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"Summoning the Devil" / Speculative Fiction

I’m seeking your general ‘reaction’:

Whether it grabs you - whether you’d want to read on - whether it's confusing or should start at a different place.

Basically - whether I should keep the day job :-)

It’s a re-write of a 117 000 word novel I wrote on a beach in Spain in 1995. Spelling set for Americanese

(hope you’re all safe in these crazy-virus-ridden times)


A dab at the ‘play’ button and the Boardroom lights dimmed, hauling attention back to the 100-inch wall monitor where the digital leader counted off the seconds to video start—9-blip… 8-blip… 7-blip…

“Mark’s team did something exceptional with your brief…” Kathleen Shaw, the founder of Dreamscape Ad & PR, began introducing the second campaign of her agency’s pitch. “I’m very prou…”

“The cripple?” Tom spoke over her. “Mark the cripple?”

She tapped the pause button.

…blip-1… was frozen on the screen, half pixilated away to the start of the action.

“Yes, Tom. Mark Riggs,” she kept the anger from his insult out of her tone.

“Amazing.” Sarcasm was thick in his voice. “He put in a day of work? Whadaya know. I’m breathless with anticipation. Carry on then.”

Mark headed up the computer graphics creative team. This was his final assignment before the inevitable. That Tom somehow knew he’d worked remotely as best he could, was both infuriating and daunting. 

“You do understand its motor neuron disease?” It was all the rebuke she dared to venture. 

“Yeah, yeah… every bum has a sob story.”

“Come on,” her open palm gestured exasperation. “It’s genetic bad luck.”

“And the tattoos?” he snorted his doubt.

“They’re irrelevant to his health and work.”

“He’s sure got you duped.”

“I’d appreciate keeping with the review,” she urged, her voice now clipped.

Getting under her skin brought a hint of a smirk to Tom’s expression.

“I’m not saying your lot are bad, Kath,” his voice was suddenly engaging and warm. “So far, not bad. You’ve done reasonable work. But admit it… Faggots and creeps you’ve got over there. It’s a freak show. If I ever let them in here, we’d have to fumigate .”

It was supposed to be funny, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile.

He paused, openly appraising her.

Auburn hair to her shoulders, she wore a canary yellow Versace pencil skirt to the knee, just the way she knew this key client liked it. She was a rare specimen who needed little more than shampoo and hairdryer to show up looking fabulous. The blush of makeup she’d applied for the occasion, had even drawn a compliment from the man. Perhaps the makeup was a bad idea. He couldn’t stop looking at her, his eyes a little too hungry.

“You’re alright, though,” he gave his verdict.

She drew her breath and pressed her hands to the mahogany tabletop till the color drained from their margins, her anger daring her quick tongue to say what he deserved.

It would probably kill the deal—or maim it at the very least.

Of course, killing the deal would kill her company, would kill her employees, would destroy everything she’d worked a decade to build before this big-break came along. The Executive-Limits contract had come with a ‘jealous God’ exclusivity clause and a fat retainer for the trouble. The beast that Executive-Limits was, it would tolerate no other account handled under the same roof. Accepting those terms meant Executive-Limits and Executive-Limits only.

On paper, she was still single, still an independent company, still her own boss. In truth, though, she found herself steadily being reeled into a hostile marriage. It was more than her junior company manacled to the megalith.

For the thousandth time, she thought back to that moment six months ago when, with a trembling hand, she’d inked contract, then turned around and burned her bridges behind her.

She’d had no option though—the retainer and bonuses were off the charts.

The terror of the drastic decision to sign had melted when the first retainer hit her bank. It weighed in at more than her previous eight months of gross revenues combined. The second retainer a month later was twice that again—and the obscene revenues had doubled yet again when she outstripped her performance marks.

She was drinking from the fire-hose of success, adding staff as fast as she could find them globally, leasing new equipment, and expanding offices in other territories. She was galloping bareback on a steed with pepper under its tail, clinging to the thing’s mane with grim determination.

“Just glad you approve of the work,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could manage, and hating herself for it. “Can we move on?”

As Tom examined her, that hint of a triumphant smirk crept up the corners of his mouth. It was all gameplay, a ploy to unsettle.

And it happened again. His eyes slid for an instant to her lips, caressing them.

It was so fleeting, so masterfully done, that she second-guessed whether she’d seen it at all.

