Enemy on the Bridge, By Jack Austen

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.

You definitely have skill as a storyteller. There’s vitality in this story, and high drama. The sense of danger builds in a satisfying way in some sections of the book. I very much like your short chapter arrangement – that works well (so long as you stick to one point of view at a time). In some places, this book rattles along, because the over-arching plot is first rate – or it would be, if you could go the extra mile and tie up the loose ends of the story at the finish. The plotline of Alan is excellent, and the financial scam of his uncle is also very good, with all motivations properly placed – I just wanted it to be uncluttered from points of view that are not central to it. I was fascinated to learn about the Indian rituals and customs, when they were embedded properly in the storyline. I loved the Indian names. Similarly, the Civil War actions are very interesting – but only when they are shown through the point of view of the characters we care about. I liked seeing Pine Hole developing and getting its own newspaper etc. I also think that you have chosen a subject that will particularly appeal to the big market for historical fiction. But this book could also tempt the elusive male reader. With these comments alone you should be very pleased. I don’t often get to write such a positive paragraph in my job as an editor.

My job is to point out areas where improvements are possible, so this report will necessarily focus on the weaknesses rather than the strengths of your novel. If you do not agree with my assessments, I hope that at least you will not be offended by them. Having put so much of yourself into this work, I can imagine that it might be hard to read criticisms. But I hope you will take them in the spirit in which I have written them: with respect for your writing and research. You are at a turning point with this book: you could really transform this material into a publishable novel. But I am afraid that you will need to do as much work as you have already done, and in some ways harder work, in order to pull it into a shape that would appeal to an agent or editor.

I do have some serious issues with the writing techniques which, I feel, are actually undermining the story. My biggest issues are with too great a cast of characters with a lack of depth in the central characterization, a failure of discipline re Point of View, a problem with telling rather than showing, and a tendency to repeat things more than twice, to the eventual irritation and possible alienation of the reader. There is also too much non-fiction padding out this book. (You could look at this last positively – as cuts are needed, this is an easy thing to cut.) This novel could be deeply touching as well as pacy: a number of things need to be done in order to achieve that. I also have problems with the lack of commas to separate subordinate phrases: clarity is severely compromised by this. (Once clarity is compromised, so is the reader’s concentration and engagement). There are also certain technical matters (spelling, punctuation and repetition) that also require rigorous attention before you should present this manuscript to an agent or a publisher.

The most important thing for a novelist to do is to create a character or characters with whom the reader will be happy to pass many hours, whose situation will arouse tenderness or anger in the reader – basically, with whom the reader will choose to have an engaged emotional relationship.

The more a reader is ‘let in’ to the mind of a character, the more the reader thrills to the story, the more the reader invests in it, and the more satisfying a read the novel becomes. The reader ‘imprints’ like a gosling on the interior life of the first character they are really able to identify with. Then, when a new character is introduced, the reader must be induced to identify with him or her too. Or to hate him or her.

You have set yourself a cast of hundreds to work with. This is almost suicidal for a writer trying to engage a reader. A reader cannot be expected to engage with a mob. A reader wants individuals: living, breathing individuals. No writer can bring more than a dozen characters truly to life in a single novel, in my opinion. Certainly, there can be lots of minor characters, so long as they are vividly and unforgettably sketched. But it is just impossible for a reader to concentrate on and bond with such a large cast.

You need to work out who is important to the story and focus on those people. Then there is a simple piece of advice that will help you enormously: you need to interpret every scene through the eyes of just one of those characters. Each chapter must be told through A SINGLE POINT OF VIEW, the point of view of the person most affected by it.

Just doing this is going to entail a lot of work, but all the effort will be to the good, because it will enable you to cut a lot of padding and repetition, and to hone your skills with characterization all at the same time.
 [… - Further extensive comments on characterisation issues]
PoV – point of view.
As I mentioned earlier, my biggest problem with this book is the ‘fluttering’ of the points of view. You start paragraphs in one person’s consciousness and then break into another’s. I see that you are aiming to convey the delicate nuance of some situations in this way, but unfortunately, you are simply damaging the reader’s concentration and commitment to the characters.

Look at para 2 on page 51 … starts in Justin, ends in Constance. There is interior monologue in Justin’s head.

You need to decide with each of your characters exactly where you, the writer, are positioned. Are you writing from inside their heads? Are you looking at them from the outside as an omniscient impartial narrator? Is the first part of the book principally inside Constance’s PoV? Or Eliza’s?  If you want to make a mystery of Constance’s morality, then you could write this part of the novel from someone else’s point of view entirely  – you have that choice. But once you make the choice to be in her head, then you have to be clear about what she is thinking at all times.

Your ability to stay in PoV and express this story through different characters could be the real strength of this book: choosing judiciously which character should carry which bit of the plot (given their own knowledge, character, courage etc) could make the whole fibre of the novel much stronger.  It could make each moment of danger more compelling, each tender moment more touching.

