I'm covered in flour - it would take too long to explain...

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The report on my book is back!

The report on my book.
At the risk of sounding like I am doing the equivalent of someone tripping over and then trying to pretend they always meant to do that, my first reaction is that the negative points they raise are the ones that had occurred to me also.
Of course, being me I have already re-written the first chapter, and I hope that it addresses some of them, but I don’t want to appear that I am simply saying ‘oh well, I knew that’, far from it; I hope that I am trying to give lots of thought and consideration to their advice.
The report itself is a game of two halves; the first section is by the editor, the second by the agent. I have included my comments/reactions also, for your own amusement!
Of course, you haven’t read the synopsis and the first chapter, but hey, if you want to all you have to do is ask!
Your short and long synopsises were both very clear, and covered all the plot developments which is excellent, but they did lead me to expect a different kind of book.  The agent has discussed this more fully below, but it’s worth really thinking about how you would define your work and whether the writing is working with that definition or against it.
Just a minor point, your spelling, grammar and presentation were all excellent, but in your short synopsis, you have ‘Danko’s was involved’…  I suspect a typo rather than choosing to add a possessive when not needed.
Can I just say at this point, and those of you know me will agree, the fact they only found one type ‘o’ and said my presentation was excellent otherwise, has pretty much made my day!
Your writing is very evocative, and you use language well and descriptively.  Agents and publishers often talk about a ‘voice’, that almost indescribable quality that sets each author apart from another, and you have a strong voice and I’d like to read more. Your use of dialogue is especially convincing, as is your sense of place.
That has to be a good point, pleased with that.
The plot is well constructed with a good blend of past and present events, and a range of different characters and events.  It’s important to end a novel with some resolution, and in your case, not only do Saskia and Danko get to be together, but he re-establishes his relationship with his daughters so there is an extra element.
Good also, it’s probably the first time I’ve managed to get a book to end!
I wasn’t sure about Geoff as a character – why would he be making a pass at Saskia after having left her for another man?  I know people are complex and he could be a bi-sexual but when men come out as gay and move into a committed relationship, they are less likely to come back to their former lives in this way – at least in fiction.
This is the only remark that annoyed me – what does she mean, that something which might happen in real life can’t happen in a book? However, I think that this confusion is down to my synopsis, in my book I have his motivations very clearly defined, so I need to get them across more clearly in the synopsis. Geoff is generally a spoilt brat - fatherhood dissapointed him as it turned out to be all sticky fingers and hetrosexuality - but now he's made a big fuss and decided he's gay and the shine has worn of that new toy and he's not so sure either.
Geoff’s motivation could simply be that he doesn’t want Saskia to start another relationship as this threatens the chance that she will be a surrogate for him and Michael, and he also doesn’t want his daughter around someone he identifies as a dangerous Russian criminal.  The synopsis doesn’t make it clear, but I assume Saskia decides not to have a surrogate baby?  Does she still feel like another child? 
I think she means ‘does she still want another child?’ Again, for me this fault is corrected by looking at the synopsis, because she doesn’t really want a baby, certainly not Geoff’s as soon as she meets Danko.
Re-reading the synopsis it looks as if Geoff threatens Saskia in some persistent way, is he emotionally abusive?  That would explain her low-level depression and sense of confusion about her life generally.  I can imagine him having blamed her for a lot of what went wrong in their marriage before finally coming out as gay.  If she is used to doubting her instincts and second-guessing herself, this will complicate her budding relationship with Danko in an interesting way.
This is exactly what is hinted at throughout the book – there are several references to Geoff controlling what she ate and wore, and mocking her appearance, and now that they’re divorced, he still controls her financially and ‘likes’ it when she asks him for help and money, so I think that I have covered this exactly as she suggests.
How is the novel structured in terms of viewpoints?  Saskia and Danko are your main characters and I would like to hear from both of them, perhaps alternately.  Looking at how the plot develops, there shouldn’t be a problem just writing from their perspectives, and that would keep it close to the reader.
Again, exactly what I do – the book moves between his and her viewpoint as the story dictates, so that the reader has greater insight into the situation than either character. There is only one moment when the POV moves away from them, which works for me as it forms the basis of an eye witness account which eventually allows him to prove self defense.
By giving us the entire back story to Danko’s life in the first chapter, you remove a lot of the suspense for the reader as to why and how he has become the person he is. 
The only issue I have here is that I don’t give the whole back story of his life, it’s only two, but the issue here I think is that I have over complicated it – and not made it clear that there is a greater threat coming for him. This seems to be the main problem with the first chapter, and what I think I’ve been working to put right since. I have clearly made them think this is what I have done, so that needs to be addressed.
Although you don’t fall into the trap of telling not showing, which is very common amongst authors, you start with a very information packed chapter that answers a lot of questions you’ve not yet had a chance to let your reader ask.
This is now from the agent –
From an agent’s perspective, this project needs a clearer identity. From the synopsis and character list, as well as the list of comparable works, I thought it would be either along the lines of a crime thriller/suspense novel or an upmarket mainstream novel, both of which are covered by a wide selection of imprints at publishers large and small. Female crime writers are particularly sought after in the editorial marketplace at the moment, so this would potentially be an intriguing prospect for agents and publishers.
