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First 3,000 words of my new novel.

Hi folks. I am about to submit my first three chapters to agents and publishers. I've attached the first chapter and a half and would love critiques. It's a first for me and I'm really nervous. Any suggestions for improvement would be greatly appreciated. I have attached my cover also, or at least I will try to. Same again re comments if you would be so kind. The novel starts in Scotland, and after a couple of chapters, the setting moves to Washington where the story plays out. Please note - American English.

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Replies (34)
  • Hi Robert, 

    Thanks for sharing your opening. I understand you feeling nervous we've all been there when sharing a piece for feedback for the first time.

    It sounds like an interesting story and it comes across like you are in control of your narrative and where the story is going but before submitting to agents there is a lot of  tightening to do.

    The opening (and I imagine the rest of the manuscript) has a lot of filtering which puts a distance between the reader and the main character. Words like: look, hear, listen, think, begin, become, wonder, etc... I'm not saying that they should never be used but for the reader to have an immersive experience they should be kept to a minimum.

    Emma Darwin, who is one of the tutors at Jericho has a writers tool-kit on her blog and covers the essentials for writers, including filtering: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/resources.html

    There is also a lot of unnecessary exposition that slows down the pace and again add, distance. For example:

    Lieutenant Angus MacDonald experienced (filtering) a heart flutter. Tony, his father’s long-term friend, was driving the Edinburgh University van to Inverness and noticed him put his hand on his heart. (unnecessary exposition and over-explanation — think about films, they don't pause the scene of two people driving to tell the audience who they are and then re-start the scene, just discover who is who as the story unfold)

    Angus (not needed when people are in a 2-way conversation they do use each other's name), your face looks white. Are you sick?”

    The above is not immersive because as a reader a reader I am told what's happening instead of showing me and putting right  there in that car. To get the reader in there all you need is:

    On the other side of the van window, the outskirt of Inverness grew more defined. Angus's heart fluttered.

    "Your face looks white, are you sick?" Tony said.

    "Eyes on the road," Angus replied with a thin smile.

    That's just an example, not saying that's how you should write it. Here, the location is shown without having told the reader, also I've implied that seeing the outskirt made Angus apprehensive and by Tony's response I've implied he has noticed, and Angus's response implies Tony is driving, which puts the reader in the car with the characters. We are in Angus POV so the reader knows that everything mentioned is what he sees and hears so we don't need filter for that. Also I don't need to be told who Angus and Tony are, to the contrary as a reader I want to read on and discover who they are, why they are going to Inverness and why is Angus apprehensive.

    I hope this helps.

    Ps The cover looks good however if you are submitting to agents you don't need one. It's only needed if you want to self-publish.

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    • Ha ha, empathized

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      • Ha ha, empathized.

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        • No problem. My advice is that you need to stop thinking on the sentence-level. Edits and revisions are more than rearranging words. Sometimes that's all there is but to make effective edits there is a need to take everything into account and it means you might have to rewrite a sentence, an entire paragraph or cut things out.

          The main issue with the above example is that half shouldn't be there because the POV in the chapter is Angus and here we have slipped into Tony's POV. If it were me I would have cut out that sentence entirely and  edited to (disclaimer this is just my way - not saying how you should write):

          The moor stretched in front of them, bleak and covered in dark clouds.  “Come on now, buddy. You’re part of this story through your ancestors,” Tony said, patting Angus's shoulder before walking away.

          1) we are still in Angus POV

          2) Pat on the shoulder shows empathy instead of just telling the reader

          3) Reader understands from the previous paragraph that Tony is leaving Angus to his thoughts (that's what I mean by trusting the reader. There is a writing acronym RUE - Resist the Urge to Explain).

          I have applied all of this to just that section but all of those should consider and expanded to the whole manuscript.

          Regarding head hopping, maybe the average reader won't notice but if you want to be trade published you will need to sign with an agent and this would tell them that you are not in control of your craft when it comes to POV and how to properly choose and/or switch POVs

          Hope this helps. 

          EDIT: a useful tool if you want would be to invest in The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. Very useful to learn how to show emotions in prose rather than just telling the reader.

