This post is to share the mini-critique and writing advice from leading UK Literary Consultancy, Cornerstones, in relation to Jack Scott’s ebook, Perking The Pansies. Jack won our November 2012 VoteForMyeBook.com competition. Here’s the feedback and response from Cornerstones and Jack.
VoteForMyeBook.com November 2012 Mini-Critique Winner
This opening introduces us to two sympathetic and witty characters whose interactions feel very natural and realistic. The setting – the special birthday meal; the big announcement one of them has to make – give us a good taste of the human drama that’s (presumably) to come. The writing is solid and confident, with few of the copy-editing and proofreading errors we often see in self-published material – the author has obviously revised carefully and this gives it a professional feel. The dialogue flows smoothly and there are enough touches of descriptive colour to root us in the scene and allow us to picture it.
The scene falters slightly when the narrator steps outside the action of the present moment to fill us in on exposition and background. At these points the reader’s attention is likely to wander because the information feels less immediate and engaging; indeed, the opening paragraph (which is nevertheless sharp, witty and well written) seems to pre-empt the meat of what the scene is about, hinting at what’s going to happen, whilst explicitly introducing the thematic content (the all-consuming and all-powerful nature of Work). As a result, it feels authorial rather than being a natural part of the narrator’s thought-processes at this specific moment.
This is particularly noticeable here, because it’s the first piece of writing we encounter and it’s all telling or summary; the kind of writing that is designed to deliver information, but tends to keep the reader at arm’s length from the characters. However, there are later examples which have a similarly explicatory, distancing effect, as with the paragraph about Liam and Jack’s relationship and marriage, and the one which outlines the cut-and-thrust nature of Liam’s job. The love between them is something the reader ought to be able to gauge from the two characters’ interactions, and the info about the job feels repetitious, returning to the analysis of Liam’s career that the opening paragraph began.
This is really a problem of telling rather than showing, a broad writing concept that at its very simplest boils down to the need to reveal through scene – action, gesture, and dialogue – rather than summary. This comes into play in all aspects of writing including scene-setting (so, here, it might be good to show the gossiping workers, perhaps allowing the reader to hear some snatches of their dialogue); prose style (avoiding passive writing like [the] brasserie was illuminated or the restaurant was swollen and using strong verbs as opposed to weaker verbs plus adverbs, of which there are a number here); and, perhaps most importantly, characterization, emotion, and relationships.
Because this is a human, character-led drama, it is the nuances of the relationship between these two characters that will really hook in the reader. We want to see for ourselves what draws them together – and what pushes them apart – played out in real time, rather than explained to us.
The tensions and conflicts between the characters are particularly important to get across dramatically, and here we have some good seeds of discord: the fact that Jack obviously feels Liam’s job is bad for him, and the fact that Liam has some sort of bombshell to drop. We assume Liam’s news must be bad because of his body-language (fiddling with his tie, massaging his temples – all great in terms of showing how he’s feeling). Meanwhile, Jack is – albeit glibly – worried for Liam’s mental health, and thinks his boss, if not his whole job, is bad news. However, these two potential areas of tension are defused as quickly as they arise. With Liam’s announcement, delivered almost before we’ve had a chance to wonder what it might be, Jack’s concerns are immediately resolved: Liam’s revelation is actually good news. It’s not that Liam’s unhappy in their relationship and indeed, the one factor that’s making him unhappy, and Jack unsettled by proxy, has just been eliminated. It’s as though the two have solved their biggest problems within their very first conversation, and the reader is likely to be left wondering what’s really at stake, what they’re trying to achieve, and where the conflict is going to come from.
Since conflict and tension are the lifeblood of fiction, it would be worth giving some thought to how a few changes in the scene might maintain tension for longer and give the characters bigger crises to work through. The best tension tends to arise when characters’ desires or needs are set against one another. For instance, perhaps Liam’s news is not that he’s quit, but that he’s had a promotion or agreed to work longer hours. He knows Jack will be disappointed, and this would explain his nerves about telling him the news. But at the same time, it’s great news for his career; shouldn’t Jack be happy for him? Immediately you’ve shifted from a scene in which both characters are basically happy and supportive of each other’s choices to one in which, through no fault of their own and despite the fact they’re deeply in love, they’re in conflict with each other.
If this would mean too much of a change to the plot, an alternative would be to play around with Jack’s perceptions or expectations a little more. Perhaps one of the things that draws Jack to Liam is his success and ambition; the fact that he’s not afraid to work hard. Perhaps Jack even has a bit of a fondness for being the kept man, and values Liam’s income. When Liam announces that he has some news, at the moment Jack’s immediate assumptions are not very revealing: he thinks that either Liam doesn’t like the restaurant (so trivial as to be meaningless) or that he’s unhappy (which simply shows us how nice Jack is, if this is the worst thing he can imagine). But what if he started imagining all sorts of scenarios which tell us a little more about both the characters: perhaps he thinks Liam’s cheated (revealing his own guilty conscience?) or that Liam’s missed the big promotion he was going for at work and won’t be able to take them on holiday this year after all. Then, when Liam announces he’s quit, Jack might be angry, not just because of the fact that this seems like a failure on Liam’s part, but also because he feels bad for thinking such selfish and faithless thoughts. Immediately you have both an external and an internal conflict – just the sort of grit that readers like to get their teeth into.
There’s much about this opening that’s already working very well, so putting in some extra thought about what’s going to give it that page-turning quality that readers really look for would pay dividends. It’s not enough to have good writing and likeable characters: readers want conflict which forces characters to act, change, and push themselves beyond their limits. With this, a good book becomes unputdownable.
Good luck with the revisions and remember that we’re here to help – whether this is with simpler tasks like copy-editing and proofreading or to provide an alternative professional viewpoint on involved structural issues like the above.
Jack fed back in response to his mini-critique:
Thank you to Cornerstones for such an interesting, informative and incisive mini-critique. The sequel to my Turkish tales is on the story drawing board so the review is timely. In particular, the feedback has made me seriously consider the issues of narration versus illustration. This will, I’m sure, help make the second and final installment more complex, absorbing and compelling for the reader.
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