However, the writing in the sample chapter, with its emphasis on memory and the frequent flashbacks, is quite literary. If you examine it in terms of the action that takes place in the 2,700 words of this sample, very little actually happens in the present day: a man fobs off a junkie on the subway to protect a woman, exits the subway and arrives in a cemetery to visit his dead lover’s grave. This doesn’t suggest to me that the book is a mainstream novel or a thriller, both of which tend to feature a strong narrative drive, at least in the opening scenes; rather, it immediately positions the book at the literary end of the spectrum. This means a smaller potential market, but also a more competitive one as the readers of literary novels (and the editors who commission them, even at small publishers) are extremely discerning.
I can see what she is saying here – and I have to agree with her – I do take some small pleasure that she thinks the idea is sound, and that the writing is good, but I would also agree that the chapter she read was not right for the genre as it stands – she’s the expert after all!
At the moment—bearing in mind of course that the project may still be in its infancy—I don’t feel the sample material quite reaches the required editorial standard for a literary novel. It’s all rather frenetic and disorienting considering how little present-tense action takes place, flipping between Danko’s childhood, two stages of his adolescence, the time of his hearing of Irena’s death seven years before the present day and the present day itself plus introducing his mother, his lover, his wife and his uncle. I wonder whether perhaps you’re just trying to fit in too much backstory too soon in the novel. Particularly if you are thinking of this as more of a mainstream novel rather than a literary one, I think it might be a worthwhile exercise to write these passages of Danko’s history in longer sections and then weave them together instead of these very brief snippets.
Ironically, these snippets that she talks about were boiled down from longer sections, maybe I’m getting too ‘cut happy!’ – Again, I have been working on this and how they are presented in this section – but it’s all food for thought.I have since cut out references to his wife, cut down the length of each flashback and have given each a present day trigger to more clearly explain why he has a flash back. I have also added in more present day thoughts and events, and more references to the threat which is coming for him now.
That said, I do feel you have writing talent and I wanted to continue reading. Your setting and character sketches are compelling (though when one thinks about multiplying that many flashbacks by that number of characters by perhaps 40 or more chapters, the book starts seeming a little daunting).
Well, can’t moan about that line can I! Though I don’t know why she would think I would have flash backs for all the characters, I don’t, I only have them for Danko and Saskia when they are essential to show where their motivation comes from. But I guess this really is her saying yes to what I have done, and warning me not to try and do this for every character in the book, which is a good point.
I would encourage you to pursue this project, but to be clear in your mind what you want to be writing. If it is a thriller or suspense novel, what are readers waiting to find out at the end, what happens in the first chapter to make them desperate to keep reading, and where are the thrills? If it is a mainstream novel, I would advise a slightly less convoluted narrative style in order to help hook the reader’s attention and make him or her care about the relationships in the novel. If it is a literary novel, I’d advise further work on your structure and technique and further thinking about how best to integrate these with your themes.
I can get with this – and what I take from it is that the chapter they have read doesn’t have enough of the present day threat in it – and I would agree, and with my re-write I have tried to get a much greater sense of that into it. I don’t think either of them are saying ‘don’t set this chapter in a grave yard with flash backs’ I take from this that they are saying ‘ use the flash back to show us why he is in the grave yard, and what he fears, and a rising sense of threat - show us the threat in the present day more being key.
I think the book and you as a writer could have potential in any of these areas. Where you decide you want to take it from here is up to you.
Well, that’s nice to hear – I think I’ve got to take that as a positive that she feels I have the ability to make this work in any genre, but I need to get the focus right – that’s a question of time rather than something unobtainable.
The last section is written by the editor.
In summary, you’ve written well and you have a strong story to tell.  Currently it’s straddling genres which will mean it falls between the cracks when submitting, and that would be a shame.
It’s harder to place literary novels so I would suggest you consider mainstream or crime as the directions to go in. Don’t be misled into thinking that a mainstream or crime novel can’t have depth of character, or emotional development.  Both those genres would give you a lot of potential for writing the sort of novel you are clearly capable of.
Once you’ve decided conclusively on your genre, make sure all your characters’ motivations are clear in your mind, and they therefore take the plot forward plausibly within the parameters of how you want it to progress.
In terms of working on your style, as the agent has mentioned, beware of cramming in too many flashbacks and forwards, and try to stay longer in the present.  If you do want to concentrate further on the characters’ pasts, then consider allowing full space to do so – you may find that actually it’s their pasts and then their collision in the future that interest you more than a murder and threatened kidnap plot.
Thank you for giving us the chance to read your work, and we wish you luck with your future writing projects.
(The last line is what they’re all taught to say in agent school!!!)
So, I am cheered by that, even though there are issues to address, I feel that they feel I am able to get there with the skills they have seen on display. As I didn’t really expect them to crown me as the next literary genius, I feel that I have done as well as can be expected; and as they have flagged up all the elements that I also felt needed work, I hope that I can learn to trust my judgment and get it right.


  1. Hi Sophie

    Really great to hear where you've got to with this, and that you've had such positive feedback, even if not yet the royalty advance ;)

    Best of luck with the writing and I will be looking out for your name in the bookshops...

    Philippa (from the WordCloud)

  2. Thanks - I want to get back to the cloud more as I miss our chats, sx