A light-hearted romance by a very talented first-time novelist: the challenge was to get into the nitty gritty of her understanding of how stories work and her lack of discipline in some areas of writing, and help her pull her work up to an even higher level without discouraging her.

(Names and identifying features have been changed to protect the privacy of the author.)

The original 4,000-word critique has been cut for length and readability, with much detailed analysis of plot points and content removed.


What a cheering and accomplished manuscript this is, Jane. It does not read at all like a first novel. I am full of optimism for your future as a fiction writer.

First, the good news – and the good news really is very good as far as I am concerned. I don't know what your background is, or whether you have an ambition to have a career as a novelist, but I think there is every reason why you should be successful if you do want to. You've got it all: the style, the literacy, the sense of drama, imagination, instinct for writing characters, knack for dialogue, wit, intelligence, energy. This really is a very polished and accomplished piece of work. It has all the marks of a professional novelist, and if this is a first fiction manuscript for you, that is a remarkable achievement.

I think it is possible that a literary agent may take you on and even find a publisher for this novel, especially if you have plans for your next novel: preferably a synopsis and an opening chapter or two to show them you are a good investment for the future. However, I also think it is possible, despite the quality of your writing, that this novel may not quite have the specialness that is needed to catch an agent or publisher's eye.

So the other news is that I actually think you can do better than this, Jane. I think there are changes you can make - perhaps in a new version of this novel, perhaps in a new story altogether – to your story structure, characters, storytelling technique and choice of themes that can raise your writing to another level. There are also a few things that don't feel entirely believable and a few slightly undisciplined moments that should be tidied up to make your writing feel really mature. Of course I will explain all this in as much detail as I can. Please do remember, though, that my comments here can only ever represent the opinion of one editor.

The Story -

The main premise of your story is this: girl loses job, home and boyfriend; gets new job, home and (after a couple of bad choices) new boyfriend. What is lacking is any form of jeopardy: anything to make us worry about her and keep turning the pages to see what happens to her. The job and home problems are never urgent; she has parents to fall back on if need be, she is not in serious debt or any other kind of worrying situation, and the job and home issues are solved with remarkable ease and quite early on in the novel. The boyfriend problem is also never suspenseful; we are glad Simon is out of the picture (because he's a prick), we aren't too worried about Mike or Adam (we know they just both want to shag her and then forget about her, and if she lets them then it serves her right for having such terrible judgement) and it is very clear Joe will eventually rescue her from the first time he offers her his chair in rehearsals.

The result of this lack of jeopardy is that the reader will not experience the kind of suspense that keeps them gripped by the story. Let me explain more precisely what I mean by this. The strength of a story is not determined by what happens in the novel but rather by the questions you set up from the start and which hold the reader's attention so the reader is waiting, throughout the entire novel, to see how you resolve the question (or questions) at the end. The interest in a story lies primarily in how how deeply you can engage us in these story questions. The secret to this is convincing us that the stakes are high for the main protagonist so we can really care and worry about the outcome. There are basically two ways you can do this: one is to plunge your heroine into real jeopardy, a situation perhaps where she has no one to fall back on, no back-up home, and absolutely no money so she is forced into a situation that may prove disastrous. The second way is to give your heroine a strong need or desire of some kind so that she is on a quest, from very early on in the novel, with which we can sympathise. Either of these routes to suspense is predicated on some vulnerability in the heroine, which needs to be believable enough and important enough to engage our sympathy and concern. Of course, you could combine the two (jeopardy and ambition – the stick and carrot combination) for a really nail-biting ride.

Another way of looking at this business of creating story questions based on the main protagonist's vulnerability is that a story – any story – always begins when the main protagonist is destabilised in some way, and the journey of the story is the hero's (or heroine's) journey towards resolving this. This is true in any form of fiction (novel, play, film etc.) and any genre. So a story might start with a murder in the hero's precinct, aliens landing in the back garden, the hero being orphaned and alone, the hero being drawn into an illegal activity; the options are endless. In romance we generally start with a heroine who wants love and a bloke who the reader feels would do very nicely and some barrier to their getting together, so the journey of the story is about discovering when, how and if that barrier is removed. In Stage Fright, Joe certainly has potential as the love interest; however, we need to get to know him better if we are to care whether or not they get together, the situation between the two of them needs to be more complex and have more history before it is resolved. At the moment he just turns up whenever she is behaving foolishly with some other horrible man and saves her from herself. I was left wondering what he sees in her. I think it is fine her being distracted by a more obviously attractive, higher status man, but Adam is so revolting, arrogant and patently misogynistic that she just seems a bit shallow and silly for being infatuated with him. I think you need to convince us that she could really be taken in by this guy and it wouldn't be her fault if she is deceived and hurt by him. Remember, you need us to sympathise with her and be on her side.

I think, as an opening situation for a story, there is lots of potential in the premise of Annie finding herself boyfriend-less, penniless and homeless, but the tricky part is making this situation sufficiently difficult for her whilst being believable and without going into dark places that are too heavy for a fun piece of chick lit. As I have explained, she is never quite in enough jeopardy to really engage our interest and sympathy: she has parents who could help her out and we are glad to see the back of Simon even if she isn't. The other problem – and this is always a very difficult part of story construction for us authors – is in making the heroine's jeopardy absolutely believable. Even in the lightest frolic of a novel, the story has to be totally believable within the context of the world where it is set. In Stage Fright, I found myself unconvinced by some of the details that cause Annie's problems. Your portrayal of the marketing world seemed very authentic to me but I was not convinced by the circumstances of her sacking. If she was really that bad at her job why was she in it in the first place? Surely, she would have had to have verbal and written warnings of dismissal before they could sack her for incompetence, or they could choose to make her redundant on the spot but they would have to pay her off. I expect the only way they could sack her summarily like that without warning or substantial payment would be for gross misconduct and her poor performance on that day doesn't constitute that – so all-in-all I didn't quite buy it. I also didn't quite buy how quickly she became homeless. Simon would not be able to throw her out of the flat before she's found somewhere convenient to live just because he's decided to dump her for another woman. You could certainly convince us she feels driven to leave suddenly (for instance if Zaza moved in with Simon) and I do think you need to do that somehow. I felt she was being rather foolish leaving so suddenly, so you need to make us feel sympathy for her plight, not somewhat irritated with her for being rash.

