The Lamps of Paris - By Arabella Shakespeare

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.


Thank you for sending your manuscript to the Writers’ Workshop. I read it sitting in the garden over two sunny days, thinking, rather self-righteously, that I was having a working weekend, but your story bowls along so effortlessly and the writing is so good that reading This is Paris… didn’t feel like work at all.

But now to the writing of the report and there’s no way of relaxing in a deck chair: I’ll make some general observations first then go into more detail about the problems as I see them, with some thoughts about how you could go about solving them if you agree with me.

But first, the unreserved positives. This is Paris… is a good read, sharply observed, full of energy and joie de vivre. You are – as I hope you know – an eloquent, confident, witty writer. You have the technicalities buttoned up, and this isn’t faint praise; I often spend pages in a report such as this looking at the basic craft of writing – things like presentation and tense, the ordering of material, dialogue, and evocation of place. Your style is polished and sophisticated.

So – down to business.

Only three small niggles under this heading.
(i) As I said, you write extremely well, but in places the prose felt a little overwritten. By that I mean, specifically, more adjectives and adverbs than are necessary. This has the effect of weighing down the humour, making it feel overstated, over-egged perhaps. The writing can feel a little too self-conscious. Adverbs and adjectives don’t always illuminate an idea or image and make it stronger; sometimes simpler is better. Trust your reader, leave more to her; she is intelligent and she’s paying attention. The story will be sharper, smoother and pacier if the language is pared back a little - I’m only talking about a word or two here and there, but over the span of a novel, they add up to quite a lot. […]

(ii) Occasionally, there are tiny gaps in the logic/progression of the narrative, like dropped stitches. These might be places where you’ve edited out too much.

Let’s look at the opening: I’ve taken out quite a few adverbs and adjectives, and there are a couple of places which illustrate what I mean in point (ii).  The edited extract is just to illustrate the kind of thing I could imagine you might do in your next edit – you’ll have your own ideas, of course, about what sounds best to you.
Emily Joy had a problem,
(this is a wonderfully arresting first sentence but having finished the novel, I’m not quite sure what she means; everything is going swimmingly at this point in Emily’s life. As your reader I was anticipating discovering what she’s referring to, and although problems do come along for Emily, I still don’t know at the end of the novel what’s worrying her here, at the start. On second reading (an interested agent/editor would read your novel several times) I felt perplexed by this opening - but I’ve probably missed something. Is it the sponge wearing out that’s the problem?)
                                though no one could have guessed, certainly none of the ladies making their way across Paris to lunch with her.
Emily had twenty minutes to bathe before their arrival
(obvious, I know, but as a reader, I need a simple link between the lunching ladies and the bathtub)
[… - Further detailed stylistic comments]

 (iii) Now for viewpoint.
It’s tricky to use an omniscient viewpoint effectively and it isn’t fashionable these days in fiction; the reader leaps in and out of different character’s heads and the result – as I know you know - is that although we know what at lot of people are thinking, seeing and feeling, we don’t identify with any character in particular.

There are lots of advantages in using an omniscient viewpoint for a group drama in that it shows up the simultaneous misunderstandings and contrasting feelings that are central to making this kind of novel work. But there are disadvantages too in that switching viewpoint throughout a scene can be uncomfortable for the reader.
The scenes that worked best for me stayed with a single viewpoint. Those which, in my opinion, were least effective were the ones where you switched back and forth (e.g. p.318-320 Paul and Terry). There were also quite a few places in the ms where viewpoint switched momentarily (p.297) Paul’ eyes gleamed in the speckled night air. We’ve been in Paul’ viewpoint for two pages, then suddenly we catch a glimpse of him through Julie’s eyes, (i.e. Julie’s viewpoint) then we dip back inside Paul again. This kind of lightening shift is unnerving for a reader.
I’ve attached an information sheet about handling point of view (pov in the jargon) with this report.

Emily and your Plot
The novel opens with Emily so I feel she’ll be at the heart of the story. Emily is a ruthless social climber and a terrible snob but I want to care about her in spite of her faults. I’m not suggesting that Emily should lose her brittle edge, her ambition, her obsessive efficiency, but I wonder if she could be a little more ‘layered’. I’d love to have some idea of how she came to be like this, so even if I don’t like her more, I come to understand her through the course of the novel. I never feel quite convinced about Emily and I think this might be because I simply can’t understand what makes her tick. Why does status mean so much to her? I wonder if Emily loves- or ever loved Paul. I just don’t know, even by the end.

