Wednesday, 16 September 2015 06:35

Mentor's Critique - Choice and Circumstance

Pamela, the quality that strikes me in these thirty pages is your ability to distil for the reader the important issues within the slice of history that you’ve chosen to portray. This is no easy task and you have the right skills to pull it off. In fact your method admirably suits the title of your novel. We are privy to three characters' situations at the beginning of the story: King Charles I confronting his own execution; his niece Princess Sophie in the Hague, contemplating her marriage chances; the Prince of Wales, also in the Hague, waiting to hear about his father’s fate. You give us the circumstances of each person clearly and vigorously, and at the same time each of them analyses their own choices and tries for the decision that will contribute the most to their future. Choice and Circumstance indeed!


Your double-jointed narrative technique is an interesting combination of ‘inner voice’ and direct authorial commentary. An example of inner voice is Sophie’s silent exclamation while thinking how her dramatic and domineering mother, the Queen of Bohemia, might be treated by England's new rulers if she were to return to England: ‘One of them would probably throw down his cloak for her to walk across, as a courtier had done for Elizabeth I! Men always made fools of themselves over her mother.’ An example of direct authorial description follows soon after, as we learn that Sophie is seeing a lot of the Prince of Wales: ‘The Queen of Bohemia was not the only person at The Hague to have noticed Charles’s fondness for the company of his pretty cousin. The Royalist exiles had noted the daily promenades on the Voorhaut, the skating on the frozen Hofvijver, and more significantly still, their attendance together every Sunday at Common Prayer.’ The narrative shifts between these two ‘voices’ very smoothly and your prose is eminently readable. The reader quickly gathers that this is a serious historical account, confidently researched and well laid out—and at the same time he or she is hooked into the narrative by the major dilemma that each character faces.

Keeping these choices at the forefront of the story is a clever device. Charles I’s decision to die like a king brings the reader close to him in his last hours on earth. Next, we cannot fail to respond to Sophie’s courage, wit and determination as she assembles a clear-eyed, amusing and poignant analysis of her own marriage prospects. You tell me that Sophie is the heroine of this series of novels. I must say that in these first pages you have set her up extremely well, as a young woman whose adventures promise to be fascinating, principally because she has decided to act in order to alter her own destiny. By contrast, when we see the Prince of Wales, alone in a darkened room, you explore the horrors of forced inaction—you show him paralysed, hedged about by circumstances he cannot yet change.

In these opening chapters you make very little use of dialogue, but when it occurs it is lively, to the point and suited to the characters. I would recommend that you use it more, to further the story. At present, there is little or no movement in your scenes—they are tableaux, commented on, with something like a combined voice-over, by the main protagonist and the author. Any dialogue you introduce in these pages tends to be a mere ornament to the scene, not part of its drama. Yet this story about the crowned heads of Europe in a time of immense turmoil is spectacularly dramatic, and one senses that that’s why you chose Sophie as the protagonist, since she was centrally engaged in extraordinary events until the end of her days. By this point in the story you should be about to throw your main characters onto the stage together and provide some interaction and debate.

You’ll find a passage of dialogue works best if you don’t interpolate too much commentary between the characters’ speeches. Well-constructed dialogue reveals and explores a great deal about the characters—you don’t need a gloss on it to bring your effects home. An example is Charles I’s last conversation with his children. I believe it will be more poignant if less is explained. I would suggest that the following passage works better if you retain just the first sentence: ‘Elizabeth’s eyes met her father’s reproachfully across her brother’s head. She clearly felt there had been altogether too much talk of the cutting off of heads for a child so young. Her father had successfully extracted the promise he wanted from Henry, but she knew she would be obliged to cope with the repercussions.’

The first twenty or so pages of a novel are vitally important, even more so if it’s the first in a long series. Unfortunately you begin this one with a prologue, which reads like an historical resumé and is quite unnecessary to the work. When submitting this novel to an agent or publisher, I recommend you discard the ‘prologue’ entirely and begin at Chapter 1, which is where your characters come alive (Charles I only briefly, of course !).

Pamela, you have undertaken an ambitious task—to follow an intelligent, cultivated, witty and beautiful 17th-century princess through the true events of her amazing life. On this showing, your first novel is intelligent, perspicacious, readable and intriguing, and I can only admire the dedication and method that you bring to it. I wish you every success with the delightful Sophie.

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