Friday, 26 June 2009


Well, here we are: Submission Spotlight time! I did find it rather amusing - and sweet and touching - how nervous you all said you were. Some of you said this was worse than submitting to an agent or publisher. Yes, because it's public ... Sorry about that.

I have picked TWO submissions. One, aimed at adults, is in this post; the second, aimed at younger readers, is in the post above. If yours hasn't been picked, fear not (or perhaps do fear ...) I will pick more another day. And anyone else can still send in submissions.

Please remember that I asked participants to write a short letter (like a query letter) and then give us the first c500 words - so this is NOT a normal submission. If you want to remind yourselves of the task, it's here.

Ground-rules for all commenters:
  • please DO comment - there's no point in this if no one does
  • please imagine that you ARE an agent/editor who accepts this sort of material. In other words, if it's good enough, then it IS up your street
  • be brief - you don't have to write an essay (in fact, please don't). Ideally, you might give one positive and one negative point
  • please be constructive. Although we have to learn to take criticism (which will happen a lot and very publicly when you are published ...), it has to be offered in a considered and careful fashion, in a way that will not overly bruise.
  • try to be specific - for example, don't say "need to tidy up the grammar" without giving some examples
  • please note what type of book the authors claim them to be and judge them accordingly
  • ask yourself some of these questions:
  1. does the idea behind the book grab you (assuming that you would normally go for this genre)? Is it a compelling idea? Exciting, intriguing?
  2. has the author managed to encapsulate the idea in the best way?
  3. does the standard of writing give you confidence that the rest of the work is worth reading?
  4. is there anything that puts you off, and how do you think the author might consider working on it?
  5. are there any habits which, in your opinion, detract from the work?
  6. is this a book that you think could sell? Is this a book that fits easily within an existing successful genre?
  7. how could the work be improved?
Some of you will be commenting as readers; others as agents / editors. It would be helpful if you would start your comment by by indicating which of these applies to you, so that the authors know how to take your comments.

NB - although "Dear Agent" is not normally acceptable, it's fine for this exercise, because it's imaginary.

Finally, please applaud the bravery of these writers! (And the authors can and should respond to comments).

Here goes (and good luck "Yellowstring"!):

Dear Agent,
Please find attached the first five hundred words of my novel, Talking with Kotov, a book on identity and the complexity of truth and fiction. The chapters alternate between two main characters: Ruth, who lives an essentially detached existence, compiling notes on other people, following one woman in particular and documenting her life, and paranoid Melissa (the woman whom Ruth is following) who painted her house with a dead bird, and turned her kitchen into a collage of post-its to try and release her problems into the world. The link between the women is hidden in clues throughout the novel, until revealed two thirds of the way through, however Ruth's narrative is always marred by whatever book she is reading at the time, so much so that the reader is asked to closely engage with what he is reading and decide which parts are true.

When finished, the novel will be between 55,000 and 65,000 words, a literary piece aimed towards an adult audience, especially those who are fans of such authors as Ali Smith or Kate Atkinson. I can send a complete synopsis and further chapters upon request, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on representing my book.

Yours sincerely,


It wasn’t hard to track her down; Ruth etched each of her beelines into the tube map so hard that the whole thing sprang back open as though disemboweled. She'd set her watch three minutes ahead of Big Ben, just to be prepared; she knew never to trust a man with four faces, especially when each of those kept running around in pointless circles, ticking like some sort of bomb. But no, she shouldn't think of bombs.

he, on the other hand, made sure her journey was linear, crossing the town in a perfect square, hopping from bus to bus to avoid the curves, towing the yellow lines right into the groove.She walked the Central line, the red capillary straight, mentally mapping the sixty thousand blood vessels hammering under her own skin: tarmac over live wire. She considered herself a personal navigation system, beeping (internally) with every step she took, honing in with an invisible radar, and her destination overlooked the number seven bus stop, where free newspapers hid worn out faces, and tourists wore rucksacks as fetuses on the outside. They made clothes look like skin, skinny jeans the new answer to anti-wrinkle cream. The handbags gleamed, the oyster cards tapped. Ruth eyed the line-up as she made for the pavement, but each blonde hair was not the right shade.She tried to move quickly, always on the look out for those arty types who liked to freeze in public places, frightened she'd be caught up in the theatrics and then not be able to move.

