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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  • Tuesday, September 27, 2005

    RSS and other things.

    If you use RSS, you can now subscribe to Honest Critiques using the link in the sidebar.

    I've had some emails from people who've submitted things to the blog asking when I'll get to them. I had a bit of a hiatus last month - we won the Ashes, did I mention that? - but I'm back on track. The earliest thing in the queue, though, is from August the 17th, so I have a little ground to make up. At the latest, reckon on four weeks from receipt (still better by far than in my day job... but then the pile is not nearly so long.) I'm not always acknowledging receipt because I'm a lazy hound, and uncouth with it. Sorry.

    Please please can I reiterate: if at all possible could you strip any special characters out of your submissions? That means smart quotes; smart apostrophes; smart ellipses; and en or em dashes. Blogger is violently allergic (check the archives) and even pasting Word docs into Notepad doesn't get rid of everything. It plays havoc with text encoding. I will have to look for a DOS text editor or something that doesn't try so hard to be helpful.

    I am also considering moving the site away from Blogger, as my techno-wizard brother has set me up the shell of a blog elsewhere. It looks very flexible and powerful but I'll need a while to find out how it works - it's based on Greymatter and it's all rather daunting. Oh God I'm going to have to learn CSS aren't I...

    Is everyone still enjoying themselves? Any comments, suggestions for changes? Hate the font or layout? Think I was talking through my hat when I critiqued that other guy's work? Please do leave comments here and on the submissions if you'd like.
    Torgo, 9:33 pm | link | 12 comments |

    Instincts

    Kathy says:

    My main issue has always been the synopsis. It is so hard to put into a few pages a complete 85,000 word novel and make it sound good.
    But first let's look at the prologue...
    "Hear the sands singing to us, A-ki-ki?"

    Sammy looked over at Bold Eagle as he pulled his oar from the lake water and listened to the sounds coming from the shoreline just ahead of them. It didn't take him long to spot the source. On the beach was a young girl, and an older gentleman, dancing in slow, deliberate strides.

    Every step of their bare feet caused the grainy sand of the beach to emit a deep pitched resonance that the Lake Michigan natives dubbed "the singing sands". Sammy used the binoculars hanging around his neck to get a better look. Although their backs were turned to him, he could see that the man was Asian [how? T.] and the girl couldn't be much older than fifteen.

    She was slim, but firmly built, and stood a couple of inches taller than her companion, at least 5'4 or so. Her long, blonde hair hung down her back in a loose pony tail, and her delicate hands flowed through the air as she mimicked the man's movements flawlessly.

    "Is that a dance they're doing?" Sammy asked, turning to his grandfather who was also watching the scene with quiet appreciation written all over his deeply lined face.

    "They call that Tai-Chi," Bold Eagle replied and smiled at his 19-year-old grandson. Sammy shifted his full attention for a moment back to Bold Eagle, noting the melancholy tone in his voice. He knew that he was the apple of his grandfather's eye, and his best student. Bold Eagle never tired of answering his questions and Sammy felt a tug at his heart knowing that their lives would be parting soon, when he entered the Chicago Police Training Academy.

    [...]

    Sammy grinned as he watched the girl in motion through the binoculars. Strands of her hair flowed freely in the warm breeze, and as she slowly swayed around her face glistened with perspiration and intensity.

    She had not spotted them as they sat staring from their perch on the lake, but Sammy couldn't take his eyes off her. For a moment he felt as if he were swaying with her. Though both men were still, the canoe gently started rocking back and forth, as if it was also dancing; creating a lullaby that connected just the girl and Sammy as one with the universe.

    Sammy surprised himself with that thought. He was hardly the poetic type, but as he followed her graceful steps something he could not explain stirred inside him. Suddenly the world spun in slow motion. Everything else around him blurred and nothing else mattered but the charm and beauty he was experiencing in the simple movements of a complete stranger. It was as if he was in a trance and he had no control over the situation, which unsettled him.

    [...]

    When he looked back up the girl was staring back at him. His first reaction was to look away, the 'it's not polite to stare' lesson he had learned as a child instantly signaling his brain. But his heart won out and instead of avoiding her eyes, he lost himself in them.

    Hers were the bluest he had ever seen, and he could almost feel her gaze touch his inner being and search his soul. Once again, it was as if the world no longer existed outside the two of them and they both smiled, as if remembering some secret that they had shared since life began.

    [A conversation with Bold Eagle ensues]

    Sammy shook his head in reply, grinning and rolling his eyes the way he used to when he was a young boy. He was proud of his Miami Indian heritage, but the myths of his ancestors he had learned in his youth were just stories to him.

    He looked at his grandfather fondly. Throughout his whole childhood this man had taught him about tradition and the mystical connection between mankind and the spirit world. As a bright eyed kid it had all seemed magical, but as he grew the magic faded and the stories had become simple fairy tales to him.
    People often say: show, don't tell. I don't agree with this as a hard-and-fast rule - I think the author is often required to summarise and to use the narrative voice to make judgements on occasion, as dictated by the pace and texture of the book - but here you will have noticed an awful lot of information being palmed off on us. We're told, straight, about the relationship between Sammy and Bold Eagle, and about Sammy's pride in his heritage, while things like the Chicago Police Training Academy are smuggled in rather apologetically, clinging to some character work.

