Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sample Editorial Letter #1 Non-fiction

Editorial Sample #1 for non-fiction/memoir/travelogue

First, I want to say that I enjoyed reading this. I did end up with a lot of questions that I’m sure can be easily answered and incorporated into the manuscript. There are a few inconsistencies, unclear points, some typos and misspellings (no biggie), and issues with the structure. I will cover everything here.

It is obvious that this is written by an educated, well traveled, fun spirited man, but there isn’t really a clue how old you are when you traveled to Guatemala. Also, the timeline on the entire manuscript can use help. I’m not sure when you arrived in Guatemala or when it was that you left.

Also, you’re not clear on why you’re there or the real purpose of the trip. In the beginning you state that you are traveling in order to be published (pg 8) but it’s never stated what you published (is it this manuscript?). Were you there to learn Spanish or to study architecture? I understand that you are a professor of architecture and went in search of the Garifuna and the Mayan sites but you never really cover any of this in the manuscript. You do tell the story of the hellish trips to the ruins but the rest of it focuses generally on Xela exclusively.

In the beginning I thought this was a fun romp but then you took a turn talking about how you needed to be published, etc and I thought that it was going to be more serious. To override this confusion perhaps it would be better to state the purpose of the book in the early stages. The intro sets the tone for the book and you should be clear when you talk about being published, etc., that this is for work but you have every intention of living it up.

When does all of this take place? You mention several years ago but never clearly say what year. You mention that you’re forty-ish now, but were you then? Also, I had a picture of a white boy with sandy hair (pg 3),the description of you in Poland. But it quickly shifted to a very tall, dread-locked black man upon your arrival in Guatemala. Initially I thought it was written by a black man, then thought I was wrong after I read you had sandy colored hair, then I converted you into a sandy haired, dread locked white man until you mentioned the color of your skin. A lot of the story relies on the fact that you are African American so you should make it clear early. It’s just confusing, is all.

The manuscript has flow issues, without a timeline guiding the reader through the days, weeks, months of your visit; it’s difficult to follow along. Often the manuscript feels like vignettes strung together without rhyme or reason. We need back story to connect the vignettes together more comprehensively. Why are you at the school? How long did you stay with teacher #1 before teacher #2 showed up? How long were you with her? How long was the entire trip? You had weekends off to travel and explore, yes? Where you still in the school when you left for the temples? Did you stay with the host family after classes ended and traveled? Why did you decide to learn Spanish? Didn’t the school take away from the purpose of your trip to Guatemala (which I thought was to explore Mayan temples)? These are a few questions that can contribute to the back story and the timeline.

You mention many people while you’re there, and it’s difficult to keep track of the minor characters. Often authors will draw composite characters of several people to keep the names to a minimum and to help with the characterization. I kept referring back into early stories to see if a person had been mentioned earlier. The only consistent people were the Josefina and the rest of the family, as well as a few drinking buddies. I know these are real people but the stories are short and it’s hard to really keep track. Perhaps if you re-introduce the characters when they reappear in the story it could cut down on the confusion.

Jumping from one story to another without a introduction breaks the flow of the manuscript. This is another reason where a timeline will come in handy. You jump from one story to another without giving an indication of how you arrived at that particular juncture in your trip. I have pointed out examples.

The historical information is really fascinating and really adds much to the manuscript. However, you often begin a story and then break away from it to give long descriptions of history or former travels or personal memories only to jump back to the original story to complete it. Often the break away information was so long I forgot what the original story had been and had to refer back to the beginning to catch up. This can be easily fixed by either giving the history/information before hand and then telling the story you want to tell OR setting the story up briefly, giving the information/history, reintroducing the original story and completing it. I have pointed out examples.

The story is very interesting and often funny, but on occasion you take too long to tell it. Building suspense is crucial, I understand, but at points it doesn’t work and the manuscript needs a little tightening. Nothing fatal, just a portion here and there. I have pointed out examples. You can be a little wordy and have a meandering style that more than often works but at times does not. Also, you are funny over all, however there are parts where the references are to obscure and it seems like you’re trying too hard.

The chatty tone works well throughout but some places it’s too familiar. Stating, ‘dear reader’ (pg 5) distracts from your writing. It makes it sound like you’re writing FOR a reader to impress, rather than for yourself and you’re just clever. People like to read travelogues to they can be armchair participants, as if they are voyeuristically traveling along with you – to draw them in and to point out that you know they are there distracts from that. I called a travel editor from Barnes and Nobel to ask about this point and he confirmed it. I’ve crossed out some of the more familiar points but the call is entirely yours, of course.

