Friday, 31 January 2014

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass

with Kathryn Price, Co-director 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 submissions@wordswithjam.co.uk with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

Submission by Elles van Asseldonk:
Chapter 1 – You’re Drunk Winter, Go Home!

The first day of spring and the world has turned into coffee, energy vibrates of everything. The soundsystem plays last year’s summer songs with a melancholic hope of another season of insanity without casualties. March 21st, celebrating “You’re Drunk Winter, Go Home!” in one of the dirtiest warehouses –but dirty in a sophisticated underground way- in North London. One of those places where the outcasts who live there revel in their suddenly found status of being at the top of the foodchain. Gobbling up gorgeous girls, rejecting others who do not give the right name at the door. Connections open their gates, passwords to another world. A twenty pound note will also do the trick.

Sophie follows her throng of girlfriends as they beat their wings into one of the side rooms for a “little exploration, see if there’s any fit guys”. The room is painted blue, with a film poster here and there, and two broken TVs in the corner. A giant table is set up in the middle, covered in a white table cloth, on which the most interesting party food is served. A beautiful girl lies on the table naked, bar for a nude thong, and is covered in sushi as an homage to the Yakuzi, Japanese gangster culture. Her black hair is spread out around her face like a dark halo, her face is painted white, with lips like a geisha and her eyes are closed as if to give her viewers the privacy to take in her thin body. A group of young guys stand around her, some twirling their moustaches nervously, many taking pictures with their smart phone. Sophie sees three guys in Hawaii shirts grinning broadly, displaying the bad dentistry England is famous for. This will be The Party, the Event Which Electrified My Life, but Sophie has no inkling of that yet. She’s just attending her first warehouse rave.

A muscular guy with shit for brains –at least that’s what his wife beater, clumsy tattoos and choice of faux crocodile leather shoes suggest- shows his cocaine induced confidence by taking a piece of sushi. He provocatively goes for some sashimi that lies in her crotch. Some of the other blokes laugh nervously. There’s a loud bang coming from the main hall and bits of confetti twirl into the room. “Mmmm, tastes fishy.” Shit-For-Brains says, displaying half chewed shrimp rolling around in his mouth. Everyone starts laughing on cue as if an “APPLAUSE” sign has gone on above Shit-For-Brains’ head. Bits of sushi move nervously on the stomach of the Geisha girl as she tries not to giggle.

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Kathryn's critique:

This is an unusual, captivating opening with a strong, vivid and very contemporary setting. The mention of twirling moustaches and dirty in a sophisticated underground way feels particularly up-to-date and observant, rooting us in a scene populated by wannabe hipsters, people who aren’t quite as cool as they’d like to think they are. Sophie, seemingly innocent in this scene, also has some intriguing contradictions. She’s never been to this sort of party before, but she’s savvy enough to make some arch, knowing judgements about the outcasts hosting the gathering - and many of the punters.


Much of this is achieved by a confident and compelling use of the intimate third person/free indirect viewpoint, where the narrator is very nearly inside Sophie’s head, with the third person narration intertwined with her own thoughts. Aligning her with an objective third person voice has the effect of giving Sophie’s opinions weight and sincerity; we inherently feel she’s a character we can trust, and sympathise with.

There are a few elements undermining this powerful effect at present. A few of the turns of phrase feel unwieldy, old-fashioned or out of place, and this diminishes the naturalistic sense that we are ‘hearing Sophie’s voice’. For instance, the world has turned into coffee, energy vibrates of (NB this should be off) everything feels like something a real girl would say; by contrast, a melancholic hope of another season of insanity without casualties sounds awkward, overwritten and overly formal - and is also unclear in terms of meaning. The same applies to a twenty pound note (why not just ‘a twenty’?); an homage to the Yakuzi, Japanese gangster culture (if Sophie knows who the Yakuza are well enough to use them as a descriptive reference point, why would she go on to explain – why not just ‘Yakuza-style’?); displaying the bad dentistry England is famous for (if Sophie is English, which at this stage a reader will assume she is, then this isn’t something she would notice or observe).

