Thursday, 24 September 2015

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass October 2015

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 submissions@wordswithjam.co.uk with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.


Encoded
by Terry Ellen

Tim Browne didn’t even hear the storm. On the eve of his thirteenth birthday, when—for his own health, not to mention his Aunt Nellie’s peace of mind—he really should have been asleep, he was lying on his bed (in truly dorky pyjamas) wearing headphones and playing guitar. This is what he did almost every night, even when he wasn’t turning a year older the next day. It was not only a passion, but also an effective escape from the parts of his life that made him unhappy, which, these days, was pretty much all of them.

Beside him on the bed was a CD case whose resident artists were identified as the Three Fingers—a rock band his dad Rob had played in before Tim was born. He was listening to the album full blast and doing his best to play along with his dad’s gnarly riffs. His dad was a pretty awesome guitar player. Not as awesome as Jimi Hendrix, of course, who looked down benignly on Tim from his place of honor on the wall beside his bed. His dad had given him that poster and both of them knew no one was as awesome as Hendrix.

Suddenly, there was a blinding flash followed by an ear-splitting crack loud enough to penetrate even the full-blast, surround-sound musical world in which Tim was immersed. Tim jumped up and pulled off his headphones, looking around in alarm. When he heard the rain pounding the cottage, he quickly figured out the cause of the disturbance. In case he had any doubts, another peal of thunder, almost as loud as the first, confirmed his hypothesis.


Tim raised the window blind and peered outside, wondering just how close the lightning strike had been. It couldn’t have been very far, that was certain. He took a deep breath and exhaled, feeling his pounding heart slowly starting to return to normal. He put the headphones back on. The band was just about to go into the big finish. Smiling, he assumed his best rock and roll pose and raised his arm, getting ready to hit the final E7 chord. As his pick hit the strings there was another blaze of light. This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit. The blast of electricity surged through the guitar, cementing Tim to the spot and freezing his entire body in an absurd contortion, a parody of rock and roll excess. As a noise like an explosion shook the cottage, Tim fell to the floor. It was a hell of a finish.


Critique by Ayisha Malik


I think there is potential in this opening page, especially to wring out the Tension that builds to the climax towards the end. In order to maximise on this the author could employ more Show Don’t Tell as well as anchor us more firmly in the main character’s Point of View, which links to Voice. Voice is all-important, particularly in children’s fiction (although it’s not entirely clear whether this is adults or children’s) and once the author unearths this it will immediately feel more authentic, vibrant and should positively impact on other aspects such as: Show, internal conflict and observation. It should also help to slow down the scene in key moments to aid build-up and tension. At the moment the authorial perspective takes away from us really engaging with Tim and this diminishes the impact of what occurs by the end of the page. There are also some issues with Pace that could be honed. I’ll go into more detail about how the author can develop these technical aspects in order for this first page to live up to its potential. 

We’re immediately given a good sense of place and Tim’s character – musical, a little nerdy (the pyjamas are a good touch), unhappy. However, using more Show would help bring out the dimensions of his personality, as well as allowing the reader to engage with him. For example, when the author writes:

It was not only a passion, but also an effective escape from the parts of his life that made him unhappy, which, these days, was pretty much all of them.

The author could employ more of Tim’s thoughts in order for the reader to find out about the reasons behind his unhappiness. Is it to do with school? Friends? Family? His mother isn’t mentioned and I get the feeling there might be a story there, especially as Aunt Nellie is alluded to (where are his parents?). What are the feelings specific to Tim that help him to escape? I like the subtle irony of this: Tim has his headphones on, doesn’t notice the storm and is so fully immersed in his own world that he has no idea about the one around him, which is going to eventually lead to an incredible accident. Also, how does this passion make Tim feel? What are the physical or emotional manifestations of this passion? I also wonder whether the author could add some details here to help raise the Tension. We know Tim doesn’t notice the storm, but the author could drip-feed certain details, suggesting something happening outside in order to increase a sense of mystery and foreboding. Perhaps a flash of light that Tim catches, but he ignores it? Or perhaps the light in his room flickers as a result of the storm outside? 

