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Feedback request - Contemporary Fantasy opening chapters

Hi all. 

Been building up the courage to do this for weeks, so here goes.

These are the opening two chapters of a contemporary fantasy I've been sending out to agents. I've had some nice feedback and a full request so far but no offers of representation. I now have an online 1 to 1 set up with an agent for next month, so any advice on what to improve would be greatly received.

Many thanks, 

Lynn

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  • Wow! Well I thought it was amazing and I wanted to read more. But as you will have gathered by now I’m a reader, not a gramatician or anything similar. All I can say is I am totally amazed you haven’t found an agent and if I started reading that in a bookshop I would  have bought the book.
    I love detective fiction, so it is on my wavelength. Scary but not too scary to continue. 

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    • Thanks so much, Georgina! Your enthusiasm is really encouraging and I'm really grateful. I wonder if the book might end up being a 'close but I didn't love it enough' project for agents, but I'll keep submitting a while longer.

      Thanks again

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    • Lynn, I'm only about a quarter of the way in - where Caro pushes in to Neil's apartment…

      At this point, I feel as though I've been jerked about, pulled in half a dozen different directions: too many promises in quick succession, with no apparent alignment between them. We have a fight building between the two of them, and I'm feeling increasingly detached from both characters.

      As a logical coherence aside, how is Neil near the end of the fourth show so early in the morning, when he gave up on sleep after two hours of bad and six of tossing and turning? That suggests a 6am-ish start, and if people are leaving for work, it's likely about 8:30… So it only works if those are 35-minute episodes. (But Murder at the Vicarage is 1h42.)

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      • Thanks very much for this, Rick. Your logic re the timings of the TV shows is faultless and I hadn't even w worked it out, so thanks for the pointer.

        Thanks also for the feedback re the opening para. You said you felt pulled around a lot. What do you feel would improve that feeling? Starting later in the story? Cutting the flashback to when Neil moved in? I'd value your opinion.

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        • Ah, Lynn, that's a tough question. It's sort of a generic Yes-ish.

          I don't know if there's any basic rule on this, but my working impression at the moment (only came up with it as a guide 10 minutes ago) is that if you're putting backstory in your opening chapter, no snippet of it should be more than half a sentence; this is to avoid it diverting the flow. As such, I would open with:

          Neil had seen ghosts all his life, but he’d never lived with one before moving to his flat in Milton Keynes; that would teach him to rent property without viewing it first.

          [Note the inversion in the life lesson; at least that's how I have encountered the expression, e.g. My face is a mottle of purple and black; that'll teach me to walk into lampposts.]

          The value of this is that it tells the reader that there is backstory here, and then it allows you to move on. Here's a promise of something that I'll explain later, once you're properly hooked.

          From there, I would move directly to Neil watching the film. It's 8:30, almost done, three glows competing for his attention: around the edge of the curtain, from the TV, and the ghost-light from the bathroom. (Again, only half a sentence hinting at where she resides - possibly as part of why he's such a slob now.)

          And then straight in to the knock on the door.

          Especially in this opening chapter, if it's not directly relevant to the immediate challenge, it can be deferred.

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          • This is fabulous feedback, thanks Rick. I've been a dope not to see how that back story slows the pace and is actually unnecessary - sometimes you just can't see the big issues, which is where this community is so brilliant.

            I'll redraft with that in mind. Many thanks

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          • Hi Lynn. I liked it! 

            Your opening paragraph hooked me in right away. Your writing is excellent so it drew me along the backstory, but I have to agree with Rick in that soon after your opening paragraph, I got confused. Especially when you switched to the dead girl's POV. I read all the way to the end and would keep reading. I really enjoyed it.

            I do have a suggestion, but take what I say with a grain of salt because I don't have nearly as much experience as you! I'd cut out all the back story and try to find a way to weave it in later. After your opening para, I'd jump straight to the present like this:

            Neil had seen ghosts all his life, but he’d never lived with one in his bathtub before. That would teach him not to rent property without viewing it first. Neil stumbled along the hall towards kitchen and kettle, passing the bathroom, the dead girl’s kingfisher light.

            I hope this helps, Julie😘

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            • Interesting differences. Because of Rick and Julie’s comments I read the piece again and I didn’t find it confusing at all. Moreover, I think the backstory is good because now you know what to expect from the interaction with Davey.

              I did think it was better on a second reading! 

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              • Thanks so much, Julie! I'm really glad you liked it enough to keep reading - that's a huge win as far as I'm concerned!