She had arrived with twenty minutes to spare, but in the mean time there was the bookshop. Ruth thought about those words, ‘mean time,’ and they sounded just right, so she leaned against the window and wrote them down on the back of her tube map. She considered herself a logophile, browsing the market, and she entered the bookshop, heading to the back, for here were the books about everyone’s God. Each day she gave herself a different section, trying to show just how well rounded she was. Religion, romance, and all the way down to history, this was her post. Ruth could sketch the layout in her sleep, and she knew the location of every fire exit; she only ever took calculated risks; she only ever wore flat-soled shoes.

She was very conscious of where everyone else was, who was looking at her, and what they were thinking. The way heads formed question marks if tilted at the right angle. The way the spine would click in irritation. Ruth had long since concluded that the public is a jury, and that each person walks around with a speech bubble balanced precariously on their head, like those women who carry water. They choose their words carefully, so that the bubble doesn't overflow and soak them to the skin: selected, projected thinking. Ruth flinched and thought hard about timetables, focusing on the 'please pay here' sign. It was the only one that wasn't jeering; there was something reassuring about imperatives, the clarity of fullstops; she pretended to roll one on her tongue like a piece of chiseled tobacco. Roll or spit. Roll or spit.


ericanaone said...

In the query, the two characters and the link between them intrigues me, and the details (painted with a dead bird) make it compelling. I'm put off, however, by the statement that Ruth's narrative is marred by whatever book she is reading--I am worrying that it will be too hard to understand this book if I haven't read everything to which it refers.

In the sample, the voice is fresh and vibrant, and I like the vivid imagery (tarmac over live wire, spine clicks in irritation). Again, however, I feel a little intimidated by it. I try to picture every image as I read, and there was so much in this small sample that I worried I would be exhausted and unable to finish the book as a whole. It might help to simplify the intro and work on easing the reader into Ruth's world a little more.

I make these comments as a reader. I like literary fiction, but find that I often evaluate books like this based on how much work they seem to require vs. the expected reward for me. I'm on the fence here about the outcome of that equation.

Nicola Morgan said...

Erica - I think that's a very perceptive comment indeed. I also like literary fiction but it has to carry me away, and I find I'm only prepared to work really hard once I've alrready been drawn in. I think you make a really good point about perhaps being put off by that aspect of the concept being sold too early. I also loved the dead bird image.

I wonder if what we're both saying is that this work would benefit from some ruthless pruning (killing some babies or maybe saving them for later), and something to drag the reader in. Kate Atkinson and Ali Smith (the authors cited as models) do this ruthlessly, and are great examples of literary fiction with feisty story-lines.

Yellowstring - there's some great writing here and wonderful imagery but I think you need to show the reader more quickly and vividly why they should spend time with a novel "on identity and the complexity of truth and fiction". Because that's very worthy and deep but quite medicinal-sounding and needs a bit of sugar!? Even for ardent lit-fic readers.

Of course, it is only 500 words, and maybe you are just about to do something dramatic ...

Lexi said...

I should say that I seldom read literary fiction these days. The extract is well-written, but I’m not sure the protagonist is someone I’d like to spend a book with.

I had two thoughts; one, that Melissa has every right to be paranoid if she suspects she is being followed and documented by Ruth. I might paint my house with a bird in that situation, who knows?

The other regards the first sentence: ‘It wasn’t hard to track her down; Ruth etched each of her beelines into the tube map so hard that the whole thing sprang back open as though disembowelled.’ I couldn’t visualize what the writer meant by this. I decided it must be an A-Z with the tube map on the back, but it took me a while. You don’t want to trip the reader right at the start of a novel.

Clare said...

I was fascinated by the proposed themes of identity and the complexity of truth and fiction and I suspect the presentation of alternate chapters by the two main protagonists will work very well.
Unfortunately, the added twist of Ruth's narratives being marred by her reading materiel made me start to feel a bit mind-boggled - I like a challange but I'm unlikely to start something that I am already convinced will beat me!

I nearly gave up after the first line - the concept of a disembowelled map was beyond me! So glad I didn't give up though, because the writing that followed was wonderful (I love the idea that we're walking around bearing speech bubbles on our heads) and really gave a sense of how Ruth's mind works.
That said, I was happy to put the effort required into reading such delightful prose but I'm not convinced I could give that level of detailed attention to a full book. Then again, I'm intrigued already so I might well do...
Thanks for submitting, yellowstring - it was a brave thing to do and I really enjoyed reading it.
I make these comments as a reader with very eclectic tastes. This would be one to savour when there were no distractions - I live in hope!

Jen Campbell said...

I hope it's ok for me to post a comment so early ;)

Firstly, big thanks to Nicola for posting my entry :) thank you! *hugs*

I understand your concerns about intimidating the reader. I'm trying to strike a balance between not giving away too much in the beginning and obviously wanting the reader to read on; I'll look into adding more, for want of a better word, 'meat.' Many things happen in this book; it's not an exercise on literature, promise (but my first love is poetry and I do like playing with words ;) )! I'll take out that bit in the letter too, about the books; to be honest, it's not as integral as it sounds - reading the back I see it's heavy handed - what I really mean is that there's a bit of play with intertextuality.

Lexi, it probably shouldn't make me giggle that you are worried about not wanting to read an entire book from Ruth's perspective; I understand that she's a very strange person. To break that, however, the chapters do alternate between Ruth and Melissa and their narratives are actually completely different, hopefully reflecting their personalities. Melissa's chapters are by no means as 'wordy' as Ruth's, as she doesn't spend all her time analysing her surroundings. I hope this flicking back and forth gives more dynamic and also gives the reader a break from Ruth's intense personality.

I'm definitely going to take in everything said so far, and work on padding out the beginning of the book, perhaps bringing the talk stalking into the foreground more, and some background info on Ruth to make her appear more human? :) Thanks guys!

Jen xxxx

vicariousrising said...

In both the query and the sample, the author uses some amazing descriptions, although at some points it seemed a bit like overload (the rucksacks as exterior fetuses, for one -- I puzzled about what she was trying to say about what baggage these folks were carrying or if she was simply trying to be dramatic. Since they were tourists and not bag people, they couldn't be that invested in the contents, and thus, my mind was taken off track by perhaps an excessive use of lovely imagery).

I'm also have trouble connecting to Ruth. Maybe because so much time is spent on describing everything around her, the sense of urgency of whatever it is she is up to is lost.

I'm very curious about these two characters, but I'm worried that the whole thing is going to either fly over my head or I will go off on a tangent considering some of the vivid descriptions.

This is offerred as a reader.

Nicola Morgan said...

jen - hope you are ok with all this so far! I think there's some agreement that we're all intrigued but a tad concerned that we're going to be over-stretched and exhausted. Lit-fic writers have to balance the need to stretch with the desire by even the bravest reader to be entertained. You say that we're going to be drawn in later - and I'm sure you're right - but maybe we do need some more chocolate at the start??? (Never say no to chocolate - maybe this should be the motto of all writers?) I love the idea of "strange" characters, and am happy for them to do the weirdest things - in fact weirdness can often draw me in, as long as I keep believing in it. The literary device of using books within the narrative is one to be careful with - intriguing but with potential to become a drag more tha a draw?? May need a light touch?

I am enjoying the stimulation of all this - hope you are too, Jen! And that others will be as brave as you in putting work forward!

Jen Campbell said...

Yes, totally fine with all of this; concrit is something that every writer needs, and I really appreciate people taking the time to reply. :) I've had very good feedback from a couple of people in the publishing business who recommend I take a year out after graduating (which is what I'm doing now) to work part-time and finish this book. And it's fantastic to see other people taking a look at this as well, and even better to see a general consensus on an aspect, which is obviously very helpful.

I'll put some chocolate in at the start (I called it meat in my previous, but prefer your wording ;) ), and will see what I can do to drama wise in the first couple of paragraphs. I'm aware that this type of writing isn't really 'mainstream' but obviously I don't want to come across as pretentious - eeep. I think in my letter I made it sound more book related than it is; I panicked in the letter as I've never written one like that and said that because (as small a detail it is) I thought it was rather interesting - I appear to have scared you all away, haha. Sorry!

Nicola - if I still worked with Vanessa, I'd bring you chocolates next time you come in as a thank you - but I'm around for the last weekend of the book festival though, so I may run into you. Thank you again :) xxx

catdownunder said...

Less is more. I need space and time. Does that make sense?
There are some marvellous ideas here ('four faced clock' has so many possibilities!) but, as the reader, I feel they are just outside my grasp. I feel as if I am being hauled past the most satisfying sights and sounds without the chance to take them in. Can you slow it down a bit? I would like to re-read it if you do.

Jen Campbell said...

Just in the past twenty minutes, these are the changes I have made. I thought it might be interesting to see. I'm still playing around with it and it's very likely to change again, but here we go :)

thanks guys x


It wasn’t hard to track her down. Ruth etched her journey across her pocket tube map, a dot-to-dot across six zones. She pressed her pen down so hard that the pages sprang back open. Disemboweled. She memorised the journey and hid the map in her coat pocket. At just five minutes before the evening rush hour, London was wound up and ready to spin.

Ruth was ready to spin with it. She had a plan mapped out in blue biro; she had the times written down in the margin; she had her camera in her bag. She set her watch three minutes ahead of Big Ben, just to be prepared. She knew how foolish it would be to trust a man with four faces, especially when each of those kept running around in pointless circles, ticking like some sort of bomb. But no, she shouldn't think of bombs.

She walked the Central line, the red capillary straight, mentally mapping the sixty thousand blood vessels hammering under her own skin: tarmac over live wire. She had been making this journey every weekday for the past two months, pausing at Oxford Circus junction, taking in the view. She always made sure her journey was linear, crossing the town in a perfect square, hopping from bus to bus to avoid the curves, towing the yellow lines right into the groove. It was strange to go from her own office to someone else's; Ruth liked to believe she was on transfer. She liked to believe in many things that weren't true, shoving novels in her bag and reading them under her desk.

Her destination overlooked the number seven bus stop, where free newspapers hid worn out faces, and anxious tourists wore rucksacks back to front, like fetuses on the outside. They made clothes look like skin, skinny jeans the new answer to anti-wrinkle cream. The handbags gleamed, the oyster cards tapped. Ruth eyed the line-up as she made for the pavement, but each blonde hair was not the right shade. She wasn't sure of the exact colour she was looking for; she had yet to find the hair dye bottle. That was her task for this week. It might involve breaking and entering. The thought sent a pleasant shiver down her spine.

Jan said...

Hi Yellowstring,

I am a magazine editor, but that's such a different game from fiction and books so I think you'd better take this as coming from a reader imagining she is a fiction editor :)

Nicola is right, it's definitely brave and generous of you to share here. I wasn't brave enough.

One positive point re the query letter: You are perfectly clear about what the book will be like, which is wonderful. I've read many queries where the author doesn't ever end up saying what the story is.

One negative point re the query letter: As others are probably going to say, agents won't look at an unfinished book, unfortunately.

One positive point re the excerpt: I love some of your observations, such as clicking, irritated spines as a way of showing how a person's whole body can radiate judgement.

One negative point re the excerpt: I didn't understand the first sentence at all - she's drawing on a closed map to make it spring open? How can she draw if it is closed? (Maybe it needs to be "had etched" and "rolled up Tube map" and "kept springing back open".)

Answers to the seven questions:
1. Yes, I'm grabbed at the idea of unravelling a mystery and perhaps finding a truth within a sort of madness.

2. I'm sorry, I don't think so. In the query part, a story-like "showing" paragraph that gives the feel of the book would, I feel, be more compelling than describing it.

3. The writing is vivid, original. It is also too much to follow - I had to stop after every sentence to parse the metaphor and follow Ruth's thinking and actions. I felt reading the rest of the book would be very hard work.

4. You could scrutinize each phrase and if the meaning doesn't jump right out, try to restate more clearly. For example, what does she mean by single blonde hairs not being the right shade - not right for what? And what is she scrutinizing for?

5. I notice sentence after sentence in the same structure - a long series of phrases separated by commas. "Roll or spit" is the first rhythmic break.

6. I know nothing about this market, although I think the market for this would be specialized, not mass market.

7. I think you need to write it for yourself at this point - because you are still finishing it. I hope you can not get derailed by criticism at this point - finish it your own way, the way you dreamed of it. Only after that ask this question. Your have a definite style showing and I hope you are making it your own. Thank you again for sharing.

(I wrote that before reading other comments so apologies if there is going to be overlap - wanted to offer you an honest reaction.)

