Friday, 11 October 2013

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

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 Drawn to the Light by Pauline Howard

Harry had to return to New York at the end of August, but we now knew we could not be apart. Since that night in April we had spent every possible minute together.

I don’t usually do girls night out – it isn’t my idea of fun, spending a whole evening getting drunk and talking men and sex – but they had planned a show in London, one I particularly wanted to see. In the bar at the interval my bag fell to the floor and got kicked away. I blundered after it and bumped heads with Harry who was bending to pick it up. I didn’t know his name right then of course, but it was instant between us – chemistry? Call it what you will, but it was there, crackling away!

I had arranged a sabbatical from my job and sorting the numerous things it turned out you had to do before you could leave the country for some nine months meant my leaving after him.
            Come with an empty bag, he had said, we can shop for all you need in Manhattan. I had laughed, but had done just that – well, almost!
            The week leading up to my departure had been hectic, but on my own I’d managed very well – after all, I had been perfectly capable before Harry – he was just a major distraction. Our constant exchange of texts made it seem like he was just in the city rather than across the Atlantic. The nights though, I had missed him then!
            My arrival at JFK had been a fiasco. I turned on my phone and a text from Harry was waiting – Sorry darling. Held up. Find bed for night. Will be in touch soonest. H xxx
            I stared at the words like they were in Chinese, my stomach turning somersaults. I tried to reply, but it had come from an unlisted number, so I tried again with the one in my phone. In a daze I retrieved my case and pulled it away from the melee. Praying it was a mistake I made my way to the arrivals hall, sure Harry would be there.
            9 tonight. Starbucks on Broadway x – Harry’s latest text had been short and sweet. There was no point in attempting to reply, he hadn’t answered me once in three days. In truth he’d done nothing but let me down. There was even the dread he might never turn up.

            Now, in full dark, the twin beams are soaring into the night sky, a glorious but poignant sight. They’ve given me goose bumps and a feeling I can’t put into words. Is it just coincidence that I’m standing on this sidewalk on the anniversary of such a disaster – my own seeming miniscule in comparison? I cradle my coffee and gaze at the spectacular skyline – Harry should be at my side.

Ayisha's critique: 

There is a lot of potential for emotional conflict in this piece; certainly, the moment when the narrator receives the text message from her love interest, Harry, we feel just as ill at ease as she does. The prevalent issue in this sample is a need for more clarity and to also consider the structure as well as the pacing.

Within one page we have backstory, set-up and the beginnings of a scene, which is quite a bit for the reader to take in. It’s important to establish what the reader needs to know. The author might consider two options. Firstly, we could begin the story with the narrator waiting for Harry – this way we could be drip-fed the necessary information. The reader might not know who Harry is or why the narrator’s in New York waiting for him but this could help to heighten tension and suspense. This kind of scene can allow for plenty of internal conflict, with her thoughts and feelings giving the reader insights into her situation, but maintaining some mystery – both she and the reader are wondering what is going on. Then, depending on what the author wants the story to be about (the narrator’s romance with Harry, or what happens to her in NY?), the narrator could then flashback to how she and Harry met or her story could begin to unfold here, pushing the plot into the direction of how the narrator copes with her time in New York.

Alternatively, the author could also maintain the linear approach, but ensure that rather than going back and forth, the reader is firmly grounded in time and place. The shift between the first and second paragraph is disorientating at present - the total change of subject matter means it takes a while for the reader to understand what’s going on. Take another example of a shift in time:

‘Praying it was a mistake I made my way to the arrivals hall, sure Harry would be there.
9 tonight. Starbucks on Broadway x – Harry’s latest text had been short and sweet. There was no point in attempting to reply, he hadn’t answered me once in three days.’

This is a very important moment. Three days have passed between the narrator landing in New York and receiving Harry’s next message and yet we have no idea about her feelings, her thoughts, where she’s been and how she’s coped. I’d imagine she would be furious, hurt, sad and confused, yet we see nothing of the emotions one would expect – she has, after all, left her home country for nine whole months. Bearing this in mind, ‘In truth he’d done nothing but let me down,’ feels like quite an understatement.

Emotionally speaking, there are plenty of high and low points in the sample. However, these could be developed in more depth by focusing on Showing us more of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. The opening could be more dramatic in order to draw the reader in. Could we, for example, start with the narrator’s meeting with Harry? And rather than Telling us that they become inseparable, could we be Shown this? Are there some moments that could be related to give the reader some insight into their relationship? What does the narrator feel? How does their chemistry manifest itself in their actions, looks and words? Indeed, the first person narrative is a useful device, lending immediacy to events and situations, but it can also have the adverse effect of leading the author into Telling rather than Showing. Connected to this is Voice and really getting under the character’s skin as if the reader is on the character’s shoulder experiencing the scene a heartbeat after the character. The dialogue used in the sample is good in that it tells us something about Harry and the narrator, so perhaps more dialogue could help.

Some of the issues of clarity are to do with sentence structure, ‘I had arranged a sabbatical from my job and sorting the numerous things it turned out you had to do before you could leave the country for some nine months meant my leaving after him.’ First of all, the author could make it clear that this sabbatical was taken in order to be with Harry. Secondly, the sentence is overly long so it could be tightened, otherwise it needs to be read a few times before it’s fully understood.

The final paragraph provides a profound setting. The reader can almost feel the sadness and wistfulness with which the narrator waits and thinks about what has happened. Here we get a stronger sense of how she feels, but her statement ‘Harry should be by my side,’ throws up a few issues. It seems entirely natural for her to miss him, but perhaps the tone could be more nuanced to reflect the rather obscure and mysterious aspect of what’s happened between them. Also, is she waiting for him? And does this final statement just tell us how she is feeling, or the fact that Harry didn’t show up, just as she dreaded?

If you think about the sample in stages, it might look something like this:
Stage 1: Narrator meets Harry and falls in love.
Stage 2: There is the promise of a long-term, and fulfilling relationship.
Stage 3: Narrator is caught off-guard and, to all intents and purposes, abandoned by the man for whom she has left her home country.
Stage 4: Narrator is left unsure of her future.

These stages show, at a glance, the emotional ups and downs, which are already there, and so it’s just a question of highlighting them, getting into the skin of someone who’s experiencing so many highs and lows, all against the backdrop of familiar (home) and unfamiliar (New York) territory. The author should bear in mind that the story is structured to intensify these emotions.

In terms of the setting, more could be made of this change. Surely the narrator’s isolation would be exacerbated by the fact that she’s alone in a foreign environment. The author could develop this feeling of loneliness in the sample. This sense of isolation and abandonment could then be contrasted with the last paragraph, where looking on at the ten year anniversary of 9/11, the narrator possibly feels a sense of connection – one event that in some way links us all. Perhaps this is the point of change for the narrator - the ‘light’ at the end of the proverbial tunnel? If the author feels this is in keeping with her vision for the story, she might consider taking out the last line, or tweaking it to reflect the change that has taken place.

In conclusion, the foundation is all there. The author now needs to focus on structure, ensuring clarity, providing a more seamless scene change between paragraphs so that the reader isn’t disorientated, and think about how the emotional arc plays out, highlighting the highs and lows, and also thinking about using the setting to better advantage to reflect the character’s own changes.

I wish you all the best in developing this potentially poignant story.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment