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Random House Critiques - September 2012
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 20 Sep 2012, 13:52 #158372 Reply To Post
Each month on editors from Random House, and Orion, provide an indepth critique of up to three highly rated Top Ten novel openings from budding authors, and provide mini-reviews for the rest of the top ten youwriteon stories. Random House publish authors such as Dan Brown and Terry Pratchett.

The editor feedback aims to assist all budding authors in their story development by giving feedback as to what editors are looking for in novels and novel openings submitted to them.

Random House Editor Reviews Click here to view the stories which are listed under September 2012
 20 Sep 2012, 13:55 #158373 Reply To Post
Jolted – Fleur Ferris

Congratulations on being the top rated story on YouWriteOn this month! It's a very impressive achievement, but from what I've read of Jolted, it's testament to your strong characterisation and the breathless sense of pace that reflects the turbulence of Madison's new world.

Quality of writing

It's often the little details sprinkled throughout a piece of writing that help a reader to create a vivid mental picture of a person or a setting, and I think that you do this very well throughout your first chapters. The opening lines, with the bitumen radiating heat, the sweat and the melting sunscreen all create a very strong sense of an almost oppressive heat, and from the word go the reader senses that that all is not going to end well on this uncomfortable day.

You have a particular eye for interiors: the closed doors to the parents' bedroom, the calm of the counsellor's room at the school, the wall of books that Madison physically erects around herself, to ward off the chaos caused by the implosion of her parent's marriage, which all work very well to help a reader build up a picture of Madison's world.

Do aim for a subtlety of tone in your writing where possible: readers are generally very good at picking up on the implications of characters' thoughts and actions, and generally would rather work it out for themselves than have everything spelled out for them. For example, I would suggest cutting the second of the following two lines and letting the reader draw their own conclusions: 'My life is very different now because of this bottle. Even though I didn't drink any, it still managed to give me a colossal headache.' Similarly, when the counsellor encourages Madison to keep up her studies to give her stability, I don't think we then need to see her telling us that 'For me study is an escape' when you can show us that later through her actions, as she fights off her fears over her father leaving home. I suspect you probably just need to have a little more confidence in the strength of your own writing to convey what you mean, but this is something that will also come with practice.


One of the aspects that really struck me on reading your chapters was just how isolating it must have been for Madison to suddenly be alone in the house, simultaneously dreading and hoping to hear her family arrive home. I think it could actually help if we were to see a little more of this, the weekend she spends without seeing either of her parents, for example, could be really striking way of showing us how much this one moment has changed her whole life. Would she know how to cook, or is she used to her mother doing all of that for them both? And what happens if her family or her parents' friends came round, not knowing what has happened?

I did wonder why she didn't contact her brother at any other point – it might be worth briefly touching on that, and on why her grandparents or aunts and uncles aren't in touch. I would have imagined that even if her parents hadn't told anyone what was happening, family members may have called anyway to find out how everyone was.

I really liked how you introduced a sense of tension and mystery through her father's bandaged hand and casual clothes, and the non-appearance of her mother, both of which I'm presuming you'll be exploring in more depth as the story unfolds.


In a first person narrative, so much of the success of the story depends on how believable we find a character's voice, and how interested we are in their story. We don't always have to like a character to want to read more about them – in fact, some of the very best stories are narrated by characters most readers would find thoroughly unpleasant in real life – but we need them to have a certain spark or energy about them, that will encourage a reader to want to stay with them throughout an entire book.

Madison is largely a sympathetic narrator; while her experience may not actually be that uncommon, as she says herself she is one of the very few people still to live with both of her parents, she brings a welcome self-awareness to the story, with the guilt at having inadvertently caused the breakup adding an extra dimension to her story. While many children will blame themselves for the end of their parents' marriage, Madison also has to deal with her mother's misplaced anger. Her mother's reaction to Madison's unexpected arrival, and then to Madison's announcement, did surprise me: I would have imagined that she would be tearful, apologetic, anxious, rather than so vicious towards her only daughter, and so cruel when her father announces she's leaving. I know that her mother will be shocked, and may be furious at Madison because she can't deal with her own guilt, but I wonder whether her initial reaction could be slightly tempered, thereby making her later announcement that it's all Madison's fault come as more of a shock?