The details about CDs and names of bands, while giving us an insight into Tim’s likes and nicely alluding to his positive relationship with his father, take away from the tension of the moment and slows down the Pace. The jump from ‘No-one was as awesome as Hendrix’ to ‘Suddenly there was a blinding flash’ feels rather abrupt at present. I realise that’s the nature of its suddenness but the preceding description, which feels quite slow, means the lead-on paragraph jars somewhat in the narrative. Any drip-feeding suggesting that things aren’t quite normal might help with this. 

It would be good to stay away from any clichés when describing the lightning, such as ‘Blinding flash’ (it’s hard to imagine a blinding flash when the blinds are drawn) and ‘ear-splitting crack.’ This is also a good opportunity to Show from Tim’s Point of View. Can we be shown his reaction to the light and the sound? Does he squint or shield his eyes? Is there some kind of interference with the headphones he’s wearing, piercing the sound and hurting his ears? 

Structurally, if you think of the opening we have: 
First paragraph: introduction to character and setting.
Second paragraph: musical detail, along with mention of his dad. 
Third paragraph: action.
Fourth paragraph: inciting incident. 

The paragraphs are more or less equal in length, but not necessarily equal in narrative importance. I believe that condensing the second paragraph and slowing the pace in the third and fourth would increase the Tension. Tim’s ‘pounding’ heart is a good example of Showing (though perhaps also quite clichéd) and more of this the moment he realises what’s happening outside would be good. I’d also be careful of language that sounds too formal, such as, ‘Confirmed his hypothesis.’ This doesn’t sound like the voice of a soon-to-be thirteen-year-old boy, which adds to the distancing effect between the reader and character. How does Tim feel when he sees the thunder? What is he thinking? When he puts his headphones back on I want to see the emotional transition from fear back to happiness. 

The final few lines, leading up to the incident are imperative:

As his pick hit the strings there was another blaze of light. This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit. The blast of electricity surged through the guitar, cementing Tim to the spot and freezing his entire body in an absurd contortion, a parody of rock and roll excess. As a noise like an explosion shook the cottage, Tim fell to the floor. It was a hell of a finish.

I think more careful use of language could contribute to a tighter finish. For example, do we need, ‘This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit.’ This feels like an authorial perspective and without it, I believe the finishing reads in a more gripping way. 

In conclusion, this page has potential but the author should think about employing more Show Don’t Tell, editing out sentences/words to fasten the Pace when needed, and focus on Tim’s emotional reactions and perspective to slow it down when necessary. A much stronger focus on honing Tim’s Voice, Point of View, and his thoughts and feelings should also help the reader to engage with both Tim and the story. 

Best of luck to the reader with developing this piece. 

2 comments:

  1. Hi Aisha,

    I'm afraid I don't understand your comment in in the 8th paragraph, above, where you say:

    "I'd also be careful of language that sounds too formal, such as, 'Confirmed his hypothesis.' This doesn't sound like the voice of a soon-to-be thirteen-year-old boy, which adds to the distancing effect between the reader and character."

    Surely, as the story is written in 3rd person, then the reader knows it isn't an autobiography, and that the narrator is (presumably) a linguistically sophisticated adult, and not a thirteen-year-old boy? How many thirteen-year-olds get published anyway? As a result, ought the reader to expect the voice of a teenager in the narrative? And why would the more sophisticated language of an adult narrator necessarily produce a 'distancing effect' between the reader and character, as you suggest? Unless, of course, the story is aimed solely at thirteen-year-old readers? Can you see how many questions your comment gives rise to?

    Cheers, Steve

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just couldn’t depart your site prior to suggesting that I extremely enjoyed the standard information an individual provide for your visitors? Is gonna be back frequently in order to inspect new posts.
    buy thesis online
    custom academic writing services

    ReplyDelete