Sunday, 1 November 2009

SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 7: adult readers

Another Submission Spotlight before I finally stop doing them and launch Pen2Publication. You should know the form by now  -  constructive comments, please. And remember that the synopsis is not actually included for the purposes of thise exercise, so you have to imagine that it is. Similarly, although the letter refers to "chapters", we only have 500 words here. You will see that some names have been redacted  -  this is because the author wishes to preserve their confidentiality for the purposes of this public critique.

The author is "Susannah".
____________________________________________________________
Dear ....

I am enclosing the opening chapters and synopsis for my 83,000 word novel, Stone Burial. Stone Burial  is the story of Georgia Fuller, and how her encounter with the apparently idyllic English countryside forces her to face up to what lies beneath – not only the bodies which lie buried under the soil but also the secrets of her own past.   The book explores how both history and our own lives are embedded in a particular place, and how forgetting can sometimes be easier than facing the truth.

I have previously written a novel which was accepted by an agent in 2001 but did not find a publisher.  Since then, I have also attended a number of fiction writing workshops and courses in the course of working on Stone Burial.  My writing has been described as ‘very strong’ by ***** of *****, and ‘very beautiful’ by *****.  Most recently, I have been mentored by the novelist *****, who feels that the book is very much ready for submission and has described it as ‘an intelligent novel and sometimes a lyrical one, imbued with a convincing feel for English landscapes and English history,’ and I am currently working with him on my next book.

My career to date has been as a tv producer, covering subjects as diverse as art and archaeology to interior design and gardening.  Before this, I have had a non-fiction book published (***** Fourth Estate 1992), as well as writing for the architectural magazine Blueprint.   And since then, writing – from scripts to programme proposals – has been at the heart of my work in television.

I have submitted the novel to a small number of literary agents, but will of course inform you if I get any interest elsewhere.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Yours sincerely,

_________________________________________________

Stone Burial - first 500 words:


1943

The two men walked away from the field in the thick blackout night. Each kept silent, their faces shadowed, the moon now clouded and gone.  Words were no more use here. They had done what had been asked of them and it was all over.

But had they done enough, thought the poet.  How deep did you have to bury the dead before they troubled you no more?

The folded tarpaulin started to lift in the wind, and he clasped it closer to his chest.  Breathing in, he could smell the damp earth it had lain on, a scent of grass and dung, inert stone and everything that had once lived, flesh, fur and bone.  What else lay buried in these mute fields, he wondered.  Houses or churches, timber, brick and ashes, creatures of the hedgerows, beasts of the fields.  Then he stopped; he didn’t want to follow these thoughts any further, to come across what they had added, what they had done in the night.  Instead, he kept his eyes down, concentrating on the muddy furrows of the lane.

Ahead of him, the artist paused for a moment, turning back to look where they had been.  Behind them, the clump of beeches and the great barrow still loomed, dark on dark, a vast shadow against the drifting clouds of the night.

‘I can almost see it now,’ he said, half under his breath.

He’d always made a point of refusing the countryside, despising the nice pictures of hills and skies it brought into being.  He painted to make sense of other places, of cities and machines, of the whirling crowd caught up in their motion.  What could he take from this impassive stillness of grass and trees and earth?  But now it was a relief to stand outside history, to be in a place which took no heed of the works of men; the war and its dead were just one more thing for the valley to absorb back into its soil.
He turned to his friend, as though wanting him to understand.  ‘I mean, what he found here.  What he understood.’

For a moment he seemed about to speak again, to explain, but then his face fell.  ‘Not that this makes the slightest bit of difference of course.  After all, I am just a tool of the state, employed to draw factories and armaments and workers for the common good.’  He laughed, the noise too harsh in the darkness.  ‘So there is no point even imagining it.  No point at all’  For a moment he stared down at his boots, alien presences on the rutted e arth of the path.  He does not know that he will die in a plane crash in a few months time, on his way to see men building airfields in the rain, just one more of the piled dead.  He will never be able to say what it is that he has seen here.

He looked up at his friend.  ‘Got a ciggie?’ he said.
__________________________________________________________

13 comments:

Caroline Dunford said...