I liked the glimpses we saw of Madison's relationship with her friends; it seems so many novels featuring teenagers choose to focus on fractious or competitive friendships, especially when it comes to girls, so it was refreshing to see a situation where Madison seemed well supported by her friends, even if she wasn't yet comfortable with explaining to them what had happened.

The one issue I'd encourage you to be aware of is that Madison, like many teenage girls, can be quite extreme ('my mother’s hatred penetrates my soul', 'the news hits me with the force of a tsunami') which can feel a little overwhelming at points. It's entirely understandable that Madison will be so unhappy, but constantly being told how miserable she is and how much her life has changed, can actually undermine what you want to achieve and leave the reader feeling less engaged. It's better to have just one or two lines that really sum up what she's feeling, than several paragraphs essentially repeating the same thing. The staple advice to a writer as suggested above is always to show us, rather than tell, so think about ways in which Madison's actions will show us how unhappy she is, without you having to tell us.


I very much enjoyed the first few chapters of Jolted, and I hope my comments will be helpful to you as you continue to write and re-draft your work. You have the beginnings of a good story in place, with lots of promising plot lines to develop, and you just need to keep a good balance between having Madison tell us what she's feeling and you showing us through her actions.

I am not sure whether the issues I flagged up over the lack of contact with her brother/other family members may actually be explained in subsequent chapters but if not, it might be worth you looking at how you can explain these to readers. Similarly, my concerns over the extreme reaction from her mother may well be something that becomes more understandable as the book progresses.

Congratulations again, and good luck with your writing!

Alison, Editor, Random House
 20 Sep 2012, 13:55 #158374 Reply To Post
The Cheats – Ian Harvey-Brown

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month, with the beginnings of what feels to be a dark and original dystopian thriller. I enjoyed the black humour laced throughout, and there's a real energy to your writing, although I think it would benefit from you slowing down the pace at points, and offering the reader an opportunity to process everything that's going on.

You give us an awful lot of plot and backstory in just these few chapters, and it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. Remember that readers don't need to know everything about a character as soon as they encounter them, let readers find out his family history slowly, perhaps through conversations with other characters. If you just give people a few clues, they can start to build up their own ideas, which is always more interesting and engaging than having everything spoon-fed to them. The best dystopias I've read are the ones where we're never entirely sure what some things are, or why something is forbidden. And similarly, I'd make your physical descriptions a little shorter, particularly in the early stages where he's abandoned in the hostile landscape; give readers some striking details and let them fill in the blanks themselves!

This is a relatively minor plot point but why does Jake forget to charge the battery? I'd have thought that if you're going to such a dangerous area, it would be the first thing you checked. Could you add in a line explaining why he overlooked it; perhaps he was in too much of a hurry because he needed to get started and start earning money? And if the date doesn't change from chapter to chapter, I don't think you need to repeat the details at the start of each chapter, only include it when it changes.

The Hanged God – N.J.Fawcett

First off, I wanted to compliment on you a wonderful title, and opening line: Withensee in the Hetwold instantly gives you a wonderful sense of atmosphere and intrigue, and made me want to read on immediately. You have created a wonderfully vivid setting for your story, and I liked how Elany's happier memories of her homeland allowed us readers to glimpse what the Hetwold would have been like in the summer as well. There were some wonderful descriptions that really brought your writing to life; I loved the gate posts looming out of the mist 'like the twin prows of a Tuath warship', it's both atmospheric and intriguing.

The arrival of the mysterious strangers ensures your plot moves briskly forwards, but one issue I'd like you to bear in mind in your writing is who is narrating the story; are we seeing things from the perspective of the characters or an omniscient narrator? I'd thought we were seeing things from either Athol or Elany's point of view but there are points, such as the paragraph beginning 'But Elany had always wanted wider horizons...' which suddenly seem to jump into an omniscient narrator, so do beware of those moments.

