Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass December 2014

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.

In the Middle of Nowhere by Stephanie Holliday

Jo stared out of the window.

‘There they are again. I wonder who decides what they’re going to wear each day’ she mused half to herself.

Jonnie looked up from the television. ‘You’ve talked about them everyday since we moved in.’ He said crossly

‘I know you’re not interested but doesn’t it make you wonder even a little bit?’

‘Why would I be interested in two mad old biddies? Anyway I want you to come over here – I’ve got something much more interesting for you to see.’ Jonnie replied with a rather crude gesture.

‘I know what you’ve got – seen it all before’ she giggled tauntingly but nevertheless she moved away from the window and then, almost reluctantly towards him.

‘Yeah but I never get bored with you looking, and I do with you looking at them all the time.’

Not for the first time since they’d moved here together two months ago did she wonder how suited they were. Perhaps the novelty of sex on demand was wearing off. She worried that there was nothing else between them.

Besides, living in this drab house on this boring road was getting to her now. She’d always wanted to live in the country but it wasn’t what she’d thought it would be, especially when the only neighbours were the two old ladies that she saw everyday from the window.

No wonder I’ve got obsessed by them.

It was intriguing though: why did they always wear the same clothes as each other, even down to the choice of dowdy hats or plastic rain hoods? Why was one of them always in the lead? She was pretty sure it was always the same one but couldn’t swear on it.

I know, she turned towards the window again, I’ll find an excuse to knock on their door

Turning round she saw Jonnie advancing towards her with a determined expression ‘I’ve told you to come away from there’ he said roughly pulling on her arm.

‘My my’ she laughed ‘aren’t you the powerful one’.

This time though he didn’t laugh but just scowled at her, ‘Just you remember I’m the one that needs attention and comes first’

He faltered then, as though he’d just realised how bad it could make him look, he tried to turn it in to a joke. ‘You’re making me frustrated, that’s what you’re doing – you know I can’t get enough of you’.

‘OK’ she said teasingly ‘what can I do, nice cup of tea perhaps? Bacon butty?.... or something else’ the last provocatively and with a ludicrous leer.

They both laughed and moved towards each other.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

There are aspects of this first page that have the potential for Tension and Conflict: the relationship between Jo and Jonnie, Jo’s emerging discontent and Jonnie’s increasingly abrasive behaviour. However, these are somewhat dissipated largely due to issues relating to Point of View, Show Don’t Tell, and Characterisation. Stylistically some of these are interlinked and so the discussion will overlap, but read further to understand how these issues can be addressed, and how this opening can be developed.

The first page should ground the reader in the world the writer has created, helping them to get a sense of what the story is going to be about. There are hints of mystery here but at the moment it’s difficult to know what aspect we’re meant to be engaging with: the two women who Jo seems to find so intriguing? (Incidentally, is the fact that they wear the same outfit every day interesting or simply just a little eccentric?) Or Jo and Jonnie’s relationship? Jo seems unsure of her relationship with Jonnie and this is good – emotional conflict is one of the main drivers when it comes to pushing narrative forward.

However, this needs to be heightened. At the moment, while Jo can seem charmingly playful, she also comes across as a little glib. POV here is crucial for a few reasons: to know whose story this is going to be – it may very well be both Jo and Jonnie’s, but that will also need to be indicated – to help heighten Tension, and to remove the distance between the reader and character. Ideally, you want to stay in one character’s perspective per scene, but if you’re not able to do that then in the very least it should be one POV per paragraph, avoiding any head-hopping which can jar for the reader.

Because we open with Jo’s observations and speech I assume we’ll be reading the story from her perspective, (though right now I’m not sure she is coming across as engaging enough. This is related to Characterisation, which I’ll discuss later). Is her interest in the two old ladies relevant to the narrative or character arc, or is it simply to show her growing boredom with living in the countryside? It seems to be the latter: ‘No wonder I’ve got obsessed by them.’ (Note that thoughts should always be italicised.) If the old ladies are simply there to show Jo’s boredom then there could be less focus on them, and instead the author could concentrate on the dynamic between Jo and Jonnie, which to me seems to be the most pertinent strand.

In order to access more of Jo’s POV we need to know what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling. We get an idea of this:
‘Not for the first time since they’d moved here together two months ago did she wonder how suited they were. Perhaps the novelty of sex on demand was wearing off. She worried that there was nothing else between them.’
If the novelty of sex is wearing off then we only know because we’re told, but it isn’t shown or suggested in anything Jo says or does, nor does she come across as particularly worried. More action and skilful dialogue should help with this.
For example, Jonnie can seem menacing but Jo’s indifferent reaction takes away the Tension that might otherwise be generated. We already know she’s having doubts about her move to the country and Jonnie. How can we Show this sense of discontent? For example, Jonnie says:
“‘Just you remember I’m the one that needs attention and comes first.’”

Does Jo flinch? Does the mood change? If so, how? Her reaction doesn’t have to be that strong, but we need a greater indication of how she’s feeling so she doesn’t come across passive. Remember, Tension is created by how characters act and react. Consider where the tension peaks are in each scene and don’t be scared to slow down so we’re immersed in these. For me the above quote indicates a key moment, one that is pivotal to the way in which the dynamic changes.

At first Jonnie was a little unpleasant, but now he is actually rather threatening. Jo’s response is simply playful. Is there a way of interplaying what she says with how she feels? She might be teasing him but does she feel uncomfortable at all? Again, closer POV and use of SDT here is important. Does her heart beat a little faster? Do her palms gets sweaty. Does she try to release Jonnie’s grip as she speaks? If there is no discomfort then it’s important to consider how dynamics are constantly shifting between characters, scene-by-scene. For example, the last line of the page also reduces Tension because Jo and Jonnie seem to be conciliatory.

We should get a stronger sense of Characterisation with a closer POV and SDT. Right now neither Jo nor Jonnie come across as very likeable characters, but this isn’t a prerequisite for an engaging read. Jonnie seems to be the more interesting of the two at present. He is rather crude and we see a glimmer of something threatening about him, which makes him nuanced – and this nuance, in essence, is what you need in any character. It could be developed further in two ways: firstly, by closer access of his POV (watch out for any head-hopping) and secondly – if the author decides to stick to Jo’s POV – by showing us more of Jonnie through her perspective. One of the most interesting parts of his character is that he seems self-aware:
‘He faltered then, as though he’d just realised how bad it could make him look, he tried to turn it in to a joke.’

The author could do more here to set-up a sense of potential duplicity. Is Jonnie genuinely embarrassed about what he says, or is he intentionally masking his true self by turning it into a joke? It could be one or the other, but either way it needs to be clearer. As mentioned, Jo’s emotional conflict is touched upon and this could be developed by Showing us what’s going on beneath the surface of her words. To what extent is she disappointed by the move? How are her feelings about Jonnie shifting? Is she a woman who goes along with what happens in life, rarely taking action? Right now she comes across as a little passive – and that can be fine, as long as that changes as the story continues – but I think the author could seed in more clues about her emotional conflict in order to create a stronger character arc.

In conclusion, I think this could be an engaging opening with plenty of potential for development. Writing and re-writing involves honing stylistic skills, and this is part of the fun. Remember, you are the writer and ultimately any decision as to who your character is, whose story it’ll be and the dynamics you’re wishing to portray/explore is yours. However, key concepts like POV, SDT, Characterisation and Tension are tools to be used in order to realise the vision you have for your story.

I hope my comments have been helpful, and I wish the author the best of luck with developing this piece of writing.

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