Critiquing my Kindle Scout Editorial Feedback

Perhaps the worst part of being rejected by the Kindle Scout team was that they did it so politely, so encouragingly, so supportively.  I almost wonder if it would have been easier to accept if they had told me they hated my novel.  But for them to tell me they liked it, but didn’t want to publish it, threw me for a huge loop.  How hard is this publishing thing really going to be if good works still get the axe?  How good does “good” have to be? 

-It Hurts So Good-

The editorial feedback is a special Kindle Scout is doing at this time, starting in November 2017 and ending at the end of February 2018.  When you get the email, it starts with “general comments” about the novel and their opinion of it as a whole.  Mine was as follows:

“There is a lot that we like about this novel, and we’re impressed by the positive and pragmatic attitude you express on your blog about the business aspects of pursuing a long-term literary career. You’re definitely the kind of talented and business-conscious author that we at Scout are looking to publish, but we feel that this book needs a few more drafts of developmental and line-editing work for it to reach its commercial and creative potential. You might end up publishing hundreds of novels in your lifetime, but publishing your debut novel is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and so it’s our hope that you’ll invest some more time into this promising novel before you self-publish it or submit it to other publishers or agents.”

Like, ow.  It’s so good it hurts.  They like me.  I’m what they want.  Unfortunately, not enough to give me a chance to tweak my manuscript before rejecting me.  And there I think lies Kindle Scout’s fatal flaw.  If it’s not perfect in their eyes the first time, you get rejected.  I can be a business-orientated person all I want, but if the novel itself isn’t business-orientated then it lacks “commercial potential.”  I’ll discuss it more in a later blog post about marketing a Kindle Scout campaign, but one of the things I talk about is that for all your stats and efforts and investment, it all really seems to boil down to whether you have a good, marketable book.  And after reading this feedback, I’m almost more inclined to narrow that down further to just a marketable book. 

I’ll do my best to talk about the rest of my editorial feedback without spoiling the story, and if it can’t be avoided, to explain something to help you understand the context. 

-You Have a Point-

There are some things they said that I am taking with an open mind and that I will seriously consider changing.  For example, the first thing they critiqued was the fact that I never named the city where the story takes place.  “We can’t really tell if this is a conscious creative decision on your part, and while there are some notable commercially-successful novels where the setting is almost completely undeveloped (Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist comes to mind), in general, bestselling novels have exhaustively developed settings… Giving places proper names makes them feel more real to the reader – even if the places are entirely made-up.”  It’s a very valid point.  And something I did consider.  And yes, it was a creative decision on my part to not name the location.  I’m not saying the way I write is a good way to write, but I oftentimes find myself being vague with locations, and even sometimes character descriptions, because I like to let the reader imagine for themselves anything they want to.  If the location descriptions sound familiar, I let them fill in the blanks and so they maybe even imagine it happening in their own town or some other place they know.  In one first-person short story I wrote, I purposefully did not describe the narrator aside from an approximate age and their gender.  The story was an exploration of myths and beliefs and what they really mean as the character finds himself questioning everything he’s been taught about the gods.  The character could be you – it could be anyone struggling with what they believe in.  Why distract the reader with pointless description of hair and eye color when the reader can imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes?  At least, that was my intention.  Whether it was a wise move on my part, who knows.  And I am going to seriously consider trying to develop the setting of The Un-Life more. 

There were also some other general comments about developing other parts of the story, such as giving Kaylah’s landlord more screen-time.  “This book has very few characters compared to most commercially-successful novels in this genre – which is fine. However, when a book has a relatively small cast of characters, this makes the few named characters seem especially important and memorable, and so it feels a little strange to us that Mrs. Needlemeyer only appears once in whole book.”  This is something I feel like would be easy to implement and I’ll probably do it.  Mrs. Needlemeyer shines in the one scene she did have, and I can see her being a delightful side character like Alyssa.  They also suggested I bring in Alyssa more.  Which I’m honestly not quite as crazy about.  It might distract from the main point as well as slow down the narrative.  I also don’t want Alyssa getting involved in the vampire nonsense not only because it would make the ending harder to wrap up, but the book is laced with secrets and lies and Kaylah keeping the truth of Billy away from her best friend is just another way of representing the multiple layers of friendship and betrayal that are frequently tested throughout the whole book.  And honestly, the only point to Alyssa and the small scene about her parents and the barely mentioned job at the local library only serves to round out Kaylah herself as a person, giving her more of a life than just Billy.  In the larger scope of things, these things are unimportant.  In fact, the story is about William Moore, not Kaylah, hence the title.  Kaylah is only the narrator, like Nick from The Great Gatsby.  Kaylah’s life is already enough distraction from the focus:  William. 

More valid critique is just some general grammar and phrasing that I should work on.  They have a whole list of suggestions from changing the tense somewhere to cutting down on jargon.  I’m mildly annoyed by some of it because I did have the book professionally edited and to miss that much is disappointing.  It's even more annoying when considering that I'd read that if you're selected Kindle Press edits your novel as well before they publish it.  But an invaluable bit of information is that they thought William sometimes talked just a little bit of out character for what his age actually is and pointed out some of the instances where he does this.  I do want to try and do him more justice by placing him correctly in time, and this information is going to really help me fine tune his personality.  I also can’t help but plug in this nice compliment:  “The novel has some really great character development, and we particularly love the fine work you’ve done developing William and Alexandre’s motivations.”  Aww, shucks.  That’s higher praise than I expected.  I almost thought my characters were rather motivation-less or that their motivations were petty or uninteresting.  So thank you.

