I got the first truly negative critique of my crime writing contest entry, More Deaths Than One, and it was savage. I emailed the guy, a POD publisher, and told him I appreciated his honesty, then it dawned on me his critique was no more honest than the ones from people who gave me great reviews hoping for a great review in return.
Though this was a comment left on an online contest entry and not strictly a rejection letter, it is basically the same thing. So how do we deal with rejection? After we calm down, we go through the critique line by line and see if it makes any valid points. (If you are interested in reading the chapter in question, you can find it at ptbertram.gather.com or off to the right under My First Chapters.)
This is what the publisher had to say:
“A lot of great comments, Pat, but I couldn’t get past the tenth paragraph. The opening scene just doesn’t compel me to continue reading. There are way too many pronouns, so much that the characters begin to appear as paper thin quite quickly. While there is probably a great deal to this story to warrant all the kudos this chapter has generated, I look at it as I would any submission I read, and my feeling is that the bookstore owners who read the first page are going to feel the same way. A first chapter has to bite the reader by the scruff of the neck and not let go. A mundane scene in a diner doesn’t do that. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but it has to fill the reader with the wonderment of the story.
“So, I went back and read the entire chapter, feeling that if everyone else thought it was great, I was missing something. I didn’t see the writing get any better, to be frank. In fact, the diner scene was the most interesting. The story focuses on the embezzlement part of the story, which seemed like a fair hook to start a mystery, and you throw in the one little sentence about the disembodied hand in the culvert, with apparently enough evidence to indicate that the victim was tortured. The cemetery scene was so devoid of description that I didn’t really catch on the first time through that it was a cemetery scene. I am not even sure what the heck happened after the cemetery scene, which ended rather abruptly. As it is the key scene in the story, having read your description in your spam asking me to read this story, I am a bit disappointed that the key elements of this mystery were given so flimsily and without impact.
“The only question I am left with is the question that never gets answered: What about the boyfriend who embezzles from his own business? This was the only compelling point in the entire chapter.
“I would make this first chapter entirely in the diner, and leave the cemetery scene for its own Chapter 2, with full descriptive imagery. Let the diner scene twist entirely around the opening question of the boyfriend’s embezzlement and the headline of the disembodied hand. Then, as the chapter has given us an understanding of these characters, and Bob’s indifference to the two crimes at the center of the reader’s attention, he finds the obituary, and waitress he is beginning to care less and less about gives him so many questions that he can ‘t answer about the obituary, and maybe even offers to help him figure it out if Bob helps her catch her boyfriend in the act of embezzling.
“But told with enough description and detail, and with enough characterization tags that everything is not He and She and It, the concept is intriguing enough to hang a story on. If it involves too much “Twilight Zonery,” I would not regard it as a story for the crime fiction genre. If it works out that there are imposters, or perhaps Bob is not the man he thinks he is, this has some prime potential as a crime story. If it works out that this is more in the genre of a ghost story, I would again expect it to fall into a different genre. However, as it stands, I would not be reading beyond this chapter to find out.
“Another question I have to ask is why you are setting this in the time of the S&L scandals? Not far enough back to be of any historical interest, and not recent enough to be of interest to readers of contemporary novels. Instead, the story is dated. Unless the Silverado scandal or that period of time is central to the story, there is not much point in pushing the story back to that time. Most readers won’t even know that the name Silverado is meant to fix the time period, as this is entirely a cultural reference that even in the midst of the scandal was a bit of obscure trivia.”
Let’s look at this paragraph-by-paragraph. Bookstore owners? What is he talking about? Most books are sold online or in megastores or discount stores, and as I am willing to bet those corporate buyers don’t read any part of a book before buying it, we can cross off the first paragraph as irrelevant.
Next we come to the disembodied hand. There is no disembodied hand in the book. A brief mention of a decomposing corpse as an example of a news story is all. And the cemetery scene. Would you sit still for a description of a cemetery? I wouldn’t. I had one in there and took it out because there is no point in describing something of no importance especially when we all know what it looks like. Perhaps, as another commenter said, I could have mentioned the scent of lilacs or the feel of the leaves against his cheek, but that has no bearing on this particular critique of a critique.
We can forget any mention of the embezzlement, because it goes to the character of the waitress and is not a major part of the story. Since most readers thought the café scene too long, there is no reason to extend it (unless, of course, a publisher who offers me a contract wants it changed. Then I will do what I have to do.)
We can forget all about this particular publisher’s displeasure over pronouns; he’s probably right, but since he offers no suggestions of how to improve the writing, it falls under the category of criticism, not constructive criticism.
And we can ignore his diatribe about the timeframe since it is important to the story; the mention of the Broncos game and Silverado are necessary to put us there. As for Silverado being trivial . . . The son of the vice-president/president-elect and the brother of the current president was involved. This is more than a bit of obscure trivia. It is history and such an abominable misuse of power that we should have it seared on our brains.
So what are we left with? If “perhaps Bob is not the man he thinks he is, this has some prime potential as a crime story.” Since this is exactly what the story is about, and since elsewhere the publisher said that great writers welcome criticism, which I did, then what he is really saying is that I am a great writer and my story has some prime potential as a crime story.
Not bad. Not bad at all.