This is my first novel, co-written with my husband.
Two out of 50 queries requested a mss. One came back and said it was underdeveloped. A few rejections said something similar when seeing the first three chapters. I need some feedback to exactly what that means and some suggestions on how to fix it.
Also -- I'm not happy with the title. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Rowan of the Wood: First 3 Chapters (http://www.bluemoosefilms.com/RowanWood1st3.pdf) by Christine & Ethan Rose
Cullen, a young boy, unearths a magic wand in the redwood forest. Rowan, a wizard trapped inside the wand for 1400 years, possesses the young boy’s body and mind. He emerges from the child in the face of danger. The ancient wizard discovers Fiana, his new wife from the past, has somehow survived the millennia and has become something evil.
A little about us:
Although many tragic heroes begin as orphans, Ethan actually was one. We have lived amongst the magical redwoods in Northern California and traveled extensively in the U.K. Christine holds her M.A. in English and wrote her Master’s Thesis on Le Morte D’arthur. Ethan has read virtually every fantasy novel ever written. Christine’s scholarly, goal-oriented background mixed with Ethan’s knowledge of fantasy creates an impenetrable team of writers who look forward to writing more books together.
We have had articles appear in several magazines, including MovieMaker Magazine and IndieSlate Magazine. We have also produced two documentary films and have credits on IMDB.com (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1603415/). We had a theatrical premiere in Paris and enjoyed a considerable amount of international press. We also planned and executed a 40-US city promotional tour for the first film, and we look forward to promoting this book across the country and the world.
Anyone who wants to read the entire novel, please let me know and I'll send it to you.
Blue Moose Films (http://www.bluemoosefilms.com/)
Liberty Bound (http://www.libertybound.com/)
Internationally Speaking (http://www.internationally-speaking.com/)
BMF on MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/bluemoosefilms2)
Christine on MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/bluemoosefilms)
April 4th, 2007, 09:42 PM
Underdeveloped, eh? Well, let's explore that. Don't expect a ful-fledged workshop here, though. I'm just going to skim over the main points.
From a nuts and bolts perspective, I'd say yes. Structurally and stylistically, the narrative's still a bit rough and could use some serious spit and polish. It calls for a thorough line-by-line job.
As far as plot goes, I have to say no. I can't speak for the novel as a whole, but I've got no problem with the pacing of the excerpt or the degree of exposition found within. However, my opinion could change when exposed to the whole thing.
Characterization is probably the biggest sticking point. Cullen's fine. He's established well enough. Rex fits in his role. The side charas are fine (up to this point in time, at least, or if they're not going to be used anymore). My biggest beef is with the foster parents, Frank and Trudy.
Their motivations just don't pan out. First off, foster care is both voluntary and temporary. If the Samuels don't want Cullen around, they're under no obligation to keep him (unless they're kin, but you've given no indication of that). The opposition to reading bothers me in particular. It makes no sense for a modern parent to be opposed to their kid (foster or otherwise) reading unless there's something to offset it. You seem to want to make it a matter of practicality, but that in and of itself doesn't hold enough water. It's not like they could send him off to the salt mines to make a little dinero. As far as work goes, he's got an excessive share of the household chores, but his reading doesn't seem to get in the way of that or have any bearing on his ability to execute his duties. Because Frank and Trudy don't seem like they're too eager to pay any attention to Cullen, I see no reason for either of them to go out of their way if the job gets done and gets done right. Now, if Cullen was skipping chores or doing a crummy job, then you'd have some motivation for their contempt of his reading on a practical level. There are other options which can be used separately or in conjunction with this and the others.
1. Activity. One reason to oppose scholarship and/or reading for pleasure is the sedentary lifestyle it encourages. Say Frank is a big sports person, maybe some second-stringer who never got his shot and is now living vicariously through his children. Maybe Rex is on the football team to live his father's lost dream (and maybe not succeeding, making Cullen the whipping boy for the tension and frustration from both sides). Cullen has to deal with constant pressure to join some sort of sports and make something of himself rather than be some spindly bookworm.
2. Sociability. As reading tends to be a solitary hobby, that tends to mean poor social skills. It takes a people person to succeed in this world. If Cullen wants to amount to anything, he needs to go out and make friends, take part in school activities, go to parties, etc. All those books are a handicap, a wall between him and a future worth having. There's a bit of a feminine touch to this angle, but it also works if, say, Frank's a businessman, in something like sales or anything else that calls for people skills.
