Friday, 31 July 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.

Exit Route by Julia Thorley

If Karen had known that on Wednesday evening she would be seeing Tommy for the last time she would have paid more attention.

She stared out of the café window. The station served one of those unsurprising Midlands towns that most people don’t even notice on their way through to somewhere more interesting. There was little activity: too late for travellers to be returning from weekends away, too soon for them to be leaving. A few disconsolate businessmen stood hunched against the March chill, straining to read their phones by murky yellow lights suspended from the awning.

Three chimes signified the arrival of the northbound train. Karen watched as a man in a dark overcoat threw his rucksack to the ground then manoeuvred a double bass down the train steps. Session musician with an orchestra perhaps, she mused. A bevy of young women teetered their way towards an empty carriage.

Karen turned her attention back into the room as Tommy sat down at the table with a lidded coffee in his hands.

‘You needn’t wait, you know. I’m a big boy now.’

Karen looked into his youthful face and resisted the urge to stroke it. Instead she replied, ‘Indulge your old mother. I’ve got nothing to get home for.’

‘When’s Dad back?’

‘Not ’til Friday. His plane lands at 5-ish, so he’ll be home for supper, unless...’ She left the rest of the sentence implied.

Tommy took a sip of his coffee and flinched as it burnt his top lip. ‘Well, it’s been good to see you, even if it was just a flying visit. Thanks for lunch – and the money.’ He grinned sheepishly.

‘Yes,’ Karen teased. ‘You keep telling me you’re a grown-up, yet you rarely turn down a bit of extra cash.’

‘Well, it would be churlish to stifle your maternal generosity.’

Looking out into the gloom again, Karen could see people gathering for the 18.30 to London. A tall man wearing a trilby struggled to keep it on his head as the wind buffeted him. Odd, thought Karen, to see a man in a hat these days.

‘I’d better go and stake my claim on the platform, then.’ Tommy stood up and eased himself into his backpack straps. He kissed the top of Karen’s head.

‘Take care, sweetheart,’ she said.

‘Always do, Ma, always do.’

He swung out of the door and was gone.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is a good first page. The author evokes the bleak setting well with specific details such as the ‘yellow lights suspended from the awning,’ which helps to set the scene. It also seems to provide a parallel between the external and the main character, Karen’s, internal state. The opening sentence is dramatic, instantly setting up mystery and what I’m assuming will be a core plot thread. There are aspects such as Tension, Pace and Characterisation, which could be developed in order to strengthen the opening. Another issue for the author to consider is helping us to discern what this story will actually be about: A mother’s search for her missing son? A literary fiction piece about a woman who’s in a state of loss and discontent? It might very well be both, but a little more clarity as to what they want it to be should help.

Although the opening sentence is strong, the author might consider whether they want to hold back this information in favour of drip-feeding Karen’s thoughts. By withholding the plot point, and rather suggesting something has happened, it should help to heighten the tension and urge the reader to turn the page to find out exactly what that is.

The author does a good job of anchoring the reader in Karen’s point of view, though I think we could make this a closer third person limited perspective. Her detachment comes across well – she seems separate from everything around her. Indeed, her gazing out of the café window while ignoring the actual person in her company suggests someone removed from real life. This sets up a potentially strong character arc: Why isn’t she paying attention? What is happening in her life that is emotionally separating her from others? All her distractions, however, seem to be of the trivial kind and I wonder whether the author could pare back the more banal details. For example, after having set the scene so well do we need:

‘A tall man wearing a trilby struggled to keep it on his head as the wind buffeted him. Odd, thought Karen, to see a man in a hat these days.’  

Additionally, Karen’s response to the man in the hat doesn’t tell us anything about the story or Karen – the author’s already shown that she’s distracted – do we need to know her thought process on such an inconsequential matter? If the author is using this thought as a way of indicating to the reader Karen’s sense of boredom then that’s fine, but at the same time we need to be engaged with this emotional ennui. Could the author signpost this in a more dramatic – if that doesn’t sound contradictory – way? Essentially, we need more emotional conflict and tension, and this, at the moment, is dissipated in favour of the less thought-provoking details.

A bit more insight into Karen’s feelings should help to bring the tension to the fore. It should also help with the pace, which is slowed down as a result of the more mundane particulars. Could we be shown, subtly, through dialogue and action more of who Karen is? Her urge to stroke Tommy’s face (and not doing so) is a good instance of how actions reveal character. For example, the mention of her husband indicates some tension in their relationship. Perhaps we can spend another sentence or two with her pondering about him. One of the strengths of this opening is that it manages to avoid exposition, so the author wants to maintain this, but a few details about her feelings, a stronger indication of perhaps a marriage in trouble (if that is the case) should help to heighten the tension as well as strengthen her character arc.

As the core narrative will be related to Tommy going missing the author could show us more of him through Karen’s eyes. The scene’s importance is based on the fact that it is the last time Karen will see him so a little more interaction between them would be helpful in establishing their dynamic. Right now, it comes across easy and quite playful, which demonstrates their closeness, but what is Karen really thinking about her son? She seems lonely and so how does this manifest in her dealing with Tommy? Does she want him to stay? If so, does she say something? Perhaps she holds it back, just the way she resists the urge to stroke his face – and this too would be very telling of her character. It might also be interesting to find out a little more of Tommy’s character through his mother’s eyes. He will be going missing so we want to really care about him as a character and understand what Karen is losing.

On the whole, the author has a good foundation to work with here. I want to know more about Karen and especially what happens to Tommy. Seeding in more detail about her emotional state should help to raise the tension and give a better understanding of her character. Also, by paring back some of the details that aren’t relevant to the plot we should get a faster pace, helping to keep the reader engaged.

I wish the author luck with developing this interesting piece. 

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