, I only have Eli's voice. You've established a strong voice for him – it's youthful, slangy, a touch immature, and full of love – even if unwise love – for Sunny and his mum. Having four separate narrators is really ambitious; you'll need to be very careful that they're distinct enough from each other, without any of them seeming contrived. I'd advise considering focusing on two characters' voices: that will still be ambitious and hooky, but will run less risk of confusing the reader – and complicating things too much for you.

I love a coming-of-age story so combining that with a psychological thriller is, for me, a great combination. You've planned a potentially fascinating cast of characters with a web of emotional darknesses and secrets woven between them. You'll really hook the reader in – just be careful you don't confuse them with too many characters, backstories and motives. Keep the focus on Eli and Sunny. Good luck!

Marigold, Editor, Bloomsbury
 06 Jul 2018, 13:50 #238754 Reply To Post

Bloomsbury Editor Critique of The Fragility of Meaning by DLC Hanson

What a grim and striking opening – you're really bringing home the horrors of war and I think your not flinching away from describing so vividly the charred body is important. There's no glamour or romance here; a boy has become meat.

I love the line – 'Mrs Nashi … tortoised to us' is just perfect, I can see her immediately.

You handle time very well, taking us from the immediate present back into Aferdita's memories, forward to Fatjon being buried. This is helping us be engaged with the action of the present while understanding Aferdita's character and past. However, in the final paragraph of the second chapter, Aferdita questions whether she could have done anything to help her neighbours and she states how the betrayals of conscience stayed with her, 'their gnawing tendrils dominating [her]'. It is clear to the reader that they could not have helped; you've shown us this. So if this is to portray her (unreasonable) feelings of guilt, we need to see this in her later life, rather than be told it; just as we need to see her feeling her betrayal, rather than being told she feels it. It's the old truism of not telling but showing. We'll engage with her much better if we experience her emotions with her rather than being told them. Similarly, in the third chapter, Aferdita notes of Bora that, 'the precarious nature of our plight was not lost on her, despite her tender years' – let us see Bora being aware of the precariousness rather than being told about it. Likewise, I think we should see more of them actually surviving in the woods, their day-to-day existence. Is it cold? Wet? What do they eat? Where do they get their water from? We need to believe in them and their survival and we need to see their suffering and determination in order to root for them.
A small thing, but when you begin you state simply the month and year – but chapter 3 begins with a specific date. I wanted to know if this was the same day or later on in the month. Has action happened inbetween? If it's the same day, you need to keep the pace up from the previous chapter; if it's later on in the month, what has happened inbetween the two chapters?

Be careful with your dialogue. I worry that in the third chapter, when Aferdita is trying to save Gjerga and when Bora is trying to snap her into the reality of the situation, the language strays into cliché – 'don't you are do this … Don't you think about leaving us' and ''Stop now. Dad's gone. He's gone'. This is such a potentially emotional and traumatic scene, but this language has a bit of an echo of melodramatic B-movies, which sits ill at ease with the more subtle moments you have, such as Aferdita kissing Gjergi goodbye and noting not only that 'his lips were dry and warm' but that she hadn't kissed them for months. This is a small, intimate moment; it's not melodramatic, but its very quietness makes it far more moving.

You've set up a strong mother-daughter relationship and begun with a vivid and upsetting opening. If you keep the reader engaged and keep control of the different narratives, this could be a really compelling narrative. Reading the synopsis, I do wonder if you need the character of Jeremiah? Will that introduce one set of complications and emotions too many? Aferdita and her family are the important focus here; I worry that you will have to work hard to make Jeremiah's motivations for helping the family believable. But you have some really good foundations here – good luck!

Marigold, Editor, Bloomsbury

 06 Jul 2018, 13:51 #238755 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor Critique of Unless a Grain of Wheat Should Fall – Sean Gibbon

Congratulations on being a top rated story this month, with this evocative and insightful glimpse into a small town and three characters that live there and attempt to forge a life together.


I am not sure where or how your overall story begins, but the chapters we have here give us a wonderful sense of atmosphere and character while covering quite a wide span of time as Hank grows up from an abandoned little boy into a reckless – and potentially violent – teenager.

It can be quite a challenge to skip over or condense fairly large periods of time and still keep the reader fully engaged with the characters, but I think that it works here as we're seeing it all through the lens of Rita and her transformation isn't so significant – as the story begins when she is already quite an old lady and so she doesn't change as dramatically as Hank does during the course of the chapter.