There is some very lovely writing here. However, with only 500 words it's very difficult to comment in this particular case. This is clearly a prologue to the main story. It doesn't mention Georgia and it tells us by the end of this excerpt that at least one of the characters will shortly die. The mystery is what has happened in the field.
But without seeing the rest of the text what strikes me most is - is this prologue necessary? I understand it reflects the heart of the story ie what is hidden, but do we actually need to read about it here?
This is a question that will have to be answered by the author as with such a short piece it's impossible to say. I'm not set against prologues. Sometimes they are the very best way to set the tone for a novel, but equally there are many times when their existence only needs to be in the author's head.

David J Griffin said...

Hi Susannah

Your query letter is very comprehensive (perhaps too comprehensive?) The description of the novel is interesting, I think; and your line "how forgetting can sometimes be easier than facing the truth" makes me want to read it.

I'm still undecided about mentioning a previous agent; I'm not sure this helps. (I wrote on a writing Forum somewhere concerning this, and the consensus of opinion was that there's the danger of the agent thinking: "Well, if a previous agent couldn't sell it, why would I be able to?"

Mentioning your workshops and courses is good, I think, but putting that SuchandSuch found your writing very strong and beautiful I'm not sure about. Certainly, if it was to stay in the letter, "SuchandSuch would have to be a well-known writer, known to the agent. And however well-known your mentor might be, I'm not sure writing "who feels that the book is very much ready for submission" helps. The agent has to, and will decide that, and they aren't interested in another person's view there, I feel.

Your writing is evocative and has some lovely turns-of-phrases. A para which captured me was fourth one. Lovely that, I think.

It makes me want to read on, for certain, but there's a couple of things which struck me:

First, just a "slip-of the-typewriter" in the penultimate para: "earth" is spelt "e arth". Also you've missed a full stop after "No point at all".

Like Caroline, I was a bit bemused by your main character, mentioned in your query, not making an appearance.

And finally, "He does not know that he will die in a plane crash in a few months time, on his way to see men building airfields in the rain, just one more of the piled dead. He will never be able to say what it is that he has seen here." doesn't work for me at all; I feel really uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the narrator's voice is too loud there, as it were.

Overall, I think it's very good indeed. I wish you every success in finding an agent.

Sarah said...

Hi Susannah,

I agree with Caroline and David- there is lovely writing here.

My main thought has to do more with the covering letter. (I'm from the US, and am used to query letters. Please ignore my comments if they wouldn't apply elsewhere.)

I finished your letter and didn't know what your story was about. I didn't have an idea of the central conflict. (Is it between Georgia and herself, G. and the people who buried the bodies, etc.) I also didn't have an idea of the stakes involved. Why is it important that Georgia "face up to what lies beneath"?

Your letter seemed to describe the themes in your story, but not the story itself, if that makes sense. There also wasn't mention of genre, but again, I'm not sure if that's a US thing.

I think that was why I felt a bit lost in those first 500 words. I would've liked Georgia to be there, but if I'd had that 1 or 2 sentence log line that summed up the conflict of the story (the sort that would be on the book's jacket), I would've been better able to place myself in your story. As it was, I wasn't sure whether I was in literary fiction or the beginning of a thriller.

All that said, your writing is lovely, and my comments are more about your letter than your story. All the best as you continue to polish this.

Sally Zigmond said...

I agree with previous commenters that you do write lyrically and poetically, Susannah. However, to my mind, it's all a bit too vague. Even the two characters seem, so far, to have no individual personality beyond being a poet and an artist. It only came to life for me at the first line of dialogue. It was only then we knew they were friends.

It's not that I want everything spelled out in the very first paragraph of a novel. I do like mystery and intrigue but I have to say this opening completely lost me. Where are we? Who are these people? What on earth have they been doing? And as others have said, what has it to do with Georgia Fuller as mentioned in your covering letter? Had you not given the date I would have been even more in the dark. I do like a little more precision in language. Assuming we're in England, there is a huge variety of landscape in a small area and I would have liked some more detail of that.

You have a tense shift at one point that jarred with me: "For a moment he STARED down at his boots, alien presences on the rutted earth of the path. He DOES not know that he will die in a plane crash in a few months time..."

(Incidentally, it's hard to invest time in a character when you know they're about to die. Maybe you should leave that out?)

I also agree with Sarah in that your summary of what the novel is about says nothing as to who Georgia is or what she faces. It's too vague. Why should I care about her?

Because of this, as a reader, I'm not sure I would want to go on reading. And were I an agent (God forbid) I wouldn't know which publishers' editors to pitch it to.

I am not an expert on what to include or omit in a covering letter. I agree that the people who offer support for your writing need to be pretty well known and respected. I;m not sure I would mention about mentoring or attending various fiction writing workshops. I would, of course, still mention that you have published a non-fiction book.

susannah (quink) said...

Thank you everyone for your comments, and the compliments too.

To deal with the prologue first, it is just 750 words, so very short, and then we do meet Georgia. So agents getting the first three chapters might not be too confused, I hope. The prologue itself actually quite a late addition to the novel, as, without it, some rather key aspects of the book don't appear until three chapters in, which feels too late in. And Georgia does become obsessed with what happened in the field (and ends up digging up that particular skeleton) so the different threads all join up in the end.

As for the query letter, your comments are really useful. I think - if I am understanding correctly - I need to sort out the two sentences about the book, and perhaps lengthen them to make them more enticing. And then cut down the rest (esp. the bit about ready for publication which does definitely have to go, thank you David). I will cut out one of my supporting quotes too. (currently they are from two well-known authors and the owner of an editorial service, so not my aunt and her dogs...)

I will try and have a go at this in the next day or so and get it up here again if I can, to see if it is moving in the right direction.

But thank you all again for your time and attention, it is really much appreciated.

Anna Bowles said...

I see you are a TV professional; it seems to me that the element of life missing from this admittedly very short extract is the element that would be added on screen by actors’ body language. As it is the characters are virtually archetypes and it’s easy to imagine a theatre-style setting: The Poet appearing in a spotlight and saying his piece, then the light fading, going up again on The Artist, and him giving his speech before the spotlight is switched off and regular light* floods the stage in preparation for the humanising ‘ciggie’ question. The line ‘After all, I am just a tool of the state, employed to draw factories and armaments and workers for the common good.’ in particular gives the impression of a stylised character saying his piece in a spotlight.

That sounds negative, but I think it can easily be tweaked if you just create a relationship between the characters. They might want to avoid communication until the last line, but if so each one would still be acutely aware of the other, all the more so because they have just shared some kind of furtive, emotionally resonant midnight activity. Give them names, give them an awareness of each other and one or two feelings or opinions that are small-scale and personal – about the desirability of hot soup when they get home, rather than just the nature of life and death – and this already very polished and evocative physical scene will hopefully spring into emotional life.

Alternatively, you may deliberately be trying not to do this, and to create a stylised, remote work with archetypal characters (and I suspect a limited market, but possibly an enthusiastic core readership). If so, I’d explain this in the covering letter, because your mentor’s description makes the reader expect a novel with a warm emotional core.

Disclaimer as per Nicola’s requirements: I’ve worked in-house as a children’s editor so my opinion is a professional one in publishing, but not in your field specifically.

* I wrote that, then realised the scene was in darkness, so was about to change it. Then I realised that this is another issue worth thinking about: there’s so much bright visual imagery in the men’s thoughts that one loses the sense of night. The scene-setting is perhaps at cross-purposes with some of the imagery, though I only worked that out after several reads so maybe someone wouldn’t feel that if they weren’t poring over the text.

Dayspring said...

This is very elegant, and actually I like the archetypes of Poet and Artist - makes the work seem universal, timeless. I don't think it draws the reader in in a personal fashion, because it seems disjointed from a sense of story; we know what the two people are thinking, but not who they are or what's happened in their lives, which is what we usually want to know first. I've heard it questioned whether prologues should actually be sent to an agent at first contact - any views on that, anyone?

I think 'a few months time' should be 'a few months' time'.

Because a few of the commenters here have wondered about the propriety of opening with the prologue, I wonder if it would be appropriate for Susannah to post the first 500 words of the first chapter in the comments (is that allowed, Nicola)? We might be able to get a better sense of the story and character that way, and could see how the prologue leads into the main novel.

susannah / quink said...

Anna - thank you for the comments. The daylight/night problem I think is something I should definitely have a look at and fix.

I don't know whether it's too late for you, but the humanising element is exactly what comes next - a conversation about roll ups and a sense of ordinary life flooding in. Perhaps I just need to let this in a bit earlier, and I'll have a look at that.

As for what I'm aiming for with the book, it's a bit of both of the options that you suggest. This prologue is quite abstract - and there are several more short pieces interspersed with the main story which are odd in different ways - but the main core of the story works in a much more conventional fashion. And all of these stories knit together by the end of the book.

