Monday, 23 March 2015

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass

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.

The Silence by Katy Eachus

On those rare occasions when Abby allowed herself to think about her cousin Philippa, she always saw her as a girl of fourteen who was very much alive. A girl who could burp the National Anthem (well, the first couple of lines), hurl herself off rocks, catch scorpions in her bare hands, hold her breath until she fainted and who always slept with one arm straight up in the air. A girl who pulled faces behind people's back, rolled her eyes, did impressions and spurted her drink over everyone when she laughed. Being with Philippa meant laughing until you were sick, sharing your deepest, most thrilling secrets, keeping each other awake with disgusting jokes and gut-wrenching stories. And of course planning the perfect murder.

She never thought of Philippa as she had last seen her. How could she have done that and carried on a normal life? How could she have finished school, got a degree, gone to work, married, done all the things normal people did? So much easier to think it had never happened.

After all, it was impossible to imagine now, just as it was impossible to recapture the blinding heat, the scorching dust clouds that peppered your legs and the incessant nagging of the cicadas that drilled into your skull. Impossible to think of the place existing without them. Of life going on just as it had before they had arrived. But it must. People drinking in the bars below the villa or lazing in deckchairs around the swimming pool must look up into those forested hills hundreds of times in a day and have no idea what they concealed.

Brambles as thick as Abby's arm must have grown up by now over the place where she last saw Philippa, spreading their fingers around the stones. Acacias with their dagger-like thorns would have muscled in to form a second line of defence. Landslips would have showered down mud and rocks on top - erasing it, erasing Philippa, erasing everything.

“If you keep lying about something it becomes the truth,” Philippa had said.

So perhaps it really hadn’t happened. Because if it had surely by now someone would have broken through the woods, clawed back the brambles, pulled apart the stones, and they’d have found her wouldn’t they?

A girl without a face.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is a promising opening page, with some evocative writing and good use of descriptive language. The author has a strong foundation for a potentially gripping read, but there are some issues – particularly relating to Point of View and Show Don’t Tell, which are affecting Characterisation, along with some more minor observations ­­– that could be developed to make this an even more engaging read.

Essentially the opening page is telling the reader two things:
1. Something terrible, involving a murder, has happened.
2. The protagonist is trying to forget about it.

We expect that the novel will be fraught with emotional conflict for Abby, while the mystery as to what actually happened unravels, providing a tense interplay between the narrative arc and character arc. As it stands, the tone and style, to begin with, feels rather chatty for the story that’s being told. However, Philippa’s character comes across strongly, helping us to invest in the emotional dynamic set up between the protagonist (presumably Abby) and Philippa. The line, ‘And of course planning the perfect murder’, is both sinister and intriguing: whose murder? Why? What happened?

In some ways Philippa overshadows Abby – the opening has resonances of Rebecca: the way a character, long dead, impacts upon the characters who are trying to escape their ghost. Because Philippa is already coming across so well, I’d suggest that we have a better sense of Abby – after all, we assume it will be her struggle that we engage with throughout the story. In order to do this the author could ground us more firmly in Abby’s perspective, and also implement more Show Don’t Tell. I’d recommend employing a closer third person narrative. This is a good way of allowing the reader to experience events as Abby does, but also allows for another viewpoint in the story, should it be needed. However, any authorial perspective should be avoided as it can jar for the reader, forcing them out of the story.

It is fine to have Abby as a rather benign figure, overpowered by Philippa – this also provides the author with plenty of opportunity for Abby to grow as a character as the story progresses. However, the author does need to pepper the opening with some sense of who Abby is, even if the things she says or does are rather prosaic, because we know, after all, that she will be anything but.

A more ‘in-scene’ setting could help with this and should also prevent too much Telling. We learn that Abby has gone on to have a ‘normal’ life post-Philippa, but can we witness Abby’s interaction with her husband/family? This should Show us Abby’s family situation, adding colour to her character to create a stronger emotional arc and raising the stakes for our protagonist. We could get a far better sense of how Abby is battling to believe that whatever has happened didn’t actually happen – going about her daily activity, pushing back thoughts of her cousin to heighten her sense of denial.

There is some lovely descriptive writing: the ‘blinding heat’ and brambles ‘spreading their fingers around the stone’, portray a feeling of claustrophobia that Abby must be experiencing. However, it feels rather authorial at the moment and I wonder why it’s impossible for Abby to ‘recapture the blinding heat’? It would be more effective if we witnessed her experiencing the past in a more visceral way, thereby increasing the tension and conflict.

There are some issues of clarity. A stronger sense of setting and where we are in time should help distinguish the past from the present. For example, it says, ‘Impossible to think of the place existing without them’. What place is the author talking about? Is it separate to the one where Abby is now? Does she still live near the forest? The contrasting dark imagery with the deckchairs and swimming pools works well, but a closer character POV here would help. For example, is Abby looking at this idyllic scene – if so, then this could be made clearer. Also, who’s ‘them’? This feels authorial and, again, if we were grounded firmly in Abby’s POV, it should prevent any confusion.

Because the mystery being set up and the descriptive language is already very evocative, the author should avoid any tendency to overwrite. For example:

‘Brambles as thick as Abby's arm must have grown up by now over the place where she last saw Philippa, spreading their fingers around the stones. Acacias with their dagger-like thorns would have muscled in to form a second line of defence. Landslips would have showered down mud and rocks on top.’

The last line could be edited out, as the preceding images are already effective in denoting a sense of foreboding. On another quite minor note: the second paragraph is repetitive as well as Telling. We already know how Abby thinks of Philippa so we don’t need to be told, ‘She never thought of Philippa as she had last seen her.’

We aren’t given much dialogue, and when we are, it’s very effective, giving us further insight into Philippa’s character:

‘If you keep lying about something it becomes the truth,’ Philippa had said.

But I wonder, using a closer perspective, if we could have a stronger sense of Abby remembering this, and its effect on her?

The final paragraph and line is particularly evocative. The reader is left to imagine a resurrection of some sort, fighting its way through the brambles and stones. Here, again, we could be more grounded in Abby’s POV. The author could really heighten the tension and sense of Abby’s past creeping up on her by immersing us in her perspective: a battle between remembering and forgetting, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

In conclusion, this is a strong piece of writing, and I’d urge the author to consider using a closer character POV and implementing more Show Don’t Tell in order for us to get a stronger sense of Abby’s character, and more clarity in terms of setting and time period.

I wish the author the best of luck with developing this promising piece.

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