Saturday, 10 October 2009


We have another brave writer willing to submit herself to the rigours of a Submission Spotlight. (Apologies to others who have sent in submissions  -  I'm getting there, and promise to produce a few more soon.) Her name is Lynn Michell and she is looking forward to your feedback to help her on her way.

If you haven't commented on one of these before, please look under "Submissions Spotlights" in the labels column and see what sort of commenting we expect. The standard of commenting is high, and we want constructive, considered points. Most of you are not professional editors or agents, but readers, and readers' reactions are very important. But "professional" readers do have a different eye and look for different things  -  therefore, please say whether you do have a professional role or not. (I know some publishers read this blog and like to remain in disguise  -  no problem if so!) Also, if this submission is not a genre you normally read, please say  -  then the writer knows how to interpret your views.

Comments must be constructive, whether positive or negative. You may make broad, general points, or focus on tiny details. Please be respectful and consider the writer's feelings  -  but consider even more how you can help her move towards publication.

Note that there was a specific brief which was different from a "normal" submission: to write a covering letter and the first 500 words. Also, this is a UK-style covering letter, rather than a US-style query which would not be accompanied by any material and would therefore be longer. HOWEVER, on this occasion, I have also included the synopsis, because the author kindly sent* me one, and because I think it is worth your looking at. (*And don't criticise her for not following the brief  -  this came about slightly differently!)

Ignore any formatting issues  -  this was a function of me transferring the text to blogger. Assume we're looking at double-spaced type.

Dear Nicola Morgan
White Lies  -  by  -  Lynn Michell

I saw on your website that you are calling for synopses and outlines to critique.  I very much appreciate this opportunity to send you the synopsis of my debut novel White Lies which begins in Liverpool as the second world war breaks out and moves to Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. It is a slow burning love story which is played out against the backdrop of the desperate, bloody attacks on white colonials by the land-hungry and dispossessed Kikuyu tribes of Kenya.

White Lies was short-listed as a work in preparation for Edinburgh's Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 2007 and again as a finished novel by an emerging writer in 2008. It is literary fiction and roughly 90,000 words.

I have published six non-fiction books with HarperCollins, Longman and The Women's Press and have won a number of prizes for short stories. This is my first novel.

I do hope that you want to read more.

Yours sincerely

Lynn Michell

(500 word sample)

White Lies
Chapter One

From far away they look like a rock group posing for a publicity shoot, neither together nor apart, facing all ways. A tall middle-aged man with hair as wild as the wind. A woman holding the arm of an old man; a second fairer woman leaning in on his other side. A beautiful, skinny youth with a shaved head who remains a little apart, perhaps because he is young and feels things keenly. And a young man in his twenties holding the cardboard box as carefully as if he were carrying a child. Close to though, it is obvious that they are not posing at all. This is for real.

It was late afternoon when the two cars pulled up in the car park above the beach. Like other beaches on the stretch of English coastline between Folkestone and Dover, it was a chill grey, bleak and disheartening. In the front seat Eve's son Alex held a square cardboard box on his knee. It was Alex who had sat with his grandfather round the clock until the others had raced to him from motor-ways and airports. Alex who always wore jeans had bought a new black suit and a black tie and black shoes because he knew appearance meant a lot to his grandfather.

The old soldier, so much older now than five days ago, stumbled when he set foot on the cobbled stones above the beach. Eve grabbed him and held him steady as they squeezed their way two abreast down the pedestrian path which was wide enough only for one. A wet wind soaked their faces and stormy clouds whipped across the sky. Each one was thinking, How do I do this? I have never done this before.

It is hard enough to walk across shifting stacks of stones when fit and young, but how to manage when you are eighty-nine and giddy with grief? The old man comes to a halt too far from the sea and rests for a moment, wanting to shake off the two women who prop him up, wishing to be alone with his thoughts. Earlier that afternoon, walking behind the coffin over the strip of red carpet, he had reached out his hand to touch the wood and said, I want to see her again, and Eve had whispered, Father, you can't. It's too late now.

