Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass with Ayisha Malik

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explore and critique a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’.

The first page of Charity Massacre, submitted by Perry McDaid


The dream always begins the same. The office phone rings. A curt summons to Interview Room 2 ensues. The office is empty, but the manager steps out of his office long enough to give her the go-ahead. The transition between that and sitting in the interview room is a blur. Then everything slows down. She is no longer herself, but an observer.


The girl glances around the sparsely furnished interview room, her gaze fixing for a desperate moment on the open window. Silently reprimanding herself for drifting towards panic, she drags her attention back to the two officious creatures sitting at the other side of the conference table. One is a dowdy middle-aged blond female and the other a kindly-looking man in his sixties, on whom - she remarks inwardly - a few good meals would not be wasted.

The female official is sour-faced and scribbles busily on a note-pad before raising her head expectantly. The older, milder, male official waits patiently. The girl, subject of an ad-hoc inquisition, finds her eyes drawn repeatedly and anxiously to the door. It all seems very ominous to her.

‘No, I certainly did not.’ The response is indignant, although tinged with an undercurrent of dread. The man affects a tolerant smile.

‘Your superior says otherwise’ he probes, marking her disdain at the use of the rank honorific.

‘My supervisor,’ she responds, stressing the correction, ‘is ...’ She pauses to wonder how can she can effectively phrase her thoughts without landing herself in deeper trouble, ‘... mistaken.’ She takes a calming breath before continuing. ‘I have always acted in a professional manner, performing above and beyond my duties despite the lack of promotion or appreciation.’

The female official, apparently there to serve as witness and minute-taker, utters an almost inaudible grunt of dissent as she scratches away on her bargain basement note-pad. The flashy corporate folder only magnifies its cheapness. The poor quality of the paper rasps in the awkward quiet.

The target of their investigation finds a rage rising up beside the chilling dread and finds it reflected in the glare which, for a split second, she levels at the grunting woman. Words beyond her normal vocabulary scream to be released. Then the dread reasserts itself. She stares at the door, willing it to open: visualising a dramatic rescue bid by her union representative and office friends who had all been on lunch.

Cornerstones Critique ...

These opening pages create a strong sense of mystery; who is this woman and what is she being questioned about? Some tension is created with her furtive looks towards the open window – she clearly wants to escape, but why? The clipped dialogue in which we can discern that something is wrong is also used to good effect because it sets up the dynamic between the three characters. The author has also used the drip-feed technique well because it keeps the reader guessing, increasing a sense of mystery. The introductory paragraph feels a little out of place, and could be used in a short prologue rather than part of the first chapter. It might be worth asking if this is needed at all, although if the dream is a pertinent thread throughout the manuscript then it’s a useful device to frame the story.

At the moment the authorial perspective is diminishing the tension. We’re not yet sufficiently grounded in the character’s Point of View, and so we’re unable to orientate ourselves. We can gauge it’s the girl’s story we’re meant to be following, but we need to be immersed in the scene by experiencing her thoughts and feelings; all observations and reactions should be related from her perspective. The author could begin the second paragraph with She glances, immediately eliminating the distance between the character and reader. Incidentally, it might be a good idea to find out her name sooner rather than later.

Staying with character POV would also mean avoiding any head-hopping. We’re told that the old man marks her disdain at ‘rank honorific’, but this takes us away from the main POV. It might be better to write, ‘She sees a fleeting look of disdain before she responds with “My supervisor.”’

Maintaining character POV not only helps to immerse the reader in the action as it unfolds, creating tension and drama, but it can also help to prune sentences, removing words such as ‘remarks inwardly’ because the third person limited POV would show us her thought process. There are instances when awkward sentence structure means there’s a lack of clarity. For example, ‘The target of their investigation finds a rage rising up beside the chilling dread and finds it reflected in the glare which, for a split second, she levels at the grunting woman. Words beyond her normal vocabulary scream to be released.’ This is about simplifying the writing as well as maintaining POV. How can this sentence be restructured in order to clarify its meaning, and make it active? Also the words that scream to be released feel slightly overwritten. It’s fine because it shows her agitation and frustration, but can this be portrayed in a simpler way to ensure clarity of meaning? How might this feeling manifest itself in an action? Might she bite her tongue? Would she be willing herself not to swear? The foundation is set to show us what the character is going through – I like that the reader is also made to feel uncomfortable - so it’s just about taking it that little bit further, giving the reader a stronger sense of the character’s emotional state.

The narrative jars somewhat when we read, ‘subject of an ad-hoc inquisition, finds her eyes drawn repeatedly and anxiously to the door. It all seems very ominous to her.’ Firstly, this feels repetitive since we’ve already witnessed her gaze at the open window, also there’s an issue of Show Don’t Tell here - the repeated looks toward the door already suggest that she’s anxious, so we don’t need to be told this. This presented another issue in terms of what the character herself knows – if it seems ominous then it suggests she’s unsure as to why she’s in the room, but her panic implies that she does know why she’s there. If she’s unsure, wouldn’t she be more nervous and confused rather than frightened? It’s also better to use active rather than passive language so that ‘eyes’ are not ‘drawn,’ but the character is actively seeking an exit.

As mentioned, the dialogue is quite strong, helping to create mystery and tension. It is important that the author allows the reader to infer meaning from dialogue and action, though. It might be better to write, ‘My supervisor’ italicising the word in bold, rather than going on to write, ‘stressing the correction.’ Much of the joy of reading is inferring meaning from subtle hints the author gives, so the reader is able to understand through their own interpretation. It also keeps the prose clean by pruning any excess words.

Focusing on details such as the scratching on the note-pad, and the paper rasping in the silence, are lovely ways to create tension. Using the senses helps to Show rather than Tell and adds to the reading experience. It would benefit the scene to have more of this interspersed throughout the sample.

In essence there’s potential here to make this a very tense scene. Ideally we need to keep the reader hooked by employing a closer POV, more internal thought and using more action and dialogue to Show rather than Tell. Also, do ensure that every word justifies its place – where can words be cut, and is everything clear in its meaning? Equally important is to ensure that every sentence is written as simply as possible, this should in turn help with clarity.

Good luck with developing this potentially tense piece.

Cornerstones is a teaching-based literary consultancy. They specialise in providing self-editing feedback on writing, launching first-time authors and scout for agents for published and unpublished writers.

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1 comment:

  1. I am grateful for your excellent advice, Ayisha. Sometimes we stare so long at our own writing we develop a sort of snow-blindness. Thanks for the literary 'shades'. I'll get to this ASAP.