    The worst thing you can use a prologue for is info-dump and exposition. There are some weird ideas about prologues floating around, I find, including the notion that they are not often read (the unspoken corollary being that you can put unreadable stuff there.) If your prologue is a dark bolus of preparatory matter, it's like starting a five-course meal with a packet of dry cream crackers.

    Kathy's prologue is not nearly so bad as all that, but I suspect that it could easily be left out, or just cut to the bone. We don't have to have names; we don't need to know anything about the characters or the surroundings or the Police Training Academy or Bold Eagle's mystical maunderings. The important story point here is Sammy's eyes meeting the girl's, in some timeless moment, to the sound of the singing sands. It's a page, no more. Because at the beginning of the first (second) chapter we are with Sammy, now a cop, on assignment in LA. It's no great matter of technique to connect the cop to the boy in the boat, and then we know where we are.
    So Sammy's out on the street, laying in wait for a cop killer, when he spots a girl...
    Sammy frowned, trying to asses the situation logically. Ten years of police work had caused him to become overly paranoid sometimes and he told himself to relax. She was probably just waiting for someone to arrive.

    "Sid, this is hardly the time to be girl watching," he admonished his partner with a smile on his face. Still he positioned his rear view mirror to get one more glance at her. When she finished her call and turned towards the runway, he tried to get a peek at her face. She was wearing sunglasses and the hat she wore cast a shadow that masked most of her features, but something about her tugged at Sammy's gut.

    A sense of familiarity swept through him, which grew even stronger when she suddenly turned her attention to his mirrored reflection. She didn't move for a minute, as if she recognized him too.

    Sammy felt the customary stirring in his body and he could hear Bold Eagle's voice inside of his head telling him not to ignore this gift.
    Er ... a customary stirring?
    Some would call it a sixth sense, heightened awareness or intuitiveness. His grandparents called it instincts. Whatever it was, Sammy had learned to live with it, and even used it to help out in cases without any leads.
    Ah. Phew. Wouldn't you know it, it's the same girl from the lake. Now might be a good time to turn to the synopsis:
    Martial arts expert Jenna Richardson and Chicago Police Detective Sammy LaRue have a few things in common. They were born with intense instincts, they were raised to believe that the spirits have blessed them, and they were lovers who died together in another lifetime.

    Other than that, they are as different as east and west.

    The only thing Jenna has ever wanted to do since she was ten years old living in Okinawa, is to grow up, find the people responsible for her family's deaths and kick their ass. Fourteen years later she sits in a Chicago police station waiting to be interrogated on a bogus murder charge. The interrogation she can handle. It's the being whisked back to protective custody by U.S. Marshall Dan Janovich that upsets her. The Marshall is the only obstacle in her way to accomplishing her goals, but she is about to meet the second.

    Why Sammy volunteers to help protect the very person who just ruined his stake-out, he isn't certain. His partner, Sid, who also volunteers, thinks it is because she's a looker, but Sammy knows in his heart that it is much more than that.

    It isn't who she is that attracts him to her; it's who she once was.

    Sammy is a full blooded American Indian, raised by his grandparents on a farm in Indiana. For years, since a mysterious encounter just before he entered the police academy, he has been experiencing strange dreams, which abruptly turn into visions as he and Jenna draw closer to each other. When his grandfather suggests they take a spirit journey together, they reluctantly agree. Through this journey they are warned that their horrible fate in a past life is destined to repeat itself if Jenna continues on her path for vengeance.
    ...and it turns out that this path includes terrorist bombs, Interpol, the CIA, the FBI and a secret martial arts tournament, which I have to say kicks ass because I own Best of the Best II on DVD. (Eric Roberts fans: you owe it to yourselves.) There is also, to my taste, a slightly goofy subplot about being lovers in a previous life, and at one point Jenna regresses to her past where she finds the strength to defeat her enemies. But I bought Jean-Claude Van Damme winning a secret fighting tournament while blinded, in Bloodsport; I bought Jean-Claude Van Damme's budget lookalike winning a secret fighting tournament by doing the Dim Mak Touch of Death in Bloodsport II; I was prepared to accept that Scotland might have sent a useless kilt-wearing boxer to a secret fighting tournament in order to be punched in the balls by Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Quest. I suppose some past life regression is not so very much to ask.

    Kathy's tried to make it sound blurby, but sometimes it fights with the info: "The interrogation she can handle. It's the being whisked back to protective custody by U.S. Marshall Dan Janovich that upsets her." Again the information that Kathy's trying to tell us, that she needs us to know, is packed in to the sentence in an attempt to establish character. Try reading those two sentences out loud in the manner of that gravelly man who does the movie trailers, with the exaggerated emphasis. You will have trouble packing in that whole clause about being whisked back to protective custody. That means it is not an easily readable sentence, which in this context is undesirable. It might be better just to stick to a fairly representative precis of the book, trying to preserve its pacing, and leave out the fancy touches.

    Is it an enticing synopsis for a novel, rather than for the kind of chop-socky movies I dote on? Possibly, if Kathy can do action scenes really well, it might be a good thriller, aimed around about the Dan Brown readership. She'll have to be really good at the chop-socky, which seems to form a decent wodge of the book and which I have never seen put across well in prose. (I am happy to suspend my disbelief in goofy plots when there is the spectacle of Jacky Chan on stilts running away from a helicopter to divert me. If not... what are you left with?) But I still think it's a tough sell. The synopsis is a little clunky, but that isn't going to be the problem.

    The prose needs work. It does a lot of telling, not showing, and not in good ways. It is all of the same texture; the authorial voice rarely changes tone or pace, and when it does (Sammy's eyes meeting Jenna on the lake) it is not entirely successful. It lacks music. How can you work on those things? Read the book out. Every word. Record it, even, and listen back to it. As you read, you'll see where the music and rhythms of the paragraphs are interrupted, where the blockages are, where the Tai Chi dance is tripping over itself. Take all the commas out. Put them back in where you need a pause. Look at individual sentences. Are they boring? Redundant? Vague? Could a long sentence more profitably be two sentences? It's only ready when the whole thing sings.
    Torgo, 8:34 pm | link | 7 comments |

    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 | link | 3 comments |

    Saturday, September 24, 2005

    FAQs (part 2)

    A new critique'll be up this evening, but first a quick question from Stephen Newton (via comment threads):

    Torgo, Do editors care what font is used in manuscripts? I've heard one should use a fixed width font like Courier others claim they only want to read Times Roman. Can you shed some light on MS preparation?

    Yes. The first thing to say is read the submission guidelines very carefully. Some, as you know, are very specific about manuscript formatting. Others don't mention it at all except to say that manuscripts ought to be typed (nobody wants longhand scripts.) So, that's pretty straightforward.

    If there's no specific guidance, Courier is safest. I have no problem reading 12-point Courier or Times, Arial or Helvetica at a pinch. I like the document set up with 1.5 or 2 lines spacing, because it's easier on the eyes. I like a line space between paragraphs and standard margins. I think if you go very far astray from those settings, it just makes things a little harder to read, and editors will feel a trifle irritated.

    However, unless you've totally ignored strict submission guidelines, or printed the whole thing out in an unreadable, tiny or very wacky typeface, your work will get read. It's not going to be the sole thing that makes an editor decide to reject it. Don't fret too much about the formatting of the book, fret about the quality.

    (For submissions to this site, it'd help me out if it was plain text with no smart quotes (you can turn them off in Word) or smart dashes, line space between paragraphs, no indents.)
    Torgo, 2:40 pm | link | 3 comments |

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    Hollywoodland

    Chapter one.

    1910
    Gravitas, Wisconsin

    To call Gravitas a town would be doing it a favor it didn't deserve. It was barely a place in-between two places that were actually on the map, two places so important they needed a highway between them. That highway did what most highways do, it crossed another one, and that other road led to a bunch of farms in every direction. I grew up on one of them. It only made sense to put a feed store and a granary and a post office at that very intersection between those bigger towns. The granary at the intersection was called the Gravitas Granary because it was once owned by a Greek guy named Gravitas who went back to Greece. Soon there was the Gravitas General Store where you could buy clothes made for you by someone else, the Gravitas Barber Shop where you could get someone else to cut your hair or even shine your shoes, and the Gravitas Diner where you could get someone else to cook your food. My daddy thought these establishments were a waste of money because any damn fool who couldn't make their own clothes or cut their own hair or shine their own shoes or cook their own food didn't deserve to live.

    That's how daddy talked. There were a lot of people in his eyes didn't deserve to live, but his favorites were the local busybodies coming round our farm trying to tell him how he should do his business or raise his family. My main memory of my daddy is him chasing varmints away from our home with his shotgun. That's what he called them. Varmints. I wouldn't make this up.

    My mom and dad called me Joshua so that's what you can call me.

    Joshua is in town one day and comes across this

    For some reason there was a ruckus, a whole bunch of people gathered around the feed store where there was this funny, smooth talking guy in a fancy suit who was giving quite a speech about something he called the marvel of the century. Somebody mentioned the new century started only ten years ago and somebody else shouted out everywhere but here and everyone laughed because they was right. Looking around Gravitas, I couldn't see nothing or nobody that hadn't been there at least ten years. Didn't look like no new century to me.

    This guy in the suit wasn't like anyone I'd ever seen before. He sure wasn't from around here with his fancy clothes and strange way of talking. He stood in front of his wagon which he parked in the empty lot next to the feed store. He explained that he was actually on his way from one town to another when he broke a wheel in Gravitas. It was going to take a day to fix so since he was here anyway, he'd do us all the big favor of setting up his Kinematographic Theater. It was like one of them gospel shows where everyone got their souls saved only there weren't no preacher, just a big tent with some chairs and a machine he called a projector, which looked sort of like a lantern with a crank on the side. He set it up at the back of the tent and he said it was going to do something we wouldn't believe, it was going to make living pictures on the wall of that tent.

    ...and Joshua is thunderstruck.

    There was a light shining from the Kinematographic projector and you could stick your fingers in it and make a dog that looked like he was barking which I thought was pretty entertaining but everyone else didn't and asked me to stop. I sat right down front and suddenly it weren't no screen no more but a window into another world and in that world I was sitting somewhere in some other place, some town with a lot of people who were walking around. There were lots of carts and horses and them new Model T automobiles on the street. The buildings were real tall and the title said New York City and I could read it now because I was facing the right way. I sat there watching these people in the city and it's like I was there, just sitting somewhere, looking out at the real world, but a different real world, a world where things were not what they seemed, a strange and jerky world where something was missing. I know it sounds stupid but it took me a while to realize what it was. There weren't no color. Didn't matter. Color would have been too much.

    Then it changed to somewhere else, I think it was Paris cause there was this building in it called the Eiffel Tower and right away it felt like I was really there, sitting at a cafe with all these people walking around even though I knew I'd never been to France. Man, these moving pictures were something else. I was enjoying the tarnation out of them.