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        • A naked look at how much an enemy loves you at the point of death. It reminds me of my father, I think he is a comedian. It reminds me of play at school, where we were avenging robots, one of prestige, one of makeshift defence.

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          • Just starting the read, quick Google of "Shrapnel" reveals - - "Henry Shrapnel invented his shrapnel shell for cannons in 1784, which was later adopted by the British army in 1803 for cannons and rifles."

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            • Thanks Guy. Canister shot was definately used at Culloden. It was generally made of mustket balls but sometimes contained only small lumps of assorted metal, what I thought was 'shrapnel.' An easy fix and I thank you very much.
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            •  Hi Robert,

              I'd be happy to review your first 3,000 words, but sounds like it would probably be best if I wait until you re-submit it with the changes that L suggested. Let me know!

              - Mary

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              • Two days I've been on this site. A wonderful group of people indeed. Thank you sooooo much Mary. I'll send it later, still working on it. (Smily face)
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                • Here it is reedited, Mary. I hope I've covered all that L suggested. I must admit, though, switching into Tony's POV still has me a little stumped. I've made a change, but am not confident I succeeded. Kind regards, Rob.

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                  • Hi Robert,

                    I like how the first sentences of your manuscript throw us right into the action. It does a great job at making me want to keep reading. But the very first sentence feels a little clunky – the eyes squinting doesn’t really fit with the rest of it. I don’t think it’s often blindingly sunny in Scotland ;o)

                    Generally, I think you need a good editor to go through the whole document for grammar corrections and sentence efficiency. I’ve noted a few things below, but I’m not doing a thorough job checking every sentence. Here are just some examples:

                    The last sentence of that first paragraph is hard to read: “Scot thoughts of victory melting into reality's fear.” At first glance, it seems like “Scott thought of victory”! Maybe better would be something like “The Scottish victory was melting into the reality of fear” or at least make it “Scottish thoughts of victory…” 

                    I think you miss a chance for a better description when you say “Malcolm, his sixteen-year-old cousin, lost his right arm and shoulder” – it sounds too bland compared to the rest of the exciting description. Why not something like “Malcolm’s face contorted into pain and surprise as the ball ploughed through his shoulder, entirely separating arm from body” (or whatever – but just something more exciting than “he lost his arm”)

                    Here’s another minor edit “The redcoats watched the leading clans close to within musket range.” – the word “close” here at first reads like “the redcoats waited for the clans to get close enough for musket range”. Maybe use a synonym that doesn’t have a double meaning (eg. approach) 

                    There are a few sentences that a bit wordy, for example: “His eyes wide, appalled as more of his kinsmen fell; heroic warriors never to rise, and Stuart rued his commander’s decision to fight on this boggy moor.” – feels like it needs to be 2 sentences. You start with “His eyes… appalled” then mention “heroic warriors” and then go to “Stuart rued…” – seems a bit much for one sentence. 

                    “Time and noise against him, Stuart, frowned and reluctantly complied.” – need to delete the second comma else it doesn’t read correctly.

                    And I saw a few other typos further on in the manuscript. 


                    I think the idea and descriptions are good, and the plot-to-come could be great (I’m assuming Angus will find the pendant), but the manuscript could use a little clean-up by a good editor.

                    Thanks for sharing! I hope my feedback is helpful!

                    - Mary

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                  • Robert,

                    I've just started reading this revised version. I'm only one page in, and already it's feeling cumbersome to read.

                    It's not easy to explain all the reasons, but I'll do my best.

                    Opening line - Stuart gasped for breath, eyes squinting as his boots sank into the wet ground. - Your focus is all over the place. (If you look at the blog history on here, you'll find an article Harry wrote about this subject - it's got a banner picture of people walking on a beach.) Stuart gasped for breath - that's fine. But what does a squint have to do with breathing? Why is he squinting, anyway? Bad eyesight? Sun in his eyes? And, worse, what is the relationship between squinting and his boots' behaviour. Honestly, no one cares what his boots are doing; except insofar - as you want us to experience - in how he feels it. Are his feet being dragged with each effortful step? Is he struggling to lift them, feeling that he might lose his boots? It's not visceral enough.

