Sunday, 26 July 2009


Another Submission Spotlight opportunity
for an intrepid author to receive feedback.

The author, "Devan" tells me that she has had good feedback from an agent, but that the agent decided to pass because she "didn't feel the affinity with my style that she would need to champion my work." (Valid reason). Devan is now trying to work out whether this was just that agent or if there are "issues" to sort out. She also says, "I've been working on the ms for so many years that it's becoming increasingly difficult to see where the rewrites are needed." Oh, haven't we all been there!

So, it's over to you.

For those of you who haven't given feedback in a Spotlight before, please go here first for the original submission guidelines, which are NOT exactly what a normal agent would ask for. It might also help you to read a couple of the other submission spotlights, especially the comments, so you can see what happens. (On the Labels list, choose Submission Spotlights).

Oh, and Devan also makes the point that there's a US flavour to this (or should I say flavor??).

Here goes:
Dear Mr Agent,

I am currently seeking representation for my 108k-word literary novel, The Persistence of Memory. I very much enjoyed (existing client’s novel), and as I seek to write in a similarly vivid style, I believe I may fit in well with your existing list. I am not currently submitting the manuscript to any other agents.

Set in the world of musical theatre in the mid-20th century, The Persistence of Memory follows the life Patrick Winters, an English actor and singer with too many secrets. We meet him in 1939, on the eve of his overnight Broadway success, and follow his career over the course of a quarter-century as he agonizes over his mysterious wife’s infidelity and disappearance. He immerses himself in theatre, affairs, fairy tales, alcohol, and a conflicted relationship with his American protégée Dara, but the great question of his life is whether any of these things can compel him to risk a comfortable life of self-pity for the demands of self-sacrifice. Unusually for the story of romantic crooners, the word ‘love’ appears only once in my novel – in the last chapter – as the characters struggle to discover what it really means in their lives of theatrical romance and overwrought emotion.

My target audience includes, though is not limited to, women in the 18-24 age bracket and fans of musical theatre, which I believe is currently an underdeveloped market. I enclose the first 500 words of the manuscript and look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Yours sincerely


In the last act, the few minutes before curtain-down, the Actor was beautiful. Draped in white robes, he knelt in the one shaft of light that cut through the great darkness. He held a woman in his arms, and around them music flowed, a violin straining forward with vibrato and retreating to a quivering sigh, the accompaniment to a kiss of kisses. As the violin faded, finally out of breath, the man’s hand made a quick movement. In the silence, the woman dropped over in his arms without a cry, red already spreading on the bosom of her gown.

There was no more music for a long time.

Finally the Actor lifted his face to the mezzanine, and a thrill passed through the hypnotized Manhattan audience at the sight of the first tear that ran down his cheek, catching the silver gleam of the spotlight. Nobody noticed when the music started again, but then he was singing to it, his tenor quiet and low:

One blood, one flesh
One knife, one death-

A dagger glinted, and he stabbed himself to the heart and yielded up the spirit without a sigh. The hero was dead, but patrons in the more expensive seats could see that his body still trembled, for the performer was crying. He wept until the curtain fell over his body with the mournful note of a cello.

The heroine was applauded, but when the Actor appeared onstage, looking drained and bashful and British, he was astonished by an ovation beyond all propriety. And what was the musical about, what did it celebrate? It was nearly two thousand years since the Jewish fort of Masada had fallen to the Romans, and the inhabitants thereof committed mass suicide in the face of inevitable defeat. And now a young Englishman who had never known a wound worse than a cricket injury or a broken heart – now he was idolized for his admirably acted self-destruction.

The curtain came down as applause still roared through the auditorium. Backstage stood a colorful knot of the long legs and ribaldry and freakish egos that make up a Broadway cast. The chorus girls stood in the back as always, knowing their places. For a moment every champagne glass, thrust toward the heavens, trembled down liquid gold drops like rain on the cast of Masada. The lead actress stood at the centre of the crowd, giggling and raving as she received the company’s toasts, still wearing her robe that was soaked with mock blood. Only one member of the cast was absent.

In the largest dressing room, all was still and quiet except for the petty, persistent tick of a clock. To be in the room was to be in the presence of mystery and skill, of the theatre itself. For at that dressing table in that room, the Actor, the center of Broadway on that night, remarkable for his dignity, charisma, and theatrical passion, sat before his dingy mirror and stared at the table.


Thomas Taylor said...

I can’t respond to this as anything other than a potential reader, but I would certainly have read on. Except for the word ‘thereof’, I like this very much – a very strong opening.

Lacer said...


I liked that to, my only query is about your letter, you call it a lit novel but then say it's aimed at the 18-24 female market which you admit is underdeveloped, I'll admit I'm not an agent but I think if I were I'd be worried that there isn't enough potential readership out there, as 18-24 year olds are more likely to go and read chick lit? (I know, sorry gross generalisation). I think that your story looks good enough to not have to restrict itself to that market, so I'd maybe miss out the bit about the 18-24 year olds.

Sally Zigmond said...

I totally agree with Lacer here. The letter is well composed and entices me to turn immediately to the novel. Of all the examples Nicola has given us, this is the one I like the most so far. However, I'm surprised at the target reader age you quote. Novels about mid-twentieth century musical theatre would be far more likely to appeal to my age group--women of 40 plus--as does the literary writing style, which might seem too 'heavy' for younger readers.

As to the writing itself, it's very well written--and readable (not necessarily the same thing)--if a little bit wordy. I would most definitely want to read on. Bravo!

I have two little niggles though. I know it's a metaphor, but a violin running of of breath seems a little odd as its requires no breath to produce its music. And being English, I quibble the use of the word 'British' when what you describe are characteristics (maybe cliched) of the English personality. But, as we know, Americans use the two adjectives interchangeably: (in the same way that we call all Americans 'Yanks' whether they come from the north or the South!) But then you did say your target audience is American so it probably doesn't matter at all.

Paul Lamb said...

Is it necessary (or helpful) to specify a target audience at all in a query letter? That would seem to be the agent's and editor's job to determine. If I say my target audience is something that conflicts with what the agent or editor sees for it, am I hurting my chances? And would that signify that I don't know the markets as well as I believe?

Dreamstate said...

As a reader, I like the idea of learning about the world of musical theatre in that time period. But what I didn't see in your query was any conflict, any plot point that drove the story forward and made me want to read it. We all struggle over the meaning of life, and agonize over things in the day-to-day. I realize that literary fiction doesn't necessarily need a driving conflict, but then again, is literary fiction going to do well with the 18-24 age group you are targeting?

I thought the writing in the first 500 words was strong, but again, not necessarily what 18-24 YO females are looking for. You may be better not mentioning the target audience so specifically and leave it for the experts to target.

On a formatting note, I've been doing a LOT of research on agents and I often see the advice to use white space and paragraphing more. In other words, in your query, break your synopsis paragraph into two paragraphs. Use the first as the hook, something to bring the reader into the story, and the second as the brief synopsis. Don't forget a paragraph of bio -- what qualifies you to write this?

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments so far. Here's what I think:

I also found it a strong opening and a strong readable idea, though with some reservations - see below. I certainly think devan is potentially publishable.

Yes, there's definitely a problem with the identification of where this is to be pitched - both in the (unnecessary) age-banding and in the question as to whether it's literary or chick-lit/ commercial. Actually, I've said this to Devan in an email conversation and I think we're going to be having coffee to discuss further! Or maybe just have coffee ....

In the query letter, I struggled over this: "but the great question of his life is whether any of these things can compel him to risk a comfortable life of self-pity for the demands of self-sacrifice." a) i'm not sufficiently clear as to what this "great question" is and b) I'm not sure if it seems interesting enough a question for me to want to find the answer.

I also struggled with: "Unusually for the story of romantic crooners," - whatever this means, it's not precisely expressed. And if we might like elliptical expression in a novel, we don't want it in a covering or query letter.

