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Author Topic: unhelful advice?  (Read 3159 times)
Geoff_N
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« on: September 06, 2007, 07:55:33 AM »

Because my Left Luggage scifi is so brilliant, no agent or publisher has leapt at it. Several have asked for the full MSS and all of those are keeping me waiting. So I asked a professional editor friend of Neil Marr, Clive Warner http://citiria.com/citiriapublishing/ if he would be good enough to cast his eye over it.

After a month he sent this note back to me:
__________
"I like your original premise and it is obvious you can tell a strong story with interesting characters.
Unfortunately, your writing style has too many sharp edges to make it an easy read. In other words, I believe it needs a pretty strong edit for "flow". That makes me reluctant to take it on as a commercial proposition because right now I just don't have the time to give the whole MS that kind of time - and even if I had the time, that presupposes that you would be happy to have a strong editor running through it.

"I suspect that this may be the reason why you're having trouble finding a home for it. These days very few larger publishers, and no agents, are interested in any MS that seems to need some hands-on work to make it ready for the market. They want the toffee already coated in chocolate.

"I truly hope that my honest comments don't upset you. Personally I hate it when agents just scrawl "not for us" on the sample and send it back without any idea as to why. You look to have a great story; it just needs to read well, too. I'm sure you will get there if you keep trying. It took three novels and about 9 complete rewrites before my first got published, and now I look at it and think I could have done better."
_________

So for him, my prose lacks flow. At least that what I think he means. TBH I can't really work out what he means. Fancy writing all that and NOT giving an example! So I've thanked him and asked for an example from my first five pages or so. I'll probably not hear from him. Or does anyone else know what he means? I paste below the first page.

-----
PROLOGUE
Wednesday 15 April 2015.   Outside Dryden Space Laboratories, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The desert heat penetrated Jack’s shirt, giving him a familiar but unpleasant wet trickle down his back. Sunlight lasered through holes in the bus shelter’s roof, making him shuffle.

Climbing into the homeward-bound bus he helloed Greta, the driver, and nodded to familiar travellers.

The PVC seat felt sticky. An unseasonable heat wave, but the journey was short. The bus’s climate-control seemed to have failed so he had to share lungfuls of sweaty air.

   To change his mood Jack thought of his secret. None of the other passengers had handled an alien artefact that day. The first in the world and yet, darn it, he wasn’t allowed to holler ‘it was me!’ at anyone.

Gazing out of the vibrating window at the passing ochre desert, he caught a childhood aroma, one that he’d thought he’d forgotten - butterscotch.

Jack massaged his forehead. Strange, he only grew fuzzy heads like this with hangovers but he’d not swallowed beer for days. It had to be dehydration.

The desert town of Rosamund slid into view so Jack queued, straphanging, in the swaying aisle.

“Hey Jack,” called Ken, from a few seats back, “did something special happen at work to you today?”

A few passengers nearby looked up at Jack.

He distracted himself by looking through the windows at the white-walled tract houses seeming to decelerate by. He and his colleagues were not allowed to speak of work at the space lab, but that wasn’t it. He gazed up at the rectangle of blue sky in the roof. He couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast let alone the morning’s work schedule.

“You OK, Jack?” Ken called.

Hot though he was, Jack’s face heated more. A special day. He’d done something unique – a first, but darn it, he couldn’t remember what it was. His knees gave way and he flopped into a seat. His head buzzed so loudly it must have annoyed the other passengers. He remembered catching the bus to Edwards, but was that yesterday?

“Don’t be stupid,” he said to himself. “Come on, man, what was in today’s newspaper?” Fuck, he was losing his memory… or his mind.

Then he caught a whiff of talcum powder and gardenia. His old grandma used to reek of it. He rarely registered smells these days. Something was messing with his brain.

Through barely open wet eyes he saw Greta looking back down the aisle at him. “Jack, your stop, buddy.”

He hadn’t noticed the usual lurched halt. He staggered up and patted Greta’s arm. Then he looked back at her as she rubbed her head. So were some of the other passengers.

As he dismounted, he spotted a newspaper billboard announcing ‘Tax cheat faked amnesia’. Hey, was amnesia his problem? Maybe it could explain why he couldn’t remember the morning’s events.

His feet felt the sidewalk bake his shoes as the bus grumbled away. As he gazed after the bus disappearing in its own dust cloud he thought of the bus driver.
Greta seemed to be getting ill as if it was him who’d infected her. Nah, surely not.
---
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SharonBell
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« Reply #1 on: September 06, 2007, 04:22:11 PM »

Here's my thoughts (please don't shoot me):

I think it's choppy (hence his comment re sharp edges), too many short sentences, fine for speed and picking up the pace, but not for an intro. Lots of 'ings' also. While we're taught to start "in the middle," I think it needs a bit of a build up at the start.

This really confused me. Why doesn't he respond to Ken?

Hey Jack,” called Ken, from a few seats back, “did something special happen at work to you today?”

A few passengers nearby looked up at Jack.

He distracted himself by looking through the windows at the white-walled tract houses seeming to decelerate by. He and his colleagues were not allowed to speak of work at the space lab, but that wasn’t it. He gazed up at the rectangle of blue sky in the roof. He couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast let alone the morning’s work schedule.

“You OK, Jack?” Ken called.


An editor once told me, have a dream, lose a reader and I think his altered state is similar to that dream-like situation where reality is bent and twisted--confusing the reader who is expecting linear flow. While I love Dali, I have trouble reading surreal stories, which is what this bit feels like.

