I'm reblogging this piece again, for various reasons.
It was one of my most popular blog posts ever (this and the post on an older blog about how much I hated my memory foam mattress, which fortunately has gone the way of all useless things, the mattress, not the post.)
My blog has a whole lot of new followers, so I figured some of them might be interested, especially the writers among us.
My novel Bird of Passage, which was inspired by my love of Wuthering Heights, is now out in paperback, as well as being available as an eBook.
Back when I was struggling with agents, and unresponsive publishers, this popped into my mind, although by the time I wrote it, I was traditionally published by the excellent Saraband, and with the most helpful editor possible. So if Sara and Ali are reading this, I don't mean you!
But for some of us, I know it remains as true as ever. I recently heard a little tale about one of Scotland's finest writers. I'd better not name him, but take it from me, he is - albeit not in an obvious blockbuster way - one of the UK's finest, most readable and thought provoking writers of fiction. He had had a submission turned down by a young intern who clearly didn't know enough to know how little they knew. I was gobsmacked. I thought 'what hope is there for the rest of us?' And then I went back to this. Hope it cheers you up too.
The Humongous Book Group
'Our mission is to be market focused above all things.'
Thank-you for letting us see the completed draft of your novel, Wuthering Heights. I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you, but as you will see, your manuscript was involved in a process which takes some considerable time.
First of all, can I say that I enjoyed your book. Unfortunately, I was not, at this stage, able to carry our sales department with me. We have therefore sent it to our in-house team of ‘beta readers’. This is a new concept even for us here at Humongous Publishing. It involves a team of interns who act as a kind of focus group. They read new fiction for us in their free time, and offer helpful suggestions. We call them ‘The Beta Bunch’ or sometimes ‘The Critters’. You don’t have to take any of these ideas on board, but if you can put your natural ego to one side for a while, and think of the good of the novel as a whole, you may start to see things our way.
Below is a list of editorial suggestions collated from the Beta Bunch, Sales & Marketing and my own feedback. As I’m sure you realise, in the current publishing climate, sales predictions must be exceedingly optimistic for Marketing to allow us to take any risk. With your lovely novel, they don’t see how they can sell it to a wider public, which was why they suggested some input from the Beta Bunch. Between us, we have come up with a few edits which may help to turn your fine novel into a more marketable proposition.
1 The title presents significant problems. Wuthering is clearly a part of your Yorkshire vernacular, but potential readers in the south have no understanding of this term. As you pointed out in an email to your agent, it is a description of a particular kind of wind. We think Windy Hilltop would be a much better title both for the house and the novel. And while I’m on the subject of dialect, we are all in agreement that Joseph is (a) incomprehensible to the average reader and (b) a boring old man. We think he could definitely go. Nobody would miss him. He just holds up the forward thrust of the plot.
2 The narrative framework of the novel is confusing. We don’t really think the dual narration involving Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean works. One of our beta readers suggested that it may be possible to dispense with the narrator altogether and simply tell the story from a third person point of view. Perhaps an objective omniscient narrative voice or deep third person subjective point of view might suit?
3 You have clearly ‘written yourself into’ the story. You need to delete the first few chapters. Instead, we might begin with Mr Earnshaw bringing the young Heathcliff to Windy Hilltop. But we need far more back story for Heathcliff. Perhaps he was Mr Earnshaw’s ‘natural’ child. Perhaps we might see Mr Earnshaw bidding a sad farewell to his dying mistress in Liverpool, realising that he must take the child home with him and wondering how his family will react?
4 There are some problems with characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy in particular seemed inconsistent and irrational to our editorial team. Ems, darling, nobody can fall in love with characters like this, and we have to love these people! And while we’re on this topic, one of our readers suggested another name change, this time for Heathcliff. Perhaps Cliff Heath or something similar: rugged but somehow more of a real name.
