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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  • Thursday, September 01, 2005

    Flying Close to the Ground

    Ann says, "This is my first novel and so far I have a 100% rejection rate on it - 10 out of 10, all form letters. It's a young adult novel, so I imagine this is not your normal reading material, but good writing should be the same across genres."

    I've edited YA stuff, and believe me children's book editors like horse stories - which Ann's book is, in part. Well, unless they're already swamped with them, but in general it's a good solid genre. I've seen horse stories reissued with more horsey covers and the sales double instantly, even on old titles. Series fiction, 8-12, about horses, that's my tip for the day. (1% of the royalties is fine, thanks.)

    "I have a feeling I suffer from a common rookie malady - an inability to use anything other than straight-forward plodding plotting. A start at the beginning and continue directly to the end approach, which is probably part of the reason why I don't get out of the slush pile. (There might be more wrong with it than that, but let's start there.)"

    OK. This is Flying Close to the Ground.

    I've wanted to be a jockey ever since I can remember. When I was five, my dad took me to the racetrack during one of our Sunday afternoon visits. I still remember the hush that came over the crowd before the bell sounded and the horses burst out of the gate. I was mesmerized by the colorful silk jockey outfits and in awe of the muscular horses. I loved the way the losing betting slips carpeted the walkways inside the concourse. The concept of betting meant nothing to me – I just loved the idea of tearing around the oval track on a fiery horse.

    Plus, I noticed immediately that all the jockeys were very small people. Munchkins, in fact, just like me.

    My mother was annoyed that my father hadn't taken me to the park or the zoo like a normal dad. They had a heated discussion on the front porch and seemed to forget that sound travels through open windows. She said something about selfishness and inappropriateness. I heard my dad say "But Lily, she loves horses. The best thoroughbreds in the world run on that track."

    Eventually, my mother had to cave-in to my father's earnestness and my non-stop campaign to see the racehorses. I became obsessed with horseracing. For kindergarten graduation, we had to tell the teacher what we wanted to be when we grew up. She would compose a rhyme about our future occupation and then we'd dress up and recite the rhyme on graduation day.

    When I was called to her desk, I had no doubt.

    "I want to be a jockey."

    The teacher furrowed her ancient brow, looking like one of those expensive Chinese dogs. "Wouldn't you rather be a nurse or a schoolteacher or maybe an Olympic gymnast?"

    It does plod a bit.

    The opening line doesn't quite grab me - in Goodfellas the almost identical "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster" is exciting and interesting because it's something really exotic. A jockey... I wouldn't expect a general readership to be gripped instantly.

    Of course, these things can be fixed, so I keep reading. The problem then becomes that it leads in to a discussion of the sort of cultural opposition the narrator has faced in her life. This is one of Lemony Snicket's Ten Tedious Stories, which you can find linked to below.

    --No Girls Allowed. Those words rang in my ears as I raced across the soccer field, my cleats glinting in the afternoon sun which beat down on McGilly Field here in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I had been living for all twelve of my years with my dad Horace and my mom Cindy, who were both veterinarians. No Girls Allowed! It was so unfair!

    OK, it's not nearly as bad as all that, but Mr Snicket is on to something there. If this book is No Girls Allowed, then it's instantly terribly predictable, and hackneyed, and nobody is going to be able to sell it. Remember, the final battle in the life of your book is not getting an editor to like it; not getting the sales and marketing people to love it; not getting Joe Public to pick it up; but, when a sales rep has to take the cover proof out of his sample case and wave it in front of a vinegary, cynical book shop Buyer (or regional Sales Honcho) - it's giving her enough to work with to sell the book on to a shelf.

    No Girls Allowed isn't going to cut it. So as an editor, I'm going to have a look at the synopsis, and see if there's a more interesting story in there.

    After a visit to the track, her mother reluctantly agrees with Jessie's plan and her career is off to a flying start. Life at the track is challenging and exciting, as Jessie must contend with a rival apprentice, Bradley Suskind, who becomes increasingly more aggressive, even knocking Jessie off a horse. Jessie overhears one of Bradley's conversations and suspects that his aggression is fueled by a secret agreement and mysterious deadline.

    Despite Bradley's interferences, Jessie quickly racks up the five wins she needs to change her weight allowance. She is allowed to gain five more pounds, but months of regimented dieting have deprived Jessie. She overindulges and gains seven pounds, putting her at odds with her agent, Mickey, who tells her she has to lose the weight quickly.

    [...]

    On the last day of the racing season, Jessie is thrilled because her father is finally going to see her race. Her father is married to his fifth wife and has several children. He and Jessie haven't had regular visits in several years, but he's the one who introduced Jessie to horse racing and she wants him to see her race.

    Jessie's father is a no-show, having skipped out for a week-long fishing trip. Jessie returns to her house disappointed and hurt, only to find her friends, mother and step-father waiting for her along with Dr. Wyler, the director of Apple Creek, an in-patient treatment center for girls with eating disorders. During the course of the intervention, Jessie's favorite trainer, Patch, arrives and takes away Jessie's defense that she's only doing what every other jockey does. Patch explains that Jessie actually weighs far less than her required racing weight and that she's taken things much further than the other jockeys. Damon repeats his concerns and Rachel reveals that she is angry at the way Jessie has treated Damon because Damon is in love with her.

