Thursday, 29 May 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 with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

The Dark Lies Within by Sam Payne

Most people have a will to live, a deep psychological force buried within, which means when faced with death, they will do anything to survive. But this desire depends on one thing and one thing only. Hope. People need a reason to cling to life.

He’d been generous. He gave them both a reason. He offered them their freedom, but they disappointed him, much like they’d disappointed him over the past few years. What was wrong with them? All they had to do was run.

He slung his rifle over his shoulder and made his way back to the van. The ground was still saturated from the recent storms, the spongy earth yielded underfoot, but tonight the midnight sky was clear. The moon lit up the rolling moorland of Dartmoor making it possible to see across the vast wilderness of a place he knew better than anyone else. He opened the back of his van. She was crouched right at the far end, eyes wide, legs pulled tight to her chest. She looked him right in the eye. That’s what he liked about her, always defiant. Out of all three of them she was his favourite. He would miss her. He stood to the side and gestured for her to get out. ‘I’ll give you ten seconds and then I’m coming for you.’

She didn’t move.

He shrugged, took his rifle off his shoulder and aimed it at her, ‘Or I could just shoot you here, your choice.’

She scrambled forward, cautiously at first, but when she got to the edge of the van she leaped out like a cat. He watched as she sprinted straight into the darkness. He counted to three and then went after her.

Jimmy Hart was perplexed by the body at the bottom of the stairs. She was lying at an awkward angle. Her head rested on the first step and dirty blonde hair half covered her face. Her mouth gaped open and a line of dribble dangled from her lip like a single thread of a spider’s web. Her body was twisted, her legs splayed out at different angles and her left arm stretched away from her, reaching for something that wasn’t there. He should just go, leave her there. She’d wake up soon enough, but it made him uncomfortable, her being there, so close to his front door. What if? 

Critique by Kathryn Price

This is a creepy, compelling opening that generates a real air of menace. We immediately want to know more; there are so many questions posed here and that’s the essence of creating page-turning fiction in any genre but particularly with thrillers. Who’s the man in the first, murderous scene; what’s his motivation; how does he know the character(s) he’s hunting? Likewise, who’s Jimmy Hart and why does he have such a strange, chilly response to the discovery of a body at the bottom of his stairs. Who is the body? What’s she doing there … and is she dead?

Over and above any of this though is the absolute must-read-on cliffhanger the first scene leaves us with. The relentless pursuer who gives his victim the most unsporting of sporting chances to get away; and the girl – defiant, sparky, cat-like – who we already know is his ‘favourite’. Does she have what it takes to survive? Great stuff.

The writing is sharp and sparse, which works well for this kind of tense, breathless material. There’s minimal, functional description which still manages to create a clear picture, and the author has mastered the intimate third person or free indirect viewpoint so that we’re at once inside the POV characters’ heads but also able to view them from a distance. For less-than-sympathetic characters, this is really the only choice of viewpoint, as first person can be far too claustrophobic.

So, the fundamentals are all in place here. What we need to complete the picture is more of everything. At the moment, the details of character, location and tension are so fleeting that it’s only on reading this back a few times that the piece starts to carry impact. On first reading, it seems fairly unmemorable because everything is skimmed over so quickly.

This applies right from the word go. The very first paragraph, a little vignette of philosophy, is, we assume, the protagonist musing on – justifying, perhaps? – his actions. However, in isolation here it’s too brief, too general and clich├ęd to really tell us much about him. Anyone could have come up with this – it doesn’t feel specific to the protagonist. Perhaps the aim is to show us that this character is a bit of a pseud, thinking that he possesses great insights into human nature because of what he is and what he does, while in fact he’s actually still scraping at the banal surface of things. However, it’s a bit early on to rely on your reader interpreting this subtext, so as a first line it risks feeling overly generalised.

A good solution here might be to go with specific detail rather than generalised observations. Rather than philosophising in the abstract, might our protagonist think of a few snippets – brief flashbacks, if you like - of what he’s just done, allowing the life lesson to emerge organically from the events that have taken place? For example:

People would do anything to survive. It never stopped surprising him. That woman – the shock of it in her eyes, not believing death was upon her after everything – still battling till the end. Her fingernails had been bleeding, he remembered. She’d said to him, ‘Anything, anything you want’. There was nothing he’d wanted, but the fact that she’d offered – well.
It was hope, he’d decided as he slung his rifle over his shoulder. That was the key. Without hope, they’d just give up. Everyone needs something to live for, after all. That’s why he’d given her – them - the choice. He gave them both a reason … etc

The detail of this is very similar but it hopefully feels more specific and rooted in this particular character’s experience. It draws us more into the protagonist’s world, because it is an interpretation that could only have come from him, at that particular moment.

We then have some brief description of the moorland. Again, more detail here would add richness and depth. We’re told that he knows this place better than anyone, but little of this personal knowledge and experience comes through in the way he perceives it. Could we have more sensory input here, more hints of his history and ties to the land? For example, the ground is saturated: might he know instinctively that it’ll be dry by morning but that any footprints will have disappeared back into the mud? In the moonlight he can see far across the hills, but what shapes does he pick out? A tor, whose nooks and crannies he climbed in as a boy; or whose rocks remind him of a burial ground? Hillocks which look like good hiding places but where, he knows, the marshy ground is treacherous? Not only would this level of additional detail help to create a more atmospheric picture but it would help to cement the reader’s sense that he is, in some way, implacable and inescapable; so familiar with this place that running from him is like trying to run from death itself.

Likewise, a touch more detail about the girl in the van can only be a good thing. We have no idea what she looks like – is she small and fragile or tall and rangy with legs built for running? Cat-like is a common simile so it doesn’t tell us much that’s unique about her. By lingering over her a little longer you’re again giving the reader a chance to know her and care what happens to her.

By playing out this opening scene more fully, the subsequent shift to Jimmy’s POV should feel less jarring. At the moment it comes out of the blue and it feels as though we’ve barely had the chance to orientate ourselves before we’re whisked away. Here, again, further detail would be helpful. Jimmy seems to have a rather unusual way of looking at the world – why is his reaction one of discomfort to the woman being so close to his front door, rather than distress at her being there at all, or concern for her safety? And how does he know she’s going to wake up? (If he knows what’s wrong with her – drink? drugs? – then it feels disingenuous and tricksy to describe her as a body and make it sound as though she’s dead). The uncertainty here combines to make Jimmy feel impenetrable and even psychopathic; without another layer of information we can’t know whether this is what you intend.

The overall benefit of extra detail throughout this opening would be to slow down the pace. It’s often tempting to play exciting or tense scenes out as quickly as possible but, though it might seem counter-intuitive, a slower pace is often more suspenseful: it gives the reader time to absorb what’s happened and guess at what’s coming; to build expectations and rapport with the characters; to begin to fear for them. After all, like the characters themselves, the reader needs hope.

A strong start, though, and I for one would read on.

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