Formal Critique

This is the report I received from Russel McLean via the Writers Workshop

It is unedited apart from me removing Russel’s email. The report is based on the first three chapters of the initial draft which you can find here

Following on from the report are my comments on it.



Russel D McLean 26/05/17

Dear Richard

With many thanks for sending The Differences to Writer’s Workshop for an opening chunk review. An alternate history can be a fascinating thing, and by using elements of steampunk etc. but keeping events more or less as they happened, you’re working on something a little different here, which could be fascinating to see develop.

This opening chunk gives us a little flavour of your writing, and your intent for the novel, which seems like it could shape up to be nicely intriguing. There are issues here, however, that we will discuss and the hope is that some of these notes will help you as you edit and consider the rest of the novel, too.

As is the case in any report, all criticisms are interest to help you bring out the best in your writing and to help you consider new ways forward in developing your work.

I wish you the best of luck with The Differences and on your continuing journey to publication.


Although the novel may be seen as having “steampunk” vibe, these elements are relatively light, and perhaps the book is better pitched as an adventure novel (unless these elements become more important later on) which feels very much in the vein of Ryder Haggard et al with a more modern twist.  Either way, the usage of real history with elements of adventure can often be a good sell to the right publisher, so on this front the premise is intriguing no matter whether you try to sell it with the steampunk tag or not.


In the next section we’ll talk more specifically about issues of voice and style, but here we’ll focus on the “plot” of the first few chapters – what happens, who the major characters are etc. Obviously, the first few chapters of any novel are setup, so the reader will be asking a few petinent questions – who are the characters? What do they want? Why should I be invested? Ideally, you want to give an initial answer to these questions in the first few pages.

I actually believe you do most of this work quite nicely, especially towards the end of the chunk, but I wonder if perhaps you can do it even faster and more economically, and offer a few suggestions here as to how you might consider reshaping some of the opening to make the most of your material.

A Walking Tour of London’s scents – pacing issues in the first chapter

At the moment, the book takes a little while to get going, which can be be an issue in this kind of adventure novel.

Chapter one is, essentially, a travelogue of Perrin’s journey from his lodgings to the pub, and I have to admit I wonder if it is needed at all.

But there’s something intriguing here as the sequence is, unusually, focussed on the smells of the city. For almost three pages, we are introduced to London through Perrin’s nose, which is unusual and intriguing, but ultimately kills your pacing as it does little to answer of the reader’s essential questions until page 5, where we encounter the idea of the Cadre (more on this later) for the first time and get a little sense that Perrin is on his way somewhere important.

Several questions arise from this from a pacing point of view – if this London is not markedly different from the one we know, why do we need to spend so long walking from lodgings to pub with Perrin, learning so little about him? And why does he focus so much on scent in this opening chapter, but so little afterwards?

I wondered at first if the scents were a quirk of being in Perrin’s point of view. This could be fascinating to explore; a character who “sees” his world in terms of scent. But you would need to be consistent with this. For example, when he enters the pub on p6, rather than using his “eye” to see the “smoke, beer and gin grease”, perhaps you have something like:

The defining characteristic of Benekey’s to a man like Perrin was its thick, acrid scent, as though the place were the very heart of a burning pile of tobacco. The smoke hung heavy in the air, and its choking scent mixed with overcooked meats of dubious sources and the slick underscent of grease that Perrin knew coated almost every surface of the place.

This would require you to consider each scene from the point of view of smell, but would be fascinating, I think, to write. However, without that sort of element, the opening chapter feels a little strange to the reader, and does little to advance plot or characters. In this kind of book, you need to put the reader in the heart of the action, so you may be better served by simply starting in media res (the middle of the action) with Perrin attending the meeting in chapter two. This would immediately introduce your characters and their interactions, along with the setup of your narrative. Although there is some nice writing in chapter one, from a story point of view, everything really begins in chapter two and this is where I would recommend beginning.

It is worth noting that if a writer has a character admonish themselves for thinking too much (“Enough of the reverie,” as Perrin admonishes himself on p5) then the action has slowed to a crawl and the reader will have noticed it, too.

Who is Perrin?

We know Perrin a fledgling member of the Cadre, but we know little else about him in these pages. I would like to know more about how he’s involved with these people – does he have special skills or connections that make him part of the plot? We can see with most other characters how they know Babbage, but Perrin just seems to exist as our point of view. We need to know a little more about him much earlier – even if it’s just how he knows one of the other characters or why he might be important enough to have joined the Cadre.

When Burton says on p15, “But I know nothing of you, sir,” he is also speaking a little for the reader. If Perrin is our POV character, we need to know a little more about him personally in order to empathise with his situation. So perhaps being specific about what he does or where he’s come from (is he married? In love? Does he have family?) may help in this regard. Nothing much, but just a few personal details would really help to bring him alive and help the reader empathise enough with him that they can’t resist joining him on his journey. You have defined all your other characters quite nicely (Babbage makes a big impression on his entrance, as does Salt) but they are so big that it can make our protagonist seem a little quiet in comparison.

What is The Cadre and what information should be withheld?

On p5 you have the following paragraph:

Perrin, truth be told, didn’t as yet know what he might discover let alone if he might understand it. If pressed and was truthful to himself, he had no real idea what, if any, use it, and he could be to The Cadre. It was a story, a legend there was no guarantee if it was true or even if it might live up to Perrin’s speculative interpretations. But they were interested; and if The Cadre were interested and took a shine to you and your idea they gave you the means, the rope of opportunity and invited you to hang yourself with it or fashion a means of escape solely by providing them with something to their advantage

This is the first time we hear of The Cadre, but other than sounding mysterious this paragraph gives us little idea of what The Cadere actually is or what Perrin is bringing them.

At the moment, you’re using a technique to try and build tension (withholding specific information) but it actually confuses the reader more than it intrigues them, and I wonder whether you really need to withhold everything that you do.

You don’t have to tell us everything about the Cadre, but perhaps just a word or two about what they are and what they want (are they a new group? An old group? What are their intentions as Perrin understands them? What is the area of the information Perrin has for them? Historical? Current? Plans for something?) will help the reader to know and understand why this is important. You as the author, know why, but you need to ensure the reader does, too. For example:

Perrin, truth be told, didn’t know as yet what this meeting might entail or if he might understand what happening. If he was truthful, he still didn’t know why the Cadre – that revered group of intellectuals whose plans for the future seemed to enticing and yet dangerous – believed he might be of any use them them. But they had shown an interest in Perrin and his work, and when the Cadre were interested, you were best to return the favour.

The above example (you can very likely do better, and of course I may have misinterpreted what the Cadre actually is) is clearer in stating what the Cadre is and why Perrin might be confused as to what they need him along for.  It also shows that Perrin has information for them, but the tension comes in not know what that information (we discover later, of course). By holding back some information, but revealing others, you keep the reader invested in what’s happening without confusing them. With each scene, consider what the reader needs to know to understand the stakes and then make absolutely sure that you have given them that information and not simply assumed they already know it.


Generally, your style is nicely readable. You have a buoyant and fun voice, and there were moments here I really enjoyed reading, although there are issues that do arise.


You note that some of the punctuation is all over the place in your letter to the workshop, and yes, it “isn’t pretty” as you say – although you may take heart in knowing that even in the best manuscripts, one or two typos will always sneak through (I will bet there’s at least one in this report I have missed myself!).

There are a few more general proofreading issues beyond basic grammar, such as Babbage being referred to as Baggage on three occasions (pp10, 19,20), so yes, you do need to sort this as best you can moving forward, as it will affect how people read your work. However, you are aware of this so I’ll move onward.

Point of View

For the most part you tell your story through Perrin’s point of view. This is perfect for the genre of novel you’re in, as it is easier for readers to identify with one consistent point of view.

However, you need to watch out for “head hopping” such as on page 23 where suddenly, for one sentence only, we jump into Herschel’s head:

Herschel concludes the pitch. His trap is complete. He waits for Burton to respond.

This might be better written from Perrin’s point of view. For example:

Herschel concludes the pitch. Perrin watches him closely. He looks satisfied. Perrin thinks that Herschel has closed his trap masterfully.

You can probably do better, but you need to always remember that you can only ever tell the reader what your point of view character knows for sure. In this case, Perrin can’t be certain the trap is complete but he can observe Herschel and realise that it has happened.

This essay on points of view from the Workshop is always useful, although I do think you have the basics down quite nicely:


Although I have been critical on occasion, there really is a lot to like here, and I’m intrigued by the world you’ve created and the potential for adventure to come. You also have a nice, clear voice, which is always a good thing to have. Although I have concerns over pacing and proofreading issues, these are minor things and relatively easy to fix.

Its all going to come down to attention to detail, I think, and just making sure that you give the reader enough to know what is going on while also retaining the air of mystery you’re aiming for. I hope that this report gives you some things to think about in this regard and hopefully some idea of a way forward that you might also apply to any similar issues through the rest of the novel.

You may find moving forward that one of the courses from the writer’s workshop, such as self editing your novel – – or perhaps the writing the novel (intermediate) course to be useful for you. Or you may want to return later for a full read of the finished work. But certainly, despite some issues, there’s some nice moments in this opening chunk that point towards something quite interesting. I hope that with a little more development, this will turn into an intriguing project.

Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me and I shall do my best to any queries.



And here is my reply to Russel, verbatim, except for a couple of spoilers……

Many thanks for your excellent and very comprehensive report on the opening few chapters of “The Differences”

Basically, I agree with all the points you have made, but would make the following comments to put some of the issues raised in context.

  1. Opening section – yes, it is a bit long, but I wanted to ease the reader into a new but very real world and thought that smell was a useful and unusual way to do it. From my research, it seems people have forgotten just how odorous London was back then. TV series (Taboo, Ripper St) make the grime show but not the associated smells. A book can perhaps do that better and place the reader in a new and different environment. All my followers have commented that the book overall is pacey and a page turner.  BTW not all those people are related to me! So, may I be forgiven for easing readers into the world with a bit of verbose description?
  2. Genre – a very good point and one made by some of my followers. I agree Steampunk is too restrictive and will be off-putting to some readers. Usually those novels have a fully formed alternative technology. In my AR, the new stuff is just emerging and the longer story arc is why and how that is happening and how the rest of the world reacts to it. Others have commented on it being more of a Dickensian thriller with a touch of fantasy – but this is science based not magic. But as Arthur C Clarke once observed “any technology sufficiently removed from our own understanding will seem as magic”. The other point in downplaying the steampunk thing is that the emergent tech is very localised. Not for the masses, but only a select few and under the full control of the Cadre and military.
  3. Perrin – he is at the beginning a cipher, meek and overawed by his situation and the people he meets. A deliberate ploy of mine is to gradually let him emerge and develop his own character, as a result of all the things that happen to him. By the end of the book he will be much more of an individual and able to compete with the best of them.
  4. Withholding – yup, guilty as charged. This is the first part of and there are a lot of plots that emerge in this first book, most of them without a clear resolution by the end. Perrin only knows what he knows, there is no privileged information that the reader is privy to. The POV is Perrin. If he doesn’t know then neither does the reader. Together they uncover and understand the bigger picture as he/they move through the book. This is why it is written in the present tense to heighten that feeling of discovery/tension and hopefully make it more entertaining/rewarding. For example, as a young student rather isolated at a Victorian university Perrin knows very little about the Cadre and their aims and ambitions. To him they are an unknown, group mysterious and scary. It’s only after he meets them that he realises they are just as fallible as the rest of us as well as discovering what they are really up to.
  5. The Babbage/Baggage/Average/Cabbage is a running gag that Salt uses to insult Babbage – guess I need to make it more obvious!
  6. Grammar etc. I try my best, another one of my followers is a sub editor with OCD. She thinks I have thing against commas and punctuation in general. I don’t, but my priority at this stage is based on a quote by Terry Pratchett. “The first draft is you telling yourself the story”. And I haven’t finished that bit.
  7. Next steps – the draft is up to 80k with an estimated wordcount of 120k before the first serious edit/rewrite takes place. I aim to have that done by the end of September

Finally, thankyou Russel, your constructive but supportive comments have given me confidence that I’m basically on the right track with a potentially interesting story told in a slightly different way. All I could hope for at this stage.