Fire daughter, By Charlotte Dickens

Comments for the Writers' Workshop

This is a sample based on a recent original report.  Names, places and themes have been altered to protect the author's privacy. Large sections of the report have been deleted to keep the length manageable. Deletions are indicated by square brackets.

Fire Daughter is an intelligently written and meticulously plotted book with a very topical theme and an authoritative voice.  It’s not quite science fiction/fantasy as you have taken contemporary scientific developments and simply followed one of the numerous possible scenarios to create your own highly plausible narrative.  The moral dilemmas surrounding the science versus nature debate, IVF, cloning, surrogacy etc, are explored within a convincing fictional framework.  You have included just the right amount of scientific detail for the reader to be assured they are in a safe pair of authorial hands, without risking them being overwhelmed by extraneous details.  I was fascinated and intrigued and it’s true to say that I have rarely been so absorbed by an unpublished MS. 

There are some fundamental flaws in this draft, but they are not going to be hard to deal with.  It’s interesting that most of the self-conscious stylistic problems are far more prevalent in the earlier chapters.  It feels to me that once you had embarked on the real story you are telling, the prose flows much better and the rhythm improves.  To a certain extent, once I was absorbed by the story, it may be that the previous issues were still there but I was less aware of them, but it’s also true without question that the MS improves as it goes on. 

Your main challenge now is to ensure that right from the first lines anyone reading the MS won’t be able to resist reading on.  The opening lines and pages of a book are vital for drawing your reader in and letting them know what to expect if they read on.  It wasn’t at all clear to me what the intrinsic nature of the book was going to be until at least page 22.  This is far too late in the narrative.  The previous pages all consist of introducing us to Carrie and Gustav and establishing the nature of their relationship and their personalities.  In other words, the function of these pages is for scene and character setting but they have no useful role in actually drawing us into the narrative and moving it forward. 

You need to reveal their characters through ‘show, not tell’.  You may find it useful to check out the Writers’ Workshop free advice pages for explanations of this and other style issues.  Scroll down to the How to Write – Fiction pages.
http://writersworkshop.co.uk/resources.shtml

What this means in terms of your opening pages, is that you need to start in Sweden, revealing their characters in the way they react to the situation you have placed them in ie the story itself, which begins with the discovery of Careena. 

As an additional problem, the standard of writing in those first pages is nowhere near as good as in the rest of the MS.  This is a major issue.  The brutal truth is that agents receive such a plethora of unsolicited MSes that they tend to glance at the first lines and make an instant judgment whether or not to read on.  They base this decision on 2 factors: first of all whether the prose flows well and there is a clear and compelling authorial voice and secondly if there is a hook to draw them into the story itself.  In this draft, neither is in place and I’m convinced they will not get as far in as they need to in order to realise what an excellent book you have written.

It’s far from unusual for an author to over-write (especially opening chapters) in this way in a first draft.  These early sections consist of information that you needed as the author, in order for you to get to know your characters and their setting and therefore be able to convincingly convey them.  The point is that once you have established them clearly enough your own mind to do that, the reader doesn’t need this superfluous information.

Re style problems on your first page, for example, three of your first four sentences begin with She …
Also, So many thoughts clambered for her attention; they hammered at the door of her conscious rumination.
I will go into more detail below re the need to simplify the prose, but I can assure you that that sentence alone would probably be enough to persuade an agent that it’s not worth them reading more.  Although I’ve suggested you delete all the early pages in order to get into the narrative sooner, as an example of how to rewrite that sentence, you could instead say:
Thoughts clamoured for attention, hammering at the door of her consciousness. (Though personally, I wouldn’t simplify this even more.)
 
By its very nature, this process is of course subjective.  My suggestions in this report should be divided into 3 categories:  those where you can see that implementing them are definite improvements (you may even have been aware yourself on some level that those areas were problematic), those you definitely disagree with (which is your prerogative as the author – but I recommend you still give them some thought to ensure you can justify them) and those you’d like to discuss further. 

Structure

Overall, you have employed a linear chronological structure written in the past tense.  This is ideal for your purpose and ensures you have few problems with inserting confusing back story or distorting your timeline.

Very occasionally, you stray from the chronology.  For example, on page 170 – when does she read this email?  Why is it inserted here at this point in the narrative?  You need to unfold events so that the reader experiences them at the same time as the characters.  In other words, she needs to read it on page 173 at the beginning of the chapter where you also need to set the scene by showing Carrie and Gustav in the office together. 

