Results in. And . . . you’ll never believe this.
MARFA LIGHTS was one of the five finalists. I got VERY encouraging judge score sheets. “The dialogue is the best I’ve read since Salinger’s FRANNY AND ZOOEY.” “Masterfully written. You can really write.” “This is just the kind of book that my friends and I can’t find on the shelves but would love to see more of.” “E-mail me when this is published!” All but one judge gave me the top ranking.
So of course I had high hopes.
They announced the final rankings at RWA National in New York a few days ago. MARFA LIGHTS came in . . . dead last. Five out of five.
I had to laugh! I figured, them’s the breaks. The usual bad karma. People who were suspense readers who didn’t like cozy sister stuff. Whatever.
BUT TODAY!! Today the contest coordinator was kind enough to send me the final round judges’ evaluations. The two final round judges? An editor and an agent.
They didn’t even have to write anything. They could have just put a ranking number between 1 (dreamy) and 5 (icky). But both of them bothered to pay it forward. Kudos!
The editor writes, “MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS is well-written and the initial pages are fast-paced and interesting. Ariadne had a nice voice but also felt a bit uneven to me. I had difficulty getting a handle on her relationship with Aaron and was not as immersed in that aspect of the plot as I wanted to be. Other entries proved to be right up my alley, so that’s what the ranking reflects.” She ranked it . . . 4 out of 5.
This is an editor I don’t really know much about. Just that it’s someone generous enough to judge a contest FREE. It sounds as if she has never dated a guy like Aaron. The readers who love the book are women who write, “I am sure I have dated Aaron in the past. And possibly Gil.” So it isn’t going to connect with everyone. Hey, ARI herself had difficulty getting a handle on her relationship with Aaron, although I tried to “explain it” with a few lines I added for the benefit of beta readers who were similarly confused (more on this in a moment.) Ari is admittedly a Sad Sack like me, not a go-getter Superwoman the way people expect, so she is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Not everyone will love every novel. So that’s fine. Not up her alley.
Them’s the breaks. She admits it’s well-written and fast-paced. Booyah (to quote my cousin’s kids)!
The agent, however! She is a powerhouse agent whom you have undoubtedly heard of.
Ever heard of . . . Janet Reid?! !!!! Powerhouse agent. Query Shark. Rumored to have been Miss Snark, even.
I hope it is OK with her that I am posting what she put on my contest sheet. I’m sure it is, because IT’S ALL GOOD.
She writes: “This is a very nice piece. You start at the right point: the news of Aaron’s death. (A lot of the work I see starts before the story does. “Your story starts in chapter two/three” is a frequent comment.)”
After I came out of the swoon, I read the rest.
“You’re working too hard to get too much back story in too early. I suggested several places to pare that away. Let the story develop. We know her nephew is dead, we don’t need to know much more than that. We will intuit that she is griefstricken about that. There’s some tendency to tell not show (the klutz stuff/the overpacking stuff) Just show it. Your reader will get what you mean.
“Trust your reader. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every sentence in a story should develop character or move the plot forward. You don’t have to tell us everything. We’ll get the idea if you show us where to look and what to pay attention to.
This is more of a cozy or traditional mystery (amateur sleuth, violence off the page) It’s not my strong suit, BUT you might query Stephany Evans here at FinePrint when you’re done. Done means finished, polished, revised, polished again! She handles work in this category.”
She ranked the entry . . . No. 1.
I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP
So what happened was that they averaged the 1 and the 4 and placed me as an honorable mention. I don’t mind, as the winner of the contest just gets a certificate–there’s no publication prize and nothing is guaranteed except bragging rights.
However, I’m blown away by the kindness of a major agent in taking the time to write up some comments like this.
Who takes time to actually mark what she means as “the stuff you don’t need to tell us”? SHE ACTUALLY MARKED HER EDITS ON THE MANUSCRIPT PAGES! Now, it sounds worse than it is. She marked out about ten lines in TOTAL out of three chapters of the manuscript. I don’t mind taking out any of them, but I’m thinking that I do need a couple of them in there because I have planted some info that the reader needs (though she can’t know that without a more detailed synopsis than the contest allowed). I mean, she didn’t think I needed the line that jokingly explains how to pronounce Ariadne, but then she is highly educated and literate and so forth. My kinfolks with the outhouse had no idea how to pronounce it, nor did some of my crit group people, and they applauded when I slipped in the line about how to pronounce it. So I think I can safely keep that one in there. I can easily delete the bit about how Ricky died (because that does come up later). I also put that in for a crit group, by the way, because they kept asking. So I think I’m being reasonable to take the others out.
In other words . . . A CONTENT EDIT FROM ONE OF THE POWERHOUSES OF THE INDUSTRY. Yes.
Pros do NOT waste time on that unless you DO HAVE PROMISE. I am not bragging. Yes, I am.