So I really think you can make your novel much stronger by strengthening Annie's central dilemma and giving us something to keep us eagerly turning the pages to see how things turn out. Similarly, I think there needs to be more at stake in the peripheral stories in order for us to find them interesting.

The part of your novel that deals with Annie's experiences in the drama club does not really give us much story to get hold of. There is no burning drive there; she only joins because someone else pushes her to, so the stakes are not high for her. She doesn't meet any difficulty or challenge there; she waltzes into the lead role with ease and everyone thinks she's wonderful. In fact, the only complexities or challenges she encounters at all in the am-dram club are petty sexual jealousies and predations that she could encounter anywhere. I think, if the play is going to be such a big part of the novel, it needs to present her with some kind of important and life-changing challenge, quite apart from who's sleeping with whom. Obviously, your intention is for your novel to be light and fun, but it does also need to have sufficiently high stakes for the heroine to keep it whizzing along. I have critiqued several draft novels where the heroine joins an am-dram group and I find, in general, it seems hard to find a strong story line to drive a novel in that arena. Perhaps it is because it's an environment where problems are notoriously exaggerated and emotions run needlessly high about petty things. However, I do think it can be made to work if the heroine cares enough about it.

[Much more detail removed, exploring specifics of the story and other characters' stories]

Characters -

As a rule a story is only ever as interesting as its characters, and this is especially true of a character-driven genre such as chick lit. We will only engage in the story as far as we can sympathise with and care about the people in it. You have a great knack for creating characters; I saw so many of the people in your novel as clear and distinct individuals. This is a great instinct and skill to have. But, as I have already said, I think you need to make sure your heroine is someone we can fully root for and care about. This is partly about identifying her vulnerability and letting that be at the core of your story; whether it is loneliness, insecurity, passionate attachment, eager ambition, some significant practical vulnerability, we need to be able to identify with some predicament she faces. We also need to like her. I found her incompetence slightly annoying because it was not balanced with enough charm on her part to make me smile sympathetically at her mistakes. She came across as a bit lazy, happy to skive off if possible and leave the work to others, and she becomes arrogant about her role as leading lady. I also found her passivity difficult to sympathise with. She tends to behave as though she has no will of her own. I really wanted her to stand up to some of these awful men and refuse to be ordered around and backed into corners by them. It was a great relief when she finally stood up to Simon. [Removed: detail about which elements of that section worked and which need to be more believable]

I know from my own experience that it is hard to get your heroine into predicaments unless she is rather passive, so the challenge is to find situations that get her in trouble without her having to be a wimp to get into them. Having a heroine with guts is really important for today's women readers, so you have to be very clever with your plotting to make her life complicated and challenging. I also found it hard to sympathise with her ghastly taste in men. If she is going to fancy men like Mike and Adam there needs to be something about them to convince us they are attractive.

I think it is a slight weakness in your novel that you have three men who are very similar bad guys: wealthy, powerful, handsome, fickle, promiscuous and ultimately vain and weak. Simon, Mike and Adam are almost interchangeable, and then there is Justin, who is all of the above except for wealthy and handsome. If your men are going to be awful I think your novel will be stronger if they are awful in different ways so there is no danger of what happens to Annie becoming repetitive. I don't know that you need both Mike and Adam in your novel as they behave so similarly, unless she has vastly different experiences and stories with the two of them.

Joe has lots of potential as a hero. I love the fact he is quiet and lurks in the shadows, and also that he is not devastatingly handsome. I think your instinct is spot on that readers will be much more attracted to a male character who is kind and stable than one who is good looking. But I do think we need to know more about Joe if we are really to be interested in whether he gets together with Annie.

[Detailed analysis of how this character comes across removed here]

Content -

A lot of the content of your novel feels very authentic and natural.

[A lot of detail removed relating to the accuracy and impact of the world she has created]

Clarity -

In general the content of your novel is superbly clear and coherent. However, there are a few slightly sloppy bits of writing that are probably just the result of not really scrutinising your text carefully to check it all makes sense.

[Detailed discussion and examples of unclear writing removed here]

Conclusion -

I have been awfully hard on your manuscript given that it is such an excellent piece of work, and I really do want to emphasise how impressed I was by it. Your style, storytelling technique, structuring and dialogue are all of a very high standard. If this is your first fiction manuscript, it is remarkable. I hope my comments here will be helpful to you in transforming your very good manuscript into something that agents and publishers will jump at. I really am very optimistic about your future as a professional novelist.

The biggest change you can make to your novel-writing is to work on getting the stakes for the heroine high enough to really engage the reader's interest and sympathy. I also suspect you can raise your writing to another level by digging deeper into your mental and emotional resources and writing about what really excites, moves or intrigues you. That doesn't need to stop your writing being light and funny; it will just give your writing more individuality and edge and also give it a different level of maturity.

[Further concluding comments removed here to protect privacy]