We are dressed inappropriately, thinks Eve. Here we are in our funeral finery when we need our wellies and waterproofs and hats. Glancing at her husband Max, she worries that the men will be frozen in their thin white shirts and suits. They gather together to wait for a lull but the sea has never-ending reserves of energy while they are drained of theirs. It scores each time it rushes up to froth around their ankles and shoes.


‘By 1950, Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonisation fought in Britain’s twentieth century empire.’  Britain’s Gulag. P 28.

White Lies is about different kinds of war and different kinds of loving.  It explores the fragility and partiality of memory, the political and personal interpretation of history, and our need to re-write the past so that it does not jar with the stories we tell ourselves.

An army family is posted to Nairobi in 1952.  The Mau Mau rebellion, currently in the news again, is both central and peripheral to the different family members who live through the Emergency.  Looking back, the old soldier reflects on the differences between the conventional warfare of the second world war and the hit-and-run tactics of an invisible, unreadable enemy.  His is the accepted colonial account. He experiences military action against the Mau Mau as dutiful service and personal fulfilment. His wife Mary’s story of the same period comes to light only after her death.  While her husband finds satisfaction in being a leader of men, she falls in love with an Intelligence officer who understands Kenya’s history, sympathises with the country’s dispossessed tribes, and shows Mary a kind of loving she has never before experienced.  While their father is out on armed patrol and their mother is keeping trysts with her lover, their two little girls recount fragments of their time in Nairobi as well as earlier memories of their safe days with their grandparents in a Dorset village. Their ghost-like voices break into the adult narrative, recalling images remembered with wide-eyed innocence.

This is a slow-burning love story set against a political backdrop. The plot twists and turns, gaining momentum, towards its unexpected ending.


When Mary Dell dies there is no-one left to mourn her except her husband, David, her two daughters, Eve and Clara, and their sons, yet amongst the flowers is a wreath from someone called Ann.  Their father, giddy with grief, remains silent on the subject.  When they clear their mother's room, Eve and Clara find a shoe-box of papers which Clara offers to take home.

Unable to look after himself, David Dell moves close to Eve.  While as a child Eve found security in her father, now their roles are reversed as the old man leans on his daughter. While the present is a challenge, the past is vivid and sharp.  He tells Eve his stories, over and over, until one day she suggests he writes his memoirs.  And so they begin, David talking and Eve typing.  Where do you want to start? Eve asks.  Nairobi, he replies without hesitation. 

Part way through his story David stuns Eve by telling her that something terrible happened to Mary one night when he was out on patrol.  Too upset to continue, he walks out leaving Eve without further explanation. Why does she not remember?  Nor Clara?  They recall nights of fear locked in their bedroom while their mother barricaded herself in her room with a loaded revolver.  But something worse?

While her father is talking, Eve recaptures images from the past and in remembering, questions his version of events, both the public and the private. Sometimes she interrupts him with fragments of her own story.

In London, Clara is caught up in the terrorist bombings of July 2005.  Reminded of Nairobi and curious to know how her mother coped with a similar kind of fear, she opens the shoe-box of papers. There is a diary and a letter, recently dated, to Ann. 

Now we hear Mary's story of her courtship and marriage, her war years followed by stultifying village life, and her time in Nairobi. In the background, colonials and Kikuyu are killing one another and David is out on patrol risking his life but Mary is lost in a passionate relationship that dominates the present and shapes the future.

David turns up on Eve’s doorstep one day to finish his memoir and to write about what happened to Mary one night in Nairobi. As Eve types, she discovers that her father's and her mother's accounts are different and irreconcilable. 

A middle-aged woman boards a plane to Nairobi to trace her past and find her roots.

Comments, please! Lynn awaits eagerly ...


JaneF said...

This sounds like a great read – I would buy it! The characters seem interesting and likeable, and I love stories with family mysteries running through them.

I really like your writing style. I was definitely ‘there’ with your characters.

The query – very impressive! I like the juxtaposition of ‘slow-burning love story’ and ‘desperate, bloody attacks’.

A few suggestions re your opening.

1. At first I thought that it was the grandfather who was dead, and his ashes were in the box (I wrongly assumed that Alex was sitting at his grandfather’s deathbed). You might want to make clear earlier on that the grandfather is the old soldier.

