A second critique for an author whose first novel showed promise but needed a lot of work. This new manuscript was a major and exciting leap forward but also needed a significant rethink. The author had undertaken a tricky challenge by combining two genres, comedy romance and violent thriller, which needed some untangling.

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

The original 5,000-word critique has been cut for length and readability, with much detailed analysis of plot points and content removed.


Hello, Claire; it's absolutely great to see this new manuscript from you. My God, you've been working hard. What an achievement. I'm so thrilled to see how much your writing has developed since the first manuscript I read. I can see it's been a busy three years and time well spent. What has really impressed and excited me is the fact you have managed to completely turn around every aspect of your writing I nagged you about in my first critique. The world in which your novel is set now feels completely authentic; the psychological make up of your characters has become more real and nuanced; they have context and vulnerability; your male characters are now both attractive and likeable, the level of detail in your prose and descriptions is just right, there's not an extraneous scene in sight, and perhaps most impressive of all, you now write with great warmth and feeling, rather than just writing about feelings as you did before.

All this is fantastic, and Trewyn Bay is a fun read, but you'll notice I'm not saying: Great, let's send it off to a load of agents. The truth is there's another layer of development that needs to take place before this novel is ready to be presented to the publishing world, and this all concerns the story. I have no doubt you can fix it – having seen how far you have come in the last three years I have no doubt you can fix anything you put your mind to – and I do think this novel can be worked on to bring it to a standard that should attract a publisher. But I also think you are going to have to dig your heels in, seize your courage in both hands and have a serious rethink about the story of this novel. Obviously I'm going to spend the whole of this critique pulling apart what I think is not working (as I did in the last one) – that's my job - but I really do want you to feel proud of what you've achieved, and optimistic about where you are going with it. You are a talented writer; you have all the humour, intelligence, warmth, perception and originality you need to make it as a novelist. Your characters are alive and three-dimensional. Your dialogue is terrific. Your prose style and pacing are excellent. What I think you need now is to discipline your choices about the story you are telling to make it believable for the reader.

Story -

There are two strands to the story you are telling in TrewynBay: the romantic story and the thriller/espionage and murder story. And I think there are two issues to consider: firstly, how well does each of these stories work in itself and, secondly, how well do they work together in your novel? I'll start with the first issue: how well do the romance and the thriller each work?

The Romance -

I think the overall story of the romance between Gwen and David and the subsidiary relationships of Alwen/Ivor and Betty/Emrys are perfectly good. If anything, the Alwen/Ivor story and the Betty/Emrys stories work better than the main Gwen/David story because they each have one real hurdle to get over before they can be happy: Ivor's fear of commitment in the former and Betty's difficulty letting her dead husband go in the latter. These are both tangible issues and you could possibly even afford to dig a little deeper into both of them as they both relate to important life challenges.

The problem with the main Gwen/David story is that their journey towards each other throughout the novel is entirely regulated by misunderstandings. One misunderstanding after another interrupts the course of their relationship. They are good characters and I was interested in their romance but the misunderstandings get in the way.

[A lot of detailed examination of elements of the plot based on misunderstanding removed here]

I didn't believe the way they constantly hid facts from each other, resulting in yet more misunderstandings and quarrels. Every time they learn something new about each other they decide not to tell the other what they have heard but just make whatever assumption is most negative and brood on it instead. The result of all this is that they are constantly moving passionately towards each other and then furiously apart, again and again, two or three times per chapter throughout the novel. One or other of them is forever going off in a tantrum, instead of just discussing what their concerns are. The secret-keeping also feels rather immature: [Details and analysis of examples removed]. These things don't really add anything to the novel and they don't feel believable. It feels as though you have taken perfectly believable characters and made them behave in unnecessarily childish ways for the sake of keeping up the level of drama.

