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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  • Sunday, September 25, 2005

    Without a Prayer

    Zoise writes:

    I've been trying to sell this novel for most of a year -- had lots of bites but nobody wants to take the plunge. I suspect the problem is within the first couple chapters, but I sure could use a professional opinion.

    So let's have a look at her novel, Without a Prayer.

    My mom always claimed that the reason I came out a girl was because my daddy never went to church. Daddy claimed it was the other way around. He claimed he never went to church a day in his life because prayers never go anywhere, just float around our heads like swamp gas, stinking up the place. He had a reason to think that, of course. It's well-known Riddleback lore that not a single one of his prayers ever came true.

    For starters, when he was a kid, he prayed every night that he'd grow up to be a famous magician with a mysterious handlebar mustache and quick slender hands made for plucking exotic animals out of thin air. Preferably one with a dramatic Houdini-style death to boot. But when, in his mid-twenties, it was discovered that the only facial hair he could manage to sprout looked at best like cookie crumbs and that his hands were more like mallets than they were wispy and quick, he had to set his sights a little lower.

    He began concentrating instead on praying for money and women. He prayed for a supermodel and got my mother, all five feet, 200 pounds of her. He prayed for riches, but being a door-to-door rubber eraser salesman, could barely afford cheese puffs on a regular basis. None of his prayers ever seemed to be answered.

    So when the time came for him to pray that his expecting wife would have a baby boy to carry on the proud Riddleback name, it really was no huge surprise that I came out missing a few parts he'd really been counting on.

    With all those unanswered prayers floating around his head like mosquitoes, it's a surprise that he believed so vehemently that his prayer for an heir would be answered. But somehow he managed to eek out enough faith to believe just that. According to my mother, this is how it went:

    "Margaret," he called to my mother, who was busy drying dishes. He was all red and sweaty from the vigor of his prayer. "Buy one of them footballs, ya hear? We're gonna have a boy."

    My mom, never given to believing any statement of fact, waved a hand towel at him. "Oh, Cletus, now you know you can't count on those darn prayers of yours. Why, I think you're praying to the wrong person."

    First impressions: quirky, folksy territory. Perhaps too folksy - Mom there sounds rather forced. I like 'red and sweaty from the vigor of his prayer' and I like 'never given to believing any statement of fact' even though it seems to be a non sequitur (it's a character trait with possibilities for wit). I don't quite understand the logic of the first paragraph: Mom thinks it's Dad's fault for not praying; he thinks prayers don't work anyway because they've never come true for him; and yet he does continue to pray, and is disappointed every time. It's a bit muddled.

    But Daddy was persistent, bringing home footballs and buying a large-pawed slobbery mutt, and eventually even my mom became a believer. They began painting everything in sight blue and even came up with a name for me: Gary.

    I was born and after they were both finished crying over their misfortune, they made a command decision. The world might have seen them as pioneer battlers of sexism, but really they were just too lazy and forlorn to do anything else. They kept the footballs, the blue paint, and the name Gary. Even the big mutt, Juliet, stuck around. When I was five, I renamed her Fred so I wouldn't feel so unusual.

    Still, they each blamed God for the fact that I was born sans-penis, either one way or another. They argued about it often, especially after it came to light that my mom would have no more children. They were stuck with me and they both hated the very idea of it.

    "Cletus, quit blaming God," Mom would say. "You're the one at fault. If only you'd stopped praying long enough to go to church every now and then, that girl would be a boy right now."

    "You're right," Daddy would holler back. "It's not God's fault. It's yours! Why just look at what your constant yammering about church has done!" He'd point at me as if I were Exhibit A in the Trial of the Riddleback Sins.

    I didn't take their disappointment too hard. I didn't feel bad about myself particularly; I just tried to be what they wanted. I tried to be a boy. I rejected anything feminine, ripping heads off of any stray dolls that I happened upon, using fingernail polish for war paint, and always insisting on playing full tackle football with the boys rather than "house" with the girls. For my parents' sake, I ran the streets with no shoes, my feet as black as snake eyes. I scratched my butt in public and got quite good at blowing a snot right out of my nose and into the grass.

    It's just ... not excellent. It's gently amusing - very gently - and it is pretty well written, nothing obviously bad in there. But I would not shed a tear if I were never to read the rest of it. Gary's voice is not compelling, and it might be that's because I'm never 100% convinced by it.

    The attached synopsis sets out a list of Gary Sue's 12 disastrous marriages, few of which last more than a few days, ending in zany breakups. There are a few good comedic ideas (I like the breakup where Gary is so repulsed by her new husband's - er - back hair that she resorts to shaving him in his sleep) - but it is rather episodic and does not develop much - 12 or so variations on the theme of ill-suited newlyweds. Of course, in the end, true love prevails: "Happiness is as close as the hedge in her own backyard."

    This needs to be laugh-out-loud funny, or people won't keep reading it. Zoise may be right in that the problem is near the start - perhaps it perks up lots further in - but this is unlikely to make an editor really sit up and pay attention.

    I'm not an expert on 'women's fiction' by any means, and am not entirely sure of the market potential of this book. I would imagine, though, that what it needs more than anything else is a good laugh on every page. There is in my opinion no better way of holding the attention of an agent or an editor than to make her laugh. Right now, this doesn't cut it.

    This is a difficult type of piece to critique because the main reason it would get rejected would be, as I said to begin with, lack of excellence. Zoise is competing with publishers' and agents' lists, not their slushpiles, and although this is several cuts above the average of the latter, there are better things out there already. There's little I could suggest doing to it structurally or at sentence level to make it sell. It might be a case of reevaluating the whole book: what can be done to make this so funny and charming that it stands out from the crowd? And that, as you can imagine, will not be easy.
    Torgo, 1:09 am


    Thanks, Torgo, for the critique. You basically said a more detailed version of everything all the agents/editors who've rejected it have said. Guess that means I've got work to do. I appreciate your honesty.
    Anonymous zoise, at 6:14 am  
    I appreciate the critiques I've read. Though not my piece yet, you have really made suggestions I can use. Just checking to see if maybe you received my memoir piece?
    Joyce Wakefield
    Anonymous Joyce A Wakefield, at 8:44 am  
    Yep, will get to it this week.
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:50 pm  

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