It should be creepy, she knew that. But the guy could pull it off. Perhaps it was his money and confidence, but somehow he made it strangely exhilarating, like juggling blindfolded with hand grenades.

Charisma. That was the problem. The Devil had doused the bastard with a bucket full of it.

Everyone knew that when Tom Ferris turned the charm on, he could get away with anything.

He knew it too.

Angry as she still was, that something stirred again, all the way to her loins. The animal thing that had been there from their first handshake, the courting danger that she hated herself for so readily succumbing to.

He’d hooked her again. She caught herself rising to his challenge, locked in a stare-down, his smirk morphing into an engaging smile, wheels turning behind those fathomless eyes.

Without breaking eye contact, he reached out and dabbed the intercom button on the conference table. “Nance, before you leave, another latte for me and a double one for Kathleen; she’s got a long night ahead.”

He cut the connection halfway through his PA’s confirmation.

Kathleen broke off the stare. “Thanks,” she offered and dropped her eyes into her lap. When she looked back, he was poking away at the iPad as if she and the review screen on pause didn’t exist.

She waited patiently, the uncomfortable crackling silence stretching time.

Her finger itching to hit the ‘play’ button again, the half-pixilated “1” of the countdown was still frozen on the wall monitor, the first frame begging to burst into action hiding in the background.

They’d gone all-out to showcase the diversity of Executive-Limits’ capability in simulation training. They’d plucked scenes from every conceivable facet of human endeavor.

The first session behind them had featured a heart surgeon and an astronaut, each coping with crises. Next up, it was time to cater to Tom’s whim, a military theme.

The narrative that he’d demanded would never have been on her choice list; it was a fatal Public Relations nightmare in the making. But he was the boss, and he’d insisted on shock and gore, on skirting the precipice of a woke world—a world Tom predictably scoffed at.

Hers was not to judge, only deliver. And, boy, have the team delivered.

They’d been at this review for nearly an hour already, and they’d barely scratched the surface of what she’d come to show. It was time to move the meeting along. 

“Ready?” she ventured, her finger hovering over the play button.

Tom nodded his permission but kept at the iPad.

 Click... blip.


“I’m God...”

A man’s voice, soulless, and matter of fact, cut the silence. A green murk of night vision materialized onto the screen, the view moving beyond the crosshairs, following a meandering network of tracks winding through scrubland far below.

This ad was the drone footage concept that Tom had prompted at the last briefing.

Telemetry data and compass orientation scrolled with leisurely precision in a ticker-tape below the action, relaying the airframe’s drifting orientation to the horizon.

“...all-seeing, I’m Jehovah hovering above, with lightning bolts to touch the wicked.”

The camera tracking the night below drifted onto a deserted rural village and zoomed in on half a dozen phantoms busying themselves around a pickup. The crosshairs came to rest on the group. The scurrying figures were ethereal, pale-green spooks on a hurried mission, hefting loads into the vehicle.

“Their bad choices make my choices easier.” This Almighty sounded somewhat Southern. “Being God,” he paused unhurriedly, just a hint of Tom’s accent to win his approval, “has consequences. First rule: stay calm. Don’t overthink. Let them make the decisions. Let them be responsible for my actions,” and the frame cut for a moment to his trigger finger, squeezing the joystick.

Threads of lightning streaked away, fairy lights of death diving toward the green unfortunates. The vehicle swallowed four of them; six become two, and then the two evaporated into the pickup as the tracers stitched the ground toward it.


For a silent instant, the green night vision of the monitor was blown-out to white light.

“Go with God,” the narrator’s intonation sounded indifferent, “Allahu Akbar... straight to hell.”

The line was so corny, so dangerously edgy and provocative, that Kathleen sneaked another peek at Tom. Thankfully, he was nodding approval at the creative execution of his brainchild, or perhaps the sneaky insertion of his own voice.

It was eerily silent in the on-screen chamber of death.

“A peculiar kind of Top Gun… dispensing my justice from half a world away.” There was an indifferent dullness to the narrator’s voice now, as the burning debris from the explosion continued raining to stillness at the attack site. “When my shift’s done, I hang up these headphones and grab takeaways and milk on my way home to the family and suburbia.”

Startled greens come pouring out of the houses, scattering to the wilderness or running toward their dead.

Tom’s nodded approval was gaining enthusiasm.