    [...]

    He let me sit through three shows and I just kept watching and watching. Turned out the work he wanted me to do was turning the crank on the projecting device when his arm got tired. At first it was hard to get it to go at the 20 frames per second it was supposed to run at, but I couldn't help myself. I just kept speeding up and slowing down the cranking and it was the funniest thing I ever saw, people jerking around and walking fast, then I'd slow down the fast stuff and speed up the train, but never stopping, like Buck said, or the film would burn. I couldn't stop laughing and the audience liked it too, especially at this one part where they were showing a scene from some Shakespeare play, I think it was A Tale of Two Cities.

    It was a love scene that turned into a fight scene that turned into a love scene again. You were supposed to read all these titles to know what they was saying to each other but you didn't really have to because you could tell what they was saying just by the way they was looking at each other. This guy was dressed up and rich and clean shaven except for a little mustache that he must have spent a lot of time on. He was really angry-like and I didn't know why because the title went by too fast.

    The lady with him was so beautiful, her skin so white, her hair and nails and dress were the prettiest I'd ever seen. I could look at her forever if that guy weren't yelling at her. What was his problem? How could he treat her that way? Why wasn't he treating her like the princess she obviously was because when she started crying, actually crying, you just wanted to go up to her and say hey baby, it's all right, nothing's gonna get you, I'll protect you, let me hold you my precious and protect you from all harm forever and ever.

    It wasn't long before I realized I was feeling something I'd never felt before. Either I was getting sick or I was in love. I figure about four seconds was all it took. It was true love, I guarantee it, because after all it's only true love sets you on your way, like a cannon, straight from the heart, and I was on my way. I couldn't believe such beauty could exist. She was perfect, my heart's unknown desire come to life in a magic lantern show.

    Michael says:

    Chapter two changes to the third person, in which we meet the real Ashley Welles and find she's an egotistical dipshit, the exact opposite of Joshua's dreams. The rest of the chapters alternate between first and third person as Joshua, my Candide, works his way to Hollywood. It's an interesting device I've never seen anyone use before, and I do it so smoothly that most readers don't even notice.

    Yet I just got a rejection from an agent who told me to fix it. I'd hate to lose Joshua's first person voice, which I think is entertaining and very fun to write. But a lot of the story takes place when he isn't there, and I can't lose those parts either. Making those parts first person from a different character's perspective would be even more confusing.

    I know it's hard to tell without reading the whole thing, but don't you think my original concept is sound?

    I've seen that technique used before, successfully, although I can't bring to mind any examples at the moment - I think maybe Iain Banks does it? First person and third person alternating can certainly work. However, if one part of the book is weaker than the other, that can be a serious problem.

    I recently had an MS in that was set alternately in 15th-century Europe and modern-day Oxford. The 15th-century bits were terrifically good, and the modern ones rubbish. It was a shame, because there wasn't much more we could do than pass on it - by that time, we were already in an auction.

    Looking at this excerpt, I have to say that the first-person voice doesn't quite work. Michael's presumably going to spend quite a lot of time working out ironies between the narrative voice and the reader's understanding of the situation - here, we know much more than Joshua throughout - and it's laid on rather too thickly. To have Joshua leap out of his seat hollering at the sight of a projected train 'rushing towards him' is quite a familiar scene, almost the cliche situation of any book or film that deals with the early days of cinema. Equally, we know that Joshua is going to end up a mark for every huckster and mountebank in LA. If the book unfolds in pure Candide fashion, it might well be rather predictable, and in turn his naivete might become wearing (the reader has to do the whole job of being cynical.)

    And, indeed, how much does narrator-Joshua know at the time of telling? Sometimes the prose seems as naive as the character; sometimes it's more sophisticated and knowing, throwing terms like 'love scene' and 'fight scene' around which seem to belong to the lexicon of film. To resolve the uncertaincy that this creates, it's necessary to get to know exactly who Joshua is at the time of telling, not just at the time the novel is set.

    Joshua has to be funnier and more charming than he appears here, and to react in surprising ways. It's OK at this length, but I would feel apprehensive about it stretched into a novel, or even half of one. I would certainly get tired of phrases like 'I was enjoying the tarnation out of them'. (Professional mimics often have a key phrase they use to get into character, something they particularly associate with the person they're doing an impression of - is 'tarnation' a word used to get Joshua back when the voice is slipping?)

    I'd suggest that Michael shouldn't try shoehorning his third-person scenes into someone else's POV, but should maybe look at third-person throughout. Have a look at Roderick, by John Sladek, one of the very best modern Candides - third-person, but full of brilliant character voices, the essential ingredient of this kind of tale.

    If Michael can't bear to lose Joshua, well, tarnation, he needs to be more fun to be around.
    Torgo, 1:13 am | link | 6 comments |

    Thursday, September 15, 2005

    Constant Never

    Just a morsel. La Marqueza has sent me a link to her blog, saying "This is a short personal essay type of piece. I would like to expand it further. Insights would be greatly appreciated."

