Sunday, June 2, 2013

Judy's Reading of "The Reluctant Spy"

In my May 5 posting, I shared with you the first response of a friend—July Healey—to the manuscript for The Reluctant Spy. Judy is an established writer of two historical novels published by HarperCollins to excellent reviews. In April, she offered to read my manuscript when I told her the beginning of the novel was giving me trouble. Last Saturday, she sent me the following e-mail:        

I think The Reluctant Spy is a terrific story and you have told it well. Everything I have to say is embroidery. You have well developed characters and a strong plot line. . . . You have done a wonderful job here. Best, Judy

But a fine editor—like the one I had back in December whose sound advice enabled me to delete 9,000 words and tighten the story line—does more than simply give an overview of her first response to the manuscript. Truly gifted writers and editors find what doesn’t work and suggest solutions. And Judy knows what to look for. On Wednesday, I received the following in-depth comments from her about the first 86 single-spaced pages:

Plot and character: 
Several strains feed the animosity of Daniel and Ephraim and, to a lesser extent, Ephraim and Yeshua—or rather Ephraim for Yeshua. The first case seems based on Daniel’s childhood envy of his father’s pride in Ephraim and the betrayal of Ephraim by studying the Pharisaic tradition rather than Sadducean and his concealment of this. For me, the character of each of these men and their relationship forms the core of the story. 

However, it’s taken me some time to piece this together. What would have helped me earlier is the following:
·      Clear understanding from the outset of the difference between the two traditions.
·      Understanding the relationship of Daniel’s father to Ephraim: How had he come to live with the family? Why was Daniel’s father paying for Ephraim’s education? How could he not know where Ephraim was studying if he was paying the fees?
·      Clear understanding early on (rather than much later) of how Daniel and Ephraim parted.
·      What, exactly, is Ephraim’s relationship to Daniel now? In some scenes he seems excessively obsequious, although once in a while he musters the character to challenge Daniel. Ephraim is awfully tough on God but can’t stand up to Daniel. I think, especially early on, there should be more resistance on the part of Ephraim.
·      Daniel is the most interesting character in the book to me, so far, although the portrait of Yeshua is fascinating. Yet Daniel seems relentlessly vicious. Why?
·      I expected more of a reaction when Daniel tells Ephraim that it was his testimony that led directly to John’s death. I think you should do a little more with that scene.

Herod's Temple at the time of Yeshua.

Bridging your knowledge of the times with the readers’ ignorance:
  • You are steeped in the times and the words of the times but your reader is not. Every historical fiction writer faces this challenge and we each address it in our own way. One way is to have a glossary of terms so the reader can flip back when she comes upon an unfamiliar term
  • Another is to add more description when you use an unfamiliar term. “Jasper ring” for instance. We don’t care that you know the right word. We want to see it. Describe it for me now and I’ll continue on in the story. But without the description, I’m only faced with the fact that you have esoteric knowledge that I don’t have and I am annoyed and halted in my reading. “Tamarisks.” What are they? What do they look like?
  • Most of these words can be embroidered with little effort. Honor your reader’s ignorance rather than displaying your knowledge of the time.
  • But the larger problem is that of helping the reader early on understand the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees and, by understanding, enter into the tribal world these characters inhabit. This is core to the story.
  • It’s really good Dee. I know it will be published. But that strategy is another story!

             Judy has now sent me her comments written on the margins of the first 86 pages. When she completes her reading, I’ll get busy determining which of her suggestions work for me. But already I can see that I need to work on delineating relationships and making Ephraim more believable. I’ll share more with you as I receive Judy’s comments. Peace.