Dear Miss Snark,
I wrote you once before and you were good enough to answer me. Here I am again, a serial Snarkling.
I have written a historical romance novel and it's currently being rejected by better agents everywhere. But I got to pitch it to an editor at a romance writers convention, and she invited me (and everyone else, I'm sure) to submit, so I did.
It took five months, but she just sent me the nicest rejection letter I've ever gotten.
Thanks very much for the look at TITLE and I’m sorry to say no, because I loved the plot. However, the style throughout was flat and unevocative and often sounded quite contemporary. A good historical should give an impression of its setting that will transport the reader back in time and I just didn’t see that here.
Best of luck, though, and please keep us in mind for future projects. You might want to rework this with the above advice in mind, though, since the plot is fine.
This is definitely the most helpful and most encouraging rejection letter I've ever gotten, and I think the editor is a peach for giving me the feedback. I'm very grateful for that, really, because I know she didn't have to do it.
But - what does it mean, exactly? It's absolutely my intention to do some revision based on her advice, but I'm not quite sure what to do. Flat and unevocative...? Does she mean I should use more flowery language? More descriptions of things, like the clothes, and the settings? More of the period-appropriate vocabulary? Help, please! I’ll make a donation in your name to the Clone George Clooney Now Foundation.
Without seeing the manuscript (and no, you can't send it) I'm going to guess that you describe how things look. You leave out the other senses. That's one thing that makes me say "flat and listless" right off the bat.
Just yesterday I flung myself through the closing doors of a northbound Number 6 train and instantly realized why there were seats to spare on this normally crowded line. Without seeing more than the bare feet of a poor man who was probably very seriously ill with diabetes, I could smell the fact that he was unaquainted with water or soap. It may have been Easter Sunday but my only reaction was to march the length of that train car and stuff myself into the filled to overflowing adjoining one. I was the last in a line of 25 people who made that same march.
I don't have to tell you anything about how it looked for you to get the sense of what that was. Smell is the most overlooked description in novels, and historical novels lend themselves to this quite nicely.
Take another look at your first three chapters. Color code your descriptions based on the five senses and see if you're out of whack.
Then go back and look for cliches. "A shot rang out" makes me stop reading without fail.