I definitely agree with the comments that the age-bracket is unhelpful and possibly misleading (and off-putting).

Dreamstate makes the point about a biog para - although you don't exactly need to justify what "qualifies" you to write a novel, I agree that something about what else you have written / how long you've been writing for would be helpful as this shows commitment and determination; it shows that you might have a career and not just be a one-book wonder.

The 500 word sample definitely seems to me like commerical fiction, rather than literary. (Which is NOT to say that you don't write beautifully, just that I feel it is going to be plot and character driven rather than word-driven.) Of course, it may be that this opening is flowery and romantic because of the nature of the scene, and that other parts of the book will have a different tone.

If I was an agent, and assuming I was an agent who took this type of book, I would ask to see more of the book but the letter would prevent me from being enormously optimistic. If the letter could be improved in the way that the comments have suggested so far, I would be much more optimistic.

Hope you're getting something from this, Devan!

Devan said...

Wow, thank you all very much - this really gives me something to go on for the query letter. I had read that some agents prefer you to identify a target audience, so I had a go - probably misjudging the age because I started writing this as a teenager. How to pigeonhole it is going to be a whole new question for me. That semi-lack of conflict is one of the reasons I figured I was straight-up literary fiction, because the story is about emotions more than events. It makes me think, though - I hate it when people ask me what the novel's 'about', which is probably a bad sign!

I'll reconsider the use of the word 'British' - having lived in Scotland for most of my adult life, I do know the difference, but I used that word because I think in 1939 it had certain regimented, 'proper', colonial connotations, and Patrick is, as he later demonstrates, quite proud of Queen and country.

The other interesting suggestion is the 'bio' paragraph. I've published nothing except magazine articles and a regular column for teens, so I've never been sure how to sell myself as an author. I've been working on this book for 12 years, but I'm not sure if that's a good thing from an agent's perpective! I do have a couple other works in progress, but nothing nearly as polished as yet. If anyone has ideas on that, I am more than happy to take any advice. Or that may be a whole separate discussion!

So thank you all again for both the encouragement and the advice. Nicola, any advice you offer over coffee would be welcome - though I don't anticipate exclusively talking 'shop', as we will need to concentrate on chocolate also. :)


Nicola Morgan said...

Devan, yes, we absolutely do need to concentrate on chocolate.

Re British/English - in my view you'd got this right in the first place. As we both live in Scotland I am sure we've become very sensitive to the distinction ...

Re the biog bit - I agree that saying you've been working on it for 12 years is not ideal. But I do think that finding a wording that shows your commitment and shows that you have worked and reworked it is advisable; also I do think you should mention your published articles, AND your works in progress.

And yes, I think you need to nail the conflict, genre and "hook" - you need (we all do) to find a breif and snappy way of saying exactly and intriguingly what this book is about and what it is like.

See you for coffee (if I get out of jury service!)! Are you coming to any of my getting published events at the book festival?

vicariousrising said...

I think this sounds like a unique novel and the writing is lovely. I had similar concerns about the target market -- it seems so specific and frankly I think those readers would be open to many different books. I'm not sure targeting this book to them would buy you anything. On the other hand, I can see older woman loving the musical theater genre as well as possibly gay (or simply theater-loving) men, young and old.

This also makes me think a little of (and sorry for using a movie reference) The Prestige, which was about magicians (played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) and a little less than romantic, but still had the idea of sacrifice for the show, obsession and vice.

I don't know how helpful I've been, but as a U.S. reader, I love the idea of this setting and hope you can iron out whatever lingering issues you have so it might be published.

Devan said...

Thanks very much, vicariousrising - I can't wait to sit down and work on my query letter after everyone's comments! I'm looking to finish my current rewrite first, but then full speed ahead. Nicola, yes, I'm hoping to come to one of your sessions, but I'm not sure yet whether it will be the Monday or Wednesday one. I hope all the writing for them is going well! Might see you at the salon tonight and can catch up then.