I'd also recommend taking your time to reveal character's back-stories, don't worry about explaining everything to a reader as soon as you introduce us to a character. In real life we never find out someone's entire history and motivations the moment we first meet them, so the same should be true for fictional characters. Let us wonder for ourselves why Athol might be protective of Elany, or why Magret might be jealous, and hold back on revealing their true feelings immediately. The chance meeting with the strangers is a good opportunity to let some of that information slip out, but remember that readers love to piece clues together themselves.

Jakob's Colours – Lindsay Hawdon

Congratulations on being one of the top rated stories this month, with the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a beautifully written and very lyrical piece of writing. As you are, no doubt already aware, there are many books set during the second world war, but your narrative felt fresh and original to me, and I was impressed with how you were able to bring a different feel to the narrative when it was told from Jakob's perspective, rather than that of his mother.

You have a wonderful eye for the tiny details that really make a story come alive on the page – the swollen mouth of the shot drinkers at the bar, the water that is so cold it makes her fingers ache, the slugs moist like his sister's kisses. I think, for me, these work the strongest when they are surrounded by relatively straightforward prose; you don't want to feel like you are constantly straining to achieve a very literary style so try to relax into your writing. If I were editing your work, I'd want to cut back on a few of the descriptive passages to allow the narrative space to breathe. Don't be afraid to let a character do and think something relatively straightforward, it will make the gems scattered throughout your work shine more brightly.

On the plot side of things, I wasn't quite clear how Markus found Jakob, I thought he was hiding in a crack in the land and, especially as Jakob must be so small and thin, would Markus have found him? And perhaps this is explained later on, but where had his fellow hiders come from? I do like the sense of mystery that you introduce with Jakob stained with the blood of someone else, and I think the two narratives work very well together, allowing you to maintain a steady sense of pace and rhythm as you cut between them.

Congratulations on a lovely piece of writing, and I hope you continue to develop your story.

Alison, Editor, Random House
 20 Sep 2012, 13:56 #158375 Reply To Post
General Feedback from Alison: A good bunch this month
 10 Oct 2012, 12:55 #158915 Reply To Post
Professional mini critique for The Licenser by Kate Braithwaite

Congratulations on being well-rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the opening pages of your novel. While I thought they were well-written, I did think that you focused too much on setting the scene at the expense of other areas of the narrative. You seemed intent on giving the reader backstory and context, rather than concentrating on entertaining them and drawing them into the story. An important piece of advice to remember is that the reader doesn’t need to know everything your characters know – especially at the beginning of a narrative. Your aim in these crucial early pages is to hook the reader and make them want to read on.

The opening line is potentially dramatic, but the rest of the chapter doesn’t mine that potential effectively. You over-describe the surroundings, so all sense of atmosphere becomes lost, and you tend to rather clunkily tell the reader what has happened recently through dialogue. Again, the reader doesn’t need to know so many details at this early juncture in the novel. And another piece of advice that I frequently tell aspiring writers is – less is more. Don’t overwrite, otherwise the words will begin to overshadow the drama and atmosphere of your narrative.

Professional mini critique for Two Thirds Man by Michael Marett-Crosby

Congratulations on being well-rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the opening pages of your novel. It is clear that you know this world very well, and you have really got under the skin and inside the head of your troubled protagonist, V. My concerns were that given the entire novel is set in prison, from one man’s point of view, and with very few subplots (from what I could garner from the synopsis), I worry the narrative might feel quite small in terms of scope, and even quite claustrophobic in terms of the reading experience. This of course might be intentional, so the reader feels trapped like the characters, but then you do risk alienating potential readers. Coupled with this is the dark tone of the novel. Understandably, your protagonist is embittered and lacks a real sense of hope, and this permeates through the writing. Again, by having such an unrelentingly dark book, you may distance potential readers. There needs to be flashes of light through the darkness, and there needs to be texture and variation in how you structure the book (with other subplots and the chronology of the structure etc.) if you are to keep the reader invested.