2. You change points of view a lot in these opening paragraphs. From the synopsis I am guessing that you use multiple points of view in the novel as a whole, so this is preparing the reader for that structure, but sometimes I think there is confusion. For example:

‘Each one was thinking, How do I do this? I have never done this before.

It is hard enough to walk across shifting stacks of stones when fit and young, but how to manage when you are eighty-nine and giddy with grief? The old man comes to a halt too far from the sea and rests for a moment...’

At first I thought that the sentence ‘It is hard...’ was a continuation of the point of view in ‘Each one was thinking...’, but then I decided this was now the grandfather’s POV.

3. There is also some confusion in chronology – it is not clear where paragraph 1 fits into the sequence of events. Paragraphs 2 and 3 are past tense and the others present tense – usually this would mean that the order of events would be 2, 3, 1, 4... but paragraph 4 obviously doesn’t come after paragraph 1 chronologically.

4. Could you perhaps make clear where the family are standing in paragraph 1?

I loved the writing – for example the part where the grandfather says he wants to ‘see her again’ – very poignant, and as a reader I was wondering if there was a reason for his choice of words here.

Looks like a good un to me! Good luck, Lynn.

The Virtual Victorian said...

I agree with all that JaneF has said - I like the writing style very much and the concept is strong. I wonder if you have allowed yourself space - some time to step back from the novel so that you can see it again with 'fresh eyes'. The necessary clarifications should be quite simple and straightforward to make and the work - which is already very good - will be all the better for a little more stringent editing. It's important that your reader flows with the prose - that he or she doesn't have to stop and pause to try and understand. The reader should never need to ask or be puzzled.

All best wishes with your subbing.


Anna Bowles said...

(Insomnia strikes! This is my second take on this comment, because your images stayed with me, which has to be good.)
Professional role confession - these days I'm a freelance author/editor, but I've worked in-house as an editor of children's fiction and various TV/other tie-in titles.
The plot and the synopsis look like they do a good job of describing the book (though the ending is missing from the plot - an agent/editor will need this to make a judgement, though I'm guessing you know that and have just left it off for the purposes of this public airing), but I'm not familiar with market conditions for this kind of fiction so can't really comment.
If the opening paragraphs came across my desk I'd think: "Hm... a very competent writer... but she needs to relax into the job." I'm not surprised they're the work of an accomplished short story writer because the words are so carefully chosen and so tightly woven, with no flab, but as JaneF identifies there is so much crammed in here that the reader soon gets lost. There are characters in the past tense, characters in the present, characters identified by name, characters identified by physical description, characters identified by their relationship to the others ('grandfather'), live characters, dead characters, a narrator, and several povs. Some of these elements will have to be thinned out if the reader is to have a chance of orienting themselves.
The image that popped up in my head while I was failing to nod off was the rock band one. This being because it's so striking. But I'm afraid I suspect it of being a darling - one of those ones we are exhorted to kill. An old man and a cardboard box don't to me say 'rock group'. Similarly with the ending, "they are not posing at all. This is for real." There's no indication yet of *what* might be for real, as all we can glean about what's going on so far is that it appears to be an emotional occasion.
So the reader moves on to the next paragraph thinking, 'Hm, why do they look like a rock band, and why might we think they are posing when they're actually for real?", and expecting these to be key questions for the book, whereas in fact they are immediately dropped.
The other lovely bit in the first paragraph is your description of the skinny young man (presumably Alex). And that does work, because it's not only elegant but a highly functional piece of character-building.
I think your evident skills of concise and poignant storyteling will shine through if there are a few less elements being introduced together. As a rule - with the usual provisos about there being no rules, particularly in literary - I would stick to three named characters and only allow myself either one change of tense or one change of pov on the first page of a book. Most readers of all but the most experimental fiction want to work out early on who they are supposed to be identifying with. Alex and the grandfather are the ones who interest me most on the basis of what's there - let 'em breathe!

Lynn said...

