I talked to an agent recently. I asked whether they thought an author should have a submission edited before submitting, or whether they thought that was problematic because the agent wouldn’t see the author’s “true voice”—they’d see an edited version of it. The agent said that if an author leaves anything in that might throw the agent out of the story – a missing word, typo, poor sentence structure – they’re running a big risk. Better to get a submission edited and know that your work is in the best shape it can be. After all, a submission is only two or three chapters. That won’t cost the earth. If the agent is intrigued enough by the submission to ask for a “full”, that’s the time to worry about whether the book as a whole is in good enough shape. Editing isn’t just about typos, however. A good editor might suggest changes to an opening which will vastly improve its chances of being picked up.
Title: About Ben
Genre: Womens’ Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Maggie’s marriage to Ben spirals into a controlling relationship. Why does she stay? Because she has a reputation for not sticking with anything. And because sometimes she sees the vulnerable little boy her husband once was.
As the control escalates into physical violence, she must decide what to do.
I consider myself a good judge of character. Years of working as a waitress probably helped. Diners tend not to notice their servers, continuing to argue, gossip and divulge secrets in our presence. I would overhear a snatch of conversation, catch a glimpse of revealing body language, and easily identify the liars, the bullies, the adulterers.
But even the most discerning of us can be fooled sometimes.
When it began, that night in May, I was feeling a little melancholy. Thirty- three. Not a landmark birthday but even so…birthdays had become a stark reminder of how little I’d achieved in my life.
I looked around the foyer of Cork Opera House as people pushed past us, shaking out umbrellas and removing raincoats to reveal elegant occasion wear.
The front of house staff opened the auditorium doors and we moved upstairs.
‘How are you feeling?’ I asked Donna, as we watched Jackie, diminutive even in her stilettos, push her way ruthlessly to the front of the bar.
Something in her tone stopped me from saying anymore.
‘She looks great,’ I said instead, as Jackie turned triumphantly, clutching two glasses of prosecco and one mineral water. She really did: flawless skin, dark hair shimmering under the lights. To the unaware observer, her exquisite features bore no evidence of trauma.
‘You two will hate this.’
Donna shrugged, smothered a yawn.
A night out was probably the last thing either of them wanted. Yet they had made an effort: Jackie in her leather jeggings, and even Donna had ditched her usual jeans or combats for khaki trousers and a silky top.
We clinked glasses.
‘You and Donna have kept me sane for the past few months,’ Jackie said.
Up close, I could see it, under the layers of painstakingly applied makeup, the smoky eyeshadow and clever concealer. Something in the set of her mouth, the diminished glimmer in her brown eyes.
We had stopped asking her if she had heard from Paul; there didn’t seem to be any point. We sipped our drinks and looked around, taking in the buzz of first night anticipation, the eclectic mix of bohemia and glamour.
A gong sounded.
‘Showtime,’ Donna said. ‘I left it a bit late to book, so we don’t have seats together.’
My seat was only about five rows from the stage; the others insisted I take it. Donna was further back in the stalls and Jackie was up in the balcony. The orchestra were still tuning up as I clambered in, apologising when I trod on toes, and found my seat beside a man in a stained anorak who smelled a bit odd.
The overture began, and I was instantly drawn in by the familiar notes. I had wanted to stay home tonight, watch something shallow on tv and ignore the fact that I was single, unemployed and unqualified for anything other than waiting on people. But now I sat back and wallowed in Puccini’s tragic love story.
The man in the anorak snored a little, although he was awake. I moved away slightly. When the lead soprano made her entrance he began to jerk his head slowly in time with her aria. I leaned further again to my left and brushed against a soft shirt and a muscular thigh encased in dark chinos. I sat forward. I’d been so intent on moving away from the snorer that I’d almost ended up in the lap of the person on my other side.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said, when the lights came up. We stood and began to move out of the auditorium for the interval.
‘No problem. If you want I’ll swap seats with you.’
I shook my head. ‘He’s harmless – he just snores a bit and smells of wet dog, that’s all.’
Somehow we had fallen into step together, side by side, climbing the stairs to the bar.
I hoped he didn’t think that I was interested in him, invading his personal space, matching my step to his, a few deranged steps away from a bona fide stalker.
Donna and Jackie were standing by the window.
‘Excuse me.’ I walked away briskly, hoping my body language conveyed my indifference, despite previous indications to the contrary.
‘Who was that?’ Jackie watched him over my shoulder.
‘He’s sitting next to me.’
‘And felt obliged to escort you to the bar in case you were mugged on route?’
I shrugged. ‘We were both coming the same way.’
‘He looks familiar,’ Donna said, handing me another glass of prosecco.
He was at the other side of the bar, talking to a couple in evening wear. The woman couldn’t keep her hands off him; plucking a strand of hair (possibly mine) from his shoulder with manicured fingers, lightly slapping him as they laughed
The gong sounded again.
‘Jesus!’ Jackie said, tossing back the remnants of her drink. ‘Musical boot camp.’
I made it back to my seat just as the lights dimmed. My neighbour followed, apologising quietly as he stepped past me. The auditorium swelled with sound and I forgot about the snoring man on my other side, forgot everything.