From reading your synopsis, it seems that your protagonist is based on an actual prisoner that you met. Can I ask if all the names have been changed? As obviously there are libel issues involved if you are referring to actual people. It was interesting that you compared this to Stuart: A Life Backwards, which was an incredible book. But I think the reason that worked so well is that not only was it brilliantly written, it was also shown through the eyes of two very different men. And from what I have read, I don’t think these early pages have the depth or poignancy to really draw a reader in in these crucial opening chapters. There is a death very early on, but it has no emotional impact on the reader as V seems to react to it so numbly and we don’t really get a sense of how important he was to V.

Professional mini critique for The Ricochet of Sunbeams by Derek Byrne

Congratulations on being well-rated by your writing peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your novel. I thought it was very well written and I was particularly impressed by the sophistication of your prose. While you ably set the scene and introduce the characters, I did think you could have heightened the atmosphere and sense of tension in these early pages, as the opening chapters do lack that immediate ‘hook’ that will really pull the reader in.

I thought the characterisation was very strong. Capturing teenage voices and portraying them convincingly isn’t easy, but your teenage characters feel real and – most important! – contemporary (actually, so much so that I initially thought this was a YA novel). You also hint at the claustrophobia of this small town, and the reader can begin to see why the three teens want to escape. From reading your synopsis, it sounds like there will be numerous subplots (such as the Cassie and Nathan relationship, and Ging’s deteriorating mental health, which will in turn amp up the tension of the story). And these subplots will help give your novel depth and interest, so the reader never tires of one narrative strand.

Professional mini critique for SHerlock Holmes and Me by Joy Manne

Congratulations on being well-rated by your peers at YouWriteOn. I enjoyed reading the early pages of your children’s novel. As I’m sure you’re aware, Sherlock Holmes is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment with TV shows, films and books. But I wonder if this renewed interest in the literary detective would actually extend to children? Your protagonist is nearing his thirteenth birthday, and as young readers tend to like to read up, this would mean your general readership would be 10-12 year olds.

While these opening chapters are well written, I think they lack the warmth and atmosphere to really hook a young reader. The writing can be quite matter of fact at times and your protagonist, Jon, seems much older than twelve, and quite serious, and this may make him a hard character for your reader to connect with and warm to. I think you need to concentrate on making Jon a more interesting protagonist, one who is charismatic enough to carry the weight of the story. And while you are rewriting, bear in mind your intended readership, and always question as you go along whether what you are writing will entertain them.

Editor Natalie Braine
This post was last edited by ProfessionalCritique, 10 Oct 2012, 12:56
 01 Nov 2012, 23:30 #159694 Reply To Post

View the attachment for Orion Editor notes

Very enjoyable read. I wasn’t expecting, from the ‘pitch’, to like it as much as I did.

The synopsis is too long, is too chatty and is too detailed. I feel an ideal synopsis should be terser and less concerned with explaining all of the plot points – if I like what I read of the first pages of the book, I’ll read on and discover them for myself. If I don’t like the first pages, no synopsis will convince me to read on. All you need is the briefest explanation of setting and the plot, a little about your lead characters, and perhaps a couple of points you’re particularly proud of. The one provided below – obviously, created for YWO rather than as a pitch – just didn’t work for me.

That said, I did very much enjoy the writing. You have a distinctive voice, and some very good ideas. I can understand why you were so successful on YWO. I’ve made all of my comments and changes to the attached document. Some of them may be Americanisms that I don’t recognise, so do bear that in mind. I’ve also pulled out a lot of the grammatically-incorrect formations in speech, which I completely understand could be intentional and there to evoke character. As I didn’t have a chance to discuss with you, I thought it best to mark them all up. There isn’t much work to do on this sample, but as I said above, I think you need a stronger, more professional synopsis/pitch before you go to an agent.

Best, and good luck with your writing,

Marcus, Editor, Orion

Margaret Ethel with notes.doc (68Kb) - 190 view(s)
 02 Nov 2012, 07:48 #159698 Reply To Post
Please thank Marcus for his time and detailed comments. It is much appreciated.

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