Thank you for your astute comments. Looks like I made spaghetti instead of setting a scene. The first chapter is quite different from the rest of the novel when the narrative gets going and each chapter is written from the viewpoint of either the soldier or his wife Mary. At this stage I wanted to create an atmosphere and did not want to make the people or the events sharp and clear, but that won't work if I'm confusing my readers. The narrator is supposed to be looking down on it all. I appreciate the comments suggesting I give myself and my readers more breathing space. Perhaps I have over-worked this chapter.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lynn - I'll be commenting later today but I'm tied up in something at the moment. Jane, Sarah and Anna - many thanks for your very detailed and helpful comments. Good stuff!

Lynn said...

This first short chapter is where I began the novel years ago. Then I got into the narrative and the characters took on a life and energy of their own. Maybe it's time to let go of the atmospheric stage setting and plunge straight in with the next chapter where Eve, exasperated with her father's repetitive ramblings in the waiting room of an eye hospital, tells him she'll type up his memoirs.

And so the story of what happened in Nairobi begins.

Caroline Dunford said...

As the others have said there is a strong concept here and some elegant writing. Revelations after death has a touch of Bridges of Madison County about what story doesn't have resonances? The juxtaposition of war and love is always good.
I suspect your plot and synopsis isn't that clear as you're rightly concealing some things in a public post, but as it stands there is confusion about the husband being so grieved if the relationship was so flawed and how (and if) that one night connects to the love affair with the intelligence officer. There are components, but not yet the sense of the whole - but this is nothing that a little tweaking of partial can't fix.
What does worry me is the multitude of voices the story promises. Even in the opening there is some quick POV switching. It's not that it isn't possible to do this, but it's a very difficult form to do well. I'd think about losing some of the voices to revealing action if you can - something you can hopefully easily slip into when the biography is being dictated.
As someone else said with such a complicated story I think it would benefit with the drawer treatment for a month or so in order to allow you to view it with fresh eyes.
Good luck!

Douglas Bruton said...

Yep, I agree with what was said about the rock band image... it sets in motion a train of thought that is not pertinent to the story so I'd suggest cutting that.

And like others, if I was the editor you were approaching I'd want to know if the twist in the tail was worth it, so you'd need to spill that in your note to editor.

Some big themes in this and lots that promises to be interesting. maybe a bit too much is being attempted in your opening. If, as you say, it really got going in ch 2 you might need to go back and rewrite ch 1 to make it fit. Also the first pages are often as far as a bookshop brouser gets, so they have to be squeaky clean.

I am not an editor, just a reader. But there is enough here for me to want to look again. The subject, (history and place) hold no immediate appeal to me, so it would be the love story that would have to grab my attention.

I also am not sure about the cliched 'slow-burning love story' pitch... Maybe I am wrong, but I think being fed the book jacket blurb in this way would read as weak... you can say the same thing and not sound like you stole the line from a whole host of other books. Reading this in the letter makes me think that this writer might lack originality or flair with language. Maybe that's just me.

Good luck with this project.

Sorry I did not give more in depth crit on the material. Maybe I'll come round again to do that.

Lynn said...

What coherent and constructive comments. Thank you all. You sound in agreement about PoV being a problem. Maybe this first chapter isn't getting past the publishers for that reason (and no doubt others). I might try re-writing it from the PoV of the old soldier.

About putting in a drawer - it's just come out after a year when I didn't look at it. I've been writing another novel which is quite different - light and irreverent.

This is so helpful.

Nicola Morgan said...

Great comments and lots of detail from everyone. I won't try to draw various reactions together, because this is about our personal responses.

I have no problem with what others describe as multi-POV but which feels more to me like omniscient narrator. I like omniscient narrators, when done well, and I feel this is. It creates a detachment which can then make sudden attachments/passions more more vivid.

On the other hand, if the main viewpoint is going to be Eve's (is it?) why not give her pride of place from the start?

Someone mentioned different tenses in the opening - I think if the past ones were made pluperfect, this problem would be cured. Pluperfect goes naturally with present. So, you'd say, "It had been late afternoon..." This will root it and stop the reader being confused.

I think the first sentence is weak. Partly because I can't see how they would look like a rock group! You can give us a much better one.

"This is for real" - I'm perfectly happy not to know what "it" is at this stage. (Though not for much longer.)

I love your use of language. "giddy with grief" is fabulous.