-Some Wires Seemed to be Crossed-

However, despite my efforts to have an open mind, there’s some things they suggested that I just can’t wrap my head around and that 1) I don’t see being able to implement or 2) would ruin the essence of the story.

The biggest of these suggestions seems to be trying simply to just make the book more action-y, and therefore, more marketable.  To provide a foundation for this discussion with as few spoilers as possible, there is a part of the story where Kaylah reads about a suspicious murder in the newspaper that sounds like it could have been done by a vampire.  The point of this scene is to plant a seed of doubt in Kaylah’s mind, because Billy had failed to meet her that same night, implying that he could possibly be responsible.  That’s it.  That’s the point of the scene.  It’s a relatively small detail is the large scope of the story.  I never even actually confirm if it was even done by a vampire at all, let alone by any character in the book.  Could have just been an old-fashioned human murder that triggered the over-active imagination of a book-lover.  She does seem to jump to conclusions rather readily. 

Somehow, the Kindle Scout editing team latched onto this random murder and thought it should be a bigger deal.  “This would take a massive amount of rewriting, but it would add an extra layer of conflict and tension to the novel if you introduced the [murder] right away, and if Kaylah took it upon herself to try to solve it (preferably with Alyssa’s help) in an effort to A. vindicate her new friend William and B. to put an end to Alexandre’s reign of terror. Doing this would also make Kaylah a more compelling protagonist, and would deepen the reader’s appreciation for her loyalty as a good friend and a heroic person who rights wrongs.” 

So…you want to totally change the genre to be a crime thriller?  You want little Kaylah Rhodes, homebody English major, to team up with her History major best friend, Alyssa, to solve a random murder that may or may not actually be involved with vampires when they have no experience or interest in criminology and would probably turn up with nothing or just get in the cops way?  I work at a police department.  Granted, I’m “civilian support,” but I get to see first-hand how cops investigate deaths.  And they don’t get help from random vigilantes.  It’s all movie magic stuff.  And most people that call about crime tips can’t even provide vehicle descriptions, let alone any real evidence.  Kaylah and Alyssa are basically scholars, not adventurers, and even if William himself joined in on the investigation, he’s made it very clear he’s not a fighter and doesn’t like to get involved.  He’d rather avoid a problem than dive head first into it.  This whole massive change wouldn’t bother me so much if the novel was already mostly on its way to being a crime thriller, or even a mystery, but that’s just not what the story is.  It has its genre, I submitted it as that genre, and it fits well within the genre it’s supposed to be.  It’s like trying to compare apples and oranges.  They’re different, and both valid in their own ways. 

They go even further to suggest I open with the murder.  “…We suggest that you start the book with a prologue chapter of a graphic third-person narrative of [the] murder, as this will immediately plunge the reader into one of the book’s main plot elements.”  Ha, main plot elements.  That’s funny.  What story were you reading?  Again, the murder was supposed to be chump change; it’s not a murder mystery.  The main plot element is whether or not William is telling the truth.  Whether or not he’d a bad guy.  Then enter in other possible contestants for the role of bad guy, all trying to distract Kaylah from what is really going on.  My story may not be a crime thriller, but I do make a lot of attempts at creating suspense in blurring the line between truth and theory.  Everything – everything –the side characters opinions and actions, the murder, the failure to show up on time, the arguments and the secrets, only serve the purpose of creating conflict in Kaylah and William’s friendship.  That’s it.  There’s no other motive there.  Maybe I’m not opening myself up to the potential of a bigger picture, but that was my intention in writing it the way I did.  The murder is no more important than a boyfriend coming home late and the girlfriend suspecting him of cheating because her friend told her she saw him at his ex's house.  It’s just conflict; who are you going to believe, and how is that going to affect your relationship?

And as far as opening with more of a “bang,” I’ll give you that one.  I could start out with something more interesting, but it isn’t going to be an unimportant murder.  Maybe a nightmare or a forgotten memory trying to resurface or displacing a scene that happens later and put it at the front.  I attempted to make my hook a mystery to make the reader want to keep reading to find out what she’s implying.  But I do feel like I linger a little bit too long on the mystery and should jump into the action a little faster.  Or just change up the beginning totally with one of those other ideas.

-Some Things Are More Important-

I am really, really bummed out I was rejected, but I am thankful for all the information.  I feel like I understand the publishing world a little better.  I dare to let myself feel good that this giant corporation likes my drive and has hope for my novel.  That maybe I really can do this author thing, even though this rejection is a setback.  It makes me want to keep trying. 

But it also makes me think that maybe the traditional publishing route just might not be the right path for The Un-Life of William Moore.  Big publishing companies wants to make a story sell even if it makes the story generic.  My story is a message I’m trying to tell my readers, and changing core pieces of the story would distract from or even mess up that message.  I do want to make a career out of being an author; I want to be able to make a profit.  But I’m not going to deliver what I think is a sub-par product just to profit.  I want to send a message, and I’m not sacrificing the meaning for money.

I’m going to keep true to myself, my morals, and my message, and I won’t sell out just to get sold.  I’ll do it the hard way and self-publish if it means I get to keep my soul.

You missed out on a good investment, Amazon.

-Dana Lockhart

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