Jen Campbell said...

Jan, thank you for the extensive feedback - yes tube map should say (if you look at the post just above yours where I've posted a slightly edited version) 'so hard that when she closed it, it sprang back open' I'll edit that in. Thanks!

I realise an agent wouldn't generally look at an unfinished manuscript; I just said it was unfinished in this letter as it currently is and so I wouldn't be able to give a definite finished word count - when I do look for an agent, it will be when the book is finished.

I think quite a lot of what you've said, I've answered in my replies above :) bar the comment on the rhythm which I'll take a look at in the morning - thank you :).

6 & 7 I'm aware this isn't mass market, but this is the kind of writing I love to do, and I'm prepared to live with the fact that it isn't mainstream. Call me selfish, call me silly ;)

Thanks again. Bed time for me now, I think x

catdownunder said...

Now you have cut something I really liked. It works, athough I find myself hoping that is only temporary.

The second version has slowed down a bit - which, in my mind, is a 'good thing'. There is more time to take things in. I feel more as if I can begin to get under Ruth's skin, take a breath and look around to see what she is seeing. It is madly tempting to fling everything in - one of my biggest faults. Thankyou for reminding me of that!

Annie said...

I agree that the first excerpt had my mind working overtime to sort through the descriptions; it was a bit too dense. The rewritten excerpt is a lot more effective. We're not swimming through all those images, vivid as they are. I did quite like your imagery, and your little details about Ruth, in both excerpts - that her route is always square, that she only wears flats. She seems a fascinating character, just from these few words.

As for the query letter, I felt it was a bit bland, telling us about the novel rather than giving us a real feel for the characters or the writing. Again, you have some wonderful details, but it feels sterile, to me at least - which is a shame, because the concept itself is very intriguing.

Anyways, I think what would really make me pick up this book is Ruth's character. That's my two cents as a reader.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jen, that rewritten bit is so much clearer and fresher and more immediate. The elements that you removed can be put in later, if you want. I wonder if the problem for writers is that when we write the first chapter, WE know the characters, but the reader knows nothing at all and the reader flounders if not given just one or two very clear pegs on which to hook the character; if we (readers) get too many pegs we don't know what to do with them. Your second version removes some pegs and we can learn about the character more slowly and therefore more clearly. I think the imagery about bodies comes through more clearly, too.

Good stuff!

btw, my favourite line is "But no, she shouldn't think of bombs." Simple, but goes to something intriguing about her mental state or intention or fear. Or something.

Are you committed to keeping that bit about the pages of the tube map springing open when she presses too hard? Because I'm not sure it's helping ...

Flixton Mum said...

I'm so late to this party, but I've read it all the comments in sequence.
Your 500 words read so much better with your edits. It was too claustrophobic for me the first time round. I don't want to repeat what everyone else has said, because everything seems to have been covered. But I do understand what Nicola says about the pages of the tube map springing open. I assume you want to show her intensity, but I think we get that from the pace of the writing anyway.

Just one other thing. I assume (I'm doing a lot of this) that you live in London (?) My pet hate when reading books set in London is that the writer (and presumably agent and publisher) thinks everyone knows their way around London. I know it is an international city blah blah blah, but quite often things are unfamiliar to the rest of the population in the provinces. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine is guilty of this in my opinion and it just gets my back up ever so slightly. I DO have a chip on my shoulder though.

Flixton Mum said...

Just re-read what I wrote (distracted by children part way through) and realised that it wasn't overly helpful.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that location and setting is important, but sometimes in London based stories that is skipped over because saying Kensington, for instance, conveys the message without describing it.

In your re-write it's much less "londony' for me. You have broken it down and made it easier for me from the provinces to understand. I know everyone is familiar with the iconic tube map, but they are just names on a page to me, so when I see them together in prose I skip over them because they mean nothing to me. In the re-write they are more spaced out and I have time to take them in, so digest the journey better.

Jen Campbell said...

Nicola - I'm glad you think so, thank you :) xxxx

Jen Campbell said...

Flixton Mum

I know what you mean about setting a novel somewhere so utterly and completely that readers who aren't familiar with it end up feeling lost or put off. It's one of my pet hates when it comes to Dickens, trying to work out which part of London he's talking about equates to 'good' or 'bad' status.