Three main things I'd pick you up on. First, I would be worrying (as agent/editor) that this might become a too-slow story, too introspective. I feel the need for something dramatic to happen very soon. (I do read lit fic, so this is not me being influenced by quick-to-start teenage fiction!) On that subject, I wonder if the story starts in the wrong place. Could we have this scene later? Or could it be pepped up, with more strong clues of tragedy/passion to come? Parts of your synopsis/plot make me worry about this too: "tells Eve his stories, over and over, until one day..." Just how long will we have to listen to the stories??

Second, I need a tight hook in order to be able to sell it to the sales team. "Slow-burning love story" is not going to do that. The passion and danger of the war aspects would be a good part of it, but I'm not sold by "slow-burning". Yes, it could be wonderful, simmering, but I'd need to be convinced now. If this is like Bridges of Madison County, I'd need to know it was EVEN better, even more gutsy and riveting.

So, although the concept IS probably strong, is it strong enough obviously enough? How can you sell it to me in two sentences, becasue that's all you'll get?

Third, I don't think the plot/synopsis adequately or sufficiently clearly tells the story. I may be being thick but it seems to me that there's more than the ending missing. (And, as someone said, we do need that ending in a synopsis.) I'm not getting a sense of how the episodes are spaced out in the book (or, if I am, I don't think the spacing/pacing is right). Does Eve go to Nairobi so near the end of the book? Although I find the idea of how all the elements will fit together fascinating, I don't feel the synopsis gives me confidence that you've achieved that. You probably have, because I believe you're a much more than competent writer and someone who has lived and breathed and slept this story for a long time - but I need to see that in the plot-outline.

I suspect that you have written a very good book and it's very obvious that you are a skilled writer. But we need to be much surer about the book, rather than about you. It's not about whether you're a good writer but about whether THIS is a great book that I can sell. Easily, if possible. So, I think you need to think even more about a) the opening and b) how you outline the plot. If I was an agent I would definitely want to see more, but if I was giving you a critique or mentoring you I'd want you to tighten not the prose (which is beautiful) but the exposition of your idea and your presentation to a publisher or agent.

But, make no mistake, this is a high quality submission and I have every confidence that you can do it.

I really hope you're glad you took the plunge with this Spotlight! You deserve to succeed.

Sarah said...

Lynn, what an interesting story! I want to know more about these people. Before we start, I'm unpublished, from the US, and don't often read literary fiction.

The language was beautiful and precise- love, love, love that.

Like others, I had a hard time orienting myself. It took me a few reads to realize that the 2nd paragraph described how the group of people got to the beach. At first, I thought other people had arrived to join those already on the beach.

It was also hard for me to enter the story emotionally. There were details that caught at me: Alex buying clothes his grandfather would approve of, or Eve thinking they're dressed inappropriately. But the focus moved so quickly that I felt disconnected, and eventually somewhat disinterested.

This may not apply to literary writing, but I'll mention it all the same. I just returned from a writer's conference and an editor on a panel made an excellent point: a scene about a shouting, profane Marine sergeant is unengaging because that's exactly what we imagine when we think of Marine sergeants. In the same way- thought it sounds awful to say- a scene of grieving family members might be overlooked unless you provide details we don't expect. You provided a few, but for me, more would have helped.

I think I would have been pulled in more quickly if the story had started in the waiting room of eye hospital. I wonder if this first scene is one you will hold in your head and heart as you write White Lies, but won't end up on the page? You know, the sort of scene that informs everything you put in the story, but doesn't ever show up itself?

All the best as you continue to work on White Lies!

Dayspring Jubilee said...

Lynn, this is beautifully written and, in terms of style, more polished than a lot of what I pick up in a bookstore. Yes, there are POV issues - and while the synopsis is a bit dizzying with all the different versions of the same story, it sounds intriguing and compelling at the same time. Bit of subtle postmodernism there with conflicting views of history (both national and personal), which is impressive! I can also see some beautiful little metaphors slipped in there - the father wanting to shake off his daughters, not only their physical support, but doubtless also the emotional dependence he'll have on them from now on. Very well done; just some neatening needed. I'd look forward to reading it.