Your transitions between scenes are often too abrupt.  You need to insert a link sentence or phrase (eg A week later, back at …) so that the reader always knows where they are in the narrative.  I have pointed out in the detailed section below where this is the case.

[….]

Plot

You may find this easier to think of in terms of narrative drive ie every scene has to have a vital function in driving your narrative forward.

Many of the following are minor problems with the plot, but still need to be dealt with in my opinion if you are going to get this MS to the best it possibly can be and maximise your chances of success.

  • Once Albert and Carrie start to uncover Careena, the pace picks up and you have conveyed the tension and suspense very effectively.  I do however think you need to justify Albert being given the frozen body in this way.  If a crime was a possibility, would the authorities really just hand the evidence over to him?
  • The strand re Loretta (see below re characters) and her relationships with Gustav and Andrew is very much a sub-plot.  I don’t think it adds anything at all to your overall narrative and is not in any way tied into your themes.  Each time these scenes appear, they feel distracting. 
  • [… - further 12 bullet points deleted]

 

Characters

In general, you need to ensure you have conveyed your characters by ‘show not tell’ ie they have to reveal their nature by their responses to the situations you put them in, not by long passages where you describe their characteristics.

Carrieis extremely cold and calculating initially, but there seems little in her upbringing or her relationship with her parents to justify such lack of empathy or social skills.  Without this justification, it is hard to identify with her.  We don’t necessarily have to like her but we do need to care about what happens to her and that can only happen if we have an understanding of how she came to be so cold and distant.  Perhaps Jens can accuse her of having been the favoured child whose needs were always put first?

To take this a stage further, once you have decided on this justification, I think it would be more powerful (and seem more in character) if she had never had any maternal urges at all prior to seeing Careena.  She could then agree to the implanting of the blastocyst purely on scientific grounds.  She could still have been aware of her own body rhythms, as she is quite a control freak in many ways.  This scenario would give a very satisfying conflict for her as the bonding process would take her completely by surprise.

You’re absolutely right to make her complex and not 2 dimensional, but at times she does seem a little contradictory eg page 67 when she feels guilty about not telling Gustav about Careena.  On page 151, I felt she would initially be in denial assuming the pregnancy wouldn’t happen – the logical assumption.  Yet here she is assuming the opposite, which undermines the tension.  On this page her motivation is unclear – is it purely scientific?  Or does the urge to reproduce (at any potential cost?) take precedence.  This would be solved if you agree with my suggestion above.  On page 201, you say she is attracted to the concept of giving and sharing, but this seems out of character. 

On the other hand, the developments on page 258 are very convincing.  This new aspect of her character feels as though it has come as a direct result of the journey she has taken, so doesn’t feel contradictory.

[… - Further detailed comments on other characters]

Style

  • When you begin any scene, you need to decide whose point of view (POV) it is written in and not switch POV within that scene.  In other words, if you’re writing a scene from Carrie’s POV, you shouldn’t go inside the heads of the other people appearing in the scene.  You can describe their body language, expression, tone of voice etc as she would be able to see these but not their thoughts or motivations etc. 
  • As I’ve already said, you need to simplify your prose.  Short words are often more effective than polysyllabic ones eg on page 5 you say the door is now automatic its influence on its passengers rendered impotent.  This is really clunky and uses several words to convey nothing of any relevance to the narrative, including atmosphere.  To be honest, it feels like the author showing how clever they are, whereas that needs to (and does!) come over clearly in your skilful story-telling.  This use of language actually undermines this impression rather than the reverse.  

On page 51 there is another example when Carrie is in the shower Lathering the soap to its fullest potential …

  • In addition, many of your sentences are long and complex, with several sub-clauses.  For example, on page 67, the sentence at the top beginning Carrie reacquainted herself … is 4 lines long and attempts to convey too much information.  As a result it feels confusing and conveys very little.  

[… - Numerous further points on style].

 

I will now go through the whole MS, pointing out issues as they arise.  As I have already said, I think you need to radically change the beginning.  I would start with Carrie and Gustav at the conference and Albert hearing about the discovery.  Then go straight to page 27 when they go to see Albert.  Choose whose POV this scene is going to be in – I suggest Carrie’s – and stick to it throughout the scene.  Reveal the characters through their actions and reactions.

Page 32 – no sound … all morning … If this is Carrie’s POV, she can’t know that.

Carrie felt no desire to discourage … eg of clunky sentence.

Page 34 – the first para re her mobile distorts the timeline and is distracting.  Tighten and substitute:
She decided not to call Gustav back yet.  Instead she switched the phone off …

[… - Further detailed close notes on the entire MS]