Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Friday, August 19, 2005


    Marcelle says: "I'm about 15,000 words into my first novel... Here's the synopsis for S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d."

    What happens when you nearly succeed as a dancer, only to have your dreams dashed after an accident? When Kate meets horror film director, Joachim, an unusual bond is forged. His career is in tatters, the love of his life has left him, and his drug use is spiralling out of control. Kate is haunted by her failure as a professional dancer and must find refuge in Joachim's idealisation of his voluptuous ex to accept herself. She is prepared to endure a torturous emotional journey with him, imagining this as a rite of passage to the dark arts. But Joachim's desires may have murderous intent, his aims more treacherous than even Kate could have dared imagine...

    Written in minutely drawn attention to detail, this raw and original portrait champions the unrealised dreams in all of us that refuse to die. At last here is an erotic novel that dispenses traditional notions of a virgin/whore dichotomy, assumptions about dancing folk and people who like to wear black. A frank testimony, full of wonderment for experiences supremely felt and a place where all the songs of Courtney Love finally make sense.

    If this is what is being sent out to agents and publishers, the book is going to struggle. Marcelle included it into the email I got, so it might just be for my benefit, but I suspect it isn't. So let's go through it in detail. If I got it wrong, Marcelle, sorry! Skip down a screen or two.

    The first paragraph, which is setting out the plot, has some problems. It starts with a question that few people will have asked themselves. Is that what the novel is really going to be about, or is it going to be about what happens to one specific ex-dancer? Marcelle could as easily just start with Kate. I then don't understand what it means to say that she has to find refuge in an idealisation of a voluptuous ex, and I feel rather apprehensive at the thought of a torturous emotional journey. The dark arts suddenly pop up (I had no idea that the supernatural might be making an appearance) and it then goes into psychological thriller mode with the murderous intent and treacherous aims.

    In short, it's rather confusing. I'd like to have a better sense of the story here. If the story sounds interesting and original, the reader's much more likely to want to read the rest of it.

    The second paragraph is... bad. I wonder how many query letters are like this. I don't see the query letter in all its glory - agents, rather than publishers, see those more routinely - and barely read cover letters. But this is bad blurb writing and will only serve to get the mickey taken out of Marcelle in the reading room.

    Blurbs are hard to write. Publishing companies pay people good salaries to do nothing but boil the marketing message of a book down into a snappy, irresistible little block of text. I can't do it. Most authors can't do it well, in my experience. It's a specialised skill. So, beware: the harder you try to make your book sound fabulous, the closer you will get to making it sound ridiculous.

    Up close: things are written 'with' minute attention to detail; attention to detail will rarely be 'minutely drawn', unless you are writing about Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime scene; 'a portrait that champions unrealised dreams in all of us that refuse to die' is a too-complex bit of hyperbole; 'at last' is even more hyperbole; 'dispenses' ought to be 'dispenses with'; I can't think of any 'traditional notions of a virgin/whore dichotomy' or assumptions about dancers that urgently need dispensing with; 'dancing folk' is hokey; 'frank testimony' makes me think this is going to be a memoir, whereas the first paragraph made me expect the occult or a thriller; 'full of wonderment for experiences supremely felt' is hilariously over-the-top; and I do not wish to visit a place where the songs of Courtney Love suddenly make sense.

    Given all that, what's the book like? Marcelle will be lucky to have many people request to see it on the basis of this synopsis.

    Here's the first chapter.

    At fifteen, time seemed different. I simply wanted to be a gymnast. Back then, I had no fears of not making it, the world, and I with it, was relentless. Often I had the feeling I was rushing towards something, like a train cramming itself fiercely into the blackened gape of a tunnel. People didn't know what to make of me. I walked around school with a fixated face, energy I could not channel bristling from me in all directions. Above all the talk of underage sex, short skirts and cigarettes, I had an aim. It is easy, so easy to be obsessive when you have no friends.

    My day would start early in the prehistoric calm of dawn, still a magical place, where even late starters with well developed hips and budding breasts can turn themselves into Nadia Comaneci. Usually it was cold. The grass damp. I'd start out in layer upon layer of lycra-tracksuit-leotard ensembles (warmth protects muscles) and move through my warm-up routine, somnolent, like a sleepwalker. Then, as the sun began to dry my father's lawn, I began the jerking tumble-runs as best as I could in the limited space: roundoff, flic, flic, straight back somi. The first pass was the worst, every joint threatened to stall, not to bend or spring back, a state I call 'bone creaky'. Whoosh. Breathe. Four turbulent seconds and then your whole frame seems to relax into place. With one snap, you are a gymnast a performer with the right to do what you are doing. You gulp for breath. The neighbours can look if they want to.

    Dirt, mud, gravel and blades of grass get meshed into your hands. Mud splashes up, sometimes into your eyes. You don't care. You have to wear the same dirty tracksuits for several days anyway. It's not worth dressing up clean to get dirty. My Dad is a keen gardener and his lush green lawn is surviving majestically, despite a daily onslaught of my fumbled tumbling routines pushed in hard by bare feet. You can see the shapes of my exercises ground into the lawn, which end with trampled mud dips where I drop the final somi.

    The whole garden has been occupied by me, Dad's flower life has to content itself with the space I can't use: the edges around the borders. An old rusty square telegraph pole held in place by huge nail wedges serves as a floor beam. I hate putting my hands down on it for too long, the metal feels lethal like it's come from a seawreck. That's why I'm so fast on it. Fear is the key. If I can cope with this, on a real beam it will be oh so easy. Between two silver birch trees Dad has secured a heavy metal pole, a makeshift bar, so that I can practise upswings and beats. Again it's the wrong shape (too wide) and is too heavy, repeated use has bruised my pelvic area so much I am left with permanent yellow roughened skin around the bikini line. While other girls at school are having sex, my thighs have toughened, the skin steeling itself against the onslaught of puberty.

    But then, I'm not allowed to have sex, have boyfriends, go out. After the last party when my Dad had to pick me up when I had collapsed drunk on the floor, surrounded by boys, normal life was over. It was the start of the summer holidays, the year of the Olympics 1984. And I was grounded for like, forever.

    Er, where's Kate the dancer and Joachim? Marcelle says the book takes place over ten years, but... anyway. The prose is a mixture of the good - "Four turbulent seconds and then your whole frame seems to relax into place. With one snap, you are a gymnast" - the bad - "I'd start out in layer upon layer of lycra-tracksuit-leotard ensembles (warmth protects muscles) and move through my warm-up routine, somnolent, like a sleepwalker." - and the ugly - "I am left with permanent yellow roughened skin around the bikini line." Ewww! Sometimes Marcelle's backflips come off, and sometimes they end in a bit of an unsightly tumble. So, there's a good deal still to be done at this level.

    I also feel a little bit uneasy about this as the beginning for an erotic novel, although it's hard to tell - even with the synopsis - where this is going.

    At the end of chapter one, where are we? Does this novel begin in the right place? Marcelle might need to have a good look at the way it's structured, too.
    Torgo, 9:11 pm


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