Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass October 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.


The Blood Between Us by Eric Springer 

The Executor stopped walking as her eyes caught a flash of color on the rugged path near her boot. The mist, her ever-present companion in these mountains, seemed to pause with her. The cold wind made the tatters of her gray cloak flutter and snap against the silence.

A wiry sprig of green grass twisted its way up from between two stones.

The Executor pulled back her hood and crouched down, the wind spinning out the length of her ghost-white hair. She tugged the bit of grass from the ground with her gloved fingers and studied it with pale blue eyes.

“That damn mule,” she muttered.

She had been on foot, leading the stubborn beast through a snow-choked ravine when the lead went tight and the animal stopped moving. The Executor had turned around in time to see its eyes bulging huge from its anvil-shaped head, ropes of milky spittle stringing out from its mouth. Then it made a woeful cry and fell over dead.

She watched the exhausted animal collapse without a word, and then she had stripped her things from its back and sorted through them in the snow. She packed a small bag with her bowl, a length of rope, her book, and her sharpening tools. Then she lifted the bag and left the mule where it fell, its steel-gray body already cold to the touch. She left the soles of her old boots and the majority of her cooking things. Most of what she left behind was food.

There are things always to eat in the wild, if one was desperate enough.

The Executor rubbed the grass between her fingers and let it fall away. It was just like that damn mule to starve to death right before grass appeared. She began to curse it again but stopped herself. It had been a bad idea to try to bring the animal over the jagged teeth of the mountains, she thought, and this was the result. Now it belonged to the nothingness beyond life, at one with the Nox. 

The Executor had pushed through these mountains for thirty days and seen nothing but rock and snow and stone without end. The blind villager, the only one to whom she could speak without the other shrieking in fear at the sight of her wretched appearance, had told her it was so. He has said it was not possible, that there was nothing beyond the mountains. No people, no animals, no life. He had said the world ends.

But the witch had told her differently.

Critique by Kathryn Price

What a beguiling, atmospheric opening scene. Reading this we can really feel the bite of the wind; the lonely emptiness of the mountains; the bleakness of The Executor’s prospects with her mule dead and her food abandoned.

In many ways the relative sparseness of the description is a strength; it mirrors the landscape and leaves plenty to our imaginations, whereas an excess of description might overload us with sensory information which doesn’t fit the scene. Those brushstrokes of detail we do have tend to be carefully chosen adjectives and strong, active verbs (made the tatters of her gray cloak flutter and snap) which allow the descriptions to blend seamlessly into the action rather than standing out.

With that in mind, the majority of editing here should focus on line-by-line tightening, ensuring that all the language has the same level of polish and precision. For instance, in the odd sentence where adjectives weigh more heavily, is it possible to prune and refine? A wiry sprig of green grass seems (comparatively) over-detailed. Do we need green? Perhaps substituting green for color where it appears in the first line would allow the author to remove it here.

Similarly, She tugged the bit of grass from the ground with her gloved fingers and studied it with pale blue eyes could be sharpened – it contains a repetition of with and the fourth colour adjective in just a few sentences. Simply cutting with pale blue eyes would work; in any case, alluding to the colour of her eyes feels slightly external to what is on the whole a compellingly intimate 3rd person point of view.

Anything overtly or indirectly repetitive would also be a good candidate for editing. We have spinning out … stringing out, that damn mule … that damn mule, leading … lead, between … between, nothingness … nothing … nothing, end … ends and lots of repetitions of then. Individually these are minor and might even pass unnoticed but given the attention to detail elsewhere they feel like easily-fixable glitches.

Point of view, touched on above, is also worth another quick look. On the whole the author has handled the intimate 3rd person POV well; there are just a few places where a tiny tweak would keep this wholly consistent. I’ve already mentioned the reference to The Executor’s eyes. The sentence There are things always to eat in the wild, if one was desperate enough is slightly jarring because of the mixture of tenses. A simple shift into past/3rd person would ensure this feels in keeping with the POV elsewhere: There were always things to eat in the wild, if she got desperate enough. (Note the switch in word order, too).

The same applies to He has said it was not possible, that there was nothing beyond the mountains. No people, no animals, no life. He had said the world ends. The first shift into present tense here may just be a typo but either way the sentence would read more consistently and smoothly as He said it was not possible, that there was nothing beyond the mountains. No people, no animals, no life. He said the world ended.

The one other thing that might benefit from further honing is the episode of the mule’s death. As an incident for an opening scene I like this – it’s grim and carries a strong sense of foreboding. However, I wonder if there’s more that could be done with it. It feels more immediately dramatic than finding the sprig of grass so it seems a shame that we only view it in retrospect, in the pluperfect. Could we start in medias res here?

It also feels a little vague. We later learn that the mule starved to death which implies a slow, drawn-out end. Here we have a horrifying, visceral and sudden conclusion: eyes bulging … milky spittle … woeful cry (and these are great descriptions). The idea of starving to death is important, though – it accentuates the quiet menace of the situation, especially now that The Executor has had to leave her food behind. Might it be possible to bring this episode into the now of the story and extend it, showing The Executor struggling with her weakening animal, forcing it to continue despite the fact that it’s clearly dying (this would reveal a lot about her character, too) and culminating in a variation of the death scene that we already have?

Where this opening succeeds most convincingly is in creating a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, drawing us into a scenario that is familiar enough to feel real to us but strange enough to raise questions and keep us guessing. What is the Nox; why would the world end beyond the mountains; who is this witch who has sent The Executor off on her perilous quest; most of all, who is The Executor herself (what does this mean? Why does she carry sharpening tools? – a phrase that made me shiver) and what is she seeking? This is the kind of lone ranger role that is conventionally given to male characters so I love the fact that she is a woman (though a tough one) and I immediately want to learn about her.


Overall, this scene achieves what every first page of every novel should strive for: it drives the reader to keep turning the pages to find out more. That’s perhaps the most indefinable quality of good fiction – and the hardest to teach – so the author has a very strong foundation to work from here. Great stuff. 

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