Thursday, 23 July 2015

A tale of two critiques...

I'm editing the final manuscript for Sixty-Six Metres, a thriller set in the Scilly Isles off the Cornish coast of England. Some years ago I almost died there while scuba diving. It was quite an eventful trip, on all fronts. So, taking a short sabbatical from writing science fiction, I decided to write a thriller set there, with a fair amount of diving in the story. Diving is such an exciting and dangerous activity, I always wondered why more novels don't use it as context. In any case, a few months ago I sent off the draft manuscript to two literary agencies, Writers Workshop and Cornerstones, to get two independent reviews. Here's how one of the reviewers described the novel:

Nadia, a young Russian woman, is forced to retrieve a military stealth device from dangerously deep water. And both the Mafia and a rogue CIA agent want it at any price.

My writers group had workshopped most of the chapters over the preceding year, but I wanted to get some unbiased professional critiques of the manuscript as a whole, something your own writers group can find difficult to do if they have been involved in its evolution. I went for two critiques rather than just one as, although it's obviously more expensive that way, sometimes the reviewer says something you're not sure about, and you are left wondering, whereas with two critiques you can compare what each says. Equally, sometimes a reviewer perhaps simply isn't 'into' your style of writing - enjoying a novel is such a subjective experience - and it may leave the author a little disheartened (yes, we have egos...)

First, the good news, a short selection of praise I was very happy to receive, especially as the 'thriller' genre is new territory for me:

A pacey tightly plotted thriller with a satisfying story arc...
The diving element was fabulous...
No comments on chapters 18-21, too busy flipping pages...
Sixty-Six Metres is full of compelling characters...
I could feel the pulse in my neck when reading the scene when two divers are trapped in the wreck...

Then there were comments on where technique was working fine: narrative, action scenes, creation of multi-faceted characters, dialogue (mostly), and credible research.

Typically, for both reviewers, the 'good news' occupied the first page. But wait a minute, what were the other nine pages about then?

Well, we learn mainly from negative feedback...

Too many characters: I've now deleted two, I sort of knew this but needed to have it stated clearly in black and white.

Too many coincidences: both reviewers pointed these out, and I was surprised how many times a coincidence moved the plot forwards. Lazy writing. I'm fixing all of these now...

Character wobbles: too much wavering by one of the central characters - agreed it happens in real life, but doesn't work well in this genre. Fixed.

Giving the reader '4' instead of '2 + 2': this was a very interesting comment, as I was too often explaining everything, rather than leaving just enough for the reader to join the dots. Nice one!

Too much internal monologue: fair dues, my writing group pointed this out as well, but it becomes more apparent when you read the whole thing. Especially for a thriller, there can be some introspection, but not too much. I've cut it down a lot.

Show don't tell: I can pretty much guarantee you will get this comment no matter what you submit; its a soft target for a reviewer, and just once I'd like to hear 'tell don't show', because sometimes it works that was as well. But this was more specific, and both reviewers were getting at a habit I'd had - again, lazy writing - of telling certain things that had happened in the past instead of using a more linear (chronological and active) writing style. This round of edits has actually been fun, because it's forced me to bring those events to life, and the book is better for it.

Love interest: Actually, there was too much, and it was dispersed rather than focused, making the cast overall seem a little too horny (maybe I was going through a dry patch, lol). This again was a nice observation and I've toned it down except for the two protagonists, without turning it into a romance (because it isn't).

The two reviews themselves were different in style, one giving more high level thematic comments, the other making points chapter by chapter, first on plot, then on pace and tension, along with considerations on each main character. The second one obviously helps more (it also cost more, by the way) in the sense of being so structured, but the first one also helps me refine the story arc in terms of the two principal characters.

When I got both reviews back, I did nothing for about three weeks. I avoided the temptation to jump straight in and start revising, because it takes time to assimilate outside comments, and they deserve reflection and interpretation. I'm doing two rounds of edits, one detailed, the other to smooth it out. I then plan to take it to the York Writers Festival in September to see if any agents are interested.

Once again, as before if you've read my blogs on writing, I do recommend having your work critiqued, once you think you're finished, because this process can help you raise your game a few notches.

Anyway, here's an extract from Chapter 8 concerning Nadia, the protagonist. It's actually a flashback. One of the reviewers noted that flashbacks should generally be avoided, but she felt this one allowed the rule to be broken:

Katya had invited Nadia to a party in Moscow, dragging her away from her grotty studio flat where she fell asleep exhausted each night from working in the local bakery from 4am until 3pm, then at a supermarket until 9pm. Nadia was seventeen, not a virgin, but relatively inexperienced. At the party held at some big-wig’s country dacha, she’d been amazed at the wealth, the model-like women with perfect skin in low-cut flowing silk dresses, the handsome and not-so-handsome men, their confidence, their ease in the world. She’d been seduced by an older man, who turned out to be someone in government.

            Three weeks of lavish presents and attention later, he’d been taken away at 4am – that kind of thing was always done at 4am – by the FSB. She’d been arrested too, as she was with him at the time, and thrown into jail to rot, with no one to speak up for her. After three weeks in prison she figured she’d be stuck there for years. Until one day Kadinsky arrived, the guy whose party it had been. He had a gleaming bald head, and was fat without being flabby, as if his weight was there to throw around, to crush you if necessary; you just knew straightaway not to mess with him. He wore an expensive suit, and gold jewellery dripped from him, accentuating his effortless power. Katya stood behind him in a skimpy dress and impossibly high heels, her eyes hopeful and terrified at the same time. Kadinsky got Nadia out with bribes and favours. Of course, she’d have to work it off.

Once back at his country dacha, he’d ordered Katya not to speak, then looked Nadia up and down with an appraising eye, shook his head with distaste, then said, “What else can you do?”

Nadia never knew where her answer came from, possibly utter revulsion against a life of prostitution ahead, but she’d thought of her father, and the words that sealed her fate slid out of her mouth.

“I can shoot,” she said. “I never miss.” 

            Two of Kadinsky’s henchmen laughed, but Kadinsky maintained his sneer.

            “I detest exaggeration,” he said. “It’s so American.” He grimaced, and his mouth moved as if he was going to spit. He glanced briefly at Katya, and in that moment Nadia knew he cared nothing for her sister.

He turned back to Nadia. “Let’s see if you can really shoot. Give her your pistol,” he said, gesturing to one of the henchmen, the one with a pock-marked face – Pox, she named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.

            Nadia took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Magnum, the classic six-shot. God knows why the guy had it, most Russians preferred semi-autos; he’d probably taken it off an American, or else stolen it from a museum. She checked it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers, then looked to Kadinsky, and saw the other henchman, the one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – his Glock trained on her face, a lopsided leer on his face, daring her. It was tempting, and if she’d known then what she knew now…

            Kadinsky waved a hand towards Katya, seated on the other side of the room, a few metres away.

            “The red rose in the bowl of flowers behind her left ear. Shoot it from where you stand.”

            She watched Slick’s eyes flick towards Katya and gauge the angles. His leer faded.

            She stared at Katya and the rose. It was just to the side of her head. Most of it was actually behind her head. Nadia swallowed and stood in a shooting stance like her father – a marksman himself in his army days – had taught her, right arm firm but elbow not locked, left hand reinforcing the wrist, prepared for the recoil. She lined up the shot, then lowered her arm. She spoke to Katya’s serene, trusting face: “Love you.” Then she raised her arms again, breathed out halfway, held it, and squeezed the trigger.




  1. Giving the reader four instead of two plus two--I like the clarity of the explanation. I facilitate a writers' group in Ohio. This looks like a good post to pass along. Thanks.


© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot