"Be honest," he pleaded, passing me the submission package and sample chapters for his novel. "Be brutally honest."
"Okay," I replied, warily.
And thus did the critiquin' commence.
Dear <name deleted to avoid retribution>:
As promised, here’s my quick critique of your submissions package for (your debut novel m/s). I preface it with the black-box warning that these are ONLY my observations— certainly not graven in stone, definitely not infallible, and (if and/or when you see a suggestion) not necessarily what YOU should do.
In books such as yours, there’s always much more good stuff (writing and story-telling, for instance) than there are problems. But since it’s the problems that will kill your chances for publication, I tend to focus on those.
<grin> Bottom line: You want strokin’, find a Vietnamese massage parlor; we deal in leather, whips and handcuffs here.
And overall, pls be assured that this analysis is not intended to offend, even tho my smart-assed critique writing style is virtually guaranteed to do so. Sadly, I’m pretty certain most editors would think the very terms that I write below—they just wouldn’t put ‘em in a carefully polite rejection form-letter.
Analysis Of Your Proposal Submission Package
• First, I’d lose the “cover design” concept you include --some publishers take it as an insult to their art departments-- at least as how you’ve designed it here. From my reading of your sample chapters, your book is apparently not a light & comedic novel. What then, pray, is a somewhat “chick-lit” –looking design doing at the very first page of this submission? As an acquiring editor, I’d initially think this is a very different book than what you subsequently present; at that point, I’d wonder about both your understanding of basic communications… <grin> as well as, perhaps, your sanity. While the latter is not essential for a successful book, it is likely a bit too early in the relationship to raise any suspicions in this area.
• In your letter, you’ve promised “me-the-editor” a mixture of James Patterson (bestselling thriller/suspense) and Dan Brown (bestselling mystery/suspense, even if he is a talentless hack). But two grafs down, you dangle a vastly differing bait: “Their lives are revealed in ways that are both funny and sad as Art attempts to break the family curse and unravel the mysterious Vigenere’s code, leading him to a host of colorful characters and his family legacy in Georgia.” Funny and sad? Colorful characters? Don’t make an editor ask “Has this freakin’ guy ever read Patterson or Brown?”
• I’m not a fan of any synopsis, and certainly not one that is more than three or four grafs long—but that’s my prejudice, and I’m woefully aware that all the writing guides (and often, the official “submission guidelines”) insist that you include one.
Okay—but me-the-editor has 50 other submission queries on my desk, so at least shorten this thing from your current 15 pages to (preferably) a single page or (if you really, really must) two—and make it sound exciting, insightful, and a must-read, not just a recitation of proposed plot. Get me ASAP to the sample chapters (where I’ll decide if you can write dialogue & narration, create compelling characters and generally thrill the editorial pee outta me).
• You’ve bought yourself a hefty problem with your opening chapter (IMHO). This is where the reader (or editor) has to invest in buying (and, of course, buying into) your book. Sometimes that involves a thrilling opening, full of suspense and/or derring-do; sometimes (and usually more effectively, IMHO) it involves introducing (in a captivating way) a character --often THE main character, whom you want readers to spend 400 pages with (tho a really good supporting player can sometimes work wonders).
Here, you open with Confederate President Jeff Freakin’ Davis and “some guy” named Zeb, who talk; 13 generally nameless guys at a table, some of whom talk; and then more talk between Majors and Lt’s and… well, you get my point here, yes?
Chapters 2 thru 4 apparently continue this, the combined effect being one of a rather un-exciting “info dump” … with little action to entice (and more important, to illustrate the essential natures of the characters).
Me, I’d maybe consider dropping all this as a narrative flow, and maybe opening with a (short) “Entry From The Diary Of Col. Zebediah Barfoot, CSA,” (or whatever) in which only a tantalizing part of the historical setup is revealed. I’d return to the “diary” (which, perhaps, Art “discovers” in the main, present-day narrative) to fill in the historical background as needed. But that’s just one path to take, and I’m sure you’ll find many others if you decide to make revisions here.
• I may have missed part of the file’s transmission: from Ch 4 (circa Civil War’s end) do you jump to Ch 9 (still circa Civil War’s end) …and then to Ch 11 (present day, lawyer’s office)? Is Ch 11 where the “real” main characters are introduced? If so, that’s a lo-o-o-o-ng coffee break to get to the essential storyline and characters.
I know, I know: you wanted to show that the book spanned both eras. But I-the-editor want to know if you-the-writer can craft a compelling, logically structured, character-rich story, at book length. If your samples show that to (apparently) be the case, I’m far more likely to request a read of the entire m/s.
• Suicide attempts (Ch 12) are always (well… usually) more compelling than an office discussion of competing job offers (Ch 11). Word to the wise, eh? Don’t “bury your lead” under a steamin’ pile of minutiae. And both Art and Vanessa are far too laid-back here—they “converse” about “sad stuff” –right after V finds A about to blow his friggin’ skull apart? Here is a chance for some real drama, missed.
• Ch 15 is a fantasy/”dream” sequence; as such, the set-up to it is critical. I dunno how you handled the setup, since we again jump across intervening chapters here.
• You spend no small amount of time talking about the main character suddenly having an attack of Bell's Palsy. Sure: Bell’s Palsy is interesting, in a clinical sort of way—but where’s the flippin’ missing gold, dammit? I betcha Patterson --or even that hack Brown-- would have Art knee-deep in the stuff by now. Probably surrounded by a mutilated body (or 10), too… and, for the story’s sake, rightly so. (Remember, you promised me JimDan in your letter!)
• Ch 20: “Out of water, no food for days, signs of hostile Indians abound. But I did find this mysterious book (finally) to ease my travail… if only I knew what it was!” –From The Diary Of ‘Are We There Yet, Zeb?’
(D: Sorry… but I warned you about my snarky critique-writing style. –E)
• Ch 21 thru 26: “Still can’t make heads ‘r tails out of this goddam diary… but at least a hot, cock-teasing chick has arrived!” (Ibid.)
At present, you’re trying to do way too much here. Simplify the storyline; decide if this is going to be a book about finding mysterious lost gold, about a couple trying to overcome grief at the loss of a child, about a man overcoming an onset of Bell’s Palsy… or something else entirely, even. For example, I think nailing your late-arriving hot-chick Susan character would make for a good novel, if the details are juicy enuf. (BTW, I think I’m leering as I write this.)
Right now, you’ve attempted a mixture of genres (which many acquiring editors hate; they don’t know how they’d market it), and provided a large number of non-sequential sample chapters (which don’t illustrate your ability to tell a story --again, at book length).
Overall, I suspect you’ve written too much, about too much. You can fix it, but IMHO you’ll have to get back to the grindstone to do it.
INEVITABLE APOLOGY (and CONCLUSION)
And so I apologize, amigo. But at this point, I’m uncertain if your proposal –and more importantly, your book-- is ready yet to go out. The good news is that you obviously love to write, and the better news is that all that time-investment gives you an excellent place to start a re-write.
ABOVE ALL, DON’T GIVE UP THE DREAM! Hell, if this book-authoring stuff was easy, there’d be no honor in working so hard to get it done right.