This post is to share the mini-critique and writing advice from leading UK Literary Consultancy, Cornerstones, in relation to Pip Morgan’s ebook, Herald of Freedom. Pip won our September 2012 VoteForMyeBook.com competition. Here’s the feedback and response from Cornerstones and Pip.
VoteForMyeBook.com September 2012 Mini-Critique Winner
This is a promising opening, and historical swashbucklers in the vein of Hornblower have a keen readership, particularly if they’re doing something fresh and surprising with the genre. The real hook in this instance is the inclusion of Annabella, an unusual character choice and one which more could be done with, even in these early pages. We’ll come back to this.
First, it would be worth giving some attention to style, grammar, and syntax, all of which would benefit from careful polishing. When self-publishing it really is crucial to edit as much as possible before you go to print, because the lack of in-house editing means many books are published with a lot of errors. With that in mind, it’s not hard to ensure you’re standing out by publishing a really clean text. If you can’t afford to pay for professional proofread or copy-editing, then proofreading out loud, from the printed page rather than on screen, is the best way of spotting errors and stylistic infelicities.
For instance, there’s a lot of repetition here, both of individual words and of specific phrases. Variations of stood or standing appear several times; we have a couple of repetitions of stunning, vessel and galleon, and in the third paragraph the word set occurs twice in one sentence. Then there’s the bottom of the ladder, towards the end of the section. This can seem like a small thing, but when the reader’s ear is drawn to a word it can jar them out of the immersive state of reading.
Watch out for overwriting, which in this extract occurs in the form of subjective adjectives, excessive descriptive words, and tautology. For instance, the first sentence reads:
In the docks of the British port of Portsmouth on a bright and beautiful sunny and warm day stood in the sea a huge wooden galleon owned by the King of England.
This sentence is unwieldy partly because of the syntax (there are several clauses here with no punctuation to clarify them) and partly because of the number of adjectives to take on board. Bright and beautiful and sunny and warm are essentially saying the same thing – four times, in fact. Tautology like this can slow prose down and occlude the picture.
In the first paragraphs we also have a number of subjective judgments about the ship: superbly manufactured; stunning galleon; in amazement. Subjective adjectives and adverbs tend to be unclear because something that is superb, stunning or amazing to one reader may not be to another. They’re also a form of telling rather than showing – the author is explaining how we should be feeling, rather than simply painting a vivid picture and letting us judge for ourselves. They can work better if they’re filtered through a specific character’s perspective – then they’re at least telling us how that character feels about things – but it’s still telling, not showing.
Essentially, the opening is saying the same thing in a number of different ways, and could be tightened considerably, perhaps to something like the following:
The Herald of Freedom lay at anchor in Portsmouth. The sun gleamed off her scrubbed decks, glinting where it touched her gold edging and gilt nameplate. Her twenty cannon loomed over the docks; passing traders looked up warily, as though expecting them to go off. Sailors loitered nearby, perhaps hoping for a commission, or a glimpse of her owner, the king of England.
This is more concise, and it aims to show people’s awe and curiosity rather than telling us about them, whilst allowing the ship itself to do the job of dramatizing how glorious the day is. As Chekhov said, don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. The same advice applies throughout: show us something vividly and dramatically just once, and repetition won’t be needed because the reader will have grasped the picture perfectly already.
In terms of style, there are a couple more minor things to consider: there are a number of clichés to watch out for, some incomplete sentences (for instance some of which had served in the navy…) and various pieces of missing punctuation. I’ve done a quick but by no means comprehensive copy-edit to highlight these kinds of things, rather than going into them in detail, but this should demonstrate why proofreading is so essential.
Watch out for awkward phrasing in places, too: for instance, standing proud they looked at him with concentrated eyes. This is a repetition of standing proud, firstly; secondly, concentrated eyes isn’t quite correct and the sentence might read better if it were simpler: for instance, just they gazed at him would fit perfectly. This is a good example of where just choosing the right verb can make a sentence clearer and sharper.
Style apart, the main thing to consider here is viewpoint. At present, when the scene starts we’re not really seeing it through any one character’s eyes – it’s an authorial overview and as such, sentences like he was the most adequate candidate to Captain such a vessel or the lovely Annabella Pitt seem like authorial judgment, and out of place.
However, the viewpoint subsequently shifts, first to the sailors’ viewpoint (they were all aware of the dangers), then to Annabella’s (she wanted to expand on her career) and then to the King’s (proud to have her on board). This rapid shifting of POV is known as head-hopping and it can be disorientating for a reader, as well as making it unclear who our main character is. Decide which POV would give the most dramatic and emotive insight, and stick to it, and a scene should become immediately more engaging.
This presents an intriguing solution. At the moment, the premise of Annabella being on board – a woman! – is introduced briefly and without a real sense of how much conflict this would presumably cause amongst society and superstitious sailors alike. (A small question here: if she has been a servant all her life, how does she have a vast knowledge of the sea?) The struggle which must surely have been involved both on her part and the king’s in getting the captain to agree to hire her is glossed over, as is her own opinion on the matter and how she feels about the voyage now. She must be terrified, or nervous at the very least, about how her crewmates are going to treat her.
If the story were to start in Annabella’s POV we’d have an entirely new perspective on events which would be full of tension and emotion, whilst immediately foregrounding the USP. We could begin even earlier, during the initial interview by the captain. But the key is to give us as much insight into Annabella’s thoughts and feelings as possible, and make the most of the conflict inherent in the situation. That way, the reader will be hooked in not just by the impressive ship and the atmospheric seafaring setting, but by a tense scene that focuses on the human drama of what’s going on and presents a new, fresh take on an established genre.
Very best of luck with it and enjoy the revision process. And always remember the importance of feedback and editing – when it comes to self-publishing, it’s the best way to make a good impression.
Pip fed back in response to his mini-critique:
No matter how things turn out, or how your writing is perceived by others it is your story and you write it how you want to. Just do not be disappointed by rejection or a bad critique, just recognise your strengths and weaknesses, pick yourself up and carry on to succeed in what you believe in. When I first read what Cornerstones had put in their critique, it was like receiving a kick in the teeth, but my strength is to succeed and never to be defeated.
That’s the fighting spirit we like to see from our Writers. Nice work, Pip.
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