It is very difficult to obtain an independent opinion of ones own stories by asking friends and relatives their views. Generally they do not like to be critical and rarely are they themselves experienced writers who can make pertinent comments on how to improve a story.
As a way of improving writing technique there are few better methods than an independant critique.
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Below is an example of a story together with its critique to give some idea of what you would receive when having one of our critiques.
I was a poor youth: with my wizened arm and the attacks of phlegm, I was of little use to my father. His Smithy needed all the help it could get, and while my brother had helped him from the beginning, I never could. Nothing was said but I could feel my father’s shame and his sorrow. I tried to busy myself helping mother with the animals and the errands but I knew it wasn’t enough. In these hard times after the poor harvests of the last few years everyone needed to work and I was more burden than help until my life changed forever that autumn day when the leaves were first starting to fall from the trees and the Priest came to the Smithy. Often when he passed the Smithy the Priest stopped to sort the world out with my father. Father Swale had taken a liking to me in our occasional conversations just as I had taken a liking to him. He must have seen something in me; something past my wizened arm and my brother’s cast off clothes. That day he offered me work helping him in St. Augustine’s Monastery.
‘We will feed and clothe you, pay you a modicum and if you take to the work we will teach you to read and write.’
‘But I am happy here. I know nothing of Monastery life. with my arm what if I cannot do the work?’
My father said ‘You must go; Father Swale is a good man he will look after you. He would not have asked if he did not think you could do the work.’ This is an opportunity of a better life. You must go.’
My mother and father were overjoyed; both for themselves and for me. Not only would it mean they had one less mouth to feed but I could hold my head up and would no longer be the butt of the village jokes. I went with some apprehension. I knew it was a big change but even then I did not know then what a giant step I was taking; I would see many things and move through a doorway into a very different world, a world not of poverty, hunger and hand me down clothes but of comfort, food and leisure.
Father Swale was a good teacher, I worked hard and I served my apprenticeship for some years before I became Chief Writer when Father Dominic’s hand became too unsteady. I still kept my hobby tending the animals but now I had my own room, the scriptorium, in which I spent many happy hours copying manuscripts and writing letters for the Abbot. The Monastery and the nearby village lay astride the great north road from London to York and the wilder country beyond. Over the years many of the Lords and Ladies riding to and from London had been grateful to break their journey and stay with us overnight and sometimes even longer. On these occasions, the Abbot would offer to show the most important visitors around the Monastery and its grounds. The scriptorium was often part of the tour and without exception the visitors were fulsome in their praise of our work. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, before he became King, stayed in the Abbots quarters several times, on his way to York. Though he never actually visited the scriptorium, and I only saw him from a distance, the Abbot said he praised my work highly.
When I first saw Richard close too he had been King for nearly two years and was on his way to Bosworth Field to fight the rebel, Henry Tudor. Richard was a big man and more impressive in the flesh than I had thought him at the Monastery those years ago. He toyed with his broad sword as if it were weightless. It was as though the strength from his weak arm had passed into his other arm, for that had the strength of both. He was standing on the steps of the Town House in Harborough Market Square, flanked by the banners of England and York. The front of the House, on the north side of the square, was warmed by the rays from the low morning sun and he looked very regal with the sun reflecting on his golden crown. It was only when I was closer that I saw that his armour was specially shaped for his crooked back and his wizened arm.
Even though it was early morning the square was crowded as locals gathered to watch his army march the six miles to Bosworth for the coming battle. I had never experienced the sights and sounds of such an enormous army before, the clattering of shoes on the cobbles and the smell of horses was overpowering. There was a festival atmosphere with jugglers, musicians and street sellers weaving through the crowd. The army was loudly cheered as they marched through the Square. Footsoldiers and cavalry were followed by teams of horses pulling the new heavy cannons. There were gasps of awe at these, I doubt if any had seen them before, and then there were ribald shouts as the baggage wagons and the camp followers strolled across the square.
I had to leave before they all passed. I must be at Bosworth when the King arrived. He had ordered me from the Monastery to be his new Court Scribe; I dare not be late on my first day. I made good time, which was just as well: he called for me not long after. I entered his tent of gold cloth with some trepidation; who would have thought that a poor cripple would one day be spoken to by a king? He was alone in the tent and he spoke to me gently and quickly put me at some ease.