    Click across there to read it now. Got that? Good. I'm not sure exactly what insights I can give for this - I'm not sure what she's thinking of doing with it - but I will say that the second paragraph is much better than the first. The odd rhymes in the first bit - 'been' and 'seen', 'place' and 'face' - are jarring in prose, unless you've established the sort of voice that can say things like that. There's also some very dodgy sentence construction : "Then there is the line going east, first across the Mississippi river washed up on a truly decadent city then on to another more subdued place with no less a fantasy than the one in Nevada." I can't quite tell what that means. And, indeed, the big problem with this paragraph is that I don't know what these lines are or what I'm being told about.

    La M. gets more into her stride in the second paragraph, which has some good images - I like the cemetery "thrown down and forgotten by the side of the railway tracks". In the list, the artless longing for sensation, for the sausages on sticks and the feel of rough fabric, feels genuine. On the other hand the 'living statue' is peculiar.

    "Lovers are lucky they have a lifetime but the anonymous bodies in the empty rooms across the landscapes of America's hotels are even luckier because they have the freedom to choose where they go, who they see, and where they lay their heads down for the next night, in the next city." I keep reading it and thinking there's a glimmer of poetry there; but when I try to get a good long look at it, it slips away. You could sprinkle some commas and things through there and make it grammatical, but would you lose the flavour? The charm of the person who says "Perhaps you could join me in each and every place. That I would like too"?
    Torgo, 11:26 pm | link | 1 comments |

    Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    Anti-advert

    Oh dear. The top ad in my little ad block is for PublishAmerica, who say - "We want your book, not your money."

    Just in case anyone reading this doesn't know about PA, here's a link to the Absolute Write forums, with all the information you need. And please, please don't touch them with a ten-foot pole.

    You can probably check out most of my other advertisers there too...
    Torgo, 9:04 am | link | 9 comments |

    FAQs

    A couple of questions from David -
    I was wondering if you could tell me how a slushpile is organized. Are they generally arranged in a FIFO system or is it more random? Also, is all unsolicited work that gets submitted to a publisher bound for the slushpile? One last question; is it acceptable to submit to several publishers at the same time? Or should submissions be done one at a time?

    I reckon FIFO means First In First Out, and that's broadly the case. The exact order of submission may not be perfectly preserved. It may be also that the quicker you get a response, the worse your submission was; if something's half-decent, an editor might have it knocking around their desk for a while waiting for a proper read. But then again, they might just have lost it. The sheer weight of manuscripts arriving at most houses usually plays havoc with the most well-intentioned administrative system.

    As to the second question - yes, by and large. Agented submissions - from agents known to the publisher or who appear to really truly be agents - are turned around much more quickly, because you don't want to get on the bad side of agents. Unagented stuff goes in the pile. Even if you send in your MS with the name of an editor affixed, intending to bypass the pile, they will open it up, see it's a manuscript they weren't expecting, and send it right back to sit with the rest of the slush. That is one trick that Does Not Work.

    The third question - you need to check the submission guidelines really carefully (but you did that anyhow); and if they don't say, No simultaneous submissions, go ahead. I suggest, however, not labouring the point in your cover letter. Things like 'this book has also been sent to 15 other people, so look sharp' do not endear you to the reader.
    Torgo, 12:30 am | link | 3 comments |

    Tuesday, September 13, 2005

    Buried Alive

    A short story from Cheri, 'Buried Alive'.

    Moisture, cold and penetrating awakened her senses. The smell of damp earth was overwhelming to her. Wiggling around just a bit brought it home in crushing fear.

    "Oh God," she thought, "I'm in the ground! Buried alive!"

    She screamed and struggled but eventually understood that the screaming was all in her mind. With that thought came overwhelming despair and she just lay quiet, unmoving. After what seemed a very long time she began to contemplate her future, or lack thereof, and she began to plan a resolution to her problem.

    Realizing that she was able to breathe, to somehow exist without surface air, soothed her enough to relax and think coherently.

    "At least I'm not claustrophobic," she thought.

    She would grasp at anything for a little comfort. Knowing that she would have quickly become mindless with terror if she had been claustrophobic, she clung to that little bit of knowledge like a drowning person clings to a life jacket. She wondered how long she could survive buried God knew how deeply in the ground. She felt the bone-chilling cold creeping through the darkness of her involuntary confinement, making her drowsy, and in time she fell into a deep sleep of renewal and nourishment. After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, the ground once more began to warm. Slowly she awoke, squirming just a little to test the boundaries of her unearthly subsistence. She thought she felt a bit more room around her and heartened, she thrashed and kicked and struggled until she exhausted herself. Once more her tomb of dirt smelling of unknown minerals and dank, unseen things she refused to acknowledge, began to cool. Dejected at her lack of progress in freeing herself, she fell into a fretful sleep. She dreamed of the sun on her face, raising her limbs to the skies and reaching up and up as the sun smiled down at her while he moved farther and farther away. There was no sun on her face, only dampness. Was she crying? She could no longer tell.


    Bejazus!

    But hold on - skipping ahead -

    On the second morning of her 'dormancy' she awoke to muffled voices above her. With an urgency born out of desperation she pushed higher and harder until, Oh God, is that sunlight? She reached higher and sod began to drop away. Encouraged, she struggled harder and was at last rewarded for her grit and determination.

    Breaking free of her earthen tomb, she stood tall. Shaking off the last clumps of dirt she finally succeeded in reaching her goal. Lifting her face to the gloriously blazing sun she heard...

    "Oh, look honey, the sunflower's come up."


    A trick ending. They always make me think of the time I was seven years old, at a Chinese restaurant with my mum, and she said she'd give me two pounds if I ate a water chestnut, which initially I was disinclined to do. When we got home she went into the kitchen and came back with two pounds of self-raising flour. What a rotten trick to pull on a trusting young soul.

