The scent of a novel

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.


Anonymous said...

Your poster might want to poke around here: http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/. There is general info on historical fiction of all types, plus links to lots of authors' pages.

Jude Hardin said...

If you stay near someone with a necrotic wound long enough, you start to taste it.

Good advice, Miss Snark.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, Miss Snark, for answering my letter! That's good advice and I'll get right to work.

Anonymous said...

Lovely evocative response :D

I wish more editors of historical fiction were as dedicated as that one was. Flatness is not limited to historicals - it's endemic in some genres - but this author might have been measuring their precious ms against any of the tabletop characters and plain vanilla writing I've come across in published examples of that genre recently.

I've almost given up trying new-to-me historical mystery/romance writers because of (in no particular order) the too-modern language and attitudes, blatant errors involving basic social customs or technology of the ostensible era, and (my personal best peeve) historical settings so fuzzy you can't tell from reading whether it's a late Regency or an early Edwardian (for those who don't read history, it's only an 80-year span, but at a time of tremendous social and technological change in Western society).

Seriously. Why write historicals if the period you're writing about isn't fascinating enough that you want to LIVE there (for at least as long as it takes to complete the novel), never mind do a little research to get the very basics right?

For an example of someone who did it well, try Beverly Graves Myers' Baroque mystery, 'The Painted Veil'. It was more than evocative of the era and the setting. Venice's environs, its dissolute citizens and its convoluted legal obligations of the mid-eighteenth century were essential to the plot. I could SMELL the body that bubbled up in the Grand Lagoon during the royal bridegroom's ceremonial approach.



Anonymous said...

Hey, I went to a romance conference 5 months ago too, and had my historical romance requested by the editor I pitched to, and it too was recently rejected . . . as flat and unevocative.

LOL, a bunch of snarkling friends who helped pick up the pieces probably think that I wrote that! Guys, it wasn't me. I'm suddenly feeling a whole lot better about myself, and the poster of this question should as well.

Suddenly 'flat and unevocative' isn't striking me quite as personally as it was before.

NL Gassert said...

“Sounded quite contemporary” caught my eye. A historical that sounds contemporary won’t be saved by the lavender water the heroine sprinkles on her sheets (or adding sensory detail).

Lots and lots of research should do the trick. Reading a few history books and/or biographies of people in the appropriate time era is a must.

I came across a few modern/contemporary historicals in one of my critique groups. Without fail, those were first novels. Luckily, though, that’s a flaw easily taken care of with a ton of research and a keen eye for modern expressions and colloquialisms.

December Quinn said...

It also sounds like you might want to check for anachronism, especially in the "contemporary sounding" dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to hawk my favorite online critique group again, Critique Circle at http://www.critiquecircle.com

It costs nothing to become a regular member and for helping other writers by critiquing their work, you can submit chapters of your own for review. People there are friendly and honest, and most critiques will contain useful information and advise.

Anyway, check it out and see if you think you can benefit from it. Sometimes, just getting some fresh feedback will be enough for you to see what you need to do.

Good luck.

anon-y-mouse (not my CC nick)

Ms. Librarian said...

Here are the most frequent problems I see in manuscripts (my other job is as a freelance editor):

1. Overuse of the passive voice. That will flatten narrative out in no time! Essentially, it obscures who is doing what, and makes the prose lifeless.

2. Use of the words "things," "its," and "stuff," to describe objects. Using generic words like that is just wasting your word count. You are painting a picture in the minds of your readers, and you want to use words that will draw the picture clearly and evoke feelings about it.

3. In a historical, not knowing anything about the historical period and the culture and customs of the people who lived then. Along with that goes the use of anachronisms.

You want to make the reader believe they are in the historical period you are writing about. If you use a term that doesn't belong, you risk throwing the reader out of that "willing suspension of disbelief" state, i.e., out of the story.

There are other irritants, but those are the big three to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this advice, Miss Snark. One of my pieces was recently workshopped, and one of the criticisms that I received was that they could SEE everything clearly and beautifully, but that was it... they couldn't hear anything, or smell anything, or taste anything. I needed this reminder.

archer said...

Best smell ever for my money is by Huck: "It looked late and it smelt late. You know what I mean."

Amie Stuart said...

>>Why write historicals if the period you're writing about isn't fascinating enough that you want to LIVE there

I have to agree with Anonymous here. I gave up on historicals long ago--not sure why but one thing I do remember is that as a reader, the books I loved were the ones that made me want to BE there (but with A/c & deoderant--kidding!).

