Monday, 9 December 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’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

The Water's Edge by Ian Townsend

Chapter 1

Today on this glorious August morning the sun was already high in the sky, beaming a warm array of light across the sea’s tranquil waters. Which in turn gently lapped the shore in a rhythmic motion as though peacefully asleep.

Standing on the water’s edge was a group of young men in their early twenties, deep in discussion. There were five of them in all, half naked and wearing what can only be described as an assortment of natural buoyancy aids. Around their waists were pieces of sponge, cork, wood and a mixture of other items, all randomly threaded on to pieces of rope and tied off in knots. In the year 1872, swimming aids were far too expensive for the likes of Fin and his friends.

‘Right then, who’s first in?’ asked Fin, whilst running on the spot and stretching his arms out in front of himself, then bending from his waist as if to see if he was supple enough for their morning’s lesson.

‘You might be able to touch your toes, Fin, but I can’t even see mine!’ said Harry, who was a little on the large side.

‘Don’t worry, we won’t venture too deep,’ said Fin, knowing that Harry was a little sensitive about his weight, and trying to encourage him that with a small amount of effort but large amounts of self-belief he could dramatically improve his capability of swimming. Besides, Fin had a strategy that they would use their homemade buoyancy aids for a few weeks; then, as they progressed, remove one item at a time until predictably they would transform from drowning rats to graceful swimmers.

Fin’s expectations were a little too high; after all, they were complete novices, whereas he had begun his transformation last summer.

‘Come on, lads. One of you must want to show the others that you’re brave,’ he shouted, trying to play one off against the other.

‘All right, I’ll do it,’ said Ferret in a quietly spoken Irish voice, as he reluctantly stepped out from the group.

Ferret was his nickname as he was a small-built, wiry lad who could always manage to squeeze through the tightest of spots.

‘I’m not ’appy,’ he remarked. ‘I’ll do it but I’m not ’appy. I just want you to know.’

‘Alright,’ said Fin, smiling. ‘This is what I want you to do.’ He put his arm around Ferret’s shoulders to reassure him. 


Ayisha's critique: 

Without knowing the arc of the narrative, this opening page seems to be setting up the story of a group of friends. The description is rather upbeat and I wonder whether the events that are about to unfold will be quite so happy?

The first paragraph, and indeed the rest of the piece, is written in a rather authorial voice, so that the reader isn’t yet grounded in any one perspective – this creates a distance between the reader and the events as they unfold, dissipating Tension and the potential for Conflict. Fin comes across as the main character as he tries to teach his friends how to swim, so I feel we should be rooted in his Point of View. We’re told the boys are in their twenties, but they come across as rather younger than that, but more on this later. There is the mixing of tenses in the opening paragraph, which is jarring. The authorial voice continues, telling us that there was a ‘group of young men standing at the water’s edge.’ As this is the water’s edge of the title, let’s assume that the Inciting Incident is about to take place – and if it isn’t, it really should – there should ideally be an underlying sense of Tension, and this should increase as one of the five boys is about to get into the water.

Here a stronger sense of Fin’s perspective would be helpful. He comes across as confident, friendly and kind. Does he have any doubt that this is a good idea given that the floating devices they’re using are homemade, and his friends have no idea how to swim, whereas he’s a little more practised? Is there more conflict that could be pushed to the fore in this situation? Should Fin be more pushy? He appears to be a very good friend, but he’s also excited – perhaps impatient? - and this could be developed. This should help to increase the Tension. Ferret steps in when no-one volunteers to go into the water. How does Fin react to this? What are the other boys doing? Ferret’s unease comes across well enough through what he says, but the light-hearted tone means there’s no Tension. Could the author seed in the supposed tranquillity of the water as Ferret prepares to go in – the calmness of the water, so different to the anxiety and panic that might be rising as Ferret’s about to dive in? What looks are exchanged between the boys? Should someone intervene, mentioning that it’s a bad idea as they don’t have the appropriate equipment?

Going back to the point about the boys’ age, I wanted a stronger sense of their group dynamic. I’m assuming the boys have been friends for a long time and that the story will centre on how this day will be a turning point in their life. For this reason it’s important to portray what each boy might mean to the other. They all come across as friendly enough, but I wanted to know how close they were. Fin is caring, Harry is insecure, Ferret is a little nervous, but can the author give a few details, which helps to give an idea of the boys’ shared history?

Ideally we should be Shown this. The author uses dialogue, which is good because it gives the reader a clearer picture of who the characters are (incidentally, we only meet three of the five friends). However, there’s a tendency to use dialogue and then explain the meaning behind it:

‘Come on, lads. One of you must want to show the others that you’re brave,’ he shouted, trying to play one off against the other.

Here we don’t need to know that Fin is trying to play one off against the other because that’s apparent in what he says. By cutting back on explanation the writing should feel more pruned. Another example of this would be:

‘Don’t worry, we won’t venture too deep,’ said Fin, knowing that Harry was a little sensitive about his weight...

What might Fin do to Show that he knows Harry’s sensitive about his weight? We already know he’s a little chubby so maybe nothing more is needed? Often, with the best writing, it’s not what is said, but what is not said. Again, this is all related to Tension. Here’s one more example:

Fin’s expectations were a little too high; after all, they were complete novices, whereas he had begun his transformation last summer.

This is Telling and written in an authorial voice. How might the author incorporate Fin’s own voice? What might Fin be thinking? What is he feeling? This kind of emotional involvement is at the heart of any narrative; forcing the reader to invest in the character/s, care about them and therefore the outcome of the story. It’s what keeps the reader turning the pages.

Apart from the lack of Tension, the main aspect the author should focus on is what happens in the opening. We’re introduced to a group of boys who are about to go swimming. One of the boys decides to be brave and go into the water first. Other than that, nothing really happens. The inciting incident doesn’t always have to be in the opening page, but we want to join the main character at a point of change in their life. Is Fin’s life about to change? And if so, how and why? So far, none of this is shown to us. For this reason I’d cut out any information which feels extraneous, like the description of the day and the water, or even what the characters look like – this can be seeded in subtly as the story progresses – and focus instead on the moment that should change Fin’s, and possible everyone’s, life.

The author could open with the dialogue between Fin, Harry and Ferret (are the other two characters necessary to the story?) By the end of the page, someone should have jumped into the water. We should either be left with a sense of mystery as to what’s going to happen, or know that it hasn’t ended well.

To summarise, I think the author needs to strengthen the Inciting Incident. They should focus on developing POV and Voice, making the scenes more Show Don’t Tell, which should naturally heighten Tension and Conflict.

Knowing how to pick apart a scene and putting it back together again is an elemental part of the self-editing process. It can be a steep learning curve, but these techniques are a vital part of a writer’s journey.

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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