Monday, 13 July 2009


Hooray for brave authors: we have another intrepid victim - sorry, subject - for a Submission Spotlight. The author, "Redleg", describes this as the scariest thing he's done. So be gentle! (But not too gentle.) I should also point out that in his message to me he worries that the submission may be "too Yankee-centric" (be proud of it, Redleg!). So, let's assume this is for the US market; and for goodness' sake, let the Brits amongst us not be parochial and insist on our funny UK spellings - the US of A are independent now. All is forgiven. Really. (And frankly, when you've got people like Lynn Behler** inventing horrible things like chocolate martinis, they're welcome to it.)

(**correction - Lynn PRICE. Thanks, Lynn, you eagle-eyed editor, you. Wanta job?)

Before commenting, please note the submission rules, which are not quite the same as those for real submissions. Comments on the last two Submission Spotlights were really constructive (even where they contradicted each other ...) and I'm counting on you for the same again.

The questions to ask yourself are: does this sound like a book that will sell? Does it fit the intended genre? Does it feel like a professional piece of writing? Is this either a fresh voice or does it fit neatly within a commercial genre? How would you improve it? And remember, Redleg has thrown himself on your mercy - be honest but always constructive. Please also state whether you have any professional experience in his chosen area - and whether you are reader, agent, editor etc.

Here goes! Good luck, Redleg ...


Dear (Agent Namespelledright),

Jack Pasternak is staring down a row of gun barrels in post-revolutionary Blue America. His only chance to escape the firing squad is to explain to his executioner why he crossed three war zones to save his lover. I hope you’ll consider representing Jack’s swan song AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARIES, a science fiction novel (with a hint of political satire) complete at X words.

Jack’s gallows confessional is the tale of how he survives the Culture War after the shooting starts. Jack leaves his socialized medical practice in California after he receives a cryptic message from his fiancĂ©e in Maryland, “Rescue me.” Three thousand miles of obstacles separate Jack from his lost love including the Las Vegas and Ohio war zones, the independent Mormon State of Deseret, and the entire enemy nation of Red America. With a pot-dealing barista and a partisan warlord (warlady?) in tow Jack takes off in a gas-fueled convertible on an old fashioned road trip through a very brave new world.

Below, per your submission guidelines, I have included the first 500 words of my manuscript. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best Wishes,


Chapter 1

His back against the brick wall, Jack Pasternak contemplated the discordant row of bayonets and gun barrels pointed at him. The cord binding his wrists was a little loose, but even if he did pull a Harry Houdini he would be gunned down like a rabid dog before he got five paces. His options were as follows: die now or die later. Neither was particularly attractive.

“Blindfold?” the Blueist sergeant asked.

Jack shrugged.

“Sure, why not,” he said.

Even as a physician Jack still looked away from his own inoculations. He tried to imagine the firing squad as a big fat inoculation against further breathing, but even he found that metaphor a bit of a stretch.

The Blue sergeant leaned in close to Jack and whispered conspiratorially, “I’d have to fill out the requisition forms. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t be able to get any blindfolds back from the front before tomorrow. So it’s kind of an exercise in futility to even bother trying.”

A lifetime of familiarity with Blue bureaucracy left Jack surprisingly unsurprised. He didn’t even bother to ask why the sergeant had offered him something he couldn’t provide. Asking such questions simply wasn’t done.

“How about a joint?” Jack asked.

The firing squad erupted in scornful mutters and shuffling feet.

“There’s no toking in public here,” the Blue sergeant scolded.

“Just as well,” Jack said with a sigh, “I don’t toke anyway. How long is it until sundown, anyway?”

With no better way of telling, the Blue stared up at the sky. In a streamie Jack would have kicked the Blue in the balls, wrenched his wrists free from their bonds, and run off amidst a hail of poorly aimed bullets. Since this was real life instead Jack just waited quietly for his captor’s assessment of the time.

“Well, there’s no need to wait, I suppose,” the sergeant generously decided, then added, “Unless there’s anything else…?”

It wasn’t really a question, but Jack had only ever seen condemned men offered three things in streamies: a blindfold, a disgusting tobacco cigarette, or…

“Do I get a last request?” Jack asked hopefully.