Elsewhere, other elements of phrasing sound clunky, and the text might benefit from a copy-edit to smooth out anything which doesn’t read quite correctly. For example, the most interesting party food is served (most interesting where? Is there other food at this rave? This creates a slightly dissonant image); there’s a loud bang coming from the main hall (the continuous present tense here is incorrect as a ‘bang’ is something that happens suddenly and distinctly); see if there’s any fit guys jarred slightly for me too, as I would associate this kind of non-mainstream night out with bonding with friends rather than being on the pull (though beat their wings into one of the side rooms is a wonderful choice of imagery). Watch too for typos: smart phone[s]; Hawaii[an]; the event which electrified her life; tablecloth (should be one word); cocaine-induced (needs a hyphen).

In many ways the colour and description of the piece is one of its strengths. In a very short space of time we have a clear picture of this off-the-wall venue, with the broken TVs … white tablecloth … and beautiful naked girl juxtaposing very effectively. However, there’s room for a few more brushstrokes of specific detail to bring the scene to life and ensure total clarity. For instance, The first day of Spring and Summer songs combine to give the sense of daytime and light; this contradicts our conventional understanding of raves happening at night. Either we need to establish that the timing is unusual, right from the start, by weaving more sense of daytime into the later action; or the contradictory elements should be taken out so that the night time setting springs into focus.

Elsewhere, there are places where more specificity would pay dividends. For instance, what film posters, exactly? The choice of film might tell us more about the atmosphere. And whilst the hipsters with their moustaches and phones give a good sense of the generic crowd, picking out a few individual features would only make the description stronger. Likewise, Shit For Brains in his wife beater and faux crocodile leather shoes hovers on the edge of vivid reality (for me, the t-shirt and shoes are good, solid details but present too conflicted a picture to feel totally convincing) but even more colour might help breathe life into him. A description of one of his tattoos, perhaps?

In the same vein, it should be possible to show rather than tell a few more aspects of this scene. There’s a heavy reliance on adverbs to do the work, which are often weaker than a really strong verb choice. They also lead the author into repetition; nervously, for example, appears three times and in each instance a more careful word choice would give us a better picture of the individuality of the response. Twirling their moustaches nervously isn’t an easy image to picture: twirling suggests the opposite of nervousness: confidence; a debonair approach to the world. An alternative description might be fiddling with their moustaches, or smoothing their moustaches with sweaty fingers. And bits of sushi move nervously could be substituted for bits of sushi twitch (which conveys the feeling of suppressed laughter without having to spell it out).

Often, adverbs can simply be cut, as with provocatively, since it’s already fairly obvious that he’s being cocky and arrogant. But even better, aim to include some supporting action and description which shows us how Shit For Brains is acting. Sophie thinks his bravado is cocaine-induced but what makes her assume this?

The passage currently reads:

A muscular guy with shit for brains –at least that’s what his wife beater, clumsy tattoos and choice of faux crocodile leather shoes suggest- shows his cocaine induced confidence by taking a piece of sushi. He provocatively goes for some sashimi that lies in her crotch.

With a touch more detail and dramatisation it might read something like the following:
A muscular guy in a string vest and crocodile shoes hovers above the geisha’s crotch, bright-eyed and sweating. Since when did wife-beaters come back into fashion, Sophie wonders, taking in the blurry barbed wire tattoo around his bicep, his rigid jaw. Around the same time this guy started turning his brains into shit with coke.

Shit For Brains swoops, vulture-like, and plucks a piece of sashimi from the geisha’s inner thigh, makes sure everyone is looking before smacking his lips. ‘Mmm, fishy.’

His mates snigger on cue, as though an APPLAUSE sign has gone on over his head. Sophie’s surprised he can eat, the state he’s in. The geisha doesn’t seem to mind, though; bits of sushi twitch on her belly as she tries not to laugh.

This opening already makes me want to read on – the foreshadowing statement that this will be The Party creates tension and a compelling question hanging over the action: what exactly is going to happen that will be so momentous, that will change Sophie’s life? Genre isn’t yet clear – this could be urban general fiction with a literary feel or even, given the atmosphere, a thriller. Indeed, much of the success of the piece lies in the way it doesn’t give too much away, keeping us guessing about who Sophie is and where the action is heading. If Sophie’s voice and the third person narrative voice can be made completely consistent and convincing, this should draw the reader even deeper into the scene. By creating a character who we believe in utterly, the question of what is about to happen to her becomes even more potent.

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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.

2 comments:

  1. Well it's certainly an original story. But I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look seafood in the eye again... (gulp!) Regards, Mike

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