                I totally get your thoughts on cutting out the ghost girl section. I think I wrote it when I was less confident people world understand Neil's situation, but you're right, I could easily weave it in later as I have with other instances from Neil's past. Maybe this will cure the sender of being pulled around that Rick mentioned.

                Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for the encouragement


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                • Thanks so much, Georgina! Can I use that last sentence in the cover of I ever get published? 😊

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                •  

                  Hi Lynn,

                  I enjoyed reading this. The whole thing felt like a kind of delightful gory romp. I can visualise all the ghosts vividly. Your first paragraph is doing beautiful work. It sent me off in the wrong direction (body of dead girl in bath) before delivering the surprise. 

                   Other things I loved:

                   The ghost with the cravat making Neil think he looked like a poet.

                   The sentence ‘Public executions – butchers.’ is gorgeous. I particularly love the rhythm.

                   Historical ghosts. I love that some go that far back. 

                   The fact that he’s making a ghost map so he can plan his route around them.

                   The thing growing by the bins. I’m intrigued. You’ve made me believe this is going to be important.

                   Jaffa cakes! 

                   The humour in general.

                   

                  Some questions:

                  When are we in time at the start? It’s ‘Late August’ later, but that means no time is given for the time when he first sees the ghost.

                  Which town/city is Neil living in?

                   

                  Some issues:

                  After the very lively beginning, I felt pace in the first chapter began to flag, particularly in the long sequence from the first knock at the door to his letting Caro in. (I have similar first chapter issues, so I recognised them.)

                  In the scene where he sits down to discover what the ghost is thinking, it wasn’t clear to me at first that these were her thoughts, not his.

                  The two images of Caro are each strong, and as the ‘past’ one came first, it stayed in my mind’s eye. The dreadlocks won over the bob.

                   

                  Smaller details (though not to an Agatha fan!):

                  As you named the first Agatha Christie he saw, I think you need to name the fourth one too. (How’s your Agatha knowledge? I had issues)

                   So that’s it. Hope this was useful, and well done on being brave enough to post.

                   By the way, I loved that the cat is called Fosco!

                   

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                  • This is terrific feedback, thanks so much Alex! Really constructive and useful.

                    I think you're right about the flagging in the first chapter - it needs tightening up and it's a fine, difficult line to walk, establishing character, injecting a little humour while keeping the pace going. I clearly haven't got the right balance yet!

                    And I'm sure you're right about the Christie references - imagine the complaints on Amazon if I ever got this published and got it wrong! I'll take another look 

                    I'm so glad you enjoyed some of the banter. I like the relationship between Caro and Neil, that bickering you get when you've known someone years, people who are naturally, relaxedly humorous with each other. The agent that requested the full on this said she liked the voice, so I guess I've got that right, even if I have a lot of work to do structurally.

                    Thanks for taking the time to read so thoroughly and feed back. Really grateful

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                    • Hi Lynn

                      My comments are from a reader's POV, I’m still very much learning the writing craft.

                      I was transfixed from the first line, which is great by the way. Loved the Neil/Caro relationship, very realistic. I was a bit confused at first by the ghost light thing but that’s probably just me and I picked it up later. 

                      Great concept, story, writing, really well done. 

                      I cannot believe the agent hasn’t got back to you. What about self pub? From what I read, series are the way to crack that particular nut. Wonder whether you could develop a series of books with Neil investigating various deaths? I think that would be mega popular.

                      So enjoyed this. Would happily read more. K.

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                      • Thank you so much for the encouragement, Karen! Really glad you liked the opening and felt it has 'legs'. I have thought of making it a series, taking Neil and his ragged group forward into becoming an informal investigative team, always with the aim of tracking down what happens to a family member (something that happens at the end of this book). I hadn't thought to self pub, just because I know how much effort it takes to make a success of things and marketing doesn't really interest me. I'll see.

                        Meanwhile, I'm writing an unrelated supernatural novel.

                        Thanks again for reading and the brilliant feedback

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                        • I love the idea of Neil's investigation team (watch out Ghostbusters); that concept most definitely has legs. I know what you mean about self pub being a big ask in terms of marketing, but I am beginning to consider giving it a whirl. Don't know much about supernatural genre but had a bit of a lightbulb for a ghost story while I was away last couple of days so def need to find out more. Always up for reading more of your work. K.

