Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Frontlist

Times in an author's life, there's no point in having any pride. The Frontlist seems like a good idea, says Fessing Author. That's what I thought too.

Like Fessing Author, I wasn't a new writer, but I emailed Tom Lodge, who runs the scheme, and got the go-ahead to put something up.

First the synopsis. This is really important, the site tells you, so important that they provide you with guidelines. I look at the guidelines. A synopsis should be all about plot and story, they tell me. It should be written in the style of the novel and should include a flavour of the dialogue. I scratch my head. This doesn't quite sound like the kind of summing-up paragraph I know most publishers and agents prefer (and anyone else, surely). I email Tom again. Is he looking for something longer or something shorter? Tom says it's all early stages yet, and it's really up to me but he thinks something that an agent would like sounds best. But he also says that on the other hand it might be a good idea to write something my peers would like, and some people have been marked down for not making their synopses long or detailed enough.

I scratch my head again. I compromise. I write as short a synopsis as I can while trying to outline a ridiculously complex and psychological story and include a sense of the (fluctuating) voices of the novel.

I post up my submission, synopsis included.

Straightaway I get five pieces to critique. Each piece has to be given a mark out of 5 on each of several criteria. Firstly Syntax, which to my surprise is explained as spelling, punctuation, grammar etc, and which - although I know that writers who can't do the basics mostly can't come up with the bigger stuff - seems a rather nit-picking and superficial approach to establish in beginning to look at a novel. Next Concept which we are told we should judge via the synopsis. Well now, I can see that a synopsis might indicate that a novel has a good shape, etc, but just because it fails to do that doesn't mean a novel hasn't: as anyone in the business knows, a synopsis is one of the most difficult things to write, and the person it's most difficult for is the author, so necessarily close to the subtleties (why would you write a novel if you could sum it up in a paragraph - or a page or two, as some of these synopses run to?). So I'm not so sure about the idea of at least one fifth of the marks being based on the synopsis, about which there seemed to be some confusion in the first place...
Then the last three: Originality, Intelligence, Readability. Nothing about narrative thrust or characterisation (though later characterisation was introduced), nothing about voice. And the explanations of some of these categories seem confusingly to cut across each other...

Now to look at the work I must critique. Well, I've done a lot of critiqueing of work at all sorts of levels, and I am sorry to say that some of the pieces were not, shall we say, of the best I have ever seen. I am pretty used as a teacher to commenting constructively on people's less-than-good work (I am being euphemistic here), but on this occasion my heart sinks, because what I am doing with my comments - and the marks which I must in all honesty give them - is denying them their goal in entering this scheme, being passed to a publisher. No way can I bring myself to use the word which comes to mind about one of them: 'semi-literate'. But there is one good one, thank goodness, pretty brilliant actually, and with relief I can say so and give the author practically full marks.

It all seems a bit embarrassing, I think. Professionals pitted against would-bes, and let's face it, never-will-bes...

Ha! Here's my come-uppance, my own critiques. Sparse dismissive comments, eg 'Waffelly' (sic); I am told that there is nothing original, complex or insightful about my novel, several times I am told that my 'syntax' is poor, I am pulled up for my 'improper' sentences (by which the reviewer doesn't mean indecent), and my narrator's use of the word 'caff' (for cafe) is marked down as a spelling mistake of my own. I'm even told that at one point my novel is 'a bit illiterate'. And it's the synopsis they really have it in for: some tell me it's too long, others that it's not detailed enough (and all the time its 'syntax' is faulty). Not all of my reviewers are negative, there's one who gives me almost full marks, but even he/she feels obliged to take marks off for my synopsis.

Crumbs. (No doubt they'd tick me off for that verbless sentence.)

And the overall results? Well, some of the ones I didn't rate did a whole lot better than me...

3 comments:

Amanda Mann said...

What a disappointment. Thanks for the warning. Time is so precious.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, Tom did keep insisting that it was early days, and I know he's trying all the time to improve the system. As I say, even the critique categories changed halfway through my own piece being assessed. Still...

Adrian said...

Like I said to you, I gave up on this when "a chapter" had to be 1500 words. Five yrs ago I was involved with a peer-review online writing group which was really good; but you got a bit bored after a while of reading same-y stuff, (they were all Americans the internet being a new thing in Britain then!). I'm glad you persevered, but I gave up when the first thing I read was like something that had been written by a computer - there was no point in writing proper comments because the whole piece was diabolical. I've read everything from 2nd language asylum seekers to Oxford PhDs, and yet this was unreviewable. I feel you may have had a similar experience.