    Ann's sent me the first 2,000 words of her 53,000 word novel; and right up to the end, there's no sense of what the theme of the book might be. But from the synopsis, I would expect that it is largely about anorexia. It is interesting that it is not, apparently, about the dysmorphic aspect of the problem - Jessie's is bound up in her ambition rather than her self-image. That's a story that is less often told, but would appear to have similar opportunities for drama - a story with some promise.

    Ann needs to look at the structure of her book. From the synopsis there appear to be various strands of plotting weaving through each other - racing, school, weight loss, romance, family drama, therapy - and Ann has started right at the beginning - early in Jessie's life. That might not be the best way to tell the story. what's the most important of those series of events, the one that holds everything together? How can the other strands be used to counterpoint and add depth to the main one?

    How is the chronology going to work? In the excerpt, there's a moment when the narration shifts from flashback to present tense:

    That was twelve years ago and I've never forgotten the rhyme or the intensity of my desires. If anything, they've grown stronger as I've gotten closer to my goal. As soon as I could secure a work permit, I got a job at the local stable. After a year of mucking out stalls, I got a job at the closest racetrack. Before I got my car, I had to ride my bike 8 miles each way to get to the track.

    I practically lived at the track on the weekends and in the summers. Three months ago, I passed my test, got a license and was taken on as an apprentice jockey.

    I'm counting the days until summer, when I can get out of boring school and spend my days at the race track. In Geography class, I'm completely ignoring the lecture on soybeans or some equally boring export of Brazil. It looks like I'm intently taking notes, but really, I'm writing the characteristics of the different horses I work with and using those characteristics to develop possible racing strategies. A lot of people think horse racing is all about luck. That's part of it. But knowing the horse and understanding the conditions necessary for the horse to succeed are important. Strategy plays a bigger role than most people think.

    See how the texture of the book changes? The way the voice of the book shifts, the way the fuzzy glow of hindsight drops out? Not much more than a tense change, but the story shifts into a different gear.

    I've edited audiobooks, and one thing I learned doing that is that the voice actor has to keep the listener interested with the pitch and the intonation of his voice. Sometimes he'd break down at the end of a page because it all had the same cadence, and we'd have to go back to re-record, putting more 'light and shade' into it. Remember: 'light and shade'. Works for print too.

    If this is the last time in Ann's book where there's a shift like this - a different way of speaking for the book's main voice - then plodding is exactly what will occur.

    There are a million ways to tell a story, and straight narrative is rarely the best way. Sorry to be a ponce for a minute (not that that's ever stopped me before) but you can score the book, like a piece of music. Find what needs to be expressed in each chapter, what emotional and dramatic crescendoes and diminuendoes need to be at each point. Play up the things that need to be played up and let the rest drop out. There appears to be little need, for example, to play up "No Girls Allowed" right at the start.

    The prose is clear without being beautiful. It's pretty functional, but it has the odd good image (the teacher frowning like a Pekingese) and the odd good joke:

    Damon thinks my house is crazy because of all the "halfs" and "steps". I think his house is crazy because he has five brothers, all of them built like linebackers, and a mother who actually stays home, wears an apron, and bakes cookies. It's like stepping into a time warp and finding yourself in Leave it to Beaver, only Wally and the Beaver have been replaced by the front line of the Chicago Bears.

    (Nitpick: But will the readership get the cultural reference?)

    Light and shade is not just a chapter-level thing; it operates at the level of paragraphs even more. The book will seem to plod less structurally if Ann pays attention to the rhythm of sentences.

    Last thing: Ann's query letter.

    For 17 year-old Jessie Reilly, life moves very fast – in perfect ovals. She's an apprentice jockey at the local racetrack. To Jessie, nothing beats the feeling of tearing around the track on a fiery horse, an experience she describes as "flying, only very close to the ground".

    But, as any pilot will tell you, flying close to the ground is a dangerous business. You have no margin for error and little chance of recovering if you make a mistake. And Jessie's certainly under a lot of pressure both at and away from the track. Her rivalry with an aggressive fellow apprentice, the lengths she must go to in order to meet her sport's low weight requirements, and the dangerous nature of horse racing challenge her at the track. Away from the track, Jessie dodges the concerns of her friends and family, tries to establish a relationship with her distant father and struggles to balance school and racing.

    That's not too bad. There are still too many subplots in there, but the combination of danger, horses and anorexia sounds good. Perhaps Ann should take her cue from the story she has crafted to sell the book in order to rewrite and refocus the book itself. Nix the school-balancing subplot, it's not interesting. Nix the aggressive apprentice, that's not particularly interesting either. This book might have good bones, but it may not be making the weight.

    Torgo, 9:51 pm

    3 Comments:

    Did you mention a link to something about Lemony Snicket's Ten Tedious Stories? You've gotten me curious, and I can't find the link.
    Anonymous MadScientistMatt, at 8:31 pm  
    Here you go Matt: http://www.livejournal.com/users/literaticat/103560.html
    Blogger Torgo, at 8:41 pm  
    Thanks, Torgo.
    Anonymous MadScientistMatt, at 10:08 pm  

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