30 April 2006

Whew, what a conference!

It’s Sunday morning and I'm typing this into my computer to post to the blog later, since I don't have internet access on this machine. I’m sipping a fruit smoothie. I could use some kind of bread thing to go with this but I’m too cheap. Also, I’m hoping that there’ll be some kind of food at this mornings’ master classes. If there’s not I might die.

(Note, written on Sunday night: I never got any bread stuff but as you can see I survived.)

Wasn’t able to elicit much interest in my Symphonians novel, but Regina Brooks was really interested in my soilbuilding and earthworm books. I said, “I checked your website but I didn’t see that you’ve sold much gardening stuff, so I wasn’t sure about approaching you with this.” She said, “The website shows what we’ve done, not what we’re looking for.” She said that people want gardening stuff but there aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing it. After that meeting, I went strutting down the hall singing "Honeymoon Feeling" by Roy Clark. (A more appropriate song would have been "Shining Star" by Earth Wind and Fire, but what the hell, I was being happy.)

The other two agents seemed interested in seeing my gardening stuff, though Regina was most interested. So, I need to write up my book proposals. Actually, the soilbuilding proposal is in pretty good shape, while the earthworm proposal … well it needs to be written, period.

Before I get started on the conference, I gotta tell you about two things that happened last week, just before I left.

Last Tuesday I got a call from Therese at Organic Gardening about some revisions that need to be done for my alfalfa article. She talked about how they needed some writing for the soil section of OG. I mentioned my soilbuilding book and said that I was interested in writing up articles based on my research for that book. She said that they had a publishing arm (Rodale Books, of course) and if I had my book published through them, they’d also be able to reprint portions of my book in that section. I picked myself up off the floor and said, “Cool.”

(I don’t know if I was that nonchalant. But once I was off the phone I went screaming up and down the hall.)

More related news – on Friday, when I was getting ready to go to the conference, I got an e-mail from Janine at FSG. She said no on the Symphonians. Alas! But she had attached the reader’s report she’d mentioned to me earlier. Here’s the full text. BUT when you read it, DON’T GET INDIGNANT ON MY BEHALF. I will explain why after you have read it.

***Text starts here:***

The Symphonians starts out strong. Kathy is a sympathetic and believable character. She reminds me of the geeky girl characters I loved as a pre-teen (like Jessica in Rachel Vail’s Wonder). Her awkwardness is clear in her narration, and it comes off as realistic and appealing for the most part; however, it becomes annoying in the footnotes Kathy uses to expand on some of her comments. This might be fixed by making them parenthetical statements, though some seem simply unnecessary. A good example of how Kathy’s voice is honest and interesting is how she describes her feelings for Noel by the sensations of them first, only labeling them much later. The plot is also engaging: I was drawn easily into Kathy’s problems with Noel and the school band.

Unfortunately, by the end of the book I was mostly disenchanted. The biggest problem is that, in the last third or so, the lessons and inspirations Cordell wants to impart on the theme of abusive relationships take precedence over the story itself. Instead of interesting action or even moments in which characters are further revealed, we get a series of bland dialogues between blander versions of the characters we have come to know on abuse, relationships, and responsibility. Yvonne warns Kathy on page 263, “I’m going to get all Dr. Phil on you here for a minute,” but it is Cordell who has adopted this tone for most of her characters by this point, even in Kathy’s novel-within-a-novel. There is little or no humor or subtext to liven up these exchanges, and the effect is dull and tedious. The other prominent tone at the end of the story is melodrama. Instead of sympathizing with Kathy when she runs from Carter to flush his sleeping pills, or when she is trailing him in her car on slippery roads to make sure he gets back safely, or has intense conversations with Carter or with Noel about Carter, I was getting annoyed with the unrelenting and repetitive tragic tone of these episodes. It may be that those episodes are legitimate and necessary to the story, but that the end is packed too tightly with them to work. The melodramatic tone of the end is also part of another problem: After all our time following her story, Kathy has not grown up in a satisfying way. She presents herself as triumphant at the end—a new, strong, beautiful woman who has overcome her demons—but the previous pages reveal her to be melodramatic and self-involved to a fault. For example, in the last five pages, she tells off Carter for destroying her novel, for intimidating and manipulating her, and for being deluded about their relationship, but she never reflects on her own cruelty towards Carter, some of which is on display in this same last scene. This ending comes off as an excessive revenge fantasy rather than a true triumph.

There are a few other small problems in the story, such as the almost complete lack of space devoted to Kathy’s college room-mate, and the lack of explanation of Noel’s decision to delay attending college for at least two years.


The Symphonians has some potential, but the second half of the MS needs a lot of revision to realize it. Cordell is clearly capable of creating engaging and realistic teenage characters (although some might argue Kathy and her circle are a little squeaky clean—her favorite swear is “St.Cecilia!”—I didn’t feel this was fake or forced) and plots. I was involved enough in the story to be disappointed when it deteriorated into an issues-first lesson, and when the appealing Kathy grew into a self-indulgent drama queen instead of a thoughtful young woman. If you have the time and inclination, and if Ms. Cordell is willing to revise extensively, The Symphonians could turn into a worthwhile project.

***End text.***

When I’d picked myself off the floor, I said, “Oh my God, SHE’S RIGHT! SHE’S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!”

Last year, from March to December, I revised the hell out of Symphonians. I overhauled the whole thing, got everything pretty much to where I wanted it, then went back to do the fine tuning.

I worked on the story one chapter at a time. I’d do intensive work on each chapter, working to make character realistic, to make the dialogue flow, to see that the chapter had echoes within it that echoed back and forth. It was tough work.

But that chapter-by-chapter work petered out ... right at the beginning of the second part. I said, “Oh, hell, I’m so tired of this damn novel, and I need to work on the Angel anthology, send it to FSG.” So I slacked on the second part, totally slacked on it.

And you see it has come back to kick me in the ass.

That is why I say she’s absolutely right. I can see why editors don’t usually send out reader’s reports, because they are harsh, and I can see where a lot of writers would get indignant. But this is one of the best whole-book critiques I have gotten in a long time.

I’m going to ask Janine to thank that reader for me.

More on the conference later, I guess! I’m still trying to absorb everything.

On the I-Pod: “Illegal Smile” by John Prine.

Then “Mushrooms” by Noa (she’s out of Israel and sings in Hebrew, generally, and I love her stuff.)


Lizzy said...

Thanks for posting your reader's report. But what exactly IS a reader's report? Who was/is the reader? This is fascinating.

Melinda said...

Well, at some publishing houses, you get an intern or two who can go through MSS and screen them. They'll get rid of the awful stuff, but they'll find the little gems in the stack. Then they write a report on what they see in the story, as they did with mine. I did e-mail Janine and it sounds like the intern has moved on, but her name was Mimi. So that was nice to know.

Anyway, the reader's report is kind of a preview for the editor -- "Here's what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of the piece." That helps speed things up a little for the editor, who sits through meetings all day.

Usually, though, publishing houses don't have the staff for this; often editors are doing this work.

Of course this procedure varies from house to house. I worked for a short time at Greentower Press/Laurel Review, which is a literary magazine at my university. There, if the piece has any merit, the editors will scribble quick comments on the envelope the piece arrived in.