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                          • Thanks so much for the offer and is you have a supernatural short story that needs a beta, just message me - I love reading and writing ghost stories 

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                          • Hey Lynn! Thanks for submitting your work. I hate to say it, but I'm with Rick n Julie, I stopped reading too. The first paragraph had me hooked, then you went on to mention she'd been dead for years and that just sorta killed it for me. I like Julie's suggestion, cut to the chase right away. But the writing is really good, I think it has great potential. I think for the start, just focus on what you want to tell/show the reader and just do it as that. Don't let this bring you down, I think the story could end up being quite good!

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                            • Thanks for the encouragement, Sibo! I'll revise and see where that takes me. Thanks so much for reading

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                            • Wow Lynn! I loved this. I am no expert but as a reader I would buy this book. I think the characters are beautifully portrayed. The opening grabbed me in and the whole thing delivered on that promise. It is a really unique idea. The descriptions of depression are excellent. The little details throughout such as the surfer dude therapist and the free sample tea bags are lovely. The relationships work nicely. I’m sure you will find the right agent soon.

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                              • Thank you so much, Kate. What a lovely comment- you had me grinning from ear to ear! I'll revise and see what this agent says in the 1 to 1 next month. Your never know, he might have some positives to say. Thank you again for making my day 😊

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                              • Hey just gave it a read! Great stuff, would definitely read on! :-)

                                Only comments I would make would be the first chapter I felt had a bit too much going on and was not focused enough on the main narrative journey. The second chapter however I thought was great so maybe shorten the first chapter and like has been previously said cut to the chase a bit quicker so that people can get into the narrative journey the character will be embarking on from the beginning.

                                But definitely great stuff, can see why an agent would have requested to have a full read! Fingers crossed you get an agent to take it up! :-)

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                                • Thanks so much for the recommendation, Laure! They were both so lovely and helpful, put me at ease, even answered a couple of writerly questions during the session. I'd recommend them to anyone. 

                                  It's given me the push I needed to seek advice on here for the opening and as you can see, that advice and feedback has been fantastic. Revising at the moment.

                                  Thank you again for your generous help and advice and best of luck with The Downfall

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                                  • Thanks for the info! Really appreciate it, and definitely makes sense, seems a really good way to get some practice in with the plus side being you may actually get taken up by the agent! :-)

                                    And thanks fingers crossed it goes well! :-)

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                                    • Thanks and no problem!

                                      I can see you got loads of helpful feedback. Let me know how you get on with your meeting. 

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                                    • Great beginning -- drew me in. This is a book I would buy.

                                      Where I needed a bit more convincing was Neil agreeing to do what Caro wanted. I’d like Caro to have something she threatens him with (we don’t even need to know what it is at this stage) to make him submit.

                                      Neil is a great balance between loser and special – as a reader I can anticipate tensions and problems.

                                      Caro – not so much. Hints that she could be nasty in the past (cigarette burn), but she’s almost too ‘normal’ now. I think you could come up with something more unique and twisty for her (all her time off/money is spent throwing dummies out of hotel windows! I’m not entirely serious, but maybe you get what I mean).

                                      My reader's heart sank when I realized I was going to have to sit through the whole journey to their old hometown. I assumed we'd either jump to their arrival at the hotel where Davey was murdered, or be diverted onto a completely unexpected (but wild and interesting) subplot to delay our arrival at that point.

                                      Of course, with a murder mystery, you are dropping in plot clues that the reader doesn’t see the significance of at this time, so it may be that some of that conversation has to stay, but perhaps it could take place in the hotel lift? so that the reader knows to  ‘hang on in there’ ghostly happenings are imminent.

                                      I hope these comments are relevant/useful - this is the style of story I love to read.

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                                      • Hi Lynn,

                                        Thank you for the thank you. It's a sign of your professionalism that you can consider changes without getting defensive (I'm not there yet - childish of me, I know).

                                        On the subject of Caro being a badass/person with underworld connections. Assuming you have a plot reason for not revealing this early on, you could pepper her dialogue with words that make the reader sit up and take notice but don’t give too much away. To be specific, words like ‘Crowbar’. As in when Neil won’t open the door ‘Are you going to make me get the crowbar?’ (doors can be levered open by inserting a crowbar in the hinge side). But any impactful words that hint there is another side to her would do.

                                        All the best, Heather.

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                                        • I like the way you think, Heather. I'll bear that in mind. Caro's technically reformed now, but her past was very shady, so I'm guessing crow barring a door would not be beyond her. And I think maybe you're right, that would make an interesting interplay between her and the mousy Neil make her one of the 'extraordinary' characters Harry talks about.

