As part of my Guest blog series for authors and fellow bloggers I am proud to present another guest blog spot.Exile (The Nandor Tales Book 1) I am very excited andthe author of
Exile (The Nandor Tales Book 1)
is out NOW!
So go grab a copy!
What I look for when I’m critiquing
by Martin Owton
I’m aiming this post squarely at aspiring writers (if you’ve got books out, or have representation then I hope you’ll agree with a decent proportion of this). You’ve got the first draft of a manuscript, or are getting close or maybe it’s just a few chapters, but you’ve heard talk of beta readers and critique partners, seen notifications of writers’ workshops, and wondered how your precious baby would fare.
I’ve done a lot of critiquing. I’ve probably read 30 whole novels for critique within my writers group (the London-based T-Party Writers) and with other critique partners. I’ve run writing workshops at Eastercon, Nineworlds and at Loncon, the 2014 World SF Con where we invite writers to submit their opening chapters for discussion.
So let us imagine your precious baby is open on my computer screen. What would I be looking for?
The basics – Is your manuscript laid out properly? Did you single space it? Put an extra line between paragraphs? Well don’t.
If you don’t know how to lay out a manuscript then find out, start here: http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/01/05/format-your-novel-for-submission/
Is your dialogue correctly punctuated? It seems there are people who can read books and still not know how dialogue is punctuated. Don’t be one of them. Read a book, any book, even my book and see how it is done.
Point of view – Are you in control of your point of view? The vast majority of fantasy books are written in first person or close third person. “I did this” “I saw that” is first person; an example is Mark Lawrence’s excellent Prince of Thorns. The story is viewed through the eyes of Jorg Ancrath; you hear his thoughts and know what he knows. You cannot know what characters are thinking, and you cannot see what Jorg does not see. There is no other viewpoint in the book.
GRR Martin’s ASOIF series is an example of close third person. Each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a single character. You see through their eyes and know their thoughts. “Tyrion did this”, “Cersei thought that”. The choice of POV character should be whoever has the best view of events or most at stake in the scene. If you need to change point of view then made a section break and establish whose point of view is depicted in the new scene as quickly as possible.
A variation on this is remote third person – the camera in the sky – which you can use to depict events without having a POV character. This can be used sparingly in an otherwise close third person book, but be aware that it distances the reader from the characters. What you can’t do is move around a scene showing the thoughts of multiple characters. This is head-hopping or POV shifting; I’m told this is acceptable in romance, but it will earn you my displeasure.
There are books written from omniscient POV, but I do not recommend it as is difficult to pull off and very easily slides into the narrator telling the reader what to think.
The story – Is there something interesting going on in the opening pages? Do you have your central character wandering through spring meadows looking at the new lambs for 3 pages or 5 pages of a desperate sword fight between two warriors? Either can be equally as bad an opening. In the first case, unless these are zombie lambs, there is no conflict or problem and nothing to make me turn the page. In the second, if I don’t know who is fighting and what the stakes are then I don’t care about the outcome. I am not engaged in the story and equally unwilling to turn the page.
This brings me to the second important point; does your story start in the right place? It can be that your opening chapters are scaffolding; essential for you to get into the story, but removable once the story is finished as they are not part of it. Does the conflict develop through the opening chapters? Or does the next chapter jump to a different POV before any progress is made, followed by a third chapter from yet another POV? The key thing is to make enough progress that the reader is engaged before changing POV. GRRM does this very well but it is tough to know when you’ve given the reader enough of the story, if in doubt give more rather than less. I expect that by the end of the sample chapters a plot will have started to emerge, that we see which mountain the protagonists think they have to climb, even if they end up doing something else.
Point the third: Do your main characters make decisions that drive the plot? Or do they just react as stuff happens to them? The protagonists should drive the plot. If they don’t you may well have chosen to write about the wrong characters.
Your World – So by the end of the opening chapters there’s a clear plot developing – good! Let’s look a bit at the world you’ve created for the story. It is very tempting to pile all the world-building you’ve done in at the front of the novel. Don’t! Tell the reader as much as they need to know to understand the story, otherwise you risk killing the pacing. Settlements in this world are built where they are for good reasons – two rivers meet, trade route crosses river, good natural harbour etc – is this true in your world? I once read a published novel where a major city was in the middle of a vast swamp reached by a single causeway; my reaction was “what do the inhabitants live on? Where is their source of clean water?” Seriously, these things make you look ridiculous if they’re not thought about. You have magic users in your world? Are they in charge of everything? If not, why not? Your central character can read and write? Who taught them? Who maintains the roads? Who built the bridges? All this and more needs to be considered, but it doesn’t all have to be on the page. Provided you can convince your reader that you’ve got all this worked out then only a small part needs to be shown where it affects the story.
Got all this nailed? Good, then your chapters would impress me and should impress any agent or editor you send it to. I might even forward it to my agent (though he has never taken on anything I’ve recommended to him). That isn’t the end of the game, of course. You have to sustain this quality for the whole manuscript ensuring the plot doesn’t run out of gas, the characters are changed by events, the pacing doesn’t sag and the end makes sense and satisfies.
Martin Owton is the author of the Nandor Tales series: book 1 ‘Exile’, described as “wonderfully old-school epic adventure fare” is available in hardback from the publisher http://shop.ticketyboopress.co.uk/index.php?id_product=100&controller=product
or in Kindle format from Amazon (UK) https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01ECLUSSG/ref=pe_2653611_143111801_em_1p_0_ti
Book 2 will be available later this year.
His website is at www.martinowton.com
Exile (The Nandor Tales Book 1)
‘The Exile of Darien’ is a fast-moving tightly-plotted fantasy adventure story with a strong thread of romance
Aron of Darien, raised in exile after his homeland is conquered by a treacherous warlord, makes his way in the world on the strength of his wits and skill with a sword. Both are sorely tested when he is impressed into the service of the Earl of Nandor to rescue his heir from captivity in the fortress of Sarazan. The rescue goes awry. Aron and his companions are betrayed and must flee for their lives. Pursued by steel and magic, they find new friends and old enemies on the road that leads, after many turns, to the city of the High King. There Aron must face his father’s murderer before risking everything in a fight to the death with the deadliest swordsman in the kingdom.
“A wonderful story of intrigue, romance and duels, brushed, here and there, by the fingers of a goddess.”– Peadar Ó Guilín, author of The Inferior.