Now, I totally hear what she is saying and what Vonnegut said. I do think, though, that some of us like a bit more detail and some like less. There’s a balance we have to strike between being mystifying or coy and being TOO forthcoming. Sometimes I like a small digression here and there, especially if I can hide a clue. Still, when I did the final polish for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE (which I just sent this morning to the agent who requested a full), I found that the book is very minimalist in that regard. Ari is more thinky than the YA heroines were.
Most of the time when someone complains that “you could take some of this out,” when I press them, they can’t point out even one example. They’re waving their hands and they’re vague. THIS IS NOT VAGUE. And it’s not even that severe an edit.
Again, she only took out about a total of ten lines out of the entire three chapters. Six of them were about Ari’s nephew Ricky, three were about Aaron, and one was about her name (the one I really think I should keep). So it isn’t a case of my having written BLEAK HOUSE or anything. If I take out the stuff she marked (which is all in the first chapter) except for the name talk that I still think is needed because Ariadne is NOT your basic Typhani or RaShonda, we strike a good balance.
It so happens that Stephany Evans requested a full of MARFA LIGHTS years ago at a MWA conference when it won their first prize in the manuscript contest. She has a house in Marfa, as well! But she saw the version that I was sending around at that time and turned it down, so perhaps she would be interested in taking another look after I scan through to see if there are any more “hitting them with a brick” lines that I can take out. I really think the first chapter is the one that’s front-loaded with a bit of heavy info, and that as you progress through the book, you’ll be wishing I would tell MORE. That’s usually what happens with me. (I end up front-loading things after hearing critiques that ask for more info up front. Usually that means something is unclear–but not necessarily the thing they’re asking you to clarify. Takes a while to smooth that out. One more trip through the typer, Heinlein used to say.)
This helps me get even less despondent about my chances of publishing with a major New York house.
Interesting sidelight: these two didn’t say that the book was too long. That has been one of its bugaboos. Also, cozy mysteries are reportedly due for an upswing, as they sell better in bad economic times. (They say.)
By the way . . . the editor’s comments have a trigger phrase in them. I mean, one of MY trigger phrases. See, normally I would do rejectomancy on her comments. “Has difficulty getting a handle on Ari’s relationship with Aaron?” Okay, I can deal. Explain! Explain! Explain!
In the past, I would have tried to “solve” this. I would have gone and inserted a bunch of lines here and there, early on, about how Aaron and Ari lived together and were going to go off and build a cabin in the wilderness and be self-sufficient, and that they had both quit their jobs as software engineers in preparation, and that they had charged a trailer and other camping equipment on her credit cards–but then her nephew Ricky had fallen ill with the leukemia that took him, and Aaron said that he’d go on ahead and send for her, because of course she couldn’t leave . . . and she had signed as the person who would be responsible if the insurance didn’t pay for all of Ricky’s care under the experimental program . . . and she was living in the cheap apartment in the dodgy neighborhood that they’d shared because they were saving their money for their life off-grid . . . and that Aaron was the type who was all wonderful until there was trouble or sadness, and then he would disappear until the troubles were over . . . so he had left and she kept expecting to hear from him . . . and she had kept paying on the trailer and stuff . . . but then his cell phone number was disconnected and she had no address or letters from him. Etc. Explain! Try to get it across!
But now that I am somewhat wiser, I realize that you CAN’T explain like that. If someone doesn’t understand how a woman can still love someone who has left, and can still understand that he disappears sometimes and it’s not “personal,” and can still believe that he loves her even if he has taken off and hasn’t contacted her, and still expects to hear from him and WILL go to him whenever he calls–she makes excuses, or she rationalizes, or she just knows the Willie Nelson song that says some guys DO love you and should have shown it, but they’re just free birds and they’d like to take you with them, but . . . YOU have to make the sacrifices. There are people like this. And there are women who “understand” and tolerate this kind of guy. Like women who are married to rock stars; the guys sleep with groupies every night and are always on the road, but “you were always on my mind.” I mean, this is life. Not everyone is a go-getting feminist “I don’t need you” type.
So some of my characters aren’t going to be like mainstream heroines. How many of us are? Some are, some aren’t. All I know is that I can’t explain away every “I don’t get this” in every book. That is a hard lesson to learn. You just have to accept that some people will never click with certain characters.
I have high hopes for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. It came in at just under 45K words, which is the shortest novel I’ve ever written. I was worried about it being long enough, in fact, but guidelines say that YA should be 40-65K. So for once I hit the short end! That means they won’t be saying “delete a lot so you can get under the word count.” It is a fast-paced novel because it has NO subplots and is ONLY about their adventure. Part of this is because they’re young adults and they don’t have a lot of heavy baggage. If YA fantasy is still in fashion, it ought to have a chance.
Today we hit 106F in Richardson/Addison/Plano. My front patio melted. No one took walks today. The neighbors put bags of ice cubes in their pool because it was too hot to swim otherwise. Pray for autumn!
Oh, AND I lost four pounds. Probably from sweating.