Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass August 2014

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.



Fault Lines by Mary Rose McCarthy

Green, dappled light, fell in diamond shapes on the pine needle floor. She smelled the sticky-sap resin and tasted bits of old rope. The old chair seat, once brown, was chipped and rotten in places. The chair-back had been sawn off and replaced with the four ropes that secured the home-made swing to a tree branch in the grove below the house.

There were no more than five or six trees here but the children liked to call it a grove; as if it was a mini forest of giant hardwoods rather than a motely copse of scraggly larch and spruce.  To get a decent swing the girl sat on the battered seat, gripped the ropes beside each hand at a height slightly above shoulder level, pushed back with her feet till they were nearly off the ground then swung forward with all her strength.  If she did it properly, the momentum sent her soaring into the cobalt sky.  If she did it properly, each successive swing sent her higher and higher delirious on the success of its own pendulous movement.

As she sailed into the blue she imagined a pirate on the sea, or the Famous Five out for a day of adventure exploring.   The air rushed against her face and whipped her hair into her eyes.  The girl loved the feeling of freedom and daring being on that swing gave her.

She then tucked her feet under her and launched up into standing position, feet firmly planted on the seat, arms bent at the elbows as she hung on the ropes. The ropes burned her hands she griped them so tightly. She felt that funny drop-down sensation in her stomach on each upward swing. Clouds grazed the hills she glimpsed in the distance between the lattice-like weave of branches.

Then the ground spun beneath her face, with the dusty, feet-scuffed- earth close to her mouth. Faster and faster, trees and diamond shaped sun, and glossy ivy leaves went round her head. The rope bit tighter into her hands, she felt the smooth wood of the worn seat against her cheek. Ropes criss-crossed and knotted above her, spun wildly as they coalesced into a thick strand against her neck.


Barely able to breathe she called and called, each shout carried over the hills and clouds and patches of blue sky but didn’t reach as far as the house.

Critique by Kathryn Price

This is an opening rich in atmosphere and sensory description. Colour, sound, smell and even taste explode from the page and draw us into this scene which feels drenched in promise – and menace.

Pushing this sensory evocation even further, inhabiting the as-yet-unnamed girl’s point of view more intimately, would help take this scene to the next level. At the moment, it’s not obvious why the girl’s name is withheld (perhaps to maintain an air of mystery or for plot reasons that we don’t know about yet) and without a name, there’s a slightly contrived, distanced feeling to the references to her.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as the close POV established in the opening paragraph is maintained. However, after the wonderfully vivid she smelled the sticky-sap resin and tasted bits of old rope we quickly shift back into a more externalised POV, filling in the detail about how the swing had been made. Might it be possible to rework this information so that it, too, feels rooted in the girl’s viewpoint? For instance:

When the legs of the old chair had finally given way, her father had taken the seat and attached it with thick ropes to the branch above where she now sat. She always took a moment to stroke the soft, worn wood, poke her finger into the holes, before climbing on. She liked to picture them all sitting stiffly at the dinner table and imagine that the chair was happier now than it had been then.

Of course, this may not be quite right for the specific details and relationships the author wishes to set up at this stage; but the aim should be to link the description in this opening scene as closely as possible to the girl’s immediate experience of it.

By contrast, some of the details included here are a little too forensically specific to be emotionally revealing. Take care that the mechanics of character action don’t submerge the really important elements of a scene. In this instance, there’s a focus on how and why the girl grips the ropes (see the section beginning to get a decent swing… of its own pendulous movement). Here, her actions feel too detailed: the reader knows how swinging works and, presumably, the joy in going as high as possible, and would prefer to be immersed in what it is about this girl, this swing, that makes the moment special.

The following paragraph is certainly more revealing in this regard: the girl’s make-believe gives us a warm insight into her thoughts (though even these could be a touch more unique, less generic, and more specific to her). Ideally, the joy she takes in the movement of the swing and of losing herself in her imagination should be evident through her thoughts and actions, so that we don’t need to be told that she loved the feeling of freedom and daring.

Alongside a greater insight into the girl’s perspective we could afford even more sensory detail regarding the setting. This is one of those moments, quite literary in tone (I’m guessing this will be some sort of literary or psychological thriller) which benefits from an almost leisurely build-up of pace and detail, allowing us to lose ourselves utterly in what seems to be an idyllic moment before everything is turned on its head (both metaphorically and, in this instance, literally).

So, the more slowly and carefully the scene is set, the greater the impact of the pay-off will be. I would have liked to know more about the season, for instance (with the dappled sunlight and clouds it could be Spring, Summer or Autumn); and the other children that are mentioned – are they anywhere near? Can she hear them playing? What has happened prior to this scene, what is her mood? Is she hiding after an argument or is she just a natural loner? These kinds of additional details should have the effect of drawing us all the more closely into the action.

When it comes to the final paragraphs, more clarity is needed. At the moment the writing shies away from describing what’s happening in too much visceral detail and feels abstract and uncertain as a result; in fact, I had to read this twice before I realised there had been an accident. This is probably deliberate, designed to replicate in the reader the girl’s feelings of confusion; however, the language could be clearer in terms of tone so that it’s more obvious something bad has happened.

As it stands, phrases like the ground spun beneath her … glossy ivy leaves went round her head … she felt the smooth wood … coalesced into a thick strand … she called and called sound too calm and considered for what ought to be a moment of panic and terror. In essence, the mood feels the same as it has throughout. Might it be possible to adjust the tone slightly whilst also aiming to stay true to what she’s actually experiencing? For example:

With a thump, the ground was hurtling towards her, and her mouth was full of foot-scuffed dust. Then the earth was above her – that wasn’t right – spinning dizzily so that she couldn’t tell which way was which. The rope bit into her hands, had twisted her elbow and wrist into an awful grinding angle, that made her gasp and yelp as she scrabbled to pull herself upright. The seat was against her cheek; her eye felt swollen. Ropes criss-crossed and knotted above her, twining into a thick cord that was somehow around her neck. And now she couldn’t breathe. Through the buzzing in her ears she could hear Nathan and Julia’s shouts from the lawn and she tried yelling back to them but only a thin wheeze came out.

It’s often tempting when writing about a character who isn’t going to appear in the novel again to keep them at arm’s length from the reader, and in many ways this makes sense – it’s a good way of signalling that the character is not ‘for keeps’, and also of allowing the reader an emotional distance to protect them from harrowing material. However, what we currently have here is a mix of up-close POV writing and more distanced, allusive, authorial material, and the balance doesn’t always feel quite right.


Since this is a solitary, intimate scene, allowing us greater insight into the girl’s viewpoint should help to build emotional intensity and a strong connection with her. Together with an almost hyper-awareness of her surroundings this should combine to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension that escalates towards the final moments – for which we will be firmly, chillingly present inside her head.

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