The view on-screen began to widen, retracting, pulling back from the action. It became evident that the on-screen view was a monitor within a flight simulator, filmed over the shoulder of an operator seemingly wearing headphones.

Beyond his silhouette, on that monitor, the green dead and living ghosts of the night vision were attending to the private drama of their destroyed world.

“The right choices take training,” the operator casually rambled.

The camera’s point of view began to rotate laterally until what seemed like headphones turned out to be a virtual-reality helmet, revealing the advert as a deception built within an illusion.

 “You can relax now,” a new and hypnotic android-sounding female’s voice instructed. “SLEEP!”

The man obeyed, his head slumping forward into unconsciousness.


The advert pixelated to blackness and white writing faded in. The tinny voice of the android female read the words written there, “The Raw Power of Executive-Limits Corporation.” Her tone was hollow and timeless. “Your Future... Safe in our hands,” the company slogan and logo bled onto the screen.

Kathleen hit the pause button, and the lights in the boardroom warmed to full brightness, the android’s words frozen on the screen.

Just then, a knock and the door opened before Tom could grant permission. He glared a lightning bolt at Nancy, his Assistant standing at the threshold.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she fawned and groveled suitably. “It’s an emergency on hold.”

She mimed a phone held to her ear and retreated, slinking backward out of Tom’s line of view. Still in Kathleen’s line of sight, she exaggerated round eyes and straining neck tendons, the universal ‘big-trouble-brewing’ face dragging the corners of her mouth down.

Tom snatched up the receiver. “What?!” he bit into the mouthpiece.

A high-pitched treble of explanation came pouring out of the earpiece, audible but incomprehensible from where Kathleen sat.

“Oh, FUCK’S-SAKE!” Tom stood, his Herman Miller office chair shot away from behind him on its castor wheels and collided with the wall. “Where’s Leon in all this?”

Kathleen had met Leon on several occasions. A wizened little man with a string of internationally-acclaimed books on psychology and regressive hypnosis to his name, Leon occupied a key seat on the Board of Directors at Executive-Limits Corporation.

His office took charge of the critical hypnosis sequence that Kathleen knew was a cornerstone of the company’s operation, Leon had been essential in the company’s innovation and meteoric rise.

The phone’s earpiece prickled with a response, “…paramedics…” Kathleen heard, then “…security detail…”

“What have you fucking clowns done!” He punched the handset back onto its cradle. “Wait here,” he ordered Kathleen and stormed out the door, leaving it open.

A few minutes later, Nancy’s head appeared nervously around the door.

“Big shit,” she said.

“No, kidding. What’s up?”

“Heck, you saw the reaction. Not sure if I can say too much. One of our subjects, you know.”

“I figured as much.”

“Heads gonna roll.”

“I’m keeping mine very low.”

“Yeah,” Nancy looked ashen. She hadn’t advanced into the room and hung onto the door with both hands, her stance suggesting she’d beat a retreat at the smallest sound from down the corridor. 

“Going on here at HQ? In this facility?” Kathleen asked.

“Yep. Special Forces General, Pentagon boy on a simulation. Gone nuts. Poop’s hitting the fan BIG time, breaking the place apart down there.”

“Wow!” Kathleen gulped, estimating whether it was going to make a public mess she’d have to clean up. “He mad at someone?”

“Worse. Much worse.” Nancy looked behind her in a conspiratorial manner, dropping her voice and leaning in with apparent concern for being overheard. “Sounds like something wrong in our systems, Kath. He’s having a reaction to the virtual reality or hypnosis sequence. I didn’t want to cut in on your meeting, it’s been going off, out of control for an hour. Guy’s a loon, like… ranting about the Spanish Inquisition or something. Bipolar, Leon said. Had a total personality collapse. Thinks it’s the fifteen-hundreds and on abo… shit.”

She straightened as Tom came striding silently through the door past her, his eyes fixed ahead.

Without any greeting to the women, he went directly into his private restroom, and the door slammed behind him. Nancy pulled the round-eyed facial expression again and evaporated without another word, closing the boardroom door with a click.

Kathleen sat in the daunting silence, wondering what new hell she’d inherit from all this drama. Without any sound to announce that the toilet had been flushed or faucets used, Tom appeared through the restroom doorway.


It was all he said.

He slumped into his seat and began to poke again at the iPad. Only the occasional sniff and dab at his nose hinted at why he seemed so suddenly calm. 

Kathleen twisted within. The uncomfortable, unmentioned elephant of his recent explosive reaction to the phone call was still looming like a living thing in the room. Tom seemed genuinely oblivious to it.

Talk about bipolar! She thought.

After long minutes, Tom placed the iPad aside then slowly reclined his chair, making a show of touching thumbs and fingers together in front of his face. Head tilted slightly and jaw jutting, his index fingertips began to tap out the rhythm of a cat’s tail before it pounces. It was his standard pose that always preceded a monologue.

Was this the moment he’d tell her about the crisis? She was unsure if she wanted to know or be part of it.

“From what we’ve covered, I give you points for effort. It’s reasonable stuff...”

Clearly, he was going nowhere near the crisis. It was business as usual, back to the matter of review. He paused and nodded—evidently agreeing with a thought in his own head—and then smiled in a most unsettling way.

“…You see, I’m always right in the long run. Always... But I grant you a little credit,” he huffed the concession, “you take criticism well. It spurs you. You need that.” He paused. “...Kids always do.” His palms came together before his face, fingers laced in the style of prayer, index fingers pressed together, pointing to the ceiling. With them, he tapped against pouted lips, contemplating some wisdom. “Good thing I didn’t drop you last quarter.”

“I was on the chopping block last quarter?” Kathleen attempted a polite smile.

Tom didn’t acknowledge, rendering the question rhetorical. He just sat, comfortable and untouchable, in the charged silence.

“Rerun it or move on?” Kathleen offered, hoping to propel the conversation out of the quicksand of Tom’s mind-games.

Ignoring the question, Tom carried on studying her. His hands dropping to chest level, now cradling an imaginary ball, perhaps the whole world between kissing fingertips

“I know exactly what you’re thinking, honey.” His forefinger and thumb began to smooth a non-existent mustache. “I’m a difficult son-of-a-bitch. But put yourself in my shoes.” Posturing. A moment of dramatic pause. “I’m only interested in dealing with adults, you see, with...” he seemed to search for the word, “...professionals. But here,” he indicated the screen, frozen in place, “we can see the results. I take charge, and I eventually get acceptable work.”

Kathleen held her silence, waiting for him to finish.

Tom remained silent, too, allowing her time for the thought to resonate. “People don’t understand me, Kath,” he suggested in contemplation, suddenly bipolar in his warmth. “I don’t intend to be a tyrant, I’m pushed to it.” He huffed the effort of suffering fools, shook his head in agreement with himself, and went back to poking at the iPad as he concluded. “You stick with me, young Kathleen... Stick with me, and I’ll make something of you and your little company.”

“Just glad you approve, Tom.” Kathleen gagged on the involuntary response that spilled from her mouth.

He said the same thing during the last three reviews she silently consoled herself, as the lava of the “little company” insult boiled within.

When enough of her precious time had been volunteered to passive silence, she collected her composure like tattered rags, “Rerun it, or move on?”

Tom declined to acknowledge, preferring the distraction in his hands.

She returned to silent waiting.

While she waited, Kathleen’s thoughts detached, and a frigid trickle of memories seeped within, Tom’s snide abuses triggering emotions that cartwheeled her back through time.

Her mind slid deep into the swamp of nearly forgotten territory—an archive of pain suffered at the hands of an estranged father, a charmer who’d so closely resembled this arrogant man.

Tom flicked leisurely back and forth across his screen, occasionally poking at it while conducting two brief monosyllabic personal calls when his mobile buzzed.

As the moments labored by, an agonizing procession of submission to his whim, Kathleen reeled her thoughts back, closer to the present. She began to contemplate the months of grind that had transported her to this moment. Bruised by Tom’s affront, she took refuge in assessing how professionally she’d overridden so many urges to turn the contract down time and again. But this was undoubtedly her desperately needed break into the industry’s big-time.

Despite her instincts, she’d stuck it out and miraculously held her ground against the most prominent competitors around the globe. It had been a coup that bore testimony to work that was fast becoming legendary for its creativity and attention to detail. Half-a-year of groveling had brought her, from that day of signing the contract, to this—a review of the finished product. Twenty-three weeks of endless re-edits behind them. But worth it? She mulled for the umpteenth time. No question! Contracts like this seed empires.