3. Religion. Profane literature is a distraction for spiritual development, and pagan trash with witches and magic and whatnot are a lure from the Devil meant to lead little Cullen away from the path of righteousness. It's an offense to God and for the sake of the child's soul, he needs to make a break with all that nonsense. The only book you need is the Good Book. Now, you can take this to the extremes of parody or tone it down to be more realistic depending on what you're after. You give a hint that the Samuels are religious, but it doesn't show up in the characters at all. You don't even make them proper hypocrites. If Trudy constantly harped about clean living, but snuck in those little drinkies when she thinks no one's looking, that'd be one thing. If Frank claimed righteous rage at the Devil's hoofprints on the pages of Cullen's collection, that'd be one thing. Playing the religion angle, particularly hypocritical religiosity, would tie into the conflict of your pagan Picts from the beginning.
I'd actually recommend you put all these elements together (practicality, activity, sociability and religion), tweak the intensity of each to make the right mix. As it stands now, Frank demanding that Cullen burn his books is nothing more than wanton cruelty, turning what should be a tense moment into a farce.
Going back to the whole foster care situation, what's the Samuels' angle? The whole point of foster care is to provide a temporary home until the kiddo can (if possible) be put up for adoption. It isn't foisted on you at random. You choose to take care of the kid and if it's really so troublesome, you can just send him back to the home, no harm, no foul. It's different if the Samuels are blood kin or were designated guardians by Cullen's parents (and if there's a relationship with the parents, that can be exploited for the conflict that's currently so underdeveloped). Then there's a sense of obligation, however grudging it may be, and a legal framework that would keep the kiddo in their care on a long-term basis. If they're after the support money, skimping on what's spent on Cullen while pocketing the rest, that's at least some explanation. (And being as smart as he is, I'm sure Cullen would have figured it out if that's what they're doing.) You say your husband actually is an orphan, so I have to ask, does his experience show such a dramatic divergence between how things are supposed to work and how they work in practice?
Because so much hinges on the hostile domestic situation, it has to work. Right now it doesn't and I'd wager that this more than anything else is why the story's called "underdeveloped" (at least as far as this excerpt is concerned). Unless you're pure evil, you don't destroy (or compell the destruction of) a kid's only momento of his dad. Like I said, this is supposed to wrench the guts of the audience, but with such poor foundation, it only elicits a laugh. Arbitrariness works in allegory, but in a modern, largely realistic setting, it just doesn't fly.
Oh, and one more quibble. This line really bothered me: "Trudy doted on Rex like a child." The boy's in seventh grade. He -is- a frickin' child. I know what you were trying say, but that's not how to say it. Baka oya no oyabaka.
I could go on, but, like I said, I only wanted to do a broad overview. This is plenty for you to chew on for now. This story has promise. It -can- be something good, maybe even something great, but you've got some work ahead of you. Happily, I've got the feeling you're the sort who'd be willing to do what needs to be done. Ganbare.
P.S. "Cervine"... Sounds all sorts of naughty. It's one of those words you should only use one in a story, if at all.
April 4th, 2007, 10:31 PM
First of all -- WOW ... great critique! You're awesome! I'm happy to send you the rest of it if you'd like to read it.
Frank and Trudy - there is a chapter later on that goes into their life more and why they're so cruel... but I do see your point. The foster care is about the money, skimping on Cullen's care and using him as a slave, basically. Maybe more of them earlier on would be good. Basically, they hate themselves and how their lives turned out. Trudy blames Frank for getting her pregnant right out of high school ... and Frank resents Trudy for her blame. She's too good to work, so she basically gets the maid she thinks she deserves and a little extra money out of Cullen.
I like what you said about the different reasons not to like Cullen's reading. My husband was an orphan, like I said... and taking his books away was something they actually did... and only because they said he lived too much in a dream world reading fantasy. They didn't burn them, though -- just took them away.
The possibility of the Samuel's being distant relatives is an interesting one that we can explore.
You're right about cervine. It was only used once initially, but when I added the prologue I forgot to remove the other one.
Thank you so much. This is really great stuff!!
April 5th, 2007, 12:21 AM
Firstly welcome to Sff and the writing forum, I hope you find this place as helpful and friendly as I did when I first appeared clutching my first short story in my grubby little mitts.
I haven't had time to read much but I will give my opinions anyway, I hope you find them helpful.