    Endings like this to short stories make me feel that way because all my expectations of the kind of story it will be, along with any emotional investment I might have made in the characters, are just dashed. I don't mind it in a mystery, but then I'm reading a mystery precisely because I want a trick ending. My advice: Sorry, Cheri - but avoid this sort of thing.

    Even to get to the ending, there's a fair amount of contortion involved to preserve the apparent premise - it doesn't quite feel like a person buried alive, but then the thoughts and behavior attributed to the sunflower seed are rather disquieting, particularly the screaming and struggling. It doesn't really work either way.
    Torgo, 10:19 pm | link | 6 comments |

    Darkwing

    25,000 people in Trafalgar Square this morning, and me stuck in the office. Oh well.

    Here's Emmet's fantasy novel, Darkwing.
    Til's linen tunic was soaked through. His mail hauberk chaffed. Five days on a reave and it lay heavy on him. His bones ached, his eyes were gritty with tiredness, his legs like swollen birch held too long in water. Still, he was pleased. His little band had acquitted itself well. The Ri had complimented them on their courage. They had claimed the heads of a half a dozen Firbolg and lost none of their own, though one of the young bloods had been wounded. The herd of dun cattle they were coaxing home only sweetened the deal.

    He paused in shade beneath a copse of alder. No breath moved in the valley floor. Like a heavy hand, the sun pressed pressing him into the earth. Still, he could smell the river ahead and knew that Pale was less than a league away, over two forested hills, known as Maiden's Pair. Wildgrass on the hills wove delicate green patterns as the wind caressed it. Poppies and lemon Filam grew in wild profusion. He quickened his pace. He would be home before Jahila birthed. He had promised her as much, and he was a man who kept his promises.

    #

    The village swept down two sides of a hill toward fields on the Meridian Plain below. A ring fort, fires burning on its stone battlements, crowned the hill. Below it, reed-thatched longhouses lined the streets, arcing toward the quays, their eaves steep triangles almost touching the ground. Cattle and sheep grazed on the long swathe of the grassy commons in front of the temple of the Dagda. Outside the wooden palisade surrounding the village, barley and rye danced, a pulsating emerald wave in fields ringed by unmortared walls stretching away from the River Sila. The green river wound through the plain, its muddy banks covered in reeds and clusters of willow.

    A small crowd, alerted by outriders and the hill pickets, waited for them outside the bronze-plated gates of the Main Guard. The clan leaders stood amongst the mothers and wives and children of the returning warriors. Two priests decked out in saffron cloaks, sporting antler helms, intoned the gruss, a prayer for the safe return of travelers.

    Garl the Tanaist, known as Giant, strode forward to meet them, his braided hair glinting like autumn wheat. He smiled a troubled smile, wrapped Til in a bear hug, and said, “It is her time, wife-brother. All is not well.”

    Til’s blood chilled; his heart froze. He sprinted up the hill, past the market square and the cattle grazing on the commons, to his longhouse. The door opened before he reached it. His mother strode out, rubbing her hands on her kirtle. The look on her face told him all he needed to know.

    #

    Mag the Midwife, his mother's maiden sister, pulled back the woolen blankets as he ducked into the recessed alcove. Jahila lay on soft heather on a long bench of packed earth, sided by planks of pine. He knelt beside the bed and clasped her hands in his.

    Runnels of grimy sweat meandered down her forehead. Her face was a sickly, pale. She smiled weakly and tears welled in her winter-green eyes as she whispered something he could not hear through cracked lips. He held her hand, cradled her head, and wiped the matted hair from her fevered forehead. He soothed her when the contractions again wracked her tiny frame.

    Hours passed, punctuated by the coming and going of the two midwives, clucking together as they toted water and medicine. A priest came. He brayed prayers to the Dagda in Ogham, and tied a staff of elder at the foot of the bed.

    Halin, the leech, appeared, sniffed the air in the tiny alcove and shook his head .

    Til pulled him aside. "Will she live?"

    Halin shrugged. His turned his eyes skyward and signed a Souling Ward; the gods and spirits would decide.
    Quite assured stuff from Emmet. Maybe an adjective or two too many (grimy, sickly, pale, winter-green (?), cracked, matted, fevered and tiny all in that last paragraph) and occasionally there's a conflict between the POV character's voice ("his legs like swollen birch held too long in water") and the author's voice ("the herd of dun cattle ... only sweetened the deal" is very 20th century). But in general, it's pretty good.

    I get slightly anxious these days whenever I see a Prologue, as I think I've mentioned before; very often they appear to have little connection to the main action of the book, and seem to answer a need to let some awkward piece of back story stand on its own rather than be artfully incorporated in to the main body of the novel. At worst, it seems merely to be fashionable. It's hard to say what Darkwing's prologue is being intended for without seeing the rest of the book, but if it's just the birth scene of the main characters, it might not be necessary.

    There has been some discussion on the Absolute Write Water Cooler about prologues, and someone said that many readers skip them. I think that if any part of a book can comfortably be skipped by a reader, it is not required in the first place. (On the other hand if people go around skipping the beginnings of books, what are you to do? Madness.)

    So, we seem to be in Celtic High Fantasy mode here - the names, the prayers to the Dagda in Ogham (is Ogham a script, in fact, or a language, by the way?) - so what's the story? Let's turn to the synopsis.