“Rerun it,” Tom ordered in answer to Kathleen’s question asked many minutes before. It tugged her from the daydream.

The monitor responded to the click of Kathleen’s finger, and the sequence replayed and ended.

“Again?” Kathleen queried.

“Again,” Tom insisted.

For forty minutes, Tom demanded that the same thirty-second slot be relentlessly repeated, occasionally querying something, taking a note or making a call. Kathleen knew all too well that Tom Ferris was a stickler for perfection, the obsession driving the man on his maniacal quest to find fault with everything and everyone. But, try as he might, for the rest of the session, he could find little room to gripe at any of Kathleen’s several commercial masterpieces.

They all screamed the same core message: “Benefits to humankind through the best simulation training can offer.”

The review was endless, but the view from the boardroom window during interludes was magnificent. Having parried Tom’s initial thrusts and having shown him her firm but accommodating stance, Tom had moderated his attitude. He dropped the sparring and was now focusing entirely on results and outcomes. Kathleen was having an easier time of it.

Toward the end of the workday, he broke from review to take more calls, one or two of them clearly about the earlier incident, raising his hackles.

She entertained herself, soaking in the vista of meadows draped around the private lake on the outskirts of the city where Tom had erected the headquarter of his empire.

Though the meeting had kicked off at midday, she’d canceled all appointments into the evening, fully anticipating that the constant interruptions that always swarmed around the man, would stretch the review till the black of night. This was proving to be the case.

Kathleen maintained a docile temperament until the sun pulled its final rays over the lip of the horizon and twilight set in. At this point, even her Job-like patience could endure no more. “Satisfied?” she ventured after another run-through of the last video-slot. Even after so many hours of grind, she maintained a flat tone that divulged no hint of the irritation seething within.

“A few more runs before we call it a day.” Predictably, Tom found it necessary to entrench his authority, prolonging the moment.

Ten minutes later, Tom's appetite for petty power satiated, he closed proceedings. “Not bad, Kath. Overall, a pretty good effort.”

Kathleen was astonished. For Tom Ferris, “pretty good effort” meant tearing out a chunk of his living self. Compliments from this man just didn’t happen. She reckoned he must have heard his own voice speak the words before he could bite them back.

Her eyes glinted with triumph, and she cocked a brow.

“High praise indeed,” she crooned, revealing only a hint of the sarcasm she felt.

In less than a decade, Tom Ferris had grown Executive-Limits Corporation from concept to a top-ten global company—a trillion-dollar gargantuan.

Even surrounded by a team of executives with the keenest minds, Tom remained distrustful of delegation. He stubbornly clung to his autocratic style, micromanaging and dominating every facet of operations.

Psychopath...? Kathleen asked herself for the umpteenth time.

No. Possessed seemed more accurate.

While she pondered this and shuffled her laptop into her bag, Tom launched into another round of ferocious phone discussions with someone evidently buried somewhere in the depths of the monolithic building. She waited patiently for him to finish before making overt gestures to leave.

His questions answered by the voice on the other end of the line, Tom truncated the conversation with a grunt as he turned his attention back to Kathleen.

“Let’s call it a day,” he instructed, then offered consolation to a tedious afternoon. “Stick around, and I’ll buy you dinner?” He was suddenly charm and roses.

“Thanks... I’ve got plans.”

“They just changed…” he assured her.

She checked her watch.

“I’ve made the booking already,” he disclosed, inclining his head, leaving her no doubt that they’d be dining together.

There was no real way to refuse the man.

She did the best she could to make a show of resisting, “Hmmm... not sure. I’d make a call, but my battery’s dead,” she held up her mobile.

Tom held the door open, “Use Nancy’s line.”

As they moved out of the boardroom, Kathleen wrestled with the prospect of spending more time in Tom’s company than duty required. Better instincts screamed urgently to refuse the offer. But, the devil within; the adrenaline junkie, the tomboy daredevil; wanted answers to many questions that nobody but a privileged few had answers to, and dinner seemed an ideal forum for excavating for truth.

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Replies (19)
  • Hi Michael

    I'll start with the obvious bit of the answer, before I even read any of what you posted: yes, keep the day job. Publishing is a notoriously fickle business. If your story is exceptional, in a couple of years (given publication timeframes) it might pay enough for you to give up the day job for a little while, but unless you can write more, that money's not going to last you more than a year or two. (A good advance for a new author is going to low-to-mid five figures.)