As James says, I too am struck by the potential here, to me this reads like an early draft of a potentially good story. My initial response however is that it could do with a good edit. I'd say you could lose 5-10% and improve it hugely.
Take the beginning paragraph for example. The first sentence is 12 words long and contains one adverb, one adjective and one qualifier that could all go without changing the meaning. By stripping these out you increase the flow of the readers eyes across the page and allow them to use their own ability. At almost every opportunity you tag an adjective onto a noun and I'd say you spoil your work by doing so "towering redwood forest" could be simply forest. Is it important for the reader to know the trees are redwoods? If so then we know they tower, that's what redwoods do. If not then drop it altogether.
English has more words than any other language on the planet, we have so many nouns that and verbs that the majority of us only know a fraction of them. If you find yourself having to use an descriptive word to qualify what you mean then pick another word in the first place. "Mushy earth" can easily be "mud", a lot of the time however the meaning given by the descriptive word is implicit in the context of the rest of the piece and therefore is redundant altogether. "horrible feeling of the spreading vines creeping over his skin" vines creeping over your skin sounds pretty nasty to me, you don't have to tell me it is horrible, you've already shown me.
April 5th, 2007, 09:16 AM
Thank you, Jacquin for your comments as well.
I'll be re-writing today taking both your advice into heavy consideration.
I'll repost an update soon and let you know. Thank you thank you thank you!!!
Power to the J
April 5th, 2007, 11:17 AM
This is just a brief breakdown of this (*NOTE* I did not read the other responses so some of what I say mayíve been already said).
~The first sentence is good; it seems like a great way to open a book, so I wouldnít change that at all.
~ďHe felt the spreading vines still choking him and grappled at his throat again. He couldnít shake that horrible feeling of the spreading vines creeping over his skin, slithering like a sadistic snake.Ē Okay, hereís what I think. You should just cross out the first sentence in that passage because it doesnít seem necessary. The second sentence is better (at least in my eyes) but when it follows the first one it only seems repetitious.
~The rest of it seems fine to me, although it is very short. Do you think you could find a way to somehow fit that into a flashback, or even in the first chapter?
~Just wondering, whose perspective is this from? I canít really tell, but in the prologue I can tell easily.
~ I think that this passage about the ceremony was good, and although it described many people, I still didnít feel like I had a firm picture in my mind, but Iím sure thatís just me.
~When you start going a bit more detail as far as their clothing, it gets a little bit Robert Jordan-y. I love the WoT series; I think the characters and plot are great. But sometimes I feel frustrated when reading his work because of his random descriptions. I think that the description works just by you telling me that they wore green robes. I can fill in the rest from there.
~Just real quick, I liked the descriptions of the emotions that the man and woman with green robes felt towards each other, and I really felt that. Personally, I couldíve done without the eye color descriptions, but that is purely my action first opinion.
~"Anocht, ar deireadh," I may be making myself look like a fool, but is this an actual language? If not, I donít think itís necessary at all. I understand that you mayíve been trying to give your story a Tolkien-y sort of feel, but he was an expert (if thatís real or one of you has more credentials than I know, please just disregard this). Also, on top of that, if youíre just going to put the translation below it, what is the purpose of having the foreign language above it?
~ďtheir eyes never left the otherĒ I think it might be: ďtheir eyes never left each otherĒ but I could be wrong. ďThe otherĒ just sounds funny to me.
~The marriage ceremony was good, I have no problems with it.
~Okay, from the attack and on is a little quick. It goes a bit too fast in my eyes. To me I didnít seem very involved in it at all, (no offense) and didnít care too much if Rowan or Fiana died. It couldíve helped out to personify the characters a bit more, or let me into a characterís brain a bit so I can relate (as you did well in the prologue). I think that you couldíve been a bit more descriptive in the attacks, and more importantly the feelings. All you described was Rowanís face and movement until the end of the chapter. I think a little descriptions of how angry he was from his perspective couldíve added a better sense of caring for the reader. Also, Fianaís sadness didnít touch me too much, which is also because of lack of character building. I think that if you can just make me care a bit more about the characters in Chapter 1, then the reader will be more affected by what happens.