For example, I began to lose interest in the storyline around page 60 of the first section – the reason was because you kept generalizing – referring to the anonymous ‘some’ or ‘many’. This is very distancing and off-putting for the reader. You should choose which character has most to fear or enjoy about this section of the book and show everything through his or her eyes. This will force you to abandon the little pockets of dry-sounding non-fiction.
[… - Further detailed comments]

Plot and moving the story along
I have great praise for your basic plot idea and I am quite impressed with your pacing in the first fifty pages. The Windy Creek massacre is handled very well. But there are far too many longueurs. The book is not only physically long but also feels far too long. I mainly lost interest when you forgot to put the scenes in a specific point of view. Fixing that will help the pacing a lot because readers will more easily stay engaged with a character’s experience than with pages of historical information or pages when they simply have no idea who is relating the incident. But there is more work to be done: there is a bit too much padding and repetition: these things are preventing the book from reading smoothly. There is also too much landscape description holding up the plot.

Of course you have the problem of scene-setting and background to deal with. But this is where your skill as a writer comes in: CHOOSING what to bring forward, where to pare down so that the storyline is clear and compelling and not cluttered up with static scenes and static, repetitive conversations.

To me, the main interesting storyline is that of Eagle/Dahlia/Sitting Bear. That is the one that will interest readers. It entails a mystery, various murders, an accident, a clash of cultures, misunderstandings  –  thereby it offers everything a reader might want out of a book like this. I feel that you need to keep that story always in sight, and that there should be more sections from Bear’s point of view and Louis’ too.
[… - Further detailed plot comments]

I think that your title is too much of a cliché.

It will not capture the attention of an editor or an agent as it says nothing specific about your story. It will herald/indicate that this is a book in which cliché plays a big role. This is dangerous, as people may dismiss the book by the title alone.

Keeping up a sense of excitement in your timing
Avoid overuse of phrases like:
Less than two minutes later
It was not long before
You need to make each change of timing sound fresh and exciting.
These phrases also detract from freshness and are overused: it had not taken long for her and it wouldn’t be long before. They sound unspecific and more like a synopsis than a part of a novel.

Language and tone
This is an issue all historical novelists face. Do you try to recreate an authentic language of the past in the dialogue or interior monologues of your characters? Alison Fell did this very successfully in her novel The Mistress of Lilliput.

Or do you create a subtle pastiche, that gives a flavour of the past without tripping the reader up with words and phrases that are difficult to understand? This is the tack taken by writers like Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity).

You have mostly chosen to use ‘pastiche’ so your characters use some old-fashioned constructions. And I feel that mostly you are convincing the reader of a story set in the mid-nineteenth century.

However, every so often you use some modern-sounding phrases that burst the carefully constructed historical bubble. This overly colloquial or modern slangy language sounds anachronistic in a 2009 street-talk way. Or doesn’t work in the voice of the character. You need to replace all the following:
[… - Further very detailed comments] 

Sex Scenes

Humour and surprise

Trusting the reader
There are several points that are reiterated so many times in the book that it becomes a little insulting to the reader. Given that all these points are interesting/crucial to the plot, you can afford to state them JUST once, or even better, embody them in a scene and trust the reader to take the point. The more the reader is TOLD these things, the more mutinous the reader feels, possibly thinking ‘Does she think I am stupid?’

That I didn’t get this the first time she told me? OR ‘Is this writer so insecure that she has to keep saying the same thing over and over again, in very slightly different ways, or from the mouths of different characters?’

Summing up in advance or in retrospect
You also have a tendency to have your characters sum up unnecessarily. When it is done retroactively, this has the effect of patronizing the reader who has certainly ‘got it’ already, and may be subliminally annoyed to have something checked off for them again. […]

I think that you could do more to conjure the flavours and smells of the past.  When re-reading each scene, I suggest you consider what each of the five senses are doing at that moment. What does Pemmican smell like? What do the Indians think that white people smell like? What does a roach or a beechclout look like? Explain what the tongue of a wagon is.

Showing and not telling
Many times your characters assert something important or visceral, or your narrator does, and the reader has nothing else to go on but this statement. The reader would be far more convinced if they could read between the lines and understand these things integrally. An unforgettable image, a powerful picture of your characters physically illustrating the point you want to get across, would have a far greater impact than being told the same thing repeatedly.

As soon as a character is emotionally established in the reader’s mind, the writer has less work to do: the reader will know instinctively how the characters feel in situations.  

The Writers Workshop have published a little online tutorial about showing not telling … have a look on their website


Your tendency to tell, not show, has another side effect, which is to make certain paragraphs feel like synopses, rather than living, breathing parts of the story.

Technical details
I would suggest that you start a new page with each chapter. I know you are trying to make this book look shorter than it is, but at the moment it is hard to see where a chapter finishes, especially as the chapter headings are so small. So it is a false economy. I would also suggest that you put the chapter headings in a larger font – if you are going to keep them.