There's a real sense as the chapters draw to a close, that tension is building and dark times lie ahead and I was pleased to see that as I didn't feel that there was always a very strong sense of tension here, despite the sometimes dramatic events depicted, and I think it's important to ask yourself what you're doing to make the reader want to read on. Strong writing and characterisation are extremely important – essential in fact – to any book, but you also want to think about how you are building a sense of pace that will keep a reader engaged and turning the pages.


Your characterisation is a real strength of your novel and I thought you really brought Rita alive on the page as a caring, hard working woman, somewhat battered but not broken. I felt I could imagine her outside the confines of the pages we have here, which is a real tribute to your gift as a writer.

You've portrayed Rita's grief wonderfully: 'she never talked about it now, not once, not to anyone... she was scared of that happening, of losing her boy twice. First from the world, then from her mind.' And I want to encourage you to keep a sense of that tragedy haunting, or at least colouring her life, because it's important not to make the 'good' characters in a novel too good, but to keep a complexity and nuance to them. If Rita in part adopted Hank because of what happened to her son, then you want to bring that out, subtly, in your writing – there are many people in this world that are good, caring people, but they are often still complex, nuanced figures and I'd like you to ensure that Rita is as complex as she is kind.

I liked her relationship with Graceson – the affection between them is lightly sketched in, but gives us a real sense of the respect they hold towards one another and the little glimpses we have of how they have together attempted to raise Hank are enough for us to build a very vivid picture. And I loved the detail of him baking her muffins! 'a young smile stretched across his old face' captured his pride beautifully.

It's perhaps harder to know Hank in the same way, in the extract we have here, simply because we only see him through other people's eyes and are never inside his head. There was a wonderful poignancy in Hank asking if there's something wrong with him that 'makes people go away' which then set up the later stages of the chapters perfectly, where we see Hank is beginning to act out – and perhaps even worse, with the mention of Packer's death and the mysterious cut on Hank's palm that night. I thought the detail about Hank denying the pornographic magazines were his – even though they were under his bed – was very telling; that refusal to admit even what is obvious felt like an important piece of foreshadowing and a very plausible detail about a teenage boy.

I think throughout this extract you have demonstrated a real talent for summing characters quickly and powerfully; the line 'made all the right noises and all the wrong moves' told me so much about Jason, in a way it may have taken a poorer writer an entire paragraph to say.

Quality of writing

Your writing is generally, like your characterisation, very strong and I thought you captured the feel of this small town very well. There's a wonderful sense of atmosphere throughout – the mention of the moonlight and the foxholes and the drinking holes – that is both picturesque but doesn’t shy away from the fact this a real place, in which people work and live.

There's a lovely sense of drama in some of your lines - 'staring at a canvas duffel bag that bulged like the stuff inside wanted out' and 'a nugget of truth swilled in a pan of lies' both really stood out for me, as did 'Girl was going out, but it wasn't nowhere good.'

Where possible, try and avoid repetition, although it can work in dialogue, as in the example here: 'You got it all planned. You planned on saying goodbye.'

This was a thoughtful and well-drawn piece and I wish you the best of luck as you continue to develop it.

Alison, Editor, Bloomsbury

 06 Jul 2018, 13:52 #238756 Reply To Post
Bloomsbury Editor Mini-Critique of The Inheritance:

This was a lovely insight into a work in progress and I always have something of a weakness for stories about families and wills and inheritance. We only have a fairly small sample here but an awful lot certainly happens! I actually would like you to think about where you begin your story – is there any reason we need to start as it does at present, which to me felt rather like a lot of scene setting, or could you actually open with the will reading? When writers are starting out they often feel they need to set the scene for their readers, and provide the backstory, but readers are generally very good at putting things together and being able to fill in the backstory themselves and it actually makes for a far more engaging read if they do so, as they're made to actively interact with the text.

In your first chapter you set everything up and although it's a very charming introduction, it doesn't make for the most dramatic read and while I was reading it I was perhaps too conscious of wanting the story to really get started and I'd love to see you challenge yourself and see whether there might be a more dramatic opening; this could be the will reading or even an extract from Harriet's diary.