                                          As for taking criticism with good grace, well, thank you. It can be tricky, especially if people don't get your writing, don't appreciate something you've worked really hard on. But Townhouse people are serious about writing, so the advice given is worth listening to and often invaluable - like yours! Thank you again 😀

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                                          • The problem is a really good piece of writing has a flow that makes it look easy.

                                            It's invisible stitching, twice as hard as normal stitching, so that nobody can see your work.

                                            All the best

                                            -Heather

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                                          • Hi Lynn,

                                            I liked the beginning of this and felt the characters were well drawn. Most of the above comments mirror my own. I dooubt I have much to add but the travel scene did make me lose interest. In one of my own novels, I lost an agent over the same 'getting to one place from another' situation. I have now cut it out almost in its entirety. I think as we are writing sometimes, that we feel the need to take the reader on our character's journey, forgetting that a lot of people hate car trips.

                                            Great potential here, though. Good luck with the agenting thing!

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                                            • Hi Connie and thanks so much for this. I'm so glad you felt it had promise. 

                                              Rewriting the opening right now - and cutting chunks of the journey out as I go! Maybe I'll take another look and cut even more... I'll reread (again :) ) and revise.

                                              Thanks for taking the time to read it. 

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                                            • Makes me think the only difference between a horror and a fantasy is the way it ends. Love your personal philosophy on that.

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                                              • Ha! You could have a point there. I don't really consider myself a horror writer, though much of what I write has horrifying elements. And I can't bring myself to kill the characters I love - I'll put them through horrible things, but hold off killing them :)

                                                Thanks for reading 

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                                              • Hi Lynn. Sorry I'm late to the party on this, but I really liked it overall. It (mostly) held my interest right to the end and I was definitely left wanting the story to continue!

                                                I love the central idea, and I think the ghosts and their effect on Neil are really well drawn. His situation and dilemma and the effect it's had on his life are very believable.

                                                Neil is an excellent example of a flawed protagonist, just the right side of annoying, very relateable and with the obvious potential for growth well signalled. I felt slightly less involved with Caro, but not the point of disliking her, and I suspect she, too, has hidden depths that may be revealed in later chapters.

                                                Some of the descriptions are wonderful; I particularly liked the dead girl's 'kingfisher light'.

                                                It's such a great cliff-hanger last sentence in chapter 1!  😁 

                                                Like others have said, I thought the weakest passage was the journey to York. It felt a little too 'episodic' to me. There's some great relationship and character development stuff in there, but when Neil and Caro were in the service station I confess I wanted the journey to be over at that point. 

                                                With three separate stage on the journey it somehow feels a bit too much when what we're expecting is the action to switch to York in quite short order.

                                                Brandon Sanderson, in one of his excellent YouTube lectures, talks about the author making promises to the reader, and how progress towards the fulfilment of that promise must always be visible to the reader. Any diversion from that journey will tend to alienate them (even when the diversion is interesting and meaningful). In your case, I think the promise you make is that revelation and action will happen when they get to York, and the reader is primed for that. So the journey itself is 'marking time'. He makes the point that sometimes, the answer for the author is not to remove the diversion, but to tweak the promise to incorporate it. So I wonder whether, if the journey to York and the developing relationship between Neil and Caro that happens during it, is set up to be more than just a simple getting from one location to another, it might feel more like a stage  in itself, and one that leads the way to the next development, rather than a diversion. 

                                                The point in the YouTube lecture where he discusses this using an example from his own work is here - https://youtu.be/jrIogch5DBU?t=2800

                                                The writing and the pace is generally terrific, though, and I definitely want to find out more about Davey, Neil and Caro's past and how the story develops. It's a great read!


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                                                • Wow! Thanks so much for this, Jon. So pleased with what you said generally - that Neil's engaging, that you want to read more about the three of them, that the writing and pace are good.

                                                  The consensus seems to be to cut that journey and funnily enough, before I read your comment I'd just cut the service station scene completely. It adds nothing much that isn't said elsewhere. Though I have shown them starting off from Milton Keynes (Neil's first glimpse of the distorted shadows) and reaching the butcher's shop, reinforcing his own guilt over leaving the family home and heritage behind. I'll take another read through before I send it to the agent though, in case I feel I can cut more. I'm tightening everything as I go, obviously.

                                                  Hoping I have time to repost before my 121 in a few weeks, but if not, wish me luck.

                                                  Thanks again for taking the time to read and feedback

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