In conclusion, I think that the first chapter is WAY too early for the plot to really be set into action. There is only a few paragraphs of exposition, which is not enough. If I were you, Iíd turn this into chapter 2, and write a chapter 1 that is a couple of days with the tribe/clan, or just the day of the ceremony. If you look at successful fantasy books, youíll see that the first chapter is to make you care about the protagonist and the people around him. (ex: Bilboís party in Lord of the Rings, or Rand and his friends anxiously awaiting Bel Tine in The Wheel of Time) I think if you can put that bit of exposition in, the reader will care much more about what happens to other people at the ceremony, what happens to Fiana, and what happens to Rowan. Right now I donít feel attached to Rowan. In fact, I feel a bit distanced because I donít know him at all. Heís like an extra in an action movie that dies or gets tossed away. Itís a pity about whatís happened to him, but the world is a cruel place. That is the sort of mentality I have towards Rowan so far, and I think that is one of the things that couldíve turned the publishers you sent your ms to.
Thatís all Iíve read for now, Iíll look at chapters two and three later on.
April 5th, 2007, 11:40 AM
Thank you for your feedback - Power to the J -- good stuff.
The first chapter was originally the 4th... and the prologue didn't exist until about a week ago... The prologue action doesn't actually take place until between chapters 3 and 4. It's supposed to be a flash-forward.
We were trying to find a way to pull the reader in quickly. The book originally started with chapter 2, but it seemed a little boring. The current first chapter is meant to give background... this happened, which makes the rest of the story happen. I hear you about not caring about the characters, though.
It is a real language: Gaelic. Later in the book, Rowan must use magic to speak to Cullen, because all he knows is Gaelic. They're all speaking Gaelic at the beginning in the ceremony, but we couldn't understand if all I wrote was Gaelic. The purpose was to suggest this is what they were speaking. Perhaps it doesn't work.
Chapter 2, 3 are back in the present with Cullen. The story is based around Cullen finding the wand and getting possessed with Rowan... interwoven with Fiana's long 1400 year journey to find her lost love.
Thanks again. I'm working on a rewrite now.
April 5th, 2007, 05:57 PM
Taking the above suggestions, I revised the first two chapters and the prologue... didn't get to CH 3 today; so if you'd like you can see if there is any improvement there.
I think I might revisit Ch1 again and lengthen the attack, as Power to the J suggested... I have a few ideas there. TOMORROW!
Thanks again for all your great comments... keep 'em coming!
April 5th, 2007, 08:21 PM
As it doesn't seem like J-Power read beyond the first chapter, let me make the point that from a holisitic perspective, the flash forward and flashback prior to the "proper" start of the story works just fine, and, in the case of Chapter 1, is rather essential. Yes, you could show what happened later on (as you seem to have done in an earlier version), but this really works as it is.
Also, fear not, I recognized the Gaelic. To be fair to J-Power, though, I'm a linguist, so it kinda comes with the job. However, given that Chapter 1 is taken from the perspective of Rowan's people, I would argue against using the Gaelic here. By virtue of the perspective, the reader effectively becomes one of the Picts and would hear the Gaelic as their own language, i.e. English. Since you have to switch to English for the bulk of the dialog, the Gaelic looks like code-switching in its current form and they're most definitely not switching between two languages. If you want to show off your mad Gaelic skillz, I'd say the best place would be the part of the story when Cullen and Rowan can't communicate with each other.
And, touching on that critical topic of Frank and Trudy's motivation, simply taking away the books would be entirely sensible from the perspective of parental disapproval. (It might also help to specify that it's not so much reading in general as reading fantasy novels that they're opposed to.) Now, if they'd taken away his books before, made him promise to cut back and he went back to spending all his free time reading those books again, that would give enough grounds for Frank to finally lose his patience and take more drastic measures.
It's clear enough that it's a dysfunctional household, but dysfunctional or not, people are still human. Take aspects good or bad to the extreme and it gets reduced to a joke.
If you want a thorough line-by-line treatment of your story, I'm not opposed to the idea. Send a copy of your manuscript as an RTF (Rich Text Format) and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 5th, 2007, 09:34 PM
If you want a thorough line-by-line treatment of your story, I'm not opposed to the idea. Send a copy of your manuscript as an RTF (Rich Text Format) and send it to email@example.com.
Thank you so much for this, James -- it's on the way to your email. Please let me know what I can do for you in return.
I looked over your site, and I was quite impressed. I see that Steph does artwork... is that a children's book she's currently illustrating? Does she do commissioned work as well?
I look forward to more of your comments --- and more comments from anyone else willing to give them. I'm so inspired again!