Thursday, 19 January 2006

Well, I had a meeting with my agent on Wednesday, and the fact that I am starting to say "my" agent should give you a clue about how things went. The fact that there are still no names should indicate there's still a long way to go.

We spent two hours going through Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth and discussing all its faults. We barely touched on anything good about it (except that the first scene of the final chapter must not be touched because it is just right). Despite this distinctly unbalanced analysis I came away feeling very positive. After all, unless there was quite a bit right, it wouldn't have been worth the two hours on what is wrong.

So what are the problems? It's too long, by about 10,000 words (it's a smidge over 100,000 at the moment). It's too wordy, and the pace is too even. I think that these all go together - by stripping down the prose in some scenes, particularly in the second half of the book, I should be able to up the pace and lose some length. I'll need to dig out my notes on Pace from Annie Burgh's workshops on the subject.

Some of the characterisation needs a bit of work. The eponymous hero, Lord Alexander, is OK, but the heroine needs a bit of warming up. Some of the secondary characters need a bit more fleshing out, and in one particular case where a character turns up near the end after bowing out of the plot at an early stage, I need to do something to remind the reader of his continuing existence in-between. My favourite character, a nine-year old girl who is intended to be the heroine of the third book of what I see as a linked set of stories, is fine. I just need to develop my mental images of the others to the extent that I have a picture of her.

I need to add more vitality and impetus to the opening few scenes, and in some other places. This is linked to the pace issue above, but it is particularly critical here. The scene at which my agent felt the story really got going was some 20 pages in. Many editors won't get that far if it isn't a bit more tense and urgent from the start. In some of the other scenes that need this tightening I know that there is detail that I can trim, but for the opening scenes I need something else.

I also need to put in more at an early stage that sets the political scene. Readers won't all know just what was happening in the Spring of 1809 (a low point in the Penninsula War, and something of a mess in terms of both British and French politics) and a bit of background helps explain what is going on among the villains. The trouble is that this is precisely the sort of thing that kills pace and tension. I am currently reading Dennis Wheatley's Roger Brook books and he has a really bad habit of having his characters stop everything to discuss the latest political and military developments, whether or not they have a strong bearing on the plot. The last thing I want is for Lord Alexander spending anytime telling his colleagues what they already know.

There are one or two plot implausibilities or even impossibilities that need to be worked through, but luckily none that drive a stake through the heart of the storyline.

In addition to these major issues I need to sort out some stylistic problems (too many "said"s in the dialogue tags, too many "that"s , especially in dialogue, too few commas, too many people saying "indeed" in response to remarks.

And then there are the detailed bits and pieces scattered across most pages - potential anachronisms to be double-checked, infelicitous turns of phrase (including some real clunkers that I should have spotted myself), slip-ups in surnames and relationships, eccentric capitalisation, all that good stuff.

Despite all of this, there wasn't a single moment when I felt that this agent wasn't on my side, or wanted me to write something that wasn't what I had in my head. This is going to be my book, but thanks to her it is going to be a much, much better version of it. And while the title may need a bit of tweaking (the first half more than the second), the elephant still gets to stay in the very final sentence.

So I have a great deal to think about, and a great deal to do. Can I do it? I think that I can. How long have I got? Well, there are no external deadlines, but my agent is expecting to hear from me before the end of April. My own target is the end of March at the latest. I started Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth from scratch - not a single word nor fragment of a plot aready in my head - in the first week of April last year. In her new column in the Telegraph, confusingly titled A novel in a year, Louise Doughty says
Your novel will take you as long as it takes you - but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that if you haven't written a book before and are really serious about it and have a job or a family or - heaven forbid - both, then you are looking at around three years from start to finish.
I'm aiming to shave two years off that. If I can produce a publishable novel in a year, while holding down a full-time office job, then I think that I will be able to hold my head up high.


Alex Bordessa said...

Congratulations! There's obviously a bit of tweaking to do, but I'm sure you'll sort it out. It was interesting that you were told to put in more about the political situation early on and you say that's the sort of thing that will kill pace & tension - exactly the sort of thing that I'm mindful of. I'll be agog to see how you get round this - which also means I'm hoping you will be in print at some point soonish :-)

Amanda Ashby said...

Hooray. How exciting that you've found such a great agent who shares your vision - especially when it comes to elephants. Good luck with the revisions, sometimes they have a domino effect on the story that can leave you questioning your sanity, but when you come out the other end you'll be wondering what all the fuss was about!

Liz Fielding said...

Congratulations, Stephen, that really is very positive. I did write a lot of very sensible stuff about revisions first thing, but blog was playing up; now I've spent a day wrestling with my own characters, the mind has gone a blank. Not that need any advice -- you're obviously doing great.

irate mama said...

Congratulations - I'm really looking forward to reading the first edition

Nell Dixon said...

It sounds very positive. Good luck!

Mandy said...

If the book gets going at about page 20, why not start it on P20? Then just thread any important stuff from the first 19 pages in later. You'll be surprised how well this works.

Everyone has a different style, obviously, but you can fill people in on the political situation very briefly, without slowing the pace, if you use dialogue. You can't have two or three people telling each other things they already know, but there are always new developments in a war, and a brief discussion of them can be used to fill in the background.


X, Y and Z are at their club / one of their houses, doing whatever they do in your book.

Y threw the newspaper down/ looked up from the letter that had just arrived/ walked in from the stables looking grim.

'Not more bad news?' asked X.

'It can't be worse than our defeat at the battle of XXX,' said Z.

'Can't it?' said Y. 'We've lost another fifteen hundred men.'


After-dinner conversation can be useful, when the men sit over the brandy. The hero can be doing whatever he does, and a minor character can say, 'What do you think about this new turn in the war, X?'

X thought of the recent mess (say what it is, briefly) and replied (depending on what he wants to give away):

'It isn't a problem. The war'll be over in a few months.'


'I think Wellesley's got a long road ahead of him.'

Remember, you don't need to give readers every detail, just give them the big picture. Then, in another throw-away conversation in the next section / chapter, you can put in 3 or 4 lines about the war, which give a bit more detailed information.

Alternatively, the elephant could spell out the political situation using macaroni. I've used this a few times in my own books, but I don't mind if you nick the device ;))

Liz Harris said...

Congratulations, Stephen, on what sounds a really positive response to your book.

No agent would spend two hours on something that didn't contain that special ingredient which will make it stand out in a crowd. And I don't just mean the elephant!

I look forward to reading it when it's in print.

Douglas Hoffman said...

This looks encouraging, Stephen. I agree with the others. I doubt she would have invested the time and effort if she didn't think your book had great potential to make money for her.

As for the three year comment . . . I'll reach the three year mark in April ;o)

Saskia Walker said...

Congratulations, Stephen, and isn't it a grand feeling to have discussed your book with someone professional who cares, someone who helps you move forward with it! Everyone has to do revisions, I know you'll enjoy it when you get stuck in.

Gabriele C. said...

Congrats, Stephen, that sounds like you've got an agent.
And one that shares your vision of your book. I just thought about that sort of problem when I read Miss Snark's post about "like the style but hate the story." I'm sure a good agent/editor can help me to improve my books, but what if (s)he wants to change it beyond the point where it's still my story. I think I'll not sign in that case. You escaped that fate, at least. Good luck with the revision.

Julie said...

Sorry to chime in late here Stephn, but that all sounds fantastically encouraging and energising. Brilliant job, you, and good luck with the revisions.