    Now, I'll go read…

    Opening scene - far too on-the-nose. Lacks subtext. So boring.

    The interlude is both good and bad. The very idea of a 'jealous God' exclusivity clause is absurd. A jealous God non-compete clause (no conflict of interest clients), I could buy. But ditching all existing clients for one… For something like that to have any chance of being accepted, it would need the client to pay at least 6 months - probably a year - of retainer before any of the old clients were ditched.

    The resumption of the first scene is better than its opening, but the writing is very loose. Almost every bit of phrasing could be rearranged to provide stronger impact in 30% less words.

    Overall, the ad scene is pretty good. Again, it could use tightening.

    And while I don't believe any of the interaction with Nancy (she would be too much in fear to breath even a word of dissent), many of the elements of backstory you seed into the second scene are well delivered - they feel like real thoughts that would bubble into the mind of someone subjected to Tom's manipulations. Except, perhaps, the father reference; unless you step back towards it gradually.

    For a thriller, though, it doesn't open with appropriate adrenaline.

    My thought - and I'm not advocating this, it's your story to fix - would be to start with the ad (assuming its product is core to the thriller aspect) at two to three times the length, in first person, so we feel that we are there, flying, firing, killing - and then pulling back to remote piloting, simulation, VR of simulation, ad of…

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    • "Keep the day job" was a rhetorical device intended to end on a friendly note and return a similarly friendly reply from peers - I wasn't anticipating it to be taken literally and hurled back as though this is a job interview. I'm under no illusions - I'm an amateur and writing will never amount to much more than a hobby.

      "On the nose" is not a criticism that speaks to me in any meaningful way. Sorry.

      Sorry it was boring. I appreciate you pushing through.

      Once the reader understands the scope of the company under review (and reads the qualifying next paragraph that explains precisely what you suggested, that she's tooling up but getting handsomely paid) the "jealous god" - as a stylistic description - makes sense... or ought to.

      My +30% loose writing is perhaps my amateurish style which I'm slowly repairing where and when I get constructive criticism.

      Nancy's interaction is valid in as much as the back story reveals her budding relationship with Kathleen and her innate backbone in spite of Tom's bullying - he admires it in her. It's the nature of the crisis that's set her nerves to jangle

      I did indeed start with the ad - but people got confused and didn't understand that the ad was not just a simulation but an ad about a simulation. 

      Thanks for your efforts.

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      • Sorry you felt the day job response was hurled. You wouldn't beleive how many people don't understand the reality of writing, or their own ability at it, (Which is why I answered that before reading a word.)

        "On the nose" is about the characters saying exactly what you want them to mean. It's the complete lack of subtlety or inference in the dialogue. People generally speak around what they really mean, they imply.

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      • Hi Michael, 

        Thanks for sharing your opening. To answer your question if I would read on, I'm afraid I wouldn't. I stopped at the end of the first scene. The main issue for me was that the two main characters on that scene came across as two-dimensional and as Rick mentioned there is no subtext, nothing is implied just plainly stated. 

        Furthermore, as a reader I'm not a fan of the story being paused for a descriptive list about a character for no reason. Others might not mind but for me I don't need to know that she has "Auburn hair to her shoulders, she wore a canary yellow Versace pencil skirt to the knee, just the way her key client liked it. The blush of makeup she’d applied for the occasion, had drawn a rare compliment from the man. Perhaps it was too much, she feared." For me this bring nothing to the scene, I personally prefer when the description are weaved into the story when necessary to reveal characters or imply something. Also if she is a high level executive she would be wearing makeup every day, this wouldn't be a one of and she would be more worried about her pitch than makeup and canary yellow is an odd choice for a business meeting.

        I do agree that the prose could be tightened but that's what editing is  for.

        I hope this helps  and feel  to use or ignore as you see fit.

        Good luck with the editing.

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        • Unfortunately, I can't leave aside day jobs, Micahael. Howeer, I'm not talking about yours; my target is the agent.

          An agent's day job is three-fold: to recognise good writers (both prose and story quality), to know the publisher market sufficiently to match authors with publishers in the most productive manner, and to help authors refine their work.

          If the agent faisl at the first, they won't be in the business long. If they fail at the second, they won't be particualrly successful. If they fail at the third… anh, but disaster can strike a writer's career. If, that is, the writer doesn't recognise the agent's lack of skill in that department. (This is why many exceptional agents come to the business through being editors.)