As the opera drew to its anguished climax I blinked back tears. Something soft was slipped into my hands: a pristine handkerchief. I pretended to dab my eyes, conscious I might smear the soft cotton with mascara, and handed it back, murmuring my thanks. Embarrassed, I slipped away during the standing ovation.
The others were in the same corner of the bar again; I wasn’t sure they’d ever left. I perched on a stool beside them, my head still full of the heart-breaking notes.
‘How was it?’ Donna said. ‘Have you been crying?’
I looked out at the splashes of orange light on the river and tried to adjust to the rising clamour around us. ‘I loved every note.’
‘Not sure what you see in it,’ Jackie said, ‘but I’m glad you’re enjoying it.’
Donna nodded to where my neighbour was studying the program, detached from the throng at the bar. ‘I remember where I’ve seen him.’
‘Maggie’s tasty escort?’ Jackie said. ‘Do tell.’
Editorial comment: This is a good beginning, nice observation, good dialogue. It is let down by a few minor errors of punctuation and spelling. Although I’m not sure that those are the reasons for agents not picking up this book, I’d definitely suggest the errors are fixed. You’re in competition, when submitting, with authors who have gone to those lengths to make sure their submissions are perfect. Any spelling mistakes or typos left in a submission (which, after all, is supposed to be your finest work) might indicate a less-than-professional attitude to writing.
The errors here are all minor, taken individually. There shouldn’t be a space after the hyphen in “thirty-three”. Ellipses are generally spaced on either side “but even so … birthdays had become”. I’d prefer “en route” being the original French idiom (although that is arguable) and “any more” is two words (in British English) no matter what Microsoft Word tells you. There are a few other problems, more punctuation, odd paragraph indenting (which doesn’t show here in the pasted version), but not much, and it’s nice to see someone who has the ambition to use colons and semicolons correctly. However, it has to be said that those few mistakes are easily edited out and as an agent I’d be wondering why the author hadn’t bothered?
Are those minor problems causing rejection? I’m not sure. I think if the agent really loved the opening they’d overlook those tiny errors.
I wonder if the lack of agent response is more due to the rather distant tone? The piece opens with an expository paragraph explaining the narrator’s expertise in judging character. This is the kind of thing that’s much better shown and not told. It’s also rather self-defeating. You’re essentially giving us a spoiler; “I think I’m a good judge of character, but I’m just about to read someone totally wrong”. Why do this? If we’ve read your synopsis we know that it’s about a relationship that turns abusive. As soon as you mention the “muscular thigh encased in dark chinos” we know who the love interest is going to be. Flagging that your narrator’s ability to judge character is just about to be horribly misplaced is really telling us all we need to know about the book. If she really is, normally, a good judge of character, you should show us this in the story, rather than tell us. If you did, convincingly, we might believe her. But someone telling us that they’re a good judge of character … I don’t know. That’s harder to believe, and therefore it’s not going to come as much of a surprise that she gets Ben wrong. (But I like the way you’ve got him offering her a handkerchief when she’s all weepy over the opera. That could be interpreted in one of two ways: as a gentlemanly expression of concern, or a controlling “Clean yourself up”. It’s a nice detail which bodes well for the rest of the book.)
Another distancing tic is the narrative asides you make. Your mastery of dialogue is great, so it’s a shame that you leave details like the organisation of seats – “the others insisted I take it” – to narrative observations rather than a conversation. If you related the women arguing about who got what seat, that would give you a golden opportunity to explain a lot more about why it is that the other two think Maggie should have the front seat. That would let us know much more about their characters and also their relationship with Maggie, and it would do so in an entirely organic and unobtrusive, immersive way.
Another aside is “A night out was probably the last thing either of them wanted”. I’m not sure why you tell us this. It’s not explained why. It seems to be just a teaser to make us wonder why they weren’t looking to be sociable. I think it’s much more of a teaser when Jackie says “You and Donna have kept me sane for the past few months” and then the reference to Jackie’s grief. They are much more intriguing than the “A night out” statement, and they’re more real because “A night out” is just a displaced observation and the others are emotions and thoughts expressed through the prism of characters. (An alternative to cutting these observations out would be to make them the direct thought of the PoV character.)
There’s lots that’s good about this opening, and I can see why it was long-listed for a pretty impressive award. However, there are some copy-editing/proofreading issues to sort out and, more fundamentally, I feel like there’s a disassociation from the characters, especially the PoV character, that ends up meaning that we’re being told a story, rather than really feeling it. The women’s fiction genre, after all, is all about character and interaction.
It’s not a solution for all ills, but I think if you brought us closer in to the PoV character and ditched some of the narrative asides you’d have a really good opening. And get those typos sorted!
Thanks for posting!
Thank you very much for your detailed critique. My apologies for the typos- I have struggled more with the opening chapter than the rest of the novel, and have chopped and changed it so much that I have probably become a little haphazard! It’s great to get a professional, objective viewpoint. I will try to get into Maggie’s skin from the outset and hopefully come back to you for another critique.
No need to apologise! We are all blind to our own mistakes. That’s why getting a submission edited, or at least seen by another pair of eyes, is so important. The mistakes were minor and if the opening had been perfect, might well have been overlooked by an enthusiastic agent. I think the bigger problem you need to deal with is getting closer to your PoV character. Best of luck!