‘Scribe, you have a most important role this day. You are to record the true facts about my kingship. If by God’s grace we win on the morrow then you will write the pamphlets praising God and our victory. If, though unlikely, we do not prevail then you will provide your records to my Lord Buckingham, who will see the truth is told and not the scurrilous lies that it may please Henry to spread’
I took out my paper and ink and standing prepared to write.
‘Sit, buffoon, you cannot write standing; you are allowed to sit in the presence of the King if need be’ he said
‘You will write exactly what I say, exactly mind. Let us start’
He spoke in a deep, authoritive voice.
‘ I was at Middleham Castle carrying out my duties as Protector of the North that day in April in the year of Our Lord, 1483 when the messenger brought the terrible news that Edward, my brother, the King was dead.’
‘I am not going too fast for you am I?’
My arm was aching but all I could mumble was
‘No My Lord.’
‘The news came in the black of early morning by letter from Lord Hastings. He had written - Edward is dead; Queen Elizabeth has called a meeting of the Council to agree the coronation of her son Prince John. If John, the ten year old Prince, became King then there is no doubt whatsoever that the Queen and her Woodville family would rule in his name. I would be a danger to them; even if they let me live, they would ruin me.’
‘Let me see that last part ‘He ordered
‘Change that sentence to – The Woodvilles are not royal they are only Gentry, they could not rule. It was my duty to take charge. There that will sound much better.’
‘There was no time to be lost. We set off before daybreak. The Prince, his younger brother and their Woodville master, Lord Rivers, were already on the road from Ludlow. I had to reach London first or intercept them on the road.’
‘Let me see what you have written so far.’
I showed him my penmanship; I was relieved when he seemed pleased with it. He carried on.
‘We were going too slowly, the roads were full of holes and mud; at this pace we would never catch them. I had to send a rider to my trusted Hastings, to ask if he could slow them down. The return messenger met us at Nottingham. God and Hastings be praised, he had done well; Rivers had stopped for the night at Stoney Stratford. Now it was possible to reach them, but first we had to halt at Northampton, we could go no further that night, the horses were finished.’
He was speaking rapidly: I could not ask him to slow; you did not speak to a King unless he spoke to you so I lifted my hand as though with cramp. The King, a sensitive man slowed down to allow me to catch up; when I was ready he started again.
‘I sent to Rivers suggesting he wait so we could join escorts in Stony Stratford and set off together the following morning. When we reached London I took the Princes through the cheering crowds to my own London house. I would move them to somewhere more secure later. We could now have a Council meeting but this one would be to agree my Protectorate of the underage Prince. As long as I held the Prince there would be no coronation, he would not be crowned and I would be Protector and ruler of England as my brother, King Edward had wished. ‘
‘I particularly want to make sure that part is clear. I will read it later. Now I think we will rest your fingers there, I have work to do. Wait outside’
As I left the tent his commanders joined him; I could hear him through the canvas.
‘I will be in the centre with the cavalry on the right, Buckingham’s men on the left and the Stanleys in reserve. What news of Buckingham? When does he expect to be here?’
I heard the reply ‘He has just set out Sire; he expects to be here later tomorrow.’
I could feel the fury through the tent wall
‘WHAT?’ Richard shouted ‘Get messengers to him, NOW, it could all be over tomorrow.’
‘What news of the Stanleys?’
‘They have arrived Sire and are setting up the reserve lines’
‘God be praised’ Said Richard his voice filled with relief ‘Send your fastest messengers to Buckingham, appraise him of the urgency, there is no time to lose. We need his men now.’
He stormed out of the tent; you could see in his eyes that he was furious with Buckingham.
’Get in here scribe?’ He shouted.
Richard swore ‘Damn I cannot concentrate. Where were we? ‘Ah, yes change ‘As long as I held him….to He would be safe under my protection.’ Then continue with - I transferred the Princes to the Tower for their safekeeping. Unfortunately the plague took them; it was particularly bad that year. We had to bury them in lime. With them out of the way No change that to - After their sad loss I was the rightful hereditary King and later that year I was crowned in Westminster. My first task was to improve the administration and replace the incompetent servants of the Woodvilles with my own people.’
It was difficult not to let my feelings show for the news was abroad that Richard had had the Princes murdered.
Richard said. ‘Now even after two years of stability and good rule we are here at Bosworth, about to fight off another challenger to my birthright. Henry, the bastard, the illegitimate son of my father, comes to claim what he thinks is his inheritance. Well however many soldiers he brings here to Bosworth he will not take the Crown from me. I will fight him to the end however bloody that may be.’’ Do not write that Scribe.’ I nodded for, as I said, you do not speak to a King until spoken to.