          When giving feedback on a piece of work, there are three elements: symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis.

          Spotting symptoms is not quite as easy as it sounds, but it can at least be done in a broad-brushed manner: "This scene/section/chapter/book doesn't work for me." Pretty much everyone is in a position to do this, but be wary of those whose input you haven't sufficient experience of - they may try to be too specific and mistarget their feedback.

          Diagnosis is being able to say: "This is the thing that is causing your piece not to work for me." The reason ex-editor agents can give better feedback at this level is because that's what editors do: they learn to break a piece down into different elements and pick out the aspect that doesn't resonate. They decompose the symphony. Be very, very careful about whom you take diagnostic feedback from. If you aren't sure, get it from several people, but take none of it at face value unless there's a 75%+ agreement on the cause, and that from more than 4 people. Also, if they can see each other's feedback before making up their own minds, be vary cautious of the me-too obfuscation.

          Prognosis is the answer of how to fix the issue. The basis rule here is simple: you are the author, and as such, no one but you should ever provide this answer. (Yes, when you have a good relationship with an agent and an editor, they might offer a few suggestions, but it's still your work of art to fix.) Most people - especially those who don't understand the art and craft of good writing - will start by offering a prognosis rather than symptoms or a diagnosis. With the best intentions, but they are telling you what they would have written, not what you need to do to fix it.

          Additionally, you've mentioned that some of the feedback you've had is "I can't get a good picture of the character." This is then offset by people telling you not to include physical descriptions. And round in circles you go. Now, I would like you to do a little exercise: think about someone you know well, and describe them - the whole of them. Got that summary? Good.

          Unless you're at a very specific place on the spectrum, your description of that person you know well will be about their personality, about the deeper core of their essense and psychology. Likes, quirks, etc.

          Even though those giving you feedback don't realise it, when they say they can't picture your character, that's what they mean - tehy aren't getting a sense of who the character is. (This is born out by so many top books making no mention whatsoever of the protagonist's physical appearance; it allows the reader to self-identify because they project their own visual onto the character.)

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          • Thanks for coming back to me.

            In all the books I've written, I've never once mentioned or alluded to any physical characteristic of any character - other than their gender. Not one reader out of thousands has ever complained about it. And then I ran into an agent who sent me resources (I can try to find) and ripped me to pieces for not doing so. This has now really done my head in. The whole appearance thing seems to me to be superficial - the innate character, arc, and plot is so much more important than the appearance. Yet, I was assured that it was leaving this out that was stopping me from getting wider traction in a market that evidently loves this. 

            This is the imprecision of writing fiction that is disheartening. It's like arguing with philosophy majors who talk in circles and seem more interested in being heard than in making a worthwhile point.

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            • Given your thousands-v-one experience, I think it's pretty safe to come down on the side of the thousands. That one agent may have needed the physical description; the rest of the world doesn't, at least not to the same extent, Or they didn't have the skills to parse what they were reading down to provide a good diagnosis, thereby grasping at their personal peve.

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            • Thanks for the input L
              It's so darned hard getting it right.
              I never bothered to describe my characters' appearances and got absolutely hauled over the coals for it. Told it absolutely has to be in the very opening scene so the reader doesn't form one idea only to be corrected later. I'd just as soon leave it out as I don't care for the superficial appearance of characters anyway.
              So, yes, all that setting does push the dimensions of the character further out. It's a pity you couldn't get to them.

              For what it's worth - the main character was something of an echo of my ex-wife who was very much a high powered executive and wore absolutely zero makeup - only putting on the smallest amount for big events (one of the reasons I liked her). That said, she really didn't need makeup or hair colour or hairdos. She was out of the park. Off her head, but very naturally good looking.

              Thanks though.

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              • I really enjoy thrillers (specifically espionage, but others are fine by me, too).

                I liked the first few lines - I could really get a feel for Tom and his character is well portrayed from the start with his views about the cripple. I couldn't really identify with Kathleen, though, and the erotic tension didn't work for me at all.

                The main issue, which made me skim the advert and then skim the rest even more, is that there just isn't enough *thrill* up front for it to be a thriller for me. I like the idea of the special forces guy going nuts and that would add some immediate jeopardy, but I don't understand how it relates to Kathleen and if it's a problem for Tom I don't much care, given what an arse he is.