                    But… oh, in the next line, he's charging. Which, I assume, means he's going at a pretty intense pace. So any sinking of his boots into the ground is minimal. Therefore, given the intensity of the actions, it wouldn't have been noticed.

                    And that second line does a little of what the first is doing, while introducing ambiguity. He charged beside […] highlanders shrieking their warcries. Technically, with that punctuation and phrasing, he is the one shrieking. But you just told us he is gasping for breath. So I'm confused. Which is it?

                    Apply the same to the rest of that paragraph.

                    Scot thoughts of victory melting into reality's fear. That's a beautiful line, but for the grammatical uncertainty of the subject definition. It takes too much work to unpack the meaining.

                    The second paragraph needs a split after the first sentence; the subject changes there. Within the enemy description, there's good and bad. Technically, what the last sentence says is that there's an 8k-strong unit, in 3-line formation, surrounding the Duke. With the implication that the rest of the enemy army (size unknown) is otherwise (dis)arrayed, as you've only called it out in this specific place. I know what you intend to say, but you are making me work for it.

                    You then have Stuart calling to his father. What he says isn't believable (if for no other reason that gasping). It's too verbose, to tell-y. We also have no idea where his father is; how he can hope to be heard over the cannon fire;

                    Then, Stuart runs past fallen clansmen. Again, your focus is jumping too much. Would Stuart really stop to think about Lachlan's widow and children in that moment? Even that Lachlan was a childhood friend?

                    But, for me, the biggest issue in this rush forward is that you give us no insight into the feeling of his own forces following him. How many are charging those English troops? Are we talking dozens, hundred, or thousands? Put the deaths into perspective. And I won't even go near the question of how his fallen countrymen are being finished off by bayonet stabs when they are still charging at the English lines. Because, I'm assuming that the cannons are going silent when the English charge, so as not to decimate their own ranks from behind.

                    And, when it comes to the shot going past his ear - how convenient, that - my question is simply this: what is the range? He would need to be all but on top of the cannons for the shot to be coming in horizontal. This is basic physics; if it passes his ear, it's going to hit the ground only 3-5 body lengths behind him. It will also be coming past so fast that by the time he reacts enough to turn, it will have done its damage.


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                    • Congrats on being ready to submit. I see you're getting a lot of constructive input, so I'll not add more. On a practical level - Please don't submit the proposed cover. It's a no-no. Agents won't appreciate it and it will probably put you in the rejection bin before the first line is read. (others.... correct me if I'm wrong).
                      Also - your formatting.... double space / everything 12 point Times New Roman /all black font (no colour or larger headings).

                      In the header of each page put your Surname in title case, the book title in Caps and page number


                      Smorenburg / SUMMONING THE DEVIL / 2

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                      • Per Harry's comments in one of the video courses, the double space, 12pt, TNR thing is no longer meaningful. A good readable and professional font - Ariel, TNR, or any of the Office-generic fonts - 11 or 12pt (depending on the font, just a comfortable size), and 1.5 line space is more than enough.

                        The old "rules" are old, from the days of everything being done on a typewriter.

                        As Harry says, he's never heard of a manuscript being rejected it's not following those archaic rules.

                        Also, for the header/footer info, just as long as it's presented in a consistem manner is all that counts, and on every page - just in case someone prints it out and then drops the stack. The reality is that 99% of the time, it's read on a computer anyway. So it's the file naming that's most important.

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                        • I'm following Scrivener's format. All you say may be right, but I'm not erring by being "too creative". I've done the creative thing and it didn't work, so I'm eliminating every possible reason to reject.

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                          • I'm following Scrivener's format. All you say may be right, but I'm not erring by being "too creative". I've done the creative thing and it didn't work, so I'm eliminating every possible reason to reject.

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                          • Hi Folks. Thank you all for your critiques of my first 3000 words. You are all so clever and know so much about writing. Humbling it is. I thought I was nearly ready to submit, hahaaa.

                             I have made all the suggested edits, thanks for your guidance, and I can see that it reads much better. The task ahead is daunting, though. 95k words, 27 chapters ahead to try and edit as you have helped with the first 3000 words. It’s an impossible task when I don’t see the problems you good folk do.