    Our cast:
    NIANA, daughter of Til of the men of Pale: Born a warrior, to the despair of her mother and the exasperation of her father. Her will is fierce and unbending and her heart knows no defeat but her penchant for rash violence may lead to disaster for her people.

    HARN: Niana's twin. Physically weak but with kenning of the Dreamways. An accomplished seer and walker on the Paths of Power. In his heart he guards a secret like a viper and guilt threatens to destroy his soul.

    CONSTANTE Di Silva. Master of Henlia, Commander of the First Lardron Riders, victor of Kildan's Pass, Redburg and White Ford. The most accomplished of Caedian generals. An honorable man, a man who loves his family, his land and the ideals of duty. A man who, if he is to succeed, must choose victory over honor, duty over love, death over life.

    JULIAN Di Silva, Constante's cousin, inquisitor in the church militant, Governor of the New Lands. A half-blood whose only duty, as he sees it, is to himself. There is nothing he will not stoop to for power and wealth.
    Representatives of:
    The Tribes of the Free Peoples.

    A loose coalition of related tribes whose lands stretch from the Mountains of Mourne and the borders with Caedia to the towering mountains known as Landspine. They hunt, they fight, they laugh, they drink copiously and guard the borders of their humble realm, blissfully unaware of the approaching storm clouds.

    Caedia:

    An ancient empire. Famed for the stark beauty of its cities, a beauty that mirrors the starkness of the mountains which gave birth to its people. Famed too for its cruelty and the injustice bred of its social order. A place where corruption is a byword for justice, where both money and blood flow towards the lowest common denominator. Caedia is surrounded by enemies and, to defend its borders, has turned to armies of the half-dead, the ferocious hilka, whose damned souls are parasites in living bodies.

    The empire drowns in the blood of those it sacrifices to maintain these hilka. To survive it must find another way to fund its army.
    So, there's a sort of Roman Empire vs. the Celts thing going on here, in an invented world. I think it might be an idea to switch some of the references about, so that the Celts seem less Celtic and the Romans less Roman; the names in particular could all be invented, as long as they're done well. You can nick whole theologies as long as you find new vocabularies for them (but then, vocabulary is half the trick, as Tolkien showed.) Careful not to veer off into Asterix.

    I like the armies of the half-dead. A good macabre touch and an original one as far as I know. The story arc (which I won't reproduce here) sounds like there's plenty of opportunity for drama. There are battles, brother against brother, and finally a quest for the all-important McGuffin that will destroy the Empire's power - this is all less than original, but can be dealt with in an interesting manner.

    The trick will be keeping the tone various. The prologue, above, is very steady and grave in the manner of much high fantasy. That's fine, but if it marches on in its stately way just so for 500 pages, it will be a tiring read. If there's room for humour as well as heroism, and the skill with human touches that makes the best fantasies breathe, this could turn out well.

    By the way - interesting that Emmet has included a theme for his book in the synopsis:
    Can people survive in a corrupt society and not be either corrupted or destroyed? Can people fight despotism with violence and not be made despotic and violent?
    A good touch, I reckon. Sometimes a synopsis is just a narrative of invented facts, which is unlikely to make an impression on an editor. I rarely read synopses, as you can get rid of 90% of the slushpile just by reading the first ten pages. It's only when you're wondering if you want to read the rest of it that you have a look at the synopsis, and I'd much prefer a short, spoiler-free statement of what the novel is about than a great long list of the things that happen in it. (If you're unsure what your novel is about, there may be problems with it.)
    Torgo, 9:54 pm | link | 6 comments |

    Monday, September 12, 2005

    "Seven weeks of emotional turmoil"

    Well, Ian said it right when he said 'I hae ma doots'. I've just sat, pinned to my seat, through five days of the most brilliant cricket - and of course through a five-match series of the finest cricket I have ever seen. To see Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath at their peaks, matched and outdone by Flintoff, Pietersen, Vaughan, Giles - it's been heart-stopping, terrifying, and finally joyful stuff. As Andrew Strauss put it: seven weeks of emotional turmoil.

    Americans might not get what the fuss is all about - well, in baseball terms this was like Babe Ruth's Zombie All-Stars vs Ming the Merciless for the fate of the human race.

    And we won.

    We won the Ashes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    There, that's my quota of exclamation marks for this month...

    So: I have two pieces almost done, and I'll post those tomorrow come rain hail sleet or snow. I'm sorry to keep everyone waiting, and to have been somewhat dilatory while the cricket's been on, and while the Sales Conference was pressing on me in my day job. (It went really well, by the way.) Normal service will be resumed this week.

    To those people who have emailed asking where they are in the queue - I don't want to get into a habit of emailing people back on this issue, but the queue at present will keep me busy now for the next three weeks or so before it's cleared, so that's the longest you will have to wait. I still need to mop up a few people who have been waiting for four weeks - thank you very much for your patience.

    Right. I'm off to the pub. See you all tomorrow.
    Torgo, 6:57 pm | link | 6 comments |

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Slight hiatus

    Nope, not in a Superman-induced time-warp, buried under manuscripts, or in a ditch - just incredibly busy. It's Sales Conference this week and I'm too snowed under to do much in the way of reading when I get home from work. Sorry to Emmet and Michael, who have been very patient.

