Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 1


I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…

Market Appeal:  Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?

JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”

ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”

Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.

In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.

Prose Style:  Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

JP – “Yes”

ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”

Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.

Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂

There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?


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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

10 responses to “Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 1

  • Talli Roland

    Sounds like you’ve received some invaluable feedback! Thanks for sharing.

  • Glen

    What a great opportunity that was? And very well taken on your part.

    There is always more to learn isn’t there?

    Time and time again I read just how fundamentally key the introduction letter is in attracting the publisher’s attention- you always think that the story should work but itself – but it so doesn’t.

    none the less, once you have their attention – the story has to step up to the plate.

    Well done on moving ever forward!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks, Glen! There are definitely multiple gateways to barge through on the road to publication, aren’t there? Getting the agent/publisher to read and like the letter, the first page, the first chapter, then additional chapters and the full manuscript thereafter if we’re lucky. It puts so much pressure on those first words, so even though the critiques I received weren’t in view of the full scope of the story, it honestly didn’t matter – if someone isn’t interested in even the very little bit I had submitted for those one-on-ones, that’s it. End of story (literally :)).

  • Milo James Fowler

    “You could be great if you relaxed it more” — I’ve been told I’m too “wordy”, so I’m trying to transfer the skills I’ve learned through short fiction over to my novel WiPs. Learning how to take criticism is one thing, but receiving a good critique in the first place is invaluable!

    • thefallenmonkey

      My turn to quote you, Milo: “receiving a good critique in the first place is invaluable” – absolutely! And I can see how flash fiction would help so much with conciseness. I’ve been making a point to read more contemporary commercial fiction, too, just to immerse in the quicker pace and simplicity of the words. I’ve never tried to emulate someone else’s writing on purpose, but have discovered I can be a bit of a chameleon depending on what I’ve recently read!

  • In all the write places

    Hey there – great article. On question one, well, I got the answer that I keep slapping about in my blog. Northern Irish stories by Austrian unpublished writers with male protagonists are a no-no. Loads of nice feedback on the writing though. The piece of really valuable constructive feedback on my writing – or better, the characterization – I received was that my main character needs to be more pleasant to become sympathetic. Lesson learned: characters who shoot people should be quite nice/normal guys otherwise, while your normal jo-shmo living along the lines of society’s rules can become more edgy. 🙂
    On your comment above: I think it is good to pick up the one or other style (parts of it). Guess every author’s style is somehow the conglomerate of a lot of “processing” other styles and his own personal style.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Hey, Eva! I like what you said about the main character needing to compensate through personality what he/she may lack in other capacities. I’m working with a very average protagonist – which could be boring, but I really want her to be that ordinary shmo that has something very extraordinary happen to her so we can witness her working through it as we normal folk probably would in real life…mainly because I wanted to write something with scary elements, and what frightens me most is what could actually happen and have both natural and supernatural explanations. I’m revising now to ensure that this experience does make her more edgy; I’m just not confident I’m showing growth very well.

      Anyways, really didn’t mean to babble on my story – I just appreciate so much all that you continue to share about yours, as it really helps me to apply those lessons to my work, too. I think your first chapter of ms #1 is brilliant, so you obviously know what you’re doing!

      • In all the write places

        Knowing what I’m doing? Well … thanks for those flowers (as they would say around here). Ss always hugely enjoy exchanging experiences with you, and many of your articles help me to get on track. I am sure that you do loads much better than you would think.
        And eeek, ghosts! They do scare me … love reading about them, though. Must be so exciting to write about them…

  • Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2 « The Fallen Monkey

    […] main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting […]

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