22 September 2016

Hi, Jet. Here are some notes after 3.5 hours with your manuscript (I’ve read and edited up to page 80):

I appreciate all the work you did on this. Rare is the young person who knows about English history and dress and manners and H. Rider Haggard, and who can also complete a novel and have ideas for five more.

You are clearly a beginner at fiction writing and my best advice is to enroll in a fiction writing or novel-writing course, whether in person (recommended; a community college near you should have an affordable fiction writing course) or online. The problems with the manuscript are common to all first-time novelists/fiction writers, and every writer was once a beginner, so don’t feel bad. You are attempting something very big, a six-novel series, and it will take a bit longer to get there than maybe you planned. Enrolling in a fiction-workshop course will teach you, in one semester, what it might take 10 years to learn on your own or from books or writers’ magazines or blogs. I would also urge you to join your local writers’ organization. Ours here is called the St. Louis Writers Guild. We have monthly meetings at which speakers address issues such as characterization in fiction, book publishing, mystery writing, how to write a realistic fight scene, and so on. I’ve found them useful.

The manuscript just began to become exciting, in my opinion, around page 70, after you have presented the readership with four characters who’ve all decided on one goal: to find and stop the serial killer. It’s really important that your characters each have a desire and a focus: something they want. When your four major characters all decide on a single goal the novel gains power. I would therefore advise you to consider cutting down seriously those first 70 pages, as they are merely “setup,” as you suspected, and a lot of “sitting around talking” which is deadly for a novel. Fiction is about people, specifically people’s actions, not just their conversations. Pretend that you are writing a book that will be made into a movie. Few movies have long opening passages with characters sitting around talking. Make sure every scene moves the story forward.

I might even remove the whole “time travel” issue and let Empress be an 1880s London girl who has no parents but only an odd godmother. This girl becomes an unsung heroine of the murder investigations.

I would say there are two main problems with the manuscript as it is:

1. Characterization. I don’t think readers will believe that Empress, a 14-year-old contemporary American girl, can comfortably accept living in an English seaside cottage occupied by a weird woman she doesn’t know who has live garden gnomes. I think that regardless of her intelligence or education a contemporary girl would not easily accept being suddenly deposited in 1880s London, dressed in a bustle and never blurting out how much she misses the Internet and TV and phone and cars. She must first have a personality we can believe in. She would thus have to be given strengths and flaws, hobbies, preferences in food or clothing, and because she is a girl of our time, a birthday, maybe a boyfriend, homesickness, friends, secrets and worries, and she must be unaware of all that she doesn’t know, and therefore she must make mistakes. To be a believable modern kid she would also have to make or receive weekly phone calls or letters from her parents (who certainly would want to know how she’s doing with a stranger while they’re off in Italy).

If you are thinking of a parallel with Alice in Wonderland (I know that Alice was based on a real Alice), Alice the character was a caricature of a little girl. She had no fears, did not miss her mom, and so on. But if you are using in your novel real-life places such as Scotland Yard, an Alice-style protagonist would not work. She’d have to seem like a real girl. Turning Empress into an 1880s London girl solves a lot of those problems.

I’m having particular trouble understanding who Jasper is and what his relationship to Miranda is and where he fits into the story. So far, up to page 80, the readers haven’t been given any background on him. He’s some sort of inventor but seems to lack confidence and gets bullied a lot by the godmother for no reason I can tell. (Yes, I get the “Miranda” reference.)

2. Historical fact. I’ve been checking to see whether 14-year-old English girls in 1888 would wear their hair up (not until age 16; “hair up” signifies marriageability), whether there were “suffragettes” then (the word wasn’t coined until 1903), how a woman and a girl bursting into a men’s club would be dealt with (probably hauled off by police, and the story would make the papers). I know it’s fiction but if you are using historical facts they have to align. It feels to me as if you have read many books about this period and are describing the same streets and furnishings and characters in much the same way as did the books of this period. (Dickens comes to mind.) That means your readers have read these descriptions and heard these accents before. It will be hard to come up with fresh descriptions and characters, but that is your challenge.

Okay. After writing this note to you I have now worked for 4.5 hours. I will send you the manuscript as it is marked up so far and let you decide if you want me to continue editing, whether further comments and edits will be of value to you, if you think you can learn something from them. You are a young writer and I want you to feel encouraged by my editing, not discouraged. As a writer you will meet throughout your lifetime with a lot of discouragement, and be faced with a lot of re-writing work, and this is true of the great genius writers as it is of anybody else. I want you to continue writing no matter what anybody says. If nobody can stop you from writing, you are already a writer and simply must get more practiced and experienced. Most of us didn't get schooled in novel writing. If there is a college-level fiction workshop near you, it's a great opportunity and you might (you will!) meet some congenial and helpful people.

About the title: It can’t be in Latin. Titles are a great challenge. The title and the cover together comprise 70 percent of a book’s success. What you have now is called “a working title” and you are right not to get too attached to it.

Let me know what you think. If you choose not to continue I will refund the unused portion of your payment.

Catherine