I'm being really tough about this, Claire, but I think it's really important. It's a fundamental rule of fiction-plotting that misunderstandings, especially if they occur because characters refuse to talk to each other, don't work as a plot device. Introducing unnecessary misunderstandings into love affairs to keep the lovers apart always feels phoney. We've all done it while we are learning to write romantic fiction; we'll bung in anything that cranks up the tension between the lovers, believable or otherwise – I know I did. But once we start finding our feet, the story has to start feeling mature. The lovers have to be overcoming real issues in order to be together, not silly misunderstandings and concealing the truth from each other. And there really needs to be one central obstacle to the romance, not loads of them. It is more difficult in our permissive age to find things to keep lovers apart in romantic fiction, but there is plenty of scope in your novel with the twelve years that have passed since they met.

[Much more discussion about the romantic plot removed here]

Credibility of romantic story -

It is hard work reining in a romance to make it believable, and I think this is the big challenge you now need to take on in order to get your novel into a publishable state. I felt, early on in the novel, that twelve years was too long for them to have been apart and still have such intense feelings. However, your detailed and delightful account of their childhood love eventually convinced me of how profound and sacred that love is for them. What was unbelievable, I think, is the level of resentment they both still feel, and how well David's family and friends remember it. In reality they would all assume he's forgotten her years ago. It seemed very odd to have the mother of a thirty-year-old man tell people he's never got over his adolescent love. I found myself thinking it would feel more real if it were three or four years since she left. But actually I like the depth of passion they both retain after all these years. Much better, I think, to have David's family and friends think it is all water long gone under the bridge, and perhaps it would feel most real if Gwen and David both believe they should have got over it too. That way, you can write about real tension between them without the need for petty quarrels. I think it's also important, by the way, to avoid using petty quarrels and misunderstandings between Betty and Gewn to try and crank up the drama there. It is great for Betty to tell Gwen some home truths, but it feels immature that they should squabble the way they do.

Characters -

I like your characters. I think Alwen is great; I like the fact she seems stupid but actually has a lot of wisdom. I'd avoid having her use wrong words for comic effect, though; it's a bit of a cliché. I like all the characters, in fact. Gwen is a good heroine. I like how reserved and reclusive she has become due to the traumas of her early life. I think all that will work better, however, once she isn't having stroppy tantrums with David. I was unsure about her never having had sex with a man since she was seventeen. Is that really likely or necessary?

[Much more discussion of elements of the characters removed here].

David, as the hero, is a nice character. He's attractive and sexy; I like his passion and his decency. You could afford to show us more of the musician's depth and sensitivity you say is revealed in his playing. Again, like Gwen, he isn't helped by the fact he keeps making childish assumptions and decisions not to be straightforward. Hiding his passion is understandable if he thinks he would be rejected, but deciding to keep facts from her is all a bit silly. You are too intelligent to need to rely on those things in order to create a story.

The espionage/murder story

The other strand of your story is the thriller. Again, I think this can work. I can see that, as with the romance, you have already worked very hard on it. [Details of a number of successful story elements removed here]. My main concern about the thriller is that I was left a little vague as to exactly who had done what to whom, when and why. I'm afraid you need to spell it all out much more clearly. I wasn't quite clear as to what the spies were up to, [long list of unclear plot points removed here] I've got a sort of impression of all this but it isn't at all clear.

I think you need to spell out to the reader what is going on between the baddies and what has gone on in the past. There are so many secrets being kept from everyone in your novel it becomes rather confusing. You can use the age-old convention of having the goodies (David, Ivor, Gwen etc) explain what is going on to each other as they discover it. The last thing you want is for your reader to be left muddled at the end as to how the jigsaw fitted together. Also, it's not until you spell it out that we can see how tightly your plot holds water and whether there are any weak spots in it.

Credibility of thriller story -

Your thriller plot certainly has plenty of potential. Once you have got it really clear, you need to think hard about how believable it all feels. On the whole, I think it can feel realistic. It is very important, though, to avoid coincidences in a plot of this kind. The coincidence of Gwen returning to the island at an inopportune moment for the smugglers is fine, but I think you should make sure it is not a coincidence that Bryn came to live near the kid whose parents he murdered.[Detailed discussion of coincidences in the plot removed] You can work all this out for yourself, Claire, but it needs to be crystal clear by the end. You may find you need to pare down the plot a little to make it simpler and easier to handle on the page.