I'm intrigued by the artifact. Can you tell me how he found it? As he jolts along on the bus, can he recollect on that?

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"Be good and you'll be lonesome." Mark Twain

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SharonBell
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« Reply #2 on: September 06, 2007, 04:24:07 PM »

Oh, and STOP beating yourself up. This is only your 2nd book/baby. In the romance writers' world, it's not uncommon for a writer to have 5 books written, then finally the 6th sells. Keep going.  cheers
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"Be good and you'll be lonesome." Mark Twain

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Ed
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Don't look behind you!!!!!


« Reply #3 on: September 07, 2007, 04:02:10 AM »

I know what he means, Geoff. I've thought the same about some of your stories in the past. As a reader, until I get used to the voice, I find some of the sentences a little bit jerky, and some sentences longer and more meandering than I'm used to (not in this sample, though). Hearing your accent on the audio sample of Escaping Reality I heard, helped me fix the voice in my head and, after that, I found it easier to read what you'd written. That said, in this sample there seem to be several non sequiturs cropping up. In addition there are a few clarity issues here, IMO. Anything that makes me stop and think about meaning stilts the flow and, the first paragraph is full of little issues for me - some over relevance and others over not quite understanding what's meant.

Personally, I use my 'but's sparingly, so when in editing mode I question each one, and if editing for tightness I would cut your first sentence a bit.

Quote
The desert heat penetrated Jack’s shirt, giving him a familiar but unpleasant wet trickle down his back.

...becomes...

Quote
The desert heat penetrated Jack’s shirt, making sweat trickle down his back.

The heat 'penetrating' Jack's shirt makes me feel wrong-footed, too, though. It raises questions in my mind like 'why wouldn't the heat penetrate?', and 'why is this unusual?', 'is Jack expecting his shirt to keep him cool?', 'is it malfunctioning?' These questions only take a second to flit through my mind, but at the beginning of a story I want each sentence to build a solid wall of story that'll be a foundation for what comes afterwards. It takes a while to suss out exactly what is going on, which detracts from Jack's confusion towards the end of the piece, because I'm slightly confused while reading anyway. I assume Jack is on his way home from work, but I'm not sure. Even by the end of the excerpt I'm not as sure as I'd like to be, which also detracts from the point you're making about him losing his memory.

Quote
Sunlight lasered through holes in the bus shelter’s roof, making him shuffle.

This is an example of a non sequitur. Why would sunlight through holes in the roof make him shuffle? I'm only two sentences into the story and already wrong-footed and confused. Only mildly, it has to be said, but nevertheless it's not the effect you're after in an opening.

To nail this opening down, you have to concentrate on what's important. The point you're making is that Jack is made to forget quite possibly the most exciting thing that's ever happened to him. I think you should dwell on that excitement - put yourself in his position. If you want to describe the setting, I suggest you should be describing it against the backdrop of the most stunning work day Jack has ever had. This discovery is going to influence his every thought and action, his whole way of life, perhaps even make him paranoid - they let him out of there - let him go home with that knowledge. This is a good opportunity to show us what type of person Jack is. Does he feel more important than the other people on the bus now he holds this secret? Is he tempted to sell his story to the papers? Maybe even a foreign power. Instead of this you concentrate on the heat of the desert (typical British behaviour - if in doubt, talk about the weather Wink ).

Sorry - I'm digressing quite badly.

Quote
The PVC seat felt sticky.

Why? Did somebody spill orange juice on it? If it's sticky with the heat, or by any other cause, I think you should share the detail.

Quote
An unseasonable heat wave, but the journey was short.

To me, this is another non sequitur. What has a short journey got to do with the weather being unseasonably hot?

Quote
The bus’s climate-control seemed to have failed so he had to share lungfuls of sweaty air.

'Sweat scented' air nails the description, IMO. I would also add 'with the other passengers' if it was me.

Quote
To change his mood Jack thought of his secret.

Because I don't know what mood he's in before, this sentence doesn't hold much meaning for me. Also, would he consciously make such a decision?

Quote
The desert town of Rosamund slid into view so Jack queued, straphanging, in the swaying aisle.

Americans don't seem to use the word 'queue' - when I asked where the queue began at the Kennedy Space Centre, everybody looked at me like I was an alien, saying, "Where's the what? What do you mean, the Q?" They tend to call it a 'line'.
This was another sentence that made me pause to work out what you meant. I've never heard of 'straphanging', but after thinking about it I think I worked it out. Thing is, you don't want people stopping to think about a sentence, because each time they do it bursts their fictive dream bubble. It could also give the impression of having sharp edges and being a challenging read, maybe? I had also pictured Jack sitting at the front of the bus. If you'd said he climbed onto the bus and walked down the aisle nodding at familiar faces, I would have been ready for him to join a queue to get off. It's just a small point, hardly worth mentioning, but it's one of those things that I find distances me in a story.

It's not really fair on you to pull the opening apart, because this is the part where you were at your most self conscious writing, so the flow is likely to be a bit lumpy anyway. Probably better to look at something from later in the book for a good sample of how you normally write.

By the end of the opening the point you're making is made, and it sets the hook, so at least it's done its job.

I hope you don't find my observations too depressing, Geoff - it's all fixable stuff, but as Neil's friend suggests, the story may need quite a deep edit to be commercial. (Not that I'm any kind of expert, BTW)
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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