I did toy with having in a nameless city, but then I really wanted to imbed the story in the hectic hustle and bustle of the capital, which I do think lends itself to the general paranoia later on. I promise I won't get all 'Londony' on you though; I think that would annoy me too :)

Jan said...

I like the rewrite, Jen! All best!

behlerblog said...

Hi Yellowstring,
I’ll get to your query letter first, then move on to your chapter.

The idea with your first sentence is to immediately pull us in. I have no idea what “and the complexity of truth and fiction” means, so, as an editor, my eyes are glazing.

The chapters alternate between two main characters:
Stop. A query doesn't meant to give us a structural breakdown. You’ve lost me because there is nothing in here that makes me care about these women. How and why is Ruth detached? Is she crazy? For that matter, is Melissa?

This query is all vague description and no plot. What is this story about? What is the conflict? What decisions do the MCs make? What are the elements that need to be resolved? What do each of these women stand to lose? What is the resolution?

The link between the women is hidden in clues throughout the novel,
And this is the meat of your story; the link to these women and the very thing you failed to detail.

On to your writing:
This passage was very confusing, and I had no idea what was going on. Be mindful of the basics; who, what, when, why, where. I only had the vaguest sense of the “where,” and didn’t find out the “who” until the third paragraph. This would have been easier to read had there been proper organization and setup.

For example, you begin talking about Ruth’s character traits, and we don’t know her yet, so it’s impossible to care. It’s like meeting a blind date. You don’t meet the gent and decide right then and there to get married [unless he looks like Antonio Banderas]. You need to get to know him first, have a few dates. Ease into developing the relationship before we find out he has a clingy mother and an affection for Siamese cats. We don’t know Ruth, so you’re slamming a lot of stuff at us, and we don’t care yet.

Additionally, it would have been useful to know what Ruth is up to. What is she doing, why is she there? What’s her intent? All very vague. I think you have the chops to fix this so that it unfolds in a clear manner.

behlerblog said...

Ooops, hit the button too fast. I wanted to say that this is my opinion as an editor of a publishing house.I'm tough as nails on these things, so I hope I haven't initiated my own firing squad.

As with any crits, feel free to disregard them. You're to be commended for your bravery, and I hope you don't feel I was picking on you. My intent was for you to see through my eyes - as an overworked, underpaid editor.

Jen Campbell said...

Hopefully my rewrite a few replies up *points* answers a few of the problems that you had with the piece, and I hope that I made it slightly clearer what she was up to (I have since revised the first sentence again). I don't want to make the plot too clear right at the beginning, and I hope that the rewrite struck the balance between not giving too much away but drawing the reader in. I want the prose to be disorientating, but in a good way. I really want the reader to 'go with the flow.' I hope you think that the edited version does this better.

The letter, I know, is not up to scratch. It may sound ridiculous but I was wary to post the twist in the letter knowing that it might be published on here; it's a secret I'm keeping to myself right now (obviously when I write the actual letter to the agent I will tell them the twist and more of the plot). So I know I fell down on those counts here - however I do know that they are needed :)

Thank you for replying in such detail :)

Flixton Mum said...

Are you committed to having Ruth as Chapter 1? If you say Melissa is less wordy and less analytical, would she be a gentler opening chapter to draw the reader in?

Stroppy Author said...

Well done for being so brave as to share with everyone, yellowstring. The market you're writing for is not my area of professional expertise, so I'll stick to the query letter.

As behlerblog has said, you do need to set out the plot. When you do this the letter will have more focus and seem less woolly. You are trying to convince the agent that you can tell a narrative (albeit a slightly convoluted, literary one), so you need to demonstrate a grasp of narrative in the letter.

When you add your account of the plot, make sure it is clear, concise and easy to follow. Your current account of the book is in two sentences with a total of 120 words. This does not inspire confidence, I'm afraid. You have put a lot of vital information about the nature of the characters and the book into subordinate clauses. The result for the agent/editor reading it is that the meat of the description is rushed through, with important bits looking less important because of their subordinate status. It's rather jumbled and rushed. It suggests you lack confidence in what you are saying as you aren't allowing the points space to breathe. Writing it in shorter sentences will force you to focus on what you are saying.

