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Tuesday, 25 August 2015 06:11

Mentor's Critique - Over the Moon 'Arry

Chris, in my recollection, this is the first time I’ve assessed a work of fiction based on a sport. I have, however, worked with many sports biographies, and I believe the must-haves in a good book of this kind, whether fiction or non-fiction, are similar. As a reader, first you want a story that keeps you turning the pages; then characters you want to spend time with. Another essential: the reader has to feel that he or she is getting personal insight into that particular sport, and learning something not to be found elsewhere.

The most dramatic example I can think of is Andre Agassi’s Open, an autobiography that lives up to its name on all counts. I also very much enjoyed Rod Laver: a Memoir. And I’m sure you’ve read that magnificent true story about the inspiration behind a mighty African team: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin.

Your story
In Over the Moon ’Arry, the hero is Harry Stoller, a football club manager who loses his job with a Berkshire team in chapter one; accepts a job running the national team of West African country, Songola, in chapter two; and in chapter three arrives in the country to raise a losing team up to FIFA World Cup standard. You throw a lot of challenges in Harry’s way. When he’s sacked, his disgrace is public, and he also loses his sinecure as a sports newspaper columnist. His wife is unhappy about their drop in income and threatens to leave—she’s a walking challenge in herself! Once Harry gets started on the new job, your synopsis tells me he will face lazy, uncooperative players, shady middle-men and corrupt officials.

I get the impression that you know the soccer world well—you certainly make it convincing to the reader, and you don’t concentrate on the games, but on the people who play them: in fact so far you haven’t described a single football match. If you can keep up the pace and interest of your story in this way throughout, you’ll produce a very readable novel—and we’ll be happy to sit through some crucial football as the story builds to the climax.

The characters
Harry is a good mixture—but is he a great mixture for a full-length novel? His language is coarse, he’s brusque and can be nasty, he feels so aggressive towards the press gathered at Donfield United that he fancies running them down with his Bentley (!), he forgets his wife’s birthday and makes all his decisions about their life without consulting her ... this is an angry, impulsive and selfish man. But we’re seeing him in crisis mode here, and maybe that aggression will be just what he needs to see him through to the end of his task. You’ve given yourself a grand opportunity to develop the picture of Harry as the story progresses. We already see a new side to him in the extract, where he talks persuasively about the psychology of managing a team. His hidden people skills are obviously about to be tested in Songola, and that’s something to look forward to.

The other characters are well sketched in at this point. Eddie seems like a true friend, Charlotte the wife is a straight talker whose confidence and sense of entitlement are an excellent match for Harry’s, and the Songolans are intriguing figures. We want to see how all these relationships play out.

The magic ingredient
You realise, I imagine, that the essential ingredient in this novel, which no one else can provide, is the sport itself. The way you examine football, through your dramatic story and the rich cast of characters, constitutes the essence of your novel. To make this book the best it can be, I wouldn’t hold back on what you know and feel about soccer. That might sound silly to anyone else, but I bet it doesn’t to you. Your treatment of Harry is such that I get the impression he knows being a football team manager is not just a job. As the story goes on, you’ll be widening his experience and uncovering the depths of his very special knowledge. I wish you all the best with that endeavour.

The title
Putting Harry’s name in the title means you risk having the reader focus too much on him and not enough on what he finds out about himself and the game. At present there’s also no hint that the book is about soccer, nor that most of the action is in Africa. Have you thought of including a football term in the title? Perhaps something like Shooting for Songola, that will pique people’s interest ...

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