Harry Connolly said...

When I hear "flat and unevocative," I think verbs. After coloring in the sense information, the writer might want to take a clean version of her work and highlight all the verbs. Are they active and specific?

Boring verbs make for flat writing.

Anonymous said...

I sort of disagree with Miss Snark. I think her voice wasn't right. Historicals shouldn't sound "contemporary". If you read Jane Austen, you can tell right away that she was not from our time period. Authors who set their pieces in England in the late 1700's will often mimic Austen's "style" without making it wordy (as Austen tends to do.)

BTW, how can the lack of smell feel contemporary?

Gabriele C. said...

Sounds are also often overlooked. Can you imagine living in a world without cars where you can by the sound of hooves and wheels on cobblestones tell if it's a coach and four or a phaeton drawn by one pony? When most people went to bed early to save on candles, nights were more silent. You could hear small rodents rustling in the dry leaves of the orchard and the straw on the threshing floor.

How many people can still tell the songs of different birds apart? Notice how the sounds of a rivulet running over pebbles and stones changes with the amount of water it carries, how the wind howls around the corner of your house when it comes from the north and whistles when it's from the east.

People in former times were more aware of these sounds, the more the further you go back. My 2nd century AD Selgovae use the different times birds sing to measure time.

Considering smells: the smoke of different sorts of wood gives a slightly different smell, and peat smoke is different again, pungent and sweet. Look at where your people live, what sorts of wood are avaliable, pine, birch or oak? In times of syntethic clothes, do you remember the smell of wet wool?

You have to go back in time and mentally live in the culture you choose for your novel, not only see with your character's eyes (that's the easiest part because pictures of material culture are often avaliable), but smell with her nose, listen with her ears, touch with her hands. You may be against wearing furs, your character won't, and she'll be able to tell the difference between fox and hermine (at least if she isn't so poor she never even gets near a sheepskin).

Taste with her tongue as well. Rich people overspiced their food to show off they could afford pepper and ginger, poor people got stuck with salted herring and spelt bread.

Just a few examples, hope it gives you some ideas. :)

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Whenever I read Middlemarch I feel like I've been there, in both place and time. It's because there are a million little details about hair styles and clothes (putting down the middle-aged woman trying to look young by wearing pink bonnet strings), attitudes toward railroads being built, public health, etc. One understands that Eliot didn't write the thing yesterday. But I think that if I were reading a novel about period X, I would try reading a lot of real period literature to get some of the look-and-feel. Expressions people really used, etc.

Unless I was writing, like, Clan of the Cave Bear or something, in which case this would be really hard.

rindawriter said...

Dear Miss Snark: For your readers, I do not advise the usescented Crayola markers. The cheap unscented ones work quite as nicely to mark things up... and don't confuse the senses either....

Anonymous said...

oh oh oh - flat and unevocative does not mean add description - and it certainly doesn't mean flowery language. yes it means use active voice, rather than passive. and yes it means be specific rather than general. ultimately it means evoke rather than describe. it means go easy on the adjectives. it means adverbs are not your friend. it means show don't tell (which is over-used advice that is rarely heeded enough). it means use strong verbs and specific nouns and dialogue that could not possibly have been spoken by any other character in your book (unless they are a twin) to create an image, to carry a scene rather than having to have to use adverbs and adjectives to tell the reader what you what you want us to know - to allow the reader to see what is happening - to say what you want them to hear. as other commenters have said: use other senses than what you see - make us experience the place, the people, the scene, as if we were there - rather than as if we were unable to make it and had to wait to hear it from our best friend who was so sorry we couldn't come they described every detail - and we were left with was a sense that we missed out on the main event.

Bernita said...

Really excellent examples, Gabriele.

Beth said...

To me, flat and unevocative writing has one or more these characteristics:

--passive voice
--lackluster verbs and nouns
--a dearth of specific, vivid details
--emotion missing or mishandled
--bland voice
--no lyricism or imagery
--shallow; no layers or sub-text
--lack of sensory detail

As a cure for the latter, at least, read Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. Not only will this cause you to look at the five senses in a completely new way, but the writing itself is the very antithesis of flat and unevocative.

Bernita said...

And if you want examples of vivid use of verbs see www.clarityofnight.blogspot.com/

Anne Gracie said...

There's an excellent blog article here on how historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick does her research.
It should help you get the feel of how to incorporate historical sensory information from it.