I've redrafted the first sentence here, changing only the punctuation (as far as possible) and then removing a phrase in parentheses that became unnecessary:

"The chapters alternate between two main characters, Ruth and Melissa. Ruth lives an essentially detached existence, compiling notes on other people; she follows one woman in particular and documents her life - Melissa. Paranoid Melissa painted her house with a dead bird, and turned her kitchen into a collage of post-its to try and release her problems into the world."

As soon as it's broken up, it's obvious that the last part isn't clear - how does painting your house with a dead bird and sticking up post-it notes in the kitchen 'release her problems into the world'? Or how does she think it would? The end of the next long sentence is ambiguous and confusing. I'm assuming 'he' is the reader, but I did wonder whether it was a typo for 'she'. Do you mean we have to engage with the books Ruth is reading? Or we have to concentrate hard on your narrative because some of it is misleading? Either makes it sound like hard work.

You need to keep the three 'characters' of the letter (yourself, the agent, the ultimate reader) quite distinct to avoid confusion. ('Aimed towards' sounds as though you expect to miss - I'd say 'Aimed at'.)

I'm commenting as a writer, and previous Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Sorry this was such a long post on only the letter!

Nicola Morgan said...

To all of you - thanks so much for entering into the spirit of this so well. Jen was incredibly brave to do this, and I hope she can pick through the comments and work out what bits she can identify with and believe, and which she must discard. There's been a lot of expertise amongst the commenters and it's all really valuable. Jen needs to think of herself and her story, but to hold in her mind that readers are the important ones - but if she knows who her readers are then she can write for them and ignore anything else. You'll never please everyone, Jen, as you know, but I do hope this has been valuable for you and your WIP.

I think the main thing for us all to take away is that when we write, WE know what we intended the reader to feel/know/understand/wonder about, but that the reader doesn't always get it; it's nearly always the writer's "fault" but sometimes it's the inevitability of the different minds of the readers. So, sometimes, a writer just has to shrug; other times the writer needs to write differently.

That was a bit cryptic - sorry! - am rushing to get ready for a train!

Thanks again everyone, and especially Jen

BuffySquirrel said...

I suspect at least 26 out of 27 people have already suggested not querying on an unfinished novel :). So I won't go there. Oh, wait....

With my editor hat on, I was a little concerned to see pronoun confusion in the query, and wondered if this would also appear in the pages. Unfortunately, it does. So although the voice is fresh and there's a lot here to intrigue me, that's two reasons already to pass on this. Where you have two female protagonists, it's vital that the reader knows at all times which she is which.

I really love being thrown into a novel in media res and you achieve this effectively. I wanted to read more, and found I was getting to know Ruth as we went along.

However, I wasn't happy with the multiple and often mixed metaphors in the narrative. I loved the mapping of London like mapping the human body, but got confused and irritated when other metaphors intruded (towing the yellow lines for example). One or two well-developed metaphors is great; what you have at the moment is a mish-mash.

Focus. That's the key :).

(and please don't use marred--that to me means spoilt; I'm not going to buy a spoilt book)

dancingsmoke said...


I shan't comment on your letter as I am not an agent, and you have made it perfectly clear that this is not representative of the letter you would send, however, as a reader I can say I found your extract both intriguing and highly enjoyable.

The extract ,while only 500 words, has left me wanting more. I am drawn to Ruth, I want to know more about her, and in turn, about Melissa and their connection. Your description is spot on; lines such as "At just five minutes before the evening rush hour, London was wound up and ready to spin. " and "She knew how foolish it would be to trust a man with four faces, especially when each of those kept running around in pointless circles, ticking like some sort of bomb. But no, she shouldn't think of bombs." and "Ruth liked to believe she was on transfer. She liked to believe in many things that weren't true, shoving novels in her bag and reading them under her desk." in particular, really stood out for me. It's just wonderful to read.
Whilst I really enjoyed the original extract and thought it worked well for being that little bit 'off-beat' if you like, I can see where other people are coming from, and why the re-write might work a little better. Personally though, I love your style of writing, and I hope that you don't lose that individuality in trying to please the mass market. I think Nicola makes an excellent part. Your readers ARE important, but you are equally so. If you need to change things slightly in order to make the story work then do so, but don't lose sight of what you set out to achieve.
Your novel promises to be refreshing and different, and I appluad your bravery in putting yourself forward for this exercise.