    If you're interested, there are two of these conferences every year. What happens is, the sales reps come in and sit at a long table, and then us editors get up one by one and present our books for the next six months (or, actually, the six months from February 06, in this case.) The idea is to get the sales force clued up about the novels they won't have time to read and the picture books they won't get finished copies of in time to sell, so that when they go into their local Borders with their sample case of proofs they can talk intelligently and persuasively about them. (This is one of the biggest hurdles any book has to get over.)

    What it means for me is a week or two of chasing around after proofs, sales figures, biographical tidbits, hilarious jokes and fascinating morsels of trivia to whet their jaded palates. As you can imagine, this is a far cry from my usual routine - dozing off gently in my hammock, a glass of Dom Perignon in one manicured hand, with only the occasional trip to the telephone to sneer at an author, or outside to toss red-hot pennies to orphans in the streets.

    Anyway: very busy. I'll be finished on Friday, and hope to be back on track at the weekend. Thanks to everyone who's kept reading.
    Torgo, 6:10 pm | link | 14 comments |

    Saturday, September 03, 2005

    Tomorrow...

    ...I've got Emmet's fantasy novel Darkwing and Michael's update on Candide, Hollywoodland, for you. Tomorrow, meaning Saturday, that is.

    I see Google Ads have decided this is a good place to advertise essay-cheating services. Nice one, Google. Can we have the ads for perineal massage oil back, please?

    Why not click here instead?
    Torgo, 2:38 am | link | 5 comments |

    Thursday, September 01, 2005

    Vampires

    I'm bumping this up the queue. David says, "I am a first time author who is looking to publish a first person story about a vampire's search for the woman who changed him. The story is titled The Light in the Darkness, and is told in three books.

    "As this excerpt takes place at the very end of Chapter Nine, allow me to set the scene as quickly as possible. This is the scene in which the main character, Vincent Walker, captured while searching for Raine (his love), is changed by the ruling body of vampiric society. The woman in this (Lannis) scene has been described earlier in the chapter. When Vincent first meets her, Lannis' eyes are black, nearly all pupil. At this point in the story several other Chosen (the ancient and formal name of the vampire race) have restrained Vincent using Psalms (spells)."

    They were taking no chances this time; all eight webs remained on me as Lannis' face came into view. I tried not to look, but trying not to breathe would have been easier. I had to look, I had to see.

    Lannis was dark and beautiful, yet hideous. The evil in her made her appearance appalling, it clung to her features like rouge. Between dark red lips, two sharp points emerged, and as I saw them I knew my own death was near. I thought of Raine, and the tears flowed freely. Lannis saw this, and laughed.

    She brought her wrist to her face and bit deep, savoring the taste of her own flesh. Her expression then was one of exquisite pleasure; almost erotic. Blood flowed around the edges of her lips and ran down her chin, much as my tears coursed down the sides of my face. Eyes closed, she let out a soft moan that spoke of an ecstasy beyond my comprehension. She was clearly lost in her own taste and touch. Lost in the blood.

    Then, in one unforgettable moment, her eyes opened, and they were no longer dark and foreboding. Instead they glowed with a welcoming, pinkish light. She removed her wrist from her mouth.

    "And now, Vincent," she said, "I will show you the Light in the Darkness." With that, she placed her torn wrist against my lips.

    "Drink," she commanded.

    I tried to resist, but all at once the hunger swooped in like a raptor, devouring my strength. My insides burned with it. If the webs hadn't held me in place, I would have doubled over with the pain. The urge to feast was maddening, the Hunger demanded to be fed. Here was blood, right in front of me. It poured from the wound in Lannis's wrist and made a macabre goatee around my tightly closed lips. I could smell it. God, but it smelled wonderful! The heady aroma filled my nostrils and whispered the truth of Life as Chosen live it. Predators feeding on their prey. All creatures must eat, and I was no exception.

    And so, with the hunger pounding nails into me, the scent and feel of her blood on my face intensified the already incessant need to taste... to feed... to live.

    "Drink," Lannis said again.

    ...and, God help me, I did.


    Why am I bumping this up? Because I have a complete blind spot for vampire fiction, and I think I should mention it ASAP. I can't get excited about something like this. It pushes buttons that I don't have. So, apologies, David - but I'm going to have to leave this one. (The same thing goes for inspirational religious fiction - find another editor, I'm afraid.)

    Actually, Salem's Lot was pretty damn scary. Maybe it's vamp-as-hero or vamp-as-glamourpuss that I can't get along with. Anyway, it's my problem, not David's.

    I will say that the phrase that caused me the most horror in David's email was 'told in three books'. I rarely see an unsolicited trilogy that is not stuffed to the gills with padding, and which would not be a leaner, tighter, more focused story in one volume. Editors I work with have been known to weep at the sight of a fantasy trilogy.

    Then they heave them over to my desk...
    Torgo, 11:39 pm | link | 9 comments |

    Evil Communist Plot

    So it seems that the reason my blog is filling up with bizarre hieroglyphs is because of those damn smart quotes and en dashes that programs like Microsoft Word enjoy sprinkling all over the place. Even if I paste Word docs into Notepad, the little buggers remain, and Blogger is violently allergic to them.

    Can I please ask, due to Blogger's naffness, that any submissions come with the minimum of formatting? Raw .txt files would be preferred, unless your MS is swarming with italics or Lord B'azzterdd speaks only in Cooper Black, in which case I'll do my best to fix them up.
    Torgo, 10:04 pm | link | 5 comments |

    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 | link | 3 comments |