What is the purpose of the A, B, C, D, etc at the start of each chapter? Also, you have Episodio Uno, Dos, Tres, etc. The ABCD are out of order at the end and stop around N without some of the letters so I’m not sure where you were going with that. Just an FYI.

Throughout the manuscript you switch from Maya to Mayan: using one or the other for some of the same references throughout. I could not verify the correct use of one in particular as both seem acceptable. I changed most to Mayan for consistency, but left several that Maya just seemed more appropriate. Of course, if you know the correct way of using Maya vs. Mayan ignore my markings!

The use of hyphens is overkill. It chops up the sentences and makes it difficult to read. This is a common affliction in writers – I do it myself. However, I rearranged several sentences (not all or a great abundance as I did not want to change your voice) so the flow was better. For example: It is, generally speaking, rather than break up the sentence, better to just say it out straight. The easier version: Generally speaking, it is better to just say it out straight than break up the sentence. You have a tendency to write in the style of the first. Sometimes it works; sometimes it is too choppy, making the sentence too long and run-on. You may want to reconsider some of the longer sentences for this particular reason. I’ve pointed out a few examples. Also, in lieu of a hyphen I have changed most to em-dashes, brackets, or commas.

Also, my final major point: you are too hard on yourself. It’s clear that you are not dumb, lazy or a goof ball, but you call yourself these things (and worse). I know it’s done for humor but sometimes it’s too self depreciating. When it works: when they climbed over you at the temple. When it doesn’t work: the very beginning: the opening paragraph.

The introduction is good. It starts in the middle of Guatemala in on of your more amusing moments. You then go on to tell the story of how you arrived there and the rest of your travels. However, I would have told the story of your last night at the bar before the story of Pablo. Page 238 and the sentence: And at $500, it’s a downright steal. makes for a better ending that you drunk out of your mind and stumbling home. It’s more upbeat and retrospective. I passed the two storylines along to two other editors, both men in their 40’s and both chose Pablo’s story for the ending. To quote one: To end on a positive note which capsulated his emotions over the people and the place is more effective. I agree. Of course the choice is up to you.

You switch tenses often which I have changed.

Here are the page by page notes that I made as I went along. Just an FYI: the last fifty pages came out longer than the original page count. This is due to my computer which likes to convert things to its own liking. So those 50 pages may not be in sync with the manuscript pages you have.

Page 2: use of active voice is better. Could have told – changed to would tell is more direct and effective. This applies throughout.

Page 7: first issues with Maya vs. Mayan.

Page 19: “I’m a cat who - pardon the pun -digs old cities”. Three issues: It is a choppy sentence, uses hyphen instead of commas, and is a bit dated (cat is very 1950’s)

Page 13: what is the purpose of this bit? It’s distracting and doesn’t add anything to the story. We’re on page 13 and there hasn’t been any travel yet. This is a travelogue but it’s taking too long to get into the actual reason for the book. As stated above - you need to hammer out the idea of the manuscript, implement it and hook your reader early

Page 17: Getting to the ‘Q’: is this the purpose of the A, B, C, etc? If so, Q is not reached in the chapters. Easily fixed.

Page 17: are Otto Rene Castillo and Jesus Castillo related?

Page 20: is Luis the director? This needs clarification. Also, the sentence: Kinda sounds all Charles Dickensy, doesn’t it? is too familiar.

Page 23: …a dropped-egg-on-your-good-shoes away from a heart guffaw – I don’t’ get it? What do you mean?

Page 25: Too much backstory – are you in Guatemala? What does this have to do with your travels? Where is the story of your arrival, etc? Although this is interesting it’s not in the right place. A transition or set up needs to be in place here.

Page 26: When you state ‘we foreigners’ it’s too generic. Do you mean Americans, or just non-Mayan?

Page 27: The song Walk Like an Egyptian only refers to the depictions of the hieroglyphics and the common man’s interpretation of how they ‘walked”. Egyptians are not known for walking any great lengths, really. So this seems a bit out of place (or I’m just being to nit-picky)

Page 18: first tense change.

Page 36: thoughts are usually set in italics. Just an FYI.

Page 27: How could you be shocked that you had gained so much weight – weren’t your clothes tight?

Page 39: No need to say: Let me tell you why. It is implied that you are going to do just that.

Page 40: more examples of the familiar voice.

Page 42: what are landinos, indiginos, and extrajeros?

Page 43: What does it look like? A description adds color and texture to the story.

Page 46: Is this a person or a mask? The description isn’t really clear. I was confused for a while there and reread this portion a few times but didn’t figure it out until later.

Page 49: When did you arrive at a bullring? I missed that.

Page 51: Again, it’s unclear what’s happening. Pull yourself out of the story and try to read it as if you were not there and trying to figure it out. What are the actors doing? Why did you go stiff and the crowd wild? What happened?

