This post is to share the mini-critique and writing advice from leading UK Literary Consultancy, Cornerstones, in relation to Caitlin McColl’s ebook, The Jade Dragonfly. Caitlin won our October 2012 VoteForMyeBook.com competition. Here’s the feedback and response from Cornerstones and Caitlin.
VoteForMyeBook.com October 2012 Mini-Critique Winner
This is an engaging opening to what promises to be a relatively light murder mystery, probably falling broadly into the ‘cosy crime’ genre rather than anything grittier or more urban. The relationship between the young Constable Lattley and the older, more cynical McCloud provides the focus of the emotion and conflict in the scene, and allows us to get to know both characters in a different way than we would if they were interacting as equals.
Even cosy crime needs tension and suspense, and that’s one area in which this extract could be sharpened and given a little more punch. There’s a danger that with the focus on the minutiae of the crime scene and the harmless misunderstandings between the characters – Lattley’s error over the nickname and his obvious inexperience at interpreting evidence – the tone will remain too light to really grab the reader and keep them turning the pages. In some ways it feels as though the most dramatic moment – the actual discovery of the body – is already over by the time we join the scene.
Might it be possible to start this story earlier, either with the neighbour discovering the body or with the police, called by Adara, who’s worried that she hasn’t seen Mrs O’Reilly for a while, breaking down the door to make the discovery for themselves? As well as providing a really dramatic opening gambit, this would also have the benefit of allowing the author to cut the rather dry exposition (where McCloud explains to Lattley how and why the body was discovered). And the descriptions of the house, which are currently quite factual and functional, would be coloured by the atmosphere of tension and suspense; of the police not knowing exactly what they’re going to find.
Of course, that’s just one suggestion and it may be that the author prefers to keep this opening scene as it is. If that’s the case, then there are various ways in which it could be given more dynamism and definition. For instance, more descriptive detail would be useful, irrespective of where the story starts. From the very first sentence, which feels like quite an abrupt opening, there’s a slight lack of clarity around the setting – are we in the kitchen or outside it? – and the details we do get are fairly unspecific: a ‘pantry door’, a ‘carpet’, a ‘little table’. These details don’t tell us much about the house or the victim; nor do they create much atmosphere. Is the pantry door peeling or scrubbed clean? Is the carpet brown with orange swirls or neutral, minimalist white? Is the little table Formica, glass, or a grubby antique?
This need for more description also extends to the coppers and their relationship. The reader can’t really picture either of them: is Lattley red-faced and shy, or is he a bit cocky and sure of himself (as suggested by his use of McCloud’s nickname)? And McCloud – does he stoop when he walks, does his back ache, or is he a Cracker-esque giant of a man who’s looked crime in the face all his life and hasn’t been bowed down by it? We get various combinations of names for each policeman; it might feel more consistent to hear their full names once, when we’re first introduced to them, and then simply refer to them by their surnames, as is conventional in this sort of professional, masculine relationship (and in the police procedural genre).
The piece is roughly from McCloud’s POV but it would be good to work into this viewpoint a little deeper, showing us more of his reactions and thoughts. How does he feel about visiting this particular crime scene; does it bring back any personal associations or is he completely hardened to the job; is he sympathetic to Lattley’s naivety or does it irritate him? Ideally these reactions should be shown, through McCloud’s own thoughts, words and gestures, rather than told (as when we hear that he was starting to regret having asked [Johnny] to help him with the case.) Emotional engagement is created by encouraging the reader to bond and empathise with your main character, and share in his/her experience of events; to do this we need to get closer to McCloud.
Stylistically, the writing could be tightened by pruning out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and aiming to replace them either with dramatic showing (e.g. how does McCloud know that Lattley is speaking ‘excitedly’ or that he is ‘disappointed’) or with a strong verb (so, replacing ‘said excitedly’ with something like ‘whispered’ or ‘hissed’ depending on what sort of person Lattley is). Try to avoid repetition, too – here, we have a few repeated words and phrases in quick succession, including ‘was starting to’, ‘small’, and ‘slightly’.
Generally, aiming for precision in the descriptive detail and an intimate use of POV should help to iron out some of the above problems; for instance, if the prose is really focused on showing us the setting vividly and with sensory accuracy, descriptions like ‘small kitchen’ and ‘small round table’ will start to feel insufficient and the author will naturally want to replace them with something fresher and more revealing, thus avoiding the repetition. Similarly, with the slightly tautological description of the ‘beautiful, ornate’ letter opener; more specifics here would avoid both the tautology and the vagueness. Is it brass, carved wooden, pewter?
At the same time, if we’re inhabiting McCloud’s POV more closely, it will start to be automatic for the author to bring the scene to life through his eyes and his way of phrasing things, thus utilising a more distinctive, fresh lexicon and focusing on his actions and responses: how does he know the cup of coffee is still slightly warm? Is it by touching it, and what does this make him think? (Is it likely, given the timescale, that the drink would still be warm, by the way?)
Finally, watch out for typos, some awkward phrasing and missing punctuation – see the rough copy-edit above for these kinds of things. Remember that in a crowded self-publishing marketplace the best way to stand out is to ensure your work is edited to the highest professional standards, and Cornerstones is here to help if you need us.
Good luck with bringing this scene, and this two promising characters, to vivid, dramatic life in the next draft.
Caitlin fed back in response to her mini-critique:
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