                             After reading the latest responses, it becomes obvious that a book I thought was exciting and easy to read, is not because of the poor writing. At least my mind has been cleared on one fact - my work will not be going to an agent. It will obviously get rejected because I do not have the money to engage a professional editor. I will do my best to improve the work to a standard where I can self-publish. Who knows, I might get lucky.

                             I had read and edited the prologue at least twenty times, truly. I know how important the first three chapters are and I dedicated myself to them. The fact is, in all those reads I didn’t see the problems you folk mentioned. That tells me something.

                             I love the book, my heart lives in its pages, so I suppose I must forget trade publishing and try to make it work as an ebook.

                             Once again, that you all sooooo much for assisting me.


                            Kind regards, Rob


                            P.S. If anybody knows an editor who may be willing to read some of the novel and assess its worth, I would be grateful. I would be happy to make a very favourable deal with said editor, but not cash up-front, if they thought the novel had commercial prospects. I really don’t know what I’m trying to say here, just reaching out, I guess.

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                            • Hi Rob, 

                              I pretty much agree with everything Rick said in his latest post. Everything that has been mentioned on this thread is nothing new and things every writer had to grapple with at one stage or another.

                              I don't believe you need an editor because you don't want them to fix the issues for you. You want to learn to do that for yourself. You've already taken a massive step as a writer by asking for feedback so you just need to keep going. Writing like everything else is down to practise, practise, practise... and then practise some more. Also read a lot and widely, and read as a writer and assess how a certain author handles dialogue, how they deal with tension and pacing, etc... Also read blogs or books on the craft. The Book club is has a different book on the craft they read and discuss every month. 

                              Don't give up & keep writing.

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                              • Hi L - are you referring to a specific "Book Club" or just book clubs in general? If there is a specific Book Club comprised of writers discussing writing style in a different book each month then I'd love to join it!


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                                • Hi Mary, 

                                  It's the Book Club Community in the "Groups" section on here. Holly picks a different book every month related to the craft of fiction which people can then discuss. Anybody can join.

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                                • Rob…

                                  This is a delicate thing I have to say. i do mean it with the best intentions for everyone involved.

                                  Please, do not jump on the self-pub bandwagon simply because your writing is not yet to a quality that will get picked up by an agent/publisher.

                                  Now, to explain why I say that. (And this applies to everyone. You just happen to have been forthcoming and open enough to put something out there thinking it was ready when it's not. I applaud you for that.)

                                  Yes, there are people who make it big with self-pub. By and large, those same books would have been picked up by publishers and had equal success, had they landed with an agent with whom they resonated.

                                  But, the majority of self-published material simply languishes. I've heard one stat I suspect is too low: that 50% of all the self-pub books on Amazon have not had even one sale. Ever.

                                  This is supported by another pair of statistics: a) that there are more self/indie-pub authors making the big bucks than trad-pub - an evolving trend in favour of self-pub, and b) the average/mean income from self-pub is on a downward trend (I believe 30% in the last 10 years). Taken together, this says that the market is being flooded by crap that goes nowhere.

                                  Do you really want to add to that slush?

                                  So, could you get an editor to work on this for you? In theory, yes. But consider that my own comments on your first page, which only covered two aspects, ran to twice the length of said page. I could have picked other bits apart further. I don't know how much time you put into your book, but for a third party to fix it would take a comparable time. Or more. It would, then, be more their work than yours. Without up-front payment, no one will take on such a project.

                                  Whatever you deliver to an agent/publisher needs to be solid, tight, and polished. They will varnish it. And the same goes for what you deliver to an editor if you go the self-pub route.

                                  On the flip side… everything those of us who have given feedback have said can be learned.

                                  I started writing more than 30 years ago. But I only began to study the craft of writing maybe 8 years ago. (Oh, the wasted years!) And much of what I pointed out in my own feedback, I have learned within the last six months.

                                  Yes, it is hard to see what's in one's own writing. There's a personal investment. We know what we intend, and the words seem to describe what we imagine. But… well, there's a reason people claim a picture is worth a thousand words: it's that the words aren't well-chosen. A single word, appropriately chosen, can be worth a thousand pictures.

                                  You are at a crossroads with your writing here.

                                  Do you want to continue writing, or is this a one-off project? I'll assume you want to continue in one form or another.

