To Beth Esda
From the editors at Storyworks Publishing
Dear Ms Esda,
Thank you for submitting your novel “Skyrim” for our consideration. As a work of fiction it is breathtaking in its scope and ambition. The sheer number of characters alone is truly impressive. We feel, however, that it is simply not publishable in its current form and needs some substantial rewriting before we could even begin to consider offering you a contract.
First of all, the issue of your characters being first identified and then divided so crudely along racial and gender lines. This kind of blatant profiling hasn’t been seen in the novel as a genre for a very long time and frankly it’s embarrassing. As is the fact that every one of your major characters is a peak physical specimen who lives only to hack and slash. Lots of characters, yes. Lots of variety and subtlety in the characters? No.
Secondly, are you acquainted with the cinematic concept of the jump cut? It isn’t really necessary to chronicle every single step of your protagonist’s journey from place to place. You need to condense the action. Skip over the long episodes of getting somewhere. After all, how many hours of their lives do you really expect your readers to devote to this one story? People have other things to do. They want a novel they can take with them to the beach, not a novel that will make beach, vacation, family and life disappear. Even Tolstoy, in a book as enormous as War and Peace, knew when to pass over certain events and summarize stuff that wasn’t essential to his characters.
Thirdly, we're sure you’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” We suggest that in order to be a gripping and successful story, your novel, so rich and teeming with (certain kinds of) details, should actually strive to give a reader less.
What do we mean by that counterintuitive idea? Consider: your protagonist roams about the land, looking for work and gathering the facts and objects he needs to fulfill his various missions in life. Every once in a while he stops to talk to someone who readily provides him with new information. Or he stops and reads a book that’s conveniently lying around and gathers some truly boring backstory about stuff that happened a long time ago. It’s all so linear and plodding and devoid of true drama or tension.
In your query letter you pointed out with obvious pride that your novel is innovative because it is so highly interactive, and in a certain sense we agree. One can immerse oneself in your fictional world in a way that’s not possible with ordinary stories made of mere words on the page. But this immersion isn’t true participation. As readers we’re only compelled to go on by a set of external conflicts and difficulties that need to be overcome. And every time things begin to drag, which is often, the plot throws in yet another dragon.
You must find a way to allow the reader to truly participate in the lives of your characters, and the best way to do that is through what you don’t give them. You should familiarize yourself with Hemingway’s iceberg principle. The notion that most of what’s going on in a story, most of what really matters, is happening beneath the surface, in what’s not said directly. Subtext. Implication. Hidden motivations. Unspoken desires.
That’s the territory your novel will need to explore if it’s going to become a gripping and compelling story that will engage a reader’s intellect and heart. Readers want to participate in making meaning, not have it handed to them or search for it in vain if it isn’t there. You must allow them to bring their own wit, imagination and energy to your story. Otherwise they’re just passive absorbers of whatever you hand them, like babies being fed easily-digestible mush. We sincerely doubt there can be many readers out there who are looking for such an infantile experience.
One small point before we finish. Your title: it doesn’t suggest anything. It has no hook. It announces nothing. It doesn’t entice. To bring in Tolstoy again, a reader had a pretty good idea of what to expect from a book called War and Peace.
And that brings us to our final, but perhaps largest concern. What is your novel about? We’re not trying to be disingenuous here. We really don’t know. So many things happen in this novel, so many characters are introduced and then killed. So many hoards and crypts are plundered. So many skills acquired. So many dragons destroyed. And for what? Your protagonist remains the same muscled lump of unreflecting aggression near the end that he was at the beginning (we say near because frankly we couldn't finish your book. It seemed endless and we have many other manuscripts to get to). So we ask: do you have anything to say to readers? Is there an overarching vision here of what the world is, or could be?