Just one more note about the unfolding of your plot. There are a couple of times where you have Gwen not knowing things she would obviously know, such as when she says she thinks David can't swim; surely she would have known perfectly well whether he could swim or not after they grew up together on a cove. [More detail of things the heroine would obviously have known removed here.]

The two story lines together -

As well as making sure the romantic and thriller aspects of your novel both work well, I also think we need to take a look at how these two strands work together. I don't mean how they tie up in the plot; I mean how they sit side by side in terms of the tone of your novel, and how they develop over the course of it.

There is no reason why you should not combine a thriller with a romance; it's tricky but it can definitely be done. Classics like Du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek, or Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, or (more recently and more subtly) Peter May's The Blackhouse spring to mind. But one thing they all have in common, which is essential for such a novel to work, is that the thriller is the dominant aspect of the novel and is firmly set up before we get carried away by the romance.

From this, you'll see there is a bit to do to make the balance work well in Trewyn Bay. I think you need to set up the mystery with more weight and menace right from the start. This means adding a little scene very early on where the girls are observed arriving by someone who is obviously, or appears to be, a threat (and not just a social threat, but a scary one), or alternatively, adding a dramatic prologue that sets up the danger before you start your story with Gwen's arrival: perhaps a dramatic moment from later in the story that shows how drastic things are going to become and creates suspense. Personally, I'm not a great fan of the latter but it is often used and is popular with many authors and readers.

Once you have set up your danger signals at the start and told your readers this is a thriller, your job is then to keep the momentum of the thriller going strongly throughout the novel to the climax. At the moment, you keep the mystery ticking along nicely – in fact the pace of your novel is good throughout – but I didn't realise that this was going to be a thriller until very late on; I thought the mystery was going to turn out to be about family secrets. It's great to keep your plot twists under your hat until you are ready to reveal them; however, remember what I was saying last time about contracting with your readers at the start what kind of novel you are serving up. You need to make it very clear from the beginning that this is a story that is heading for high drama, partly so we will know how to approach it in our imaginations and partly so the drama does not feel far fetched when it arrives. If you show us from the start that you are inviting us into a world where baddies skulk about spying on the girls, with guns in their pockets (or whatever), we will be ready for that level of drama when it comes. As it stands, I didn't realise there was an exciting thriller going on around these people until around 400 pages in, and that is both a waste of good suspense and an invitation to find the guns and sailing around rocks at midnight all a bit too much.

Once you have established the thriller as the main thrust of the novel, the romance and the social story and even the comedy can sit nicely around it. We will still care as much about whether or not Gwen will end up with her childhood sweetheart. You can work out for yourself how you want to manage all this but it is important you follow the rule that the thriller must dominate the romantic story, otherwise the high drama, when it arrives, runs the risk of feeling a little silly and over the top.

Conclusion -

As I say, I do think you can combine everything you have going on in Trewyn Bay successfully if you rework it. If you eliminate the misunderstandings, lies and squabbles between David and Gwen, for one thing, you will have a lot more space for the drama. For another thing, the novel will be a good deal shorter, which is an advantage. I wasn't bored by Trewyn Bay. I enjoyed it, but it really is too long for a novel of this genre. Admittedly, my first novel was twice as long as Trewyn Bay but bear in mind Trewyn Bay takes place over around four days; mine spanned a decade. I think, for a mystery romance to attract a publisher, it needs to be considerably shorter than Trewyn Bay.

[Recap of the main points for reworking this manuscript removed here].

It's not at all easy to impose discipline on ourselves as writers and still keep our spontaneity, playfulness and ability to write from the heart, but that's the task and I am confident that you are up to it. I think there is a great warmth to your writing and a tenderness to your love story, and I think both will become more evident as you pare away what feels unreal and immature in the love story. The clarification and streamlining of the thriller is also a matter of rigour. You need to go through every step of the story (in the order it happens rather than the order you tell it), from the moment of that first murder twelve years ago, or even before, and make sure it makes complete sense and is believable, and then check you have explained it clearly to us at some point before the end of the novel. And you need to signpost the potential level of danger very early on so we will know how dramatic this is going to get.

[Further concluding paragraphs]