If Emily is the heart of this novel (and your opening implies this), she introduces – however subtly – the beginnings of the plot too. As things are in fiction these days, unless the characterisation or ideas are superbly original and superbly handled, no one gets away with a less than splendid plot.

Let’s just review a few golden rules of plotting:

  1. You need to establish a story (dilemma, challenge, problem etc) early on in your book
  2. This story needs to carry all the way through. It can get complicated. New things may arise. But though there can be twists and turns in the road, the road must be continuous and lead all the way through to  …
  3. the ending. In film schools, writers are taught to increase the jeopardy for the central character right through until the final climax.  

[Further detailed advice on plot]

Your readership – who is this novel for?
My next point is fairly complex. I’ll do my best to lay out exactly what I mean, so please bear with me.

As just one reader, I’m not all that worried about whether this is an authentic portrayal of diplomatic life because it’s clear that the take is a satirical one and the writer is poking fun at this privileged little band of people. I have a strong sense that the writer knows this world, (indeed you say you do) so although much of it may be based on fact, I don’t mind if those facts are ‘moulded’ for the purposes of this story. The psychological truth of the characters is important to me though, even if they are exaggerated for comic effect.

All well and good: I believe in your characters on their own terms and in the world of your novel, but I also I know that they’re constructed for dramatic and comic effect and I don’t empathise with them in any real sense, or feel their suffering, their hopes, grief and anxieties. This novel is a witty, intricate, cleverly written entertainment, almost in the tradition of Waugh and Amis.

If it were up to me – and many other writers too - we’d ignore marketing pigeonholes, but it’s my job to look at your novel commercially as well as critically. My concern is that it might not fit into any clear selling niche, and I know, from experience that this can be a problem when it comes to getting an agent interested. Agents know that a successful pitch to a publisher must include an indication of who the likely reader will be. Who will pick up your novel from a table at Waterstones? Women, or men - or both? What age? And what will their expectations be? Are those expectations likely to be fulfilled?

Your novel begins in the territory of women’s fiction with Emily in her bath, her pink bosomy sponge, her hair tint and her white towel, waiting for her lunching ladies. Male readers (if the marketing bods can be believed) won’t be at all tempted by this opening. This is Paris… stays mostly in the landscape of women’s fiction (I’ll come back to the ‘mostly’ in a minute) even when we move into the perspectives of the men, and what I enjoy so much is that you don’t follow the usual path of women’s fiction, you’re much sharper and tougher than that: we have some fairly explicit and misogynistic male perspectives too - and some quite blokey humour concerning toilets, farts, dog turds.

But this is a novel that sets out its stall as women’s fiction, and in spite of the satirical take, this is a world of psychological truths. The problem for me is this: I’d expect that in a group of say, eight women, that there would be some sense of friendship, genuine affection and loyalty between at least a couple of them. And wouldn’t any of them yearn for a relationship based on something other than ambition or status? Katie Mates seems to have such a marriage, but do none of these other intelligent, educated, well-preserved middle-aged women yearn for something more?
[Further detailed exploration of the issue]
Which brings me to -

The ending
I’m not sure the climax of the story – Paul and Eliza’s death - works. It falls a little flat. It is an accident with a psychotic alcoholic introduced late in the novel, consequently, this tragedy doesn’t seem embedded in what’s gone before, neither do I feel engaged with Eliza as part of this story.

A satisfying ending will pull together many strands of a story – not only plot lines, but themes too.
I wonder if you can make your ending do more. Here are some ideas:

  • The coat. Why does Paul think it’s Emily? Could Eliza actually be wearing Emily’s coat for some reason? Is it a coat that could have significance in the story? Perhaps Emily gives it to Eliza at the Embassy when Eliza is drunk. (A rare moment of generosity in Emily that leads to her husband’s death).
  • The hair. Could Eliza have chosen exactly the same hair tint (going right back to your opening scene) as Emily uses? (If we see the packet or read the name in the two hair colouring scenes, we’d feel some tension about the coincidence but have no idea how it could matter).
  • The circumstances of the tragedy.

[Further detailed advice]

Now a few small matters:

  • You describe the parks and the streets so wonderfully but I didn’t get a sense of the city until quite a way into the novel. I wonder if the opening chapter could set us down in Paris more firmly.
  • You handle your huge cast of characters extremely well but I never felt that the Hanborough’s served any specific purpose. I wonder if you need them. Perhaps you do and I’m not seeing it.
  • I found myself getting confused between Eve and Jo. […]
  • […]

That’s it! Small points, easily remedied if you choose to.