I would in fact argue that the chapter headings are not necessary and that numbers would be better. I had a lot of issues tonally with them – it is where you seem to feel the need to use cliché. They often sound flippant, which is out of tone with the book. These days it is mostly children’s novels that give chapters a name. Even Young Adult novels have largely abandoned chapter titles. Much more important is that each of the chapters is in the point of view of one character that we care about.

Tautology and redundancy
It is very easy to fall into the trap of using unnecessary words.  The whining sound of the sawmill could so easily be ‘The whining of the sawmill’. Why not simplify? You may think this is a minor issue, but attention to this kind of detail is one of the many things that separate an amateur writer from a professional one.

First section, look at pages 5 and 6 … check for how many times you mention dirt, dust and mud.
Look at page 26 of the second section. Harkin arrives and you say that the women besiege him, all anxious to know about their husbands. Then two lines later, Eliza says, the ladies and I are anxious to know how our husbands are
          Or page 65 of part 1 – bottom – Laura says twice in four lines that her son is more like his father than she thought.
Or look at this on page 87 of part 2

Typographical errors
There are numerous typos in this MS and you must correct them before you submit it to an agent or an editor. Here is a sample list. If proof-reading is not your forte, I suggest you hire a copy-editor to do this, once you have completed your structural editing.

You regularly use ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’.
You several times use ‘curtsey call’ instead of ‘courtesy call’.
You invariably say ‘ideally’ instead of ‘idly’. (In fact, all your ‘idly thought’s  seem mostly quite inappropriate to me, being at times of stress. I wonder if even ‘idly’ is what you really mean in all these cases.)
Be careful of quiet/quite – they are very often wrong

This needs correcting on every page.

You need to adhere to the correct rules for apostrophes. At the moment you almost invariably write ‘the Pittmans’ as ‘the Pittman’s’ … which is wrong in two different ways.

You also need to check on ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and make sure you have got them right. They are frequently wrong in this book.

The clarity of the plot would benefit from a strong sprinkling of short and simple sentences between the longer ones. Some of your sentences are five lines long. They needn’t be. Prolonging the sentences makes the writing sound amateurish, or at least ungroomed. An overlong sentence often sounds like someone recounting a long story without breath (especially given the absence of commas). The difference between writing and speech is that writers have a chance to refine their words. They can get rid of redundancy and repetition. They can punctuate elegantly to highlight what is important. But long unpunctuated sentences tend to sound like rambling streams of consciousness. They undermine the reader’s confidence in the writer’s ability.

Mixed metaphors
Fortunately, this is not a huge issue in your book, but there are some sentences that are not working because the imagery does not stack up to a coherent picture. Look at these (samples only) and apply the same kind of scrutiny throughout, particularly in your battle scenes.
P 6, you need to decide if the willows are majestic OR like drunken guards on duty. They cannot be both in the same sentence.
Raised eyebrows cannot be thrown at people
Ruts do not bruise the land. Ruts furrow or scrape up, not discolour
Along the Western and Overland Trails they travelled on tiptoe (impossible, and rather comical to envision)
The more he was getting to know Galston, the more he realised that the man was an enigma. (So he wasn’t getting to know him)
The sun (comma missing) with a lurid angry stare (comma missing) shone like an immense ball of blood … (blood doesn’t shine, or stare)
A deformed old man waiting, like a spider … (to describe a tree)
You are made of sterner fortitude

I recently helped a writer (whom I was editing for the Writers’ Workshop) to get an agent who then got her a two-book deal with Penguin very quickly. Her MS was splendid. But it was 225,000 words long. Personally, I hung on every word and did not want it shortened at all, and indeed struggled to find passages that could be eliminated. But even her enthusiastic publisher has now insisted on drastic cuts because it is too expensive to produce a book of that length. I think that the maximum any publisher will accept these days is 180,000 words, and these words have to gallop along. They prefer 80,000 – 120,000, though. And a book has to be really good to be allowed to exceed that number.

The other problem is that foreign rights are almost impossible to sell for a book that long. Foreign rights are a very useful form of income for any writer: achieved without any extra work on the writer’s part. So I would not advise any writer to be reckless about it. And your book would be of interest to the Spanish and Italian markets, where historical fiction is starting to take off at the moment.  However, Italian and Spanish translators are much better paid than English-speaking ones, and the costs of translation can make an acquisition prohibitive if the text is too long.

Fortunately, you have (somewhat buried at the moment, and needing its ends tied up) a nice strong plot, and this means it should be easy to get rid of the padding. In fact, if you cut all the summing up, the repetition and the non-fiction elements that are currently slowing it down, I think you will find that you can get down to 180,000 very easily, and that it will be a much better book for it. I would suggest, though, that you aim for 150,000. This is a much better number and I feel that this is what your plot would most comfortably fit inside.

A marketing thought