‘Before the battle tomorrow I want to see two perfect copies, with no crossing out, and I want you to guard it with your life.
That was the last time he spoke to me. Henry’s attack started before Buckingham’s troops had arrived and when the treacherous Stanleys refused to move from the reserve Richard was in a desperate situation being beaten back towards where I and his household stood. I saw his final charge, with his House Carls he drove through the lines directly at Henry himself. It was Richard’s last act: he almost reached Henry but he was struck down by a mighty blow to the head rending his crown in two. Such a cry went up when he fell under the trampling hooves: it was as though the world had stopped at that very moment. Both sides backed away from Richard’s shattered body as a quiet descended over the whole of Bosworth Field, even the horses seemed to know it was the end. Dismounting, Henry was the first to move: he strode forward and with one blow severed Richard’s head and lifted it into the air. The battle was over; Richard’s troops turned and fled the field while Henry placed Richard’s head on a pikestaff and held it aloft for all to see. Henry ordered the head and body to be buried in unconsecrated ground. Buried in secret, so that no one would ever find him: All that is left are the two perfect scrolls; but who now wants Richard’s truth when they have Henry’s?
Henshaw Writing Critique
Thank you for sending your story to us. The Judges views are as follows:
Story Idea: Interesting - letting us hear ' Richard, the child murderer's' story from his own lips.
Structure, pace & plotting: You open with the narrator, (un-named), and for the first page this appears to be his story. You then introduce King Richard III and rather out of nowhere the narrator is appointed as his scribe, at which point the focus shifts to Richard. Richard then lays out his rather unconvincing 'truth' and goes off to a battle we know he will lose.
The key issue is that change of focus. We invest in the narrator's struggles, only to find that he all but disappears halfway through the story. My suggestion is that you need to decide whose story this is.
If it is Richard's story, (told by the narrator), Richard needs to come in earlier. Keep the focus on Richard and his internalisations as he dictates.
There is also a weakness in that the central revelations of the story are related, rather than actively shown. One way round this could be flashbacks - though you would then need to switch to Richard's POV.
If this is the narrator's story, then okay, fill in his essential back story, but more importantly, have him actively involved with plenty of internalised thoughts about what Richard is telling him as he writes. Have him running from the battle, struggling to safeguard these scrolls, and thereby heighten the tension and the sense of hopeless futility in the ending.
In either case, perhaps open right in the action, with Richard and the scribe already in the tent?
POV / Voice: The narrator's first person voice gives us the potential for intimacy which isn't really exploited. There is little sense of strong emotion from him. The voice is clear, but distant. I want him to feel more.
Characters / Character development: Even if this is not the narrator's story, he's certainly significant. We know all about his childhood, but don't know his name. This makes it much harder to relate to him. Please, give him a name.
We follow his journey from failing blacksmith to King's scribe. To that extent there is a character arc, but it is rather unsatisfying, primarily because everything happens to him. Generally, we relate more easily to 'active' characters. It would perhaps be better if he sought out Father Swale's and Richard's attention, if he played some part in his own destiny. It would also add pathos to the ultimate futility of his finest work?
Richard comes across as what we already know he is, a brave soldier and child murderer. There is no real arc. Nothing that surprises me. Perhaps he could tell an utterly convincing heartfelt tale of how, despite his best efforts, the Princes died of fever. Use the narrator's internalisations to help me believe him. Make his death a tragedy, (and by extension, the rejection of his truth).
Writing Technique / Dialogue / Language: You lay out the story clearly, which is harder than people think. Your language is appropriate to the setting and you don't waste words with unnecessary purple prose. Also, I can see your scenes, although as mentioned, I don't really relate to your narrator.
Your dialogue is mixed.
'Sit buffoon...' is rather good, and brings Richard to life. Often though your dialogue feels as though it's simply there to serve the plot, (of course it is, but it shouldn't feel like that).
'We will feed you clothe you...' the narrator's response, and that whole section of opening dialogue is very flat. Dialogue is an opportunity to develop character, (as well as move the story). In order to write good dialogue you need to know your character. This particularly applies to the narrator. Would he ask for the job? Would he shock them by speaking out of turn? Would he reject the initial offer, and for example demand to learn his letters now?
Summary: This is a well laid out story, with a strong closing line, and I feel that if you can decide whose story this is, everything else will flow from there.
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