In the synopsis, I'm wondering about that last paragraph - the woman getting on the plane. I see you're injecting a sense of mystery there - who is getting on the plane: Eve, Clara, the unseen Ann? But because that's not answered, it sounds a bit disconnected, and it may detract from rather than add to the denouement. Seeing you're meant to 'reveal all' in a synopsis, would you be better to give more detail here?

I'm a part-time copy editor and proofreader, but not for fiction, so these are just my personal views as a reader! All the best for publication.

Lynn said...

I have been thinking about this comment from Sarah which echoes what others have said:

I wonder if this first scene is one you will hold in your head and heart as you write White Lies, but won't end up on the page? You know, the sort of scene that informs everything you put in the story, but doesn't ever show up itself?

For many years I had a black and white image - no colour - of a family on a chill, wind-swept English beach trying to throw into the sea the ashes of the woman who had been, until a few days previously, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. Because each person present was locked into a unique, personal grief, they were not really connected as a group, despite being blood relations. The first flash of colour comes only when one daughter throws a red rose into the grey waves. The scene is then crayoned in.

Sarah's comment is very apt. This may be the scene that I now let go. It has served its purpose. It is unlike the rest of the book which has, I hope, a strong narrative. How many of us, I wonder, have written just such a prose-picture and have been reluctant to let it go.

Nicola, I am glad you are not troubled by the omniscient narrator, though yours is a lone voice. I had imagined looking down on this scene and allowing myself access to all the characters.

Douglas, I take your comment about the rock group. CD covers sometimes show bands looking like they don't really know one another and that is what I was aiming for. The being together but apart.

Jane, thank you for your encouragement. If the chronology is confusing you (and others), then I must sort that out. Nicola suggests using the plu-perfect. I could try that.

I need to think about this some more. So much to say about the first 500 words! But then, as Nicola says, these are the very words which sent my ms (and yours) into the slush pile. Or not.

Zander said...

I'm a small publisher, and as a friend and colleague of Lynn's, I read the whole story a year or so ago. It may have changed since then, as she asked me to make a male scene more masculine and I tried. The story was quickly accepted by TWO publishers, but after confused negotiations, Lynn decided to withdraw it and rewrite bits.

The first chapter is totally untypical - an attempt to bring on the whole cast in a reunion setting. I don't think it should be dropped, but perhaps edited, as some of the comments suggest.

The synopsis is also perhaps misleading. The story grows and unfolds against a scary historical background, and the characters develop in interaction with this.

It is quite like a good detective story, as the reader can foresee some potential outcomes, but has to read on to find what really happened. And cannot guess the final denouement, which the synopsis is right to hide.

I think it's a crackingly good story, and only needs a friendly editor to help it into the world.


Becky said...

I'm not sure whether Lynn is still reading this post, but thought I would put my tuppence in anyway!

I've done a lot of work experience in publishing, and am currently an assistant (i.e. first rung of the ladder). So I've had almost zero experience in editing and there are people here who know *far* more than me, but someone of my level would be the first slush pile reader.

Anyhoodle, Lynn, I very much enjoyed your extract, and I agree with Nicola in that I actually liked the omniscient narrator circling round different characters (and on the page you could physically separate them out more to make it obvious you were switching).

However, the brevity of each section felt more short-storyish rather than longer fiction. I think if you were going to take that approach then a paragraph about each person would have to become a couple of pages.

I disagree with a few of the people here and like the 'strong central image' idea (although not the 'rock band' comparison, sorry) especially if you were to come back to it at some point later on...

If I were reading the slush pile that day, I would definitely put it to one side for the next person higher up to read, because you obviously have a lot of skill.

Lynn said...

Yes, Becky, I am still reading....and thank you for releasing me from the slush pile.

Ray said...

Hi Nicola

The link on the Scottish authors site is still to your old blog address. Hope the move goes well.


Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Ray - what Scottish authors site? Thanks v much for telling me, though! Just that I'm not sure which site you mean. Scottish Arts Council? Or Soc of Authors - but they don't have their own site so maybe UK one?

Thanks for your help. It's been really hard to find everyone who's linked to it