The Book of Forgetting - By Jacqueline Joyce

Comments for the Writers' Workshop

This is a sample based on a recent original report.  Names, places and themes have been altered to protect the author's privacy. Large sections of the report have been deleted to keep the length manageable. Deletions are indicated by square brackets.

Dear ___
Thank you for entrusting us with the revised manuscript of your novel. I enjoyed the first draft very much. I'm even more impressed by the second version. I believe you have the distinctive voice and `stand out' quality that agents and publishers look for. The closest thing I know of to your novel is Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant Spirited Away. Normally, when someone's work reminds me of a film, this is a bad thing. Not in your case. As well as visual inventiveness, what The Power of Seven and Spirited Away have in common is that you never know what is going to happen next. When you read as much fantasy as I do, that is a rare experience

Letter and synopses
[Detailed comments]

Manuscript presentation
A brief return to the tiresome topic of manuscript presentation. The second version of your letter has an improved layout but the indentation of your paragraphs still varies between one and three spaces. The same is true throughout your manuscript, even after your recent reprint. You obviously don't notice but it leaps out at me. Although you have corrected some passages, your dialogue is still laid out inconsistently. Sometimes you indent dialogue by one, two or three spaces and sometimes you don't (e.g. on pages 41, 288, 293). The safest rule is to treat each new speaker's dialogue as a new paragraph. Some authors (including myself) prefer to leave four spaces before dialogue and five before a new paragraph. […]

Your revisions
There are so many good things about the revised version of The Book of forgetting. Some of the new sections are responses to my suggestions or complaints; others arise from your own second thoughts. I was pleased to notice that Indiana's language is more distinctive now. You're smart at coining teenage slang that is easily comprehensible. Fudger and zomb are pefect words to describe poor Yarl. The creation myth which Indiana now tells in Chapter Six is a great way of introducing the concept of the seven earths. I also like your new first chapter and the light it throws on your hero. I'll say more about this in my section on your opening and closing chapters.

All your storylines seem more strongly drawn and better integrated in this draft. The `kidnapped president' plot works well now that President Ailianore is more prominently featured, though I'm still not quite clear what species her Senoiselles are. When we eventually meet the real Ailianore (page 269), you establish her kindness and competence straight away. Stressing how traumatized Mary was by the screaming dolls, adds intensity to this plotline. Last time, I asked you why Mary kept so many things to herself. Now you've made it clear that Mary doesn't find it easy to talk about bad experiences and feels safer if she holds things back. Secretiveness has become a keynote of her character, with long-term consequences for the plot.  

Beginning and ending
As you know, most agents and publishers initially want to see a synopsis and the first two to three chapters of a novel. A few are willing to look at the first fifty pages. Some presume to judge an author's work on one chapter or a mere three to five pages. This puts a lot of pressure on novelists to dazzle in those first few pages. So, let's look at your opening chapters.

I like your exuberant Prologue. I suspect that most young readers will too, but some stuffier agents might find it irritating. When submitting to publishers or agents who only allow a small number of pages, I would leave the Prologue out. The background information it contains is already conveyed in your letter and your paragraph on The Power of Seven. I hope you are not thinking that sending out different versions of your opening chapters sounds like too much trouble. Each submission should be freashly printed. Grubby, dog-eared sample pages make a very bad impression.

Beginning the novel proper with a chapter from Indiana's viewpoint is a good idea. Mary later wonders if Indiana ever `wobbles'. In Chapter One, we see him wobbling as being tricked into the cage gives him the horrors and he loses his temper with Yarl. This renders Indiana less like the perfect action hero of Mary's fantasy but more human and credible. Having Indiana complain about exams on page one also makes it easier for ordinary children to identify with him.

Your opening paragraphs could do with a little editing (see under Minor style issues). For example, I was slightly bothered by the high grass bending under Indiana's swift feet (page 1). If the grass is high, how can he get it under his feet unless he is leaping higher? And do you really need that swift? Don't give lazy agents any excuse to stop reading. It's great that something exciting happens as early as page two, with the introduction of the mysterious figure in the hanging cage. You are careful to leave the reader wanting to know more about the powers of the cage and you end the chapter on a cliffhanger as Indiana wonders if Yarl will ever come back. An excellent start.