                                  The second question is then this: do you want to improve your craft? This isn't even about whether you want it to be publication-worthy; publication need not be your intention. I'm sure you know several people who play the piano, or some other instrument, but no one expects that their focus is to make a living playing on stage. Why should every writer intend to be published?

                                  Again, I will assume you do want to improve your craft.

                                  So, the important question: do you want to rework this current opus, or start on something new? Given the prior two assumptions, those are your only options. (From experience, I'll tell you that starting something new is going to be easier. You can always come back to this tale when you've learned more. Of course, by then, you may feel it's beyond redemption.)

                                  Personally, I had written three and one-third novels (epic fantasy, so think 150k words each) and a personal development book before I got my first thing published… and that happened to be a business-technical book on content management systems. Go figure. Since then, I've written four more novels, a memoir and an outline that's a third the length of the intended book, plus my current work in progress. None of it yet published.

                                  I'm still learning. Thirty-some years and over a million words in, I'm still learning.

                                  And, you guessed it, I can still make those same mistakes. I can still be blind to them in my own writing.

                                  It's a process. I do intend to get published. I intend what I send to an agent and then sell to a publisher to be tight enough - in structure and prose - to require minimal editing. I'm a perfectionist. So, if I have to go another million words before that happens, so be it. (Good thing I've got a long enough backlog of solid ideas to work with.)

                                  What I will say is this: don't give up. Keep writing. Decide what you are writing for and invest in your craft accordingly.

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                                  • God, this is a brutal business.

                                    My first novel I wrote in 1995... thought it was brilliant. It is pretty darned good, but it was sooooo poorly executed (and I thought the execution was, in Trump's words, perfect!). 

                                    I sold 3 non-fiction titles through an agent in '96, '97 and '98. Business got in the way of writing till I self-published a second novel in 2014. Three more novels since then.

                                    All of the criticisim you raise here, Rick, was threaded throughout all novels. Even my latest one is pretty close to commercially acceptable.

                                    In the last 6 months, I too have really dug into the craft of writing (rather than writing from instinct) and I'm horrified how dreadful my past work was. I'm doing a deep dive during this lockdown to rip them apart and re-build them with new characters, new titles and entirely new arcs. 

                                    It's so hard to hear how far off we are - and only time really reveals it.

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                                    • God, this is a brutal business.

                                      My first novel I wrote in 1995... thought it was brilliant. It is pretty darned good, but it was sooooo poorly executed (and I thought the execution was, in Trump's words, perfect!). 

                                      I sold 3 non-fiction titles through an agent in '96, '97 and '98. Business got in the way of writing till I self-published a second novel in 2014. Three more novels since then.

                                      All of the criticisim you raise here, Rick, was threaded throughout all novels. Even my latest one is pretty close to commercially acceptable.

                                      In the last 6 months, I too have really dug into the craft of writing (rather than writing from instinct) and I'm horrified how dreadful my past work was. I'm doing a deep dive during this lockdown to rip them apart and re-build them with new characters, new titles and entirely new arcs. 

                                      It's so hard to hear how far off we are - and only time really reveals it.

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                                      • This.  Absolutely this.  I spent ten years on the first one (which got pulled in several directions on here) and after reading the comments, and then reading up on all the useful free vids Harry made available, I've realised I did an absolutely pants job.  I have started a second one.  I don't aim to write wonderful, award winning fiction.  I aim to write serviceable genre fiction.  I know where I want to sit and that's fine.  There are rules.  I didn't follow them.  I'm following them now and it's REALLY hard because I have to do things I don't want to do because I think I know better.  But I clearly don't.

                                        For a start I had no idea how much bloody filtering I was doing! I didn't even know what it was.  Dear God.

                                        So, I've tried again.  I've read the first page of the new book several times and it's already miles better than the first effort. I spent far less time on it - oh, the irony. I did what Harry said I should do and now there's direction of travel there in the first two paragraphs.  Just goes to show.

