The Legacy Competition
Displayed below is the Orion critique of the opening chapters of Out of This Word
, the winning entrant in The Legacy
competition. The critique is by senior Orion Commissioning Editor Sara O'Keeffe. Sara commissioned The Legacy
after it was read on YouWriteOn.com by fellow Orion editor Natalie Braine when members rated its opening chapters into the top ten for a free professional critique by Orion. The Legacy has become a top seller in bookstores this year and won the public vote for this year's TV Book Club Summer Reads. Out of This World
by L Willocks View opening chapters
Professional critique by Senior Commissioning Editor Sara O'Keeffe
Firstly, many congratulations on winning the Youwriteon competition. I can honestly say that it was a pleasure to read your work. I enjoyed your voice immensely. You have harnessed a deceptively relaxed style of writing that hides a good deal of skill. This is what editors mean when they talk about a commercial style of writing – it's accessible and highly readable, two things publishers very much like to see these days. So before I go any further and begin my more structured critique, I want to say that I see potential in your work and would, at the very least, encourage you to keep going.
Readership and market positioning:
Although I enjoyed reading the material you submitted, it did leave me with a number of questions – ones I hope you'll want to explore. Firstly, I struggled to grasp who the readership is for this work. That may seem like a fairly obtuse question, but from a publishing industry stand-point it is absolutely key. Whenever an editor assesses a work, almost the first question they will ask themselves is whether they think there is a clearly identifiable readership for the text. Can the publisher be confident they know who the target market is? If there is any uncertainty around core readership, publishers become very cautious indeed. In this instance, I wasn't absolutely sure who this work is aimed at. The main character is twenty, beyond her teens – and yet this didn't quite read to me like an adult novel. That sense of the fantastical that you explore in these pages suggests a younger readership. The conceit of invisibility is something I very much associate with young adult literature, plus in the first few paragraphs you reference several children's novels. Had you intended this to be a young adult novel? If so, then I would suggest you might want to think about a slightly younger main character – perhaps a girl of seventeen? As things stand, I worry the narrative slightly falls between two stools. Portia's life is too adult for teenagers to relate to wholeheartedly ( she's living independently in a flat, no parents in sight etc) and yet she seems too young to attract a broad range of adult readers. From a publishing perspective, that makes market positioning problematic. One could argue that a good book is a good book and such divisions are petty and pointless, but unfortunately retailers are obsessed with category. Walk into any bookshop and you'll see immediately what I mean. The adult, young adult and children's sections are zoned very differently and will attract completely different readers. If a retailer doesn't know where to put your book, you can guarantee it won't get the attention it deserves. Anything that you can do to place your work clearly within a specific category – in terms of age or genre (ideally both)-- will help a publisher to embrace your work because they can be confident of selling it. Perhaps you might consider sign-posting early on in the material what kind of story you are offering readers. This can of course be supported with a strong submission letter benchmarking for the publisher exactly what kind of story you have set out to write and who it might best appeal to.
By the time I reached the end of the supplied material, I had a strong sense that you wished to explore the concept of multiple universes, of alternate realities and how these realities intersect with our own. That went some way to clearing up the mystery of Portia's invisibility syndrome. However, for much of the narrative I rather struggled with this concept. I wasn't absolutely sure what you wished to convey here. Is it simply that Portia is shy and easily overlooked, or is the syndrome meant quite literally – that people actually cannot see her. I flip-flopped back and forth on this, not entirely sure what you wished the reader to intuit. I would encourage you to clarify the fact that this syndrome is meant literally as well as figuratively. Otherwise readers won't know quite what to think and may ultimately become frustrated with this.
In a sense, one could argue that the invisibility syndrome highlights a broader issue in the material: in order to explore the idea of alternate worlds, you first have to establish a sense of normality – a kind of benchmark against which less mundane events can be measured. That means giving readers a taste of normal everyday life so that they have something of an anchor, to contrast with the more fantastical elements of the storytelling. This is something I would encourage you to look at in some detail. I would have liked to get a stronger sense of Portia as a girl out of step with her world, of her sense of difference and otherness. Instead, Portia seems to fit right in (despite the fact that we're told she doesn't). Every creature Portia encounters – from her cat to her best friend at the ice cream shop is somehow quirky and off-beat. There's no sense of Portia standing apart from others. For instance, the two descriptions offered about Tammy refer to her ability to electrocute people with her hugs and her obsession with putting tomato ketchup on everything. I would urge some caution here. Tammy could easily come across as self-consciously whimsical - more a character concept that an actual character. Not only does this undermine the authenticity of Tammy as a character, but it means we have nothing with which to contrast Portia's character. The only other character we meet in these pages are Dr Frankenstein, the strange man who seems to follow Portia about. He certainly isn't going to supply that sense of normality. Instead, I would suggest you work on Tammy's character, toning her down and making her more conventionally 'normal'. I also think you might consider looking at the early section of the material and working to establish a stronger sense of the mundane – of everyday life in action. Then – bam – we have a spectacular contrast between that and the odd nature of Portia's invisibility syndrome and the unsettling stranger who enters her life. That kind of contrast could be very useful.
Foreboding and suspense:
I really liked Dr Frankenstein as a character. He is oddly charismatic but also quite unnerving, which is a very potent combination. I did think you could make more of him simply by instilling a stronger sense of foreboding into the scenes in which Portia meets him. Again, this has to do with establishing a sense of normality before you set about eroding it away. Portia doesn't seem all that alarmed or frightened by this strange man – but surely any girl in her shoes would be? Can we see Portia becoming increasingly scared of him, at least in the early stages, until they've spoken? Not only would this make Portia's behaviour more believable, but it would also help to inject a stronger sense of dramatic tension and suspense into the narrative. Portia doesn't seem all that surprised or alarmed by anything that happens in these pages – it's as though she's expecting it. But of course if we are to believe in Portia as a character, then we need to believe that these events are as new and shocking/thrilling for her as they are for the reader. In fact, the reader will look to Portia for a cue as to how to feel about events as they unfold. If she's rather blasé about events, then the reader is likely to be too, and that would be a shame. There's tonnes of opportunity in these pages to inject a much stronger sense of suspense. I would encourage you to think about that as much as possible.
The Cat's POV:
Finally, I just wanted to mention that the section written from the cat's point of view is a really very good piece of writing – it's elegant and controlled, without being self-conscious or too try-hard. I found it quite enthralling and beautifully crafted. I couldn't tell from these pages where the cat's POV fits into the narrative as a whole – it did seem somewhat out of step with the rest of the material. However, it is a rather wonderful piece of writing so I hope you manage to weave it in successfully.
I've covered a lot of ground here in these notes but I do hope some of my suggestions / questions prove useful or illuminating to you. There is real potential in your writing and I would encourage you to keep going. Do spend some time thinking about what kind of readership you want for your work. This is a difficult task and something writers must re-assess again and again throughout their careers. But once you know for certain who your ideal readers are, you can begin to craft your work with them specifically in mind. And remember – whatever age they may be, it's important to establish a sense of normality before you begin to take it apart in order to explore other worlds (what an exciting endeavour!). I wish you the very best of luck with it.
Sara O' Keeffe
Senior Commissioning Editor
This post was last edited by ProfessionalCritique, 30 Oct 2010, 09:49