Feedback (Part 2 of 3)

Despite Felicia Eth’s suggestion about We Take Care of Our Own (available via Montag Press later this year) being perhaps better suited for a small press, I didn’t start querying the smaller houses right away. Big dreams die hard, after all, and back in 2015 I was still clinging to the notion/fantasy that one of the “Random Houses of the world” would recognize the marketability—nay, the necessity—of a “dark vision” novel geared toward making a statement about war and our involvement in it. But, as reality tided in, I began querying places like Graywolf and Other Press (but not Graywolf or Other Press; Graywolf doesn’t look at unagented submissions and Other Press doesn’t consider unsolicited submissions).

It was in July 2019 that I queried a small publisher that went by the name Aethon Books. After a couple of weeks and a round of mildly intrigued-sounding questions (“Would you say this book has an anti-military stance, or is sympathetic?”), Aethon requested the whole manuscript. A week or so later, they sent me this:

Hi Chris, Meant to email you. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to pass on this project even though we believe it has potential. We actually had a very successful veteran / author read this, who we work a on lot of submissions with, and his feelings aligned with our, but we were close on this. He actually was awesome enough to provide a great deal of feedback, which we worked our own into. It’s a clean list of items now.

–Firstly, my compliments. Of the submissions I am asked to read on behalf of Aethon, this is one of the first few I have felt moved to complete a full read on.

However, it is with a heavy heart that I must offer my rejection. I do wish to give some feedback as to how I came to that decision, rather than a simple rejection, in the hope that it is of some value to you.

1. Although you have pitched this as a Military SF, and in fact in the broadest sense, it is. Aethon’s core audience is toward the more ‘Pew pew pew’ end of that market.

2. As an expansion of the above point, if I were your agent or developmental editor, I would wish to see a rewrite into a contemporary thriller. While the psychological explorations are undoubtedly cutting edge, ultimately there is no reason this story should force itself into the much smaller SF market, when it could be positioned in a much larger contemp Military Thriller. Things like ‘The Cup’ (The internet – and actually I’d want to change the name ‘cup anyway as that’s the name of a groin guard in sport), driverless cars, and vague mentions of a war in Tasmania are easily overcome. You are self-limiting this book, and for no good reason.

3. This book covers some truly important themes in PTSD and the effects of war. And it tragically subverts some expectations – although with little pay off – In regards to Sergeant Sparrow especially. I understand there is a fine line balancing his conclusion, however I was left wanting some more closure on him, and not in a good way. I needed the link tightening between his outwardly odious and nasty nature, and the horror of his past. It comes across that we simply forget about him on the failure of his mission.

4. The first 25% was solid and gripping, and the last 25% moved at pace… however I found my reading slowing down in the middle 50%. When I reflect on this, I cannot recall much significant happening here other than Boxer and Sparrow’s ongoing therapy, and Linda’s descent. It feels long and cumbersome, and I get why… because that is how the therapy would go. In terms of readability though, it comes across as a pacing issue. When it takes me a day to get through the first 25%, a day to get through the last 25% and two weeks to get through the middle… then that is a flag to me that some development needs to be done in that section.

5. On the note of the central themes, I am concerned around the perception of it among Aethon’s huge proportion of military and vets. This is good, as it shows it to be a challenging book. It makes it difficult in terms of how it would be pitched. Even if Aethon disregard my advice, I would strongly recommend that this is put before a large collection of Vet beta readers to ensure the tone and surrounding marketing is right.

6. Again, reflecting on 5, this book is mostly from the perception of the antagonist, Linda, ‘brainwashing’ our hero, Boxer, into doing an act of terrorism. It is only, ultimately, his simple strength of character and good nature that means he overcomes this. I think a little more could be done to tease this out. Ambiguity is sometimes good… but in the case of this challenging book, I would like Boxer’s heroism to shine a little more brightly at the conclusion. This would help defeat any criticism from those who might only ‘speed read’ without giving deeper thought to the book’s themes and lend more sympathy to the military characters.

I hope these points are of some use to you. I cannot emphasise enough that I felt this was an excellent book – and I genuinely think if placed with a publisher who can better direct it to its natural audience, it would enjoy massive success. —

Not exaggerating when I say there were tears in my eyes by the time I reached the end of this note, and not because I was bummed out about they’re not accepting my manuscript. The tears in my eyes were tears of joy and relief, the joy and relief of feeling finally seen after years of “Dear Author” rejections and outright omission. There’s a common, not terribly clever term many writers use to capture the toil and frustration involved in the submission process: banging one’s head against the wall. Aethon’s feedback—in a rejection!—was as if some kind soul had tired of watching me bang my head against the wall, walked over, laid a gentle hand on my shoulder, and told me I could stop.

But on top of the emotional catharsis that Aethon’s feedback provided, it also lent me insight into how I might go about cutting the wordcount of what at that time was still a 100,000-plus-word novel. (For those not in the know, the typical wordcount of a debut novel published by “the Random Houses of the world” is around 80,000 words, though sci-fi and fantasy are known to run a little longer. This rule of thumb is pretty well entrenched in the industry, as far as I can tell, and many mainstream agents and publishers consider any manuscript submission running over 80,000 words to be an automatic dealbreaker, and any query touting such a doorstop the ideal candidate for immediate deletion. (By the way, To Kill a Mockingbird, quite possibly the most successful American debut novel of the 20th century, runs 100,388 words. Just sayin’.) That part about the saggy, not-particularly-memorable 50 percent in the middle? I took care of that, somewhat, shaving off somewhere around 10,000 words. I’m still not at the magic 80,000 words, but that’s OK, since the very next day after Aethon’s response, San Francisco-based Montag Press shot me me a quick email asking whether We Take Care of Our Own was still available. Why, yes, I said, yes it is. A week or so later, they sent an acceptance.

But wait, there’s more! Feedback (Part 3 of 3) is coming soon…