Saturday, 23 January 2016

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass February 2016

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

Rosette by Cindy Rinaman Marsch

Rosette – Dissolution

Still quick and slim, still well turned out at fifty-eight. With shine to my hair—when I can dress it—and light in my eyes. But suddenly cut off, with the flourish of a pen, the run of a press. I sit here still, in this dark sod shanty, my granddaughter outside chattering, her mother Lillie dragging the dusty wash off the line. We’ve scraped the earth—or my son DeWitt has—and we women have tended the children and labored long days to feed us all. In the quiet the babe is asleep in the cradle beside me, in the spot where the sunshine pries through—and the wind in winter. A generation ago DeWitt was the babe in my lap—and his father Otis chopping trees to clear the farm near my folks in Michigan. Now my son breaks the bones of the earth to farm here—to coax food from the soil and beat back the vermin that race us to harvest.

That little waver of afternoon sun flickers down on the letter in my lap. It’s just a line or two from daughter Ella, folded round the notice in the newspaper. Otis has sued divorce on me. Two years’ absence and I have deserted him, the law says. So be it—I will not answer for it.

I rode the train here two years ago, rumbling out west, then north, to whatever might be here for me, for my eldest son’s family. A young family ought to have help from their folks in homesteading, as ours helped us. And so I came.

But, truth be told, moreso I left. I left what had long since shriveled and died. I left the oppressive eye of Otis’s old mother waiting to be served and watching to quaver at me. I left Otis’s deranged brother drooling and wild-eyed, gaining strength in middle-age. And I left my last babe, Percy—twelve then, fourteen now—who sees no wrong in Otis. So it is with the boys—they see their father’s muscled arms and callused, scarred hands. The gleam in his eyes they mistake as ambition for the farm. Always something new he longs for, and better—better than I, for certain.

Most sad of all, I left the girls to the daily care of that menagerie. Ella writes of her suitor, and soon will fly into his arms. Her sisters have yet a few years. Among them they can keep the house, their routines set. The rhythms of the harvests will well enough provide for them all. I am grown too old—no matter I can still turn a reel at a dance—to bear it any longer.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is an intriguing first page. It has a great sense of setting: dusty terrain, struggling with the labour and harvest, and the author’s imagery gives a tantalising taste of this. The Voice is strong, which helps to reel the reader in and the author has seeded in some key details of the character’s life, which brings a sense of Tension to the story. Note that this tension does not just leave the reader to ponder what happened – which to a large extent, might not be that important – but rather what will happen. Here, I think, the author could bring in a greater sense of foreboding.

I’m not sure how the story will unfold, but it seems that the author is filtering in a sense of jeopardy through the Conflict of the character’s marriage and the decision she made to leave her husband and family. Otis has been roughly sketched as a kind of brute, and we are prone to believe the narrator, but what the reader is left to wonder is how this might play out as the story progresses. The author could do more here to Show us what Otis was like in order to heighten this sense of tension and mystery. For example, the character might have a flashback of the life she left behind, giving us a glimpse of her husband and even her children.

This might also help to gain reader sympathy. As mentioned, the voice is strong, but the decision to leave an entire family behind, including children that are fairly young, could be construed as selfish. This didn’t hinder my opinion of the protagonist but might be something that prevents the reader from sympathising fully with her. A flashback might help to flesh out Characterisation and give us a better idea of how we should feel upon reading that Otis has asked for a divorce. Right now, it seems as if it is a good option, which actually diminishes the conflict. In fact, a greater feeling of emotional conflict would help here. This relates to having a strong Emotional Arc for the main character, but also should help the reader sympathise with her decision to leave. Right now it seems she is rather too at peace with her choice.

There could also be a better sense of clarity in terms of place and what she’s left behind­. For example, when she receives a letter from Ella could it be clearer that she is living with DeWitt, on her son’s farm, and Ella is with her father and the rest of her family? The information is already there, but it could be clarified. This can sometimes happen when we’re introduced to too many characters without them being in the actual scene, so the author could think about how each one is filtered in. I also wondered about plausibility: with her being fifty-eight and the youngest being fourteen she felt quite old, considering the time they’re living in. This might be answered in the rest of the story but is something to consider when thinking about issues of believability.

Generally, the Style felt strong and leans towards the literary genre but there were times when certain sentences jarred for me, which contributes to the lack of clarity sometimes. For example, the all-important opening, ‘Still quick and slim, still well turned out and fifty-eight’ read a little awkwardly and it might be worth paying attention to that. Also, ‘…the babe is asleep in the cradle beside me, in the spot where the sunshine pries through—and the wind in winter’ ­– the latter part of that sentence feels forced and awkward. The style should underpin the story, allowing the reader’s eye to sweep over it and be caught up in its world, not struggle with it. Some tweaks should help to give the writing more fluidity so the reader isn’t forced to pause over, or re-read, anything.

Overall, the opening has real promise. If the author could think about some of the issues I’ve highlighted, focusing on Style, Characterisation and the Emotional Conflict, giving a heightened sense of foreboding, developing these aspects and Showing a little more to the reader, this should make the narrative more involving. A better sense of clarity in terms of who is who – the people the character has left behind and where she is now should also be beneficial.

I wish the author the best of luck with this confident piece of writing. 


  1. Thanks so much, Ayisha, for such a careful reading of these opening pages. My local critique group, too, felt very unsettled by Rosette having left her family behind. I elected to keep it feeling ambiguous as a way to keep us all unsettled as we read on for more.

    The fact is, Rosette was a real person whose husband did sue her for divorce (based on desertion from their home in Michigan) in 1888, and who did leave behind her younger children. History doesn't precisely place her with this son on his Dakota Territory farm at this time, but later records show she lived the rest of her life in the Dakotas. So this seemed a likely scenario.

    I wanted to see how the story read "as a story" without the key to the true history of the episode. There's so much to try to put into the small space of the extract. I hope the following pages answer the questions you felt raised in this bit. A sample completing this passage is available at .

    After reading another of your fine critiques last month, I was eager (if nervous) to submit this opening of my debut novel--since it was already submitted for publication. But I am keen to improve my craft and very appreciative of your time and attention. I hope the post is helpful to others, too!

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