                                        >gnashes teeth and weeps

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                                      • You have to get an editor friend. Your grammar and tenses are all over the place. The errors start at the second line itself and goes on. Sorry but editors and agents can be brutal

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                                        • Hi Rob. Let´s be clear, I need editing help myself but here are a few points that sprang to mind. I have read your 3000 words revised and its seems to me to rattle along well, but I think you are hung up on adjectives in some cases use a clever word where a simple one would be a better fit. Agape, comes to mind. I have edited the first para in the way that I would write it, not that that makes it correct or even better, but its all I can offer. I have also read the foregoing comments and if you are new to writing, don't give up, there is nobody with nothing to learn and once you see your own work with greater objectivity, it will begin to fall into place. Also, I suspect you may be a Scot and so may know better the correct use of Scot and Scottish, but to me, Scottish thoughts reads better that Scot thoughts.

                                          My advice? Get revising and never be afraid to use the bin. Seriously, it can be a good friend!

                                          Stuart gasped for breath, eyes squinting. as His boots sank into the wet ground. He charged beside his father’s MacDonald highlanders, shrieking their war-cries. From the British lines, cannons blasted deadly canister shots. Metal hissed (where was it hissing?), tore holes through clothing, gun sacks, and then through the bodies of his clansmen. Mouth agape, his head jerked left and right while brave men cried and fell. Scot (Scottish?) thoughts of victory melting into reality's fear.

                                          Over and through the sodden ground, he pressed on, an example of courage for (to?) his clan. to follow. Ahead lay (stood?) the wall of red-coated soldiers, English, Hessian troops from Germany, and treacherous Scot clans supporting them. Eight thousand strong, bayonetted muskets glistening in three-line formations where the Duke of Cumberland, their leader, (Don’t think you need it?) sat astride his horse and commanded.

                                          “Father,” Stuart shouted. “With this British artillery, we won’t get within distance of a sword strike.”

                                          Scowling, his father gave no reply.

                                          The bolds are my choice to take out with comments why and corrections in places. For me, revision and editing is an enjoyable task, up to about twenty times. You have some work to do before you can submit, and there are good comments above from others which you can profit from. Keep at it, it´s not finished till you are happy with it, then it is.

                                          Best wishes

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                                          • Orville, thank you very much for your time given to me. 

                                            Grandmother was a MacDonald. Not of Keppoch as is the Lord MacDonald in my story. She was a Glengarry MacDonald, or so mum told me. Mum always remembers how she disliked Campbells (and she was none to fond of English - smiley face). The Campbells murdered MacDonalds at Glencoe and also fought for the British at Culloden. I love Scottish history, read it, wallow in it, butchers though they were, most all of them. But, oh! The colour of their lives. So few of them, but for 450 years they never wilted against the powerful Englsh invaders. Such courage, determination, and will to be free. How can we not be impressed by that.

                                            I've noted your amendments and agreed. Thanks.

                                            You said my story, 'rattled along well.' That to me is what's most important. Even with its faults, it rattled along well. Now my task is to combine the rattling along with better writing. I can learn to do that, but probably not to a standard an agent will accept. But it doesn't matter. 

                                            I will still send my improved extract to agents and maybe one will think it 'rattled along well' and tell me they like it, but to tighten it up. How good would that be? I would beg, borrow, or steal to find the cash to have it cleaned up. I might even sell my body (Smiley face).

                                            I don’t have 30 years to improve my craft. At my age one could say I already have a leg in the grave. I am not out to make money. I want the pride that will come with people reading and enjoying my book.

                                            Anyway, I’ll plough on and get the job done. My focus, as always, will be on a riveting story and great characters and scenes. I’ve tried to find an article I read, Stephen King I think, but I can’t find it. Whoever he was said words along these lines. ‘Make sure your story flows and sentence structure and grammar are the best you can make them, no need to be perfect. Most readers will never notice the errors provided you’ve hooked them and keep them hooked.’ Don’t quote me, but he said something like that. HE’S MY MAN! I’m sure folks here appreciate why (Smiley face again). Wish agents thought like him-hehe.

                                            Regarding me commenting on others work on this blog, it is obvious that I am not qualified to offer the quality of critique you folks can. But because this blog site is so great, I wish to stay involved. I’ll continue to make comments but restrict them to plot, characters and hooks. Those things more heartfelt than learned.

                                             Thanks, Rob

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