5 We think you might usefully reconsider your heroine’s character. Readers find it hard to engage fully with a thoroughly unlikeable person and Cathy is – forgive me – in danger of coming across as a bit of a bully – all that pinching and slapping. She is very pretty - but perhaps a tad too pretty? She needs some faults: a big mouth, a snub nose, unruly hair. Perhaps she gazes into her mirror in dissatisfaction at herself. It’s fine that she’s feisty and spirited. But there are times when her character verges on the psychotic and her tears and tantrums may provoke the wrong response. Nobody likes a watering pot, do they? And a watering pot with serious food and anger issues is quite hard to love. The reader must be able to sympathise with her predicament in choosing between poor but handsome Cliff and rich but wet Edgar. They must be able to put themselves in her shoes. At the moment, who would?
6 You may also need to reconsider Cliff. He does seem to have seriously sadistic tendencies. BDSM is fine, (in fact we could do with a little more of it here in view of other publishing successes) but cruelty to animals on the part of the hero is a definite no-no and the scene where we learn that he has hanged his wife’s dog MUST GO. Actually, we all reckon his wife should go too. Cliff HAS to marry Cathy. You can’t cheat reader expectations like this and besides, Isabella is SUCH a wuss. You should be aiming for a powerful hero with whom the reader can sympathise, even when he’s behaving badly: sexy and brave but with a certain underlying vulnerability and a hidden sorrow. Likewise, we really think you must reconsider the scenes where Cliff indulges in what can only be described as necrophilia. We feel quite strongly that horror is not your genre.
7 We would like to suggest that you ‘big up’ the supernatural elements. Several of our ’critters’ suggested that you should begin the tale in the present day, with a young couple – Londoners who have moved to Yorkshire perhaps - buying Windy Hilltop with a view to renovating it. Inexplicable things start to happen to them. The house is haunted! The husband refuses to believe in the supernatural but the wife starts to research the story and unearths the whole sorry tale: Mr Earnshaw and his tragic mistress, Cliff and Cath growing up, followed by Cliff’s desertion. Cath’s unwise marriage, Cliff’s return and most important of all, the resumption of the love affair.
8 Forgive me, Emily, but you do tend to cop out of the erotic scenes. None of our beta readers could believe that – when Cliff finally comes back – he and Cathy wouldn’t be making mad, passionate love all the time, out on those windy moors. We have to be there and feel it with them. Where is her inner goddess? Wouldn’t he want to punish her for making him suffer all these years? The only time they seem to get it on is when she is dying and even then it’s only a few kisses and Cliff gnashing his teeth a lot. (More borderline necrophilia.) We need more sensuous wuthering in the heather!
9 Overall, the consensus was that you should definitely consider deleting the last third of the novel. Remember the old adage, kill your darlings? Well, we all agree that a bit of a massacre is in order. At present, the passages with young Cathy and Hareton read like an extended coda to the main event which is clearly the wild and wonderful relationship between the principle protagonists. You pointed out in your last (somewhat forthright) email, that you visualise this as a necessary resolution to the disorder of the first two thirds of the novel, without which the whole thing makes no sense. We take your point, but none of the beta readers cared for your ending, with the exception of one who thought Hareton was ‘quite fit’.
10 The whole of the Beta Bunch felt very strongly that you needed to come up with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. One suggestion was that Edgar Linton might fall down a pothole. You have a lot of potholes in Yorkshire, don't you? Cliff finds his conscience at last and tries to rescue him. Edgar dies, Cliff survives. He’s wounded (we all love wounded heroes) but at least he has done the brave thing. He marries a pregnant Cathy and they move to Windy Hilltop. Although they live happily every after, they have to spend their whole lives pretending that the baby isn’t Cliff’s, just to keep Cathy’s reputation intact. Which is the reason for the haunting. The truth must be told!
So there it is. We feel that with a little more work you could really turn this into a stonking great story. You never know, it may even be a ‘breakthrough’ book for you. We look forward to hearing from you with your rewritten manuscript just as soon as you can manage it. I’m sure you can do it. After all, time is on your side.
Very best wishes
For Humongous Publishing, London and New York.
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