Given how much you achieve in the four and half pages of Chapter One, Chapter Two now seems a bit leisurely. There are passages which could be trimmed. For example, I'm still not convinced that you need two whole paragraphs about the river on page six, and the chase after Dodo is rather long. However, Chapter Two is a strong introduction to our heroine, which firmly establishes her emotional bond with Dodo. The creepy contents of Mr Carboncle's window should intrigue most readers and you've plunged Mary into a major crisis by the end of the chapter.

Minor style issues
Like Marmite, your distinctive prose style is liable to provoke strong opinions. Some will love it; others will hate it. I'm firmly in the `love it' camp but there are a few matters for your attention.

Some of the new passages could do with editing to avoid repetition, or phrases which don't quite work. For example, in the first paragraph on page one, you've stated that there is `no sound' so you may not need to tell us in the next sentence that the owl is flying silently. You certainly don't need to add,  `Soundless over the land, the great owl's eyes search...', especially as I'm not sure that eyes can make sounds.

To take another example, most of the description of Xul and Nord's horsemen (pages 106-7) is powerful but, `A blinding burn of red splashes the screen' is a bit of a mixed metaphor. As you've already told us that the horses are wild-eyed, you probably don't need the adjective wild for the horses, and can their riders either scream or yell, not scream yells? […]
Viewpoint issues
You are more disciplined about using points of view in this draft but there are still some awkward viewpoint changes. You have listed your viewpoint characters as: Mary, Indiana, Yarl and Betsy-Sue. Four is a good number and each of these characters is well realized. You show us their thoughts and feelings as well as their actions. Mary is still your most successful viewpoint character. When the point of view is firmly with Mary, your narration mimics her speech and thought patterns. I suspect that this is because you identify more strongly with Mary than with anyone else in your cast of characters. However, in your new Chapter Thirty-Four, I felt that you were getting under Indiana's skin in a way that you haven't quite done before. 

Lyman and Vornin
Lyman and Vornin are dashing friends for our hero, but they still don't come across as individuals. I realize that you may have plans to develop their characters in Volumes Two and Three, but I think you need to do a bit more of the groundwork in Volume One. Why are these three friends? How long have they known each other? What individual strengths or weaknesses do Vornin and Lyman bring to the mix and do they both accept Indiana as their leader? Is there any real rivalry between them?

There are also a couple of `plot plausibility' queries here. You state that Lyman and Vornin don't yet know about the seven worlds and the mesh. As far as they are concerned, yellowEarth is the only world there is. So, where do they think that Indiana is while he is living on greenEarth? You've inserted a sentence about them thinking that Mary comes from a distant part of the planet but while she is staying with Lyman's family, it would be difficult for Mary to disguise that she doesn't know basic things about daily life on yellowEarth. I could raise the issue of why the inhabitants of all the earths seem to understand English, but I won't because it's an accepted convention of the genre. 

Assorted plot queries
While I'm being pernickety, here are a few more queries -
Page 80 - How can Chucha call, `Bye-bye' to Wade when she is still in Mary's form? You stress elsewhere that such borrowed forms are mute.
Page 87 - Indiana asks Mary about her dad. When did she tell him that she only has a father?

The Next Step
Let me stress again how much I enjoyed reading The Book of forgetting. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the trilogy. Your story has an appealing hero and heroine and a wonderful range of appalling monsters. It also has humour, mystery and plenty of thrills and scares. Some readers may feel that there is a bit too much of everything - too much plot, too many characters, too many new worlds to cope with at once. I love your creative over-abundance but a more disciplined approach might produce a more compelling storyline.

I have now helped you as much as I can. At this stage, you deserve a second opinion. As well as being an acclaimed novelist, Harry Bingham has in depth knowledge of the publishing industry. He may suggest changes which could make your work more marketable. He will certainly be able to advise you on the best way to approach agents. Good luck!