Dayspring - Thank you for your comments too. I'd be very happy to post the first few hundred words of the book if everyone is happy for me to do so. I've now got to go and do some other work, so I will come back and find out the verdict this evening.

Jane Smith said...

What comes across reading these comments is that the prologue is a bit too enigmatic and vague. And while I understand that the parts which follow are apparently much clearer, that's not good enough for a book on the shelves, competing with all those others: to sell, it has to grab its potential readers right from the off.

If the main text is interspersed with more nebulous passages then perhaps the prologue could be used in this way. But it's essential for the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence to grab hold of the reader's attention and KEEP hold of it: and from the comments I've read here, the prologue isn't fulfilling that function, I'm afraid.

SF said...

I like 'the poet' and 'the artist' as names for the characters, it's just something a bit different that stood out and made me want to keep reading.
I agree with Sally that the tense change, 'He DOES not know...' is quite jarring.
However I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing if the reader is wondering who what where when after reading just the prologue - as long as the next bit is really strong. Maybe it would be good to read some more of the book, not just the prologue.
Good luck!

susannah / quink said...

Jane - thankyou. I take your point entirely. And SF, I will fix that tense change.

As no one seems to have objected, I'll post the next few hundred words after the prologue in the next comment and see if it makes things better or worse!

susannah / quink said...

The map was too big to understand. Georgia leant it up against the steering wheel and stared into a whirlpool of contour lines, a random tangle of roads, names and symbols, seeing nothing. All the way from London the sun had been beating in through the windscreen, and the hire car was stuffy with the smell of motorway and hot plastic, making it impossible to think. But when she opened the window, the air outside was still spring-cool, fresh with the scents of grass and blackthorn. She shivered, suddenly awake, and gazed out at the hedge pressed up against the passenger window, but its dark branches with their first spiky buds were only as twisted and complicated as they had always been. When she’d been small, she’d wanted to be able to draw hedgerows and verges, to set out these miniature universes of stems and grasses on paper. But she’d ended up being better at ideas and thinking than drawing, so the thought had been put to one side. Until now. Georgia frowned and looked away. She’d never remembered this before, and it unsettled her.

Straightening out her arms, she held the edges of the map and tried to stop Herefordshire collapsing in on itself. Where was she? Bloody Mark. It was his fault that she was here, along, without a clue as to where she was heading or why. She’d been looking forward to this, their first research trip on this job, a chance to turn her reading and notes into real places – and then to see him start to transform it into a programme. But something – his sodding feature film in fact – had kept him in London this morning, and so here she was on her own. And he would no doubt expect a surprise from her, some kind of discovery, but she had no idea how to produce one. Especially when he was due to arrive at Malvern Station in less than four hours time.

Resting her forehead against the hard rim of the steering wheel, she let the map blur in front of her eyes and despaired. Only when she looked up again did she see the sign, half-hidden in the hedge on the other side of the road. She would have missed it had she kept driving, instead of pulling up in this narrow layby. Carnbury, it said, Ancient Monument, in old square lettering on enamel, inviting her to turn up a narrow close-hedged road that seemed to lead into the very heart of nowhere. Georgia laughed. It was, after all, a sign. Mark, who was forever on the lookout for omens and auguries, would have appreciated this. And then followed it. She stared back at it for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. Why not? This was a new place, not something she had already pinned down in her notes. And anyway, what else was she going to do?

Dayspring said...

Thanks for posting that, Susannah. It is better - more of a sense of character and plot - but I'm not sure you tell the reader enough at first to really draw them in. There's a sense of unseen conflict, but it's difficult to get interested before knowing what it is. For instance, why would a childhood ambition disturb Georgia while she's apparently thinking about something else? It seems out of place before we know something concrete about her.

It's just at the very end that I get a real hook. Here's a girl with (unexplained) pressure on to produce something special (like what?) for her boss (who for some reason expects her to be good at surprises, as well as her work) - and she's just about to find the very thing. I like the sense of promise there but I would like it more if I had more of a sense of her motivation. I think this is well written but could do (like the hedge!) with some pruning. I'd rather know who the girl is before I know what she's thinking and feeling. I like that she's setting off on an adventure, and I get the feeling the story will pick up from here.

At the moment, I think there's maybe a bit too much guesswork, and it's hard for me to get inside Georgia's head. I'm not usually a big fan of 1st person, but I wonder if it would help here?