                Sorry this comes across a bit negative, as I am conscious that you are feeling a bit bashed about already.

                Oh, and as for the appearance of characters - I couldn't care less. I agree with the agent that you don't want to stay silent on looks and then drop in the chiselled jaw and violet eyes part way through when the reader has constructed another image in their head, but if you stay silent on looks throughout it's no problem as far as I as a reader am concerned.

                Good luck with this. My gut feeling is that you have an interesting concept that still needs work.

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                • Thanks Bella

                  Forgive my previous aired frustrations.
                  The issue for me is that this novel has been published in a lesser form (less worked), sold around 5,000 copies and met with embarrassingly good reviews (barring one promotion that went out and the wrong folder got uploaded to Amazon so that 2,800 sales went out with an early draft!!! Nightmare!).
                  I've decided to revamp the story and include general input I've received on other titles I've published.
                  Perhaps the error is mine in categorizing the genre. I'm a slow starter with my books (trying to work on this), and although this becomes a thriller, it is a speculative novel too. Maybe there's not enough punch early on to draw someone who expects a thriller into it to discover the thrilling aspects.

                  The story becomes very brooding. Indeed, shortly after the cut off here you discover that the Special Forces guy has come off of a routine believing that he is an inquisitor in the 15th Century Spanish inquisition (so a triggered past life regression). He suddenly can speak and understand period Spanish and Latin - and he is completely off his head.
                  Then you discover that the immersive virtual reality training uses a hypnosis sequence (administered by an AI system) to make participants believe that what they are experiencing is reality... and it is being administered with what the company touts as a breakthrough software that can drive participants orders of magnitude harder than in real life... They can achieve 10 hours of training in an hour of machine time (which hints at what is wrong with the Special Forces guy). Of course, by chapter 3 you discover that only Tom and one other really understand how this time dilation is being achieved... They're secretly and illegally introducing an advanced narcotic nanobot into the bloodstream via a nutritional patch.
                  Kathleen is captured by several factors: Greed for seriously big bucks (and subsequently trapped by the contract), an abusive father that made her vulnerable to malignant narcissists, and her own "won't back down" attitude.
                  It may sound like I've offered plot spoilers here, but I've barely scratched the surface.

                  The entire interaction very quickly devolves into something of a paranormal story (that scared the bejesus out of me when I wrote it), and then does a rug pull on the reader.... So, yes, there's a story here.

                  I think it's my mischaracterization as a thriller (or starting at the wrong place?) and then my listening to other people that is letting this rewrite down.

                  But thank you very much for your input.

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                  • Ah. OK - this does sound like a great story and certainly one which could be categorised as a thriller. For me, the special forces guy would indeed be an immediate hook, as I suspected. I know we normally expect to meet our MC up front, but have you tried starting with the special forces guy actually having an episode? If you wanted to involve Kathleen, could she maybe be watching the episode via live feed. Maybe Tom wants to show her how marvellous his training is to help her write her ads - and then they both watch as the proverbial hits the fan? I really want to like it now you've told me some more.

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                    • Sorry - to put meat on the paranormal (as it's important to understand that the special forces guy that the company is trying to damp down any possibility of the event hitting the media) is repeatedly regress hypnotized by the company's head of psychology and in that state he is slowly giving away clues to what is going on "great evil".  Tom, of course, manages to get Kathleen to do an immersive virtual reality experience and what does a guy like this choose but cybersex. Afterward, she is freaked out and nightmares about Tom begin - then the nightmares become waking experiences of him stalking her in a daunting way.

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                    • For me, thrillers open up our very carnal need, which otherwise could be taken up by a green thumb. That is not to say that the plight of the altruist should raise the white flag. I am very recent to the writing game, but to me it seems that you have to write, and you want to make quota. In this time of quarantine, things could look quite dire, but here at home, it seems the mantle has been taken up by a lot of heresy that could not have been avoided, as well as a lot of gimmicks that are purely for show, and likewise cruising various time zones. But it’s like I say, to write lucidly is very difficult.

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                      • HI Vincent - I'mt trying to understand what you're saying?

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                        • Solid burn, Branch. All I’m saying, is advertising is a wide genre, besides a select cut or two. All it would take is a few psych outs, and they’d be acting like animals again. When does peace turn into a tug of war from pushing a pram?

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