Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass November 2015

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explores and critiques 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 Fox and the Crow, Inc.
a Novella by Ariadne Apostolou

Riding in a car could tranquilize an infant, so it should work for her, Mina Wright told herself   starting up her Lexus, desperate for serenity after the last half hour of hysterical sobbing. She did not need a psychiatric referral! How dare he! It was just stress--to be expected with a husband at death’s door—though she really should stop using that expression. He was going to recover. Of course, she was fine—except for embarrassing herself by screaming like a madwoman at Dr. Ramos, the only doctor in the universe she actually trusted. Now her head throbbed.

Mina drove out of the town center, thick with afternoon traffic. She was fine. Life got a little out of control sometimes, was all. She should try deep breathing as she drove. Multi-task a little more. Pile it on, why not?  She inhaled, counted to ten and released.

Dr. Ramos threatened to call her tomorrow to check up on her. She didn’t need that. Call and apologize first, to head him off. That is what she would do. Right now, she was very late picking up Skye at Bette Palmer’s. They’d be late getting home to Richard. And she’d left her cell-phone somewhere. Where? Her office? She could call Richard from Bette’s.

The sun was shining, but rumbles overhead signaled a storm coming, really bad for the internal chaos. Electrified air, sudden drops in barometric pressure--everything affected her, being the overly sensitive type as the whole universe—Dr. Ramos, Richard--reminded her. She needed tranquility before seeing Bette, la loca who exerted some weird orbital force with the power to destabilize whatever equilibrium Mina could muster. It had happened before, so often, in fact, that Richard had ordered her to avoid Bette. She is poison for you, he’d shout. That was back when he could blow his stack and breathe at the same time. His frustration more recently emerged as teary despair. She missed those schooling lectures that she’d take with a grain of salt.

As she inhaled and exhaled with determination, the candy-colored clapboards and new-leafing sugar maples in Bette’s neighborhood dissolved into two children at the side of a dark highway, looming like a horror film. Mina! Stay here, she ordered herself. Forget them. Forget Dr. Ramos. Next is Bette’s street. Pick up Skye. Get home to Richard. Keep this straight: today is June 15, 2001! Not June 15, 1969.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is a potentially engaging piece. The author, generally, manages to use the third person limited perspective to draw the reader into Mina’s mental state successfully. At the moment there is a tendency to Tell rather than Show, which can have a distancing effect, despite us viewing events from Mina’s POV. We manage to find out a fair bit about the protagonist and her circumstance, which is good, but there were times when the Pace felt rather too fast so this could be slowed down in parts. In some ways, this is related to the Tone of the opening page, which has quite a frantic quality – although this mirrors Mina’s emotional state – but can verge on feeling overly neurotic, diminishing some of the Tension I think we should be feeling, especially by the end of the last sentence.

Firstly, I felt the opening sentence needed clarity: I’m not quite sure about the purpose of the infant analogy. It suggests that Mina has an infant to calm down rather than it being calming for herself, and in any case, she gets in the car because she needs to collect her daughter, not because it’ll relax her. The mention of ‘psychiatric referral’ manages to grab our attention, however, and instantly tells us something about Mina’s situation, along with her character as she reacts so badly to the idea of it. This is a good place to consider Showing rather than Telling in order to slow down the Pace. For example, rather than tell us about Mina’s ‘hysterical sobbing’ could the author show us how she might look or feel? Is she trying to catch her breath? Does she feel drained? Within the same paragraph we’re told about her dying husband. This is also good because it brings in a sense of drama and Tension, but the speed with which we’re taken through this information and Mina’s emotions leaves us little time to really absorb the impact of what we’ve discovered about her.

I think the conflict of Mina’s unravelling mental health and her determination to keep herself together is engaging. She is trying to rein in her hysteria, but this is a woman on the verge, and we know it. However, I think the neurotic tone here is diminishing some of the potential Tension. This is about balancing the narrative so that the Pace is slowed right down at points when we need to be absorbed in how Mina’s feeling – ‘She was fine. Life got a little out of control sometimes, was all. She should try deep breathing as she drove. Multi-task a little more. Pile it on, why not?’ – and when to move it along so that we’re aware of how haphazard she is – ‘And she’d left her cell-phone somewhere. Where? Her office? She could call Richard from Bette’s.’ The former quote is an example of where the Pace could be slowed and we can be shown more than her just taking a moment to take some deep breaths.

Because of the Pace of the opening and its frantic tone it might be worth the author considering including some action scenes so we get a chance to see Mina’s interplay with other characters. For example, we’re told about the negative effect Bette Palmer has on Mina – can we be shown this in a scene between the two when she picks up Skye? So much of Mina’s unfolding character is being told to us via her thoughts that some action and dialogue would help to break up the introspective nature of the opening page. The author could keep the way Mina recalls her husband’s reaction to her seeing Bette, the seeding in of which gives us insight into their changed relationship – this, quite cleverly, helps us to have a sympathetic view of Richard before we’ve even met him. If we meet Bette and see for ourselves how awful she is, our respect for Richard and empathy will probably be greater.

In terms of Tension and Pace, I think the last paragraph is the most important to focus on. This is where a sense of foreboding creeps in and the anxiety we’ve seen Mina experience is connected to, seemingly, a past event of significance. It’s worth mentioning that the writing here is lovely:

‘…the candy-colored clapboards and new-leafing sugar maples in Bette’s neighborhood dissolved into two children at the side of a dark highway, looming like a horror film.’

The contrast of images – candy colours and sugar maples to two children on a dark highway – is really well done. Here, especially, I feel the Pace needs to be slowed; we need a stronger sense of Tension by more Show Don’t Tell – by not only anchoring us in Mina’s perspective, but showing us something more than her present reaction. Right now this feels a little flippant, though I don’t think that’s the effect the author wishes to produce. Again, it’s about balancing Mina’s propensity to want to forget and ignore things and giving the event the weight of tension that it deserves in order to show the reader its importance. What does Mina do? Does she shake her head in order to get rid of the image? Slow the car down? Does her heart beat faster (though this is a bit of a cliché)? Do her palms get sweaty? I also think a little more detail about the appearance of the two children might help to heighten the tension. We don’t need a thorough description but one or two striking images, which help the reader to fear the images as much as Mina.

In conclusion, I think the author has some strong material to work with here. They should focus on using Show Don’t Tell to help slow the Pace and increase the Tension, as well as consider developing the tone a little – maintain its frantic edge, but reining in the neurosis so that the conflict feels more foreboding. They shouldn’t be afraid of staying in the moment to really make us feel Mina’s hysteria and also heighten the mystery of why she is unravelling like this.

I wish the author all the best with this promising and intriguing piece.  


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