Page 52: What happened to Scott? Did you leave him behind?

Page 56: Why doesn’t Roberto have shoes?

Page 57: how is this pea-green? I thought he was eating plantains.

Page 58: Where was Carlito?

Page 59: Why were they crammed in the front? Where are you going? This is a bad time to break the story. There needs to be a transition. You do not return to this original story for another six pages – that is too long.

Page 65: The description isn’t really clear. Where were you standing?

Page 68: The familiar voice again.

Page 75: Again, a break in the story – what does this have to do with Guatemala? Needs to be qualified.

Page 79: What is the first-person past tense of the verb ‘to lay’?

Page 81: a large chunk here is not necessary.

Page 83: Here is a bad break. You are getting to the crux of the story and you suspend it for many pages. What you need is a transition to state that you are about to tell Jeremy’s story of Chet Baker, otherwise it is disjointed and doesn’t make sense for a long time.

Page 84: shed light that July is winter

Page 91: Another tense change.

Page 92: Is Antigua the capital? This needs clarification.

Page 93: In the same sentence you have the number 8 in numerals and the number ten spelled out. For consistency change one.

Page 94: You make a reference to Al Roker being large. He lost a lot of weight several years ago. Perhaps you can change it to someone else well known for their girth: Al Roker pre-2003?

Page 96: This is very interesting stuff why not focus on some of these events in the manuscript? Did you go to any of them?

Page 96: How much time has passed since the last teacher?

Page 97: Not everyone will know who Ann Sullivan was. You’ll need to reference Helen Keller.

Page 100: You leave the main story for four pages. Another bad break.

Page 102: getting farther from the original story….

Page 104: She needs to be reintroduced. It has been too long since you first mentioned the dancing.

Page 105: You can’t dance with old people – why? Because she’s too good? Seems like you held your own here. Did she not teach you well enough? What seems to be the problem, other than you getting exhausted?

Page 106: The title of the last bit was “Spanglahdeutche” so this seems out of place. Why not head this story Spanglahdeutche and the other Singing in the Pain?

Page 107: Georgina is not someone you’ve mentioned before.

Page 108: oh – okay.

Page 108: There has been no mention this being similar to a chess game so this ‘Check’ doesn’t make sense here.

Page 113: You mention here, on page 103, one of your primary reasons for coming to Guatemala – this should be mentioned early on. As stated above, I was not sure why you were really here.

Page 124: Familiar voice here too.

Page 125: Ah – the story from the opening scene. Now it all makes sense. Excellent.

Page 126: We need a repeat of the original scene.

Page 131: You have an intro here that is too familiar. It’s also redundant as the reader knows you’ve set the scene.

Page 136: EF Hutton silence? I recall something about the old EF Hutton adds but didn’t quite get this reference.

Page 139: Is this after you left the bar? After the story telling or another night? Timeline needed here.

Page 142: The last few entries seem like unrelated vignettes – they need to be tied together with a timeline and a point.

Page 147: I don’t understand: where you accepted? Were people staring? Was this the trip from the bar or another walk? What’s the purpose of this bit? I think it’s interesting information and a draw but I’m not sure how it fits into this bar scene.

Page 149: You’ve broken away from the main story, leaving the reader hanging.

Page 152: I’m not sure where you’re going with all of this. I’m still waiting for the dinner table debate from page 149.

Page 156: Too big a jump: it has been seven pages sine the dinner table scene. You need to re-introduce and set the scene back up – or rewrite it entirely to weave the stories together.

Page 157: Not clear what has happened here. How is dinner so fulfilling?

Page 161: I forgot the reason you’re in Guatemala is for the Mayan cities – maybe you can reinstate that fact here.

Page 175: Did I miss something? When did a little 8-year old girl come on the scene?

Page179: Is this the same girl?

Page 184: You’re awfully hard on yourself here.

Page 185: Italicize movie and book titles.

Page 190: The header is O. You’ve missed L, M & N. M is on page 222 and labeled “Once”. N is on page 239 and labeled “Doce”. They are out of order it should be L M N O. Also – should it go up to Q? There is no P or Q. Is there a reason? Am I way off in my thinking here?

Page 214: How far down are you? You need to indicate how much farther you need to go to reach the ground to give the reader some idea of time and effort. Right now if feels like you’re on a never ending, treadmill of a pyramid.

Page 217: Where is the Star Tribune published?

Page 221: Much too hard on yourself.

Page 228: Are Stacy and Guerra still living there? Is this meant to be present tense?

Page 242: Were you ever able to tell your Habitat story?

Page 245: This is a bit muddled – I’m having a hard time following what exactly is going on here.

Page 245: You say PM do you mean AM for the closing time?