The sergeant exchanged a glance with the senior member of the firing squad, a corporal Jack had heard the others call Toomey. Toomey shrugged, offering his boss little assistance.

“Well, it is almost sundown,” the sergeant pointed out.

“But not quite,” Jack countered.

The sergeant looked back at the sky, as though hoping that staring a little harder would hasten the sun on its path. Despite his angry glare, though, the sun made its inexorable descent at the same rate it did every day.

“Well, what’s your request?” the sergeant asked.

“I want to plead my case,” Jack said.

The sergeant scratched the back of his neck.

“Okay, go ahead,” he said.

“Not to you,” Jack scoffed.

“Well, who then?” the sergeant asked.

“Who signed my death warrant?”


Dayspring said...

Wow, this was really interesting. I was a bit confused in the first paragraph of the letter. 'Post-revolutionary' sounded like the American Revolution, whilst 'Blue America' made me think perhaps it referred to the Northern states from the civil war. I had the impression right off that this was a historical novel, so the first paragraph raised a lot of questions, and I was startled to see the words 'science fiction' in the second paragraph. I would move that to the first paragraph so the reader/agent knows what he's dealing with right off.

But - in the second paragraph, you hooked me. There are some really interesting questions - how does America split? What's a warlady like? What is this kind of medicine your hero practices? Have the Mormons turned violent?

I enjoyed the writing sample and was into the story right away - it's a good place to start, and having it at sunset adds just a hint of the western to this nouveau American tale. I think there are minor points where you could remove a word or two that, while it might be witty, would be more effective without. For example, I think 'Neither was attractive' could go, leaving the options of dying now or dying later, which carry a real punch. I would also say he was 'unsurprised' instead of 'surprisingly unsurprised'; the 'surprisingly' almost refers to the reader instead of the character, and takes us out of the scene.

Anyway, I thought this was fantastic and I'd love to read more - I don't usually like science fiction, but this sounded compelling. And as an American, I like it. :)

Dayspring said...

Sorry, I should have said I'd move the 'science fiction' mention to earlier in the first paragraph, rather than to the first from the second!

lacer said...

Awww, I liked that! I agree with the first comment, your letter was a little confusing, I too first thought it was a historical American Revolution novel, so was a bit surprised when you said that it was science fiction.

Gem said...


the first chapter was great; I agree about taking out "surprisingly" and just saying "unsurprised", but personally I'd leave in "neither was attractive".

Again, the opening paragraph of your letter needs work. Move the "science fiction" statement higher up and rework the wording s that it sound a bit less like a historical novel.

Oh, but I LOVED the line about the mormons. I love my sci fi and fantasy, so I would deffo want to read this book :-)

Lexi said...

I write as an British reader, specialist subject, word echoes. Jack says ‘anyway’ twice.

I really liked this and would have read on. Jack is an immediately engaging hero, the dystopian set-up is intriguing, and I want to see how he gets out of his predicament. (I should say I’d be decidedly grumpy if Jack got shot at the end of the book.) I also enjoyed the humour. Excellent.

Pablo said...

Your reference to "socialized medicine" and the bad guys being Blue suggests to me some contemporary political baggage in the story. You'll have to be careful to keep your presentation of that balanced so the story doesn't become a piece of propaganda rather than serious fiction.

I thought your narrator's voice was a tiny bit inconsistent. His tone suggests a regular guy, but words like "discordant" and "inexorable" and phrases like "His options were as follows:" seem like wording a different, more educated narrator would use.

Is your character's name Pasternak intended as a reference to Dr. Zhivago? If so, that might be hammering the reader too hard with a parallel to one of the great love stories set against political upheaval.

Nicola Morgan said...

I was also taken by this idea. And I agree with the points about sorting out the covering letter, to make the nature of the concept clearer from the start (which you don't need to do in the actual opening.)

However, if I were to have a few hours with Redleg, I'd soon sort out some simple stylistic errors which are making the sample look amateur and not as good as I know his writing could be.

For example, I'd soon deal with his severe but curable case of adverbitis ("whispered conspiratorially", "generously decided", "asked hopefully" - all those adverbs are extraneous and therefore ugly.) As for "surprisingly unsurprised" - that SO has to go! Mainly because it's not in keeping with the voice - it's an authorial voice coming through. Very tempting for the author but must be restrained.

There are some careless examples of redundancy - eg "inexorable descent at the same rate it did every day" - if you unpick that phrase you'll see that it's over-wordy and meaningless - so, what are you saying, that the sun goes down each day? Er, yes, and?!! It's normal for writers with potential, loving the sound of the words, to fail to look precisely enough at the meaning those words convey. It's an extravagance of language which is heartening because it shows a passion for language, but you need to temper the passion with some ruthless discipline. Tighten it up by paring it down, analyse every sentence, every phrase, and you'll end up with something which is not only exciting (which it is) but more richly satisfying, because the writer will have thought much more carefully about the affect of every word.

Oh, and split infinitives may only be hated by pedants, but some readers are pedants ....

What this is is a VERY commendable first draft, but one that would need to be tightened considerably BEFORE going to an agent. Definite potential.

If I took writing pupils, Redleg would be my ideal pupil because I can see there's sufficient skill and it would be so very easy to get rid of all the bad habits!!

behlerblog said...

And frankly, when you've got people like Lynn Behler inventing horrible things like chocolate martinis, they're welcome to it.
Harumph! Don't knock it 'til you've tried it. And, Nicola, darling? My last name is Price, not Behler. That's the name of the company. Heee.

Ok, on to Redleg.

The first thing that stood out at me is your last line in your first paragraph - "a science fiction novel." There isn't anything in that paragraph that hints of this being SF, so you might want to add a quick SF element so this doesn't take us by surprise.

The other thing that took me by surprise was the date. Anything with "revolutionary" in it always makes me think of the Revolutionary War, so I had to read this letter a couple times to figure out this was a futuristic novel.

Your story sounds like it could be very cool, but it's not enough to make me ask for pages because you haven't made me care. You begin your setup nicely with the "Help me" bit, but I need to know what more is at stake. If I had a better sense of the risks, this would help me become more engaged in your query.

You have a pot-dealing barista and a partisan warlord, but how do they play into this story? Simply mentioning them is a throwaway, and it's important that you give us a reason to care about these people and tie them into your plot. So on the surface, I feel there is too much description and not enough specifics.
What is at stake?
What does the MC risk?
What are his choices?
What happens if he chooses wrong?

Your writing:
I felt you had a wonderful voice, and it comes in the very first paragraph and carries through the whole passage. Also very visual. Because of that you hooked me.

I assume a "streamie" is a dream, yes?

You have a nice, minimalist style, so it was easier to forgive the adverbs. But be careful. Too many, and it's all tell and no show.

Had this come to me (and your query letter were fixed up), I would have asked for your first 50 pages (if I took SF, that is).

Nicola Morgan said...

Ah, Lynn, my American friend, of course I know your name really, but I'm a little over-combobulated today (I'll tell you why in an email) and so I confusticated myself.

Redleg - crikey, you've just hooked the beagle's handler. And if you don't know how difficult that is, go and read her blog - the behlerblog, even though her name IS Price. She's even more crabbit than me sometimes. And that's saying something

DOT said...

This engaged me. Being a Brit, I was not confused by historical associations. That said, I very nearly stopped at the first paragraph. 'Back against a brick wall' - humph. And why are rabid dogs always shot - I grew up in places where there were rabid animals and was told to keep out of their line, not to call in the local firing squad - i.e. the opening is a touch cliché'd and needs more attention.

A study of how Manet developed his painting The Execution of Maximilian might help the author find a new image of a firing squad.

I like the style of writing, the assumption I should know what a 'streamie' is, who the 'Blues' are, etc.

Final criticism, the speech is too often qualified; 'the Blue sergeant scolded'; 'Jack asked hopefully'; 'the sergeant pointed out'. The words spoken should convey their tone.

But, it is engaging and I want to read more.

Thomas Taylor said...

I agree with most of what’s been said, especially the point about this being yet another back against a brick wall, and yet another rabid dog.

I’m guessing that a ‘streamie’ is a ‘streamed movie’ in which case I like that Sci-Fi touch very much.

As has already been pointed out, the colours blue and red might have an unfortunate effect on publishers and on your market. It also sounds a touch simplistic and computer game-like. But then again, I think I see why you chose them.

I really like what I’ve read so far and would be interested to read more.

vicariousrising said...

I agree with the comments about changing the query letter to reflect that this is a scifi sooner. I was caught up in it being historical until it is later mentioned that it is, in fact, not historical.

Maybe it is just me, but I couldn't get into the story. I would have liked to have seen Jack concerned over his inability to reach his lover because he is on the line to be executed. Instead, this does not appear to be on his mind. Or maybe that isn't still at issue by the time he is captured. Or maybe it's because I have no sense of what he's done wrong. I guess I'm just not connecting to Jack in any way, at least not enough to care whether he gets shot or not, in part because he seems rather nonchalant about his own impending death, what with the shrugging and all. And I'm a little puzzled why he waits until the last moment to ask for his last request.

But that's just me as a reader. I am curious about what this world would look like and what the fiance needs to be rescued from. There's a lot of things of interest in terms of plot.

Sarah said...

I enjoyed reading the excerpt. I didn't keep reading because I had to, if that makes sense. There were a few things that caught my attention, though.

I agree with Vicariousrising, Jack seemed pretty nonchalant for someone trying to save his fiance. Perhaps the book begins after he's resolved that?

My reaction to Jack's request to plead his case was dismissive- who cares what the practically dead guy wants? I needed a reason to think that he might get his request. Does he have an ace up his sleeve? Or perhaps Jack's just the sort of guy to demand the impossible and get it. (But he doesn't seem that sort.)

And this is small, but it did catch me. If they're anywhere near the front, mightn't things be a bit more rushed? If a prisoner did get an official execution (rather than a bayonet in the back) would the sergeant have time to wait till the sun sets, or patience to listen to the condemned man talk?

That's all I've got- and they're sort of nitpicky. Thanks for letting us have a read, and good luck as you keep revising!

Redleg said...

Wow, first of all, thanks to Nicola for choosing my submission and thanks to everyone who has commented. To anyone who’s itching to know:

a) "streamie" does refer to a streaming internet video (you win the cupie doll, Thomas)

b) the hero’s name is a pastiche of Jack Kerouac and Boris Pasternak

c) the poorly defined “revolution” would be the forthcoming Second American Revolution, hence the scifi milieu

Thanks again to everybody!

BuffySquirrel said...

*puts on editorial hat*

Yankee-centric doesn't really bother me. If it's an American book; I expect it to have an American feel :).

I'm not convinced that the query does your book justice. It gives me the general idea--Jack, from his somewhat precarious position, is about to tell us how he got into this mess. And as it's his swan song, I'm suspecting that he's going to be shot anyway. The dry humour in the first pages fits that kind of book. This could definitely sell imo--there's a goal, obstacles, a likeable protagonist. All good. But I think you need to beef the query up a bit and silence those pesky questions that came to me as I was reading it.

Did Jack not have a trial? If he did, why didn't he plead his case then? Is he appealing on some legal ground or is he just asking for clemency? Either way, the executioner is not the right person to ask. There'll be someone who is, but not the person who's been told "take this guy out and shoot him". So I think your query needs to be more precise about where the appeal is going.

I also think you could usefully use more description of what happens on the road trip and less about the backstory (Jack's job, etc.). "Rescue me" sounds clear enough, rather than cryptic. Choose your words carefully as each one counts.

So, onto the pages.

The writing seems competent, but we have some bad word choices, as well as a touch of over-writing. Why "discordant"? "...gunned down like a rabid dog" is a cliche. And you don't need so many words.

His options were as follows: die now or die later. Neither was particularly attractive.

That could come down to: "Die now or die later." We don't need you-the-author to tell us the choices aren't attractive--we can deduce that from the situation.

Over-writing is common--I hold my hand up to it as well--so it's important to go through your novel and demand that it justify itself. Often the repetition of an idea is you clarifying to yourself how the scene is working out and can usefully be cut.

Throughout the 500 words I can see places where the writing can be tightened up to make it flow more smoothly and to improve the pace. So I think I'd send this back as a form rejection. It's getting there; it's not there yet :).