Once you've considered your opening, I would encourage you to really space out the dramatic events in the first few chapters, as I felt it was a little rushed and as a consequence we weren't getting a chance to really absorb the emotional impact of what we were being told – Harriet's death, her brother's death, her falling in love, Rob proposing and dying – before we were rushed on to the next event. Readers need to feel and see what it happening and understand the impact this will have on the characters if your story is really to come alive on the page and I want you to think about ways in which you can breathe life into the book so we believe what we're being told. Rob and Harriet's relationship for example – it happened so quickly and I didn't have any sense of what drew Rob to Harriet, although I could imagine how exciting and glamorous he must be to her. Think about ways in which you can show their developing love as otherwise there is a risk that it just feels too much like a plot contrivance to get Harriet pregnant and you need to avoid any sense of that.

Alison, Editor, Bloomsbury

 06 Jul 2018, 13:53 #238757 Reply To Post

Bloomsbury Editor Mini-Critique of Isaac:

This was a fascinating start to a story about ethics and morality, set in a futuristic version of England. You have a great, very intriguing opening with the mention of his wife and the 'destruction' of their son, Isaac. I can't imagine many readers would be able to stop reading at that point!

One thing I would like you to be aware of as you continue to develop your writing is how to balance giving readers backstory and not overloading the story to the point where the exposition kills the pace of your story. We know very quickly that we're in the future but once this has been established, I would strongly recommend you focus on telling Abe's story rather than setting up what was believed in the past and what is the current law, etc. You really want to get into the habit of interrogating everything you write and asking what is essential – how much does a reader need to know to understand what is happening here? You've obviously carefully thought through your world and how it's evolved in to its current form, which is great to see as good world building is essential for dystopian/futuristic stories but does a reader need to know all of this in the first few chapters for them to understand what is happening? Or can these details seep out slowly throughout the story, allowing the reader to gradually build up a nuanced portrait of the world Abe lives in. I'd encourage you to think about when you meet someone for the first time – do you need their entire cv to be able to have a conversation with them, or can you work with a few key details and gradually learn more about them over time?

As a small point, 'He skipped up the steps two at a time' – this seems unnecessarily carefree at a stressful time. Perhaps he could run or hurry, or something that conveys the turmoil he must be going through as he enters the court?

I hope this is helpful as you continue to develop your writing.

Alison, Editor, Bloomsbury
 06 Jul 2018, 13:54 #238758 Reply To Post

Bloomsbury Editor Mini-Critique of Street End – Janet Scrivens

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month, and it was lovely to discover that this was based on your grandmother's life. How wonderful to bring her story to life on the page for readers.

With respect to your question about the prologue – I am not sure whether it is necessary, in all honesty. A good prologue will often hint at some mystery or dramatic event that will then be solved during the course of the novel but here it feels more like scene setting and it's not essential for our understanding of Ada's character to see the circumstances of her birth, particularly when they're not out of the ordinary.

You do a good job of setting up Ada's character – she's intelligent, determined and out spoken and is likely to make a good and interesting protagonist as a result. I would like you to like at cutting back on a lot of the information you give us about Sarah Forrester, however; there is an awful lot of telling in this short extract and relatively little showing. When writing, you should be looking at ways in which you can create a character and allow the reader to form their opinion of that character from the way they speak and behave. Here, however, rather than letting a reader form their own opinion, you're repeatedly telling us what Sarah is like and why and you're not giving the reader any space to form their own opinion, and it's in those moments of engagement that a book really comes alive so I really want you to think about cutting out those paragraphs where you tell us what everyone thinks of Sarah and let us see her for ourselves so we can start to understand why she will be a formidable force in Ada's new life.

There are a few typos (sen, liassd), so do keep your eyes out for those – editing your work is as important a part of writing as actually getting the words down on the page. I always recommend proofreading on a printed page if that's possible as it's so easy for your eye to slide over things on a screen. I would also really recommend reading your work out loud, as this can be a very effective way of catching typos but also highlighting awkward or cumbersome sentences that would benefit from a tweak.

'a tad too far' to me this sounds quite modern, and not in keeping with the period setting but perhaps this was appropriate to the time?

Good luck!
Alison, Editor, Bloomsbury

 07 Sep 2018, 15:49 #239000 Reply To Post
Thanks so much for the feedback, which was both hugely encouraging and very helpful. And of course, if there is any appetite to read more, I would be more than happy to oblige now that the novel is finished.

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