RUMOURS COLLIDE by Cath Ferguson
Many congratulations on your chapters being selected as one on the top three of the month. Such accolade from your peers is very encouraging and a good indication of your potential to become a successful author.
This report aims to pinpoint any potential problems as well as show you where you're going right and assess the commercial potential of the novel. Naturally my advice and criticism is only based on the chapters I have read. As an agent I generally also ask to see a one page synopsis so I can best gauge the focus of the novel and see how the author intends for plot and characters to develop.
The quality of writing, pace and structure here is of a high standard hence the lack of suggested recommendations regarding editorial changes etc, however, I doubt this is a disappointment!
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
The novel starts well with an arresting first sentence that immediately gets the reader's attention and gives them a good idea of what the novel is about. Starting with a present day scene is also effective in injecting immediacy and freshness into the opening text as does use of the first person. This scene of the anarchist meeting in the pub also establishes the character of the main protagonist well - sharp witted, slightly cynical, down to earth - and sets a slightly comical, irreverent tone which is evident throughout. The opening scene is concise before the reader is then directed to Steph and why she at the meeting, which focuses the reader on the main character and eliminates any confusion as to who this is. The reader is then immersed in the everyday life of Steph and her thoughts of what political ideology she is looking for.
The text explaining what she does for living says just as much about herself as the job itself, which is good. The wry humour has wide appeal as does the subject matter - work, and in particular, office life - something a large percentage of the readership can relate to. Coming back to the pub scene at appropriate intervals is also well handled - the intervals aren't too far apart so that the reader has forgotten the original scene but not too frequent that they are intrusive.
I'd just question the use of real TV programmes and personalities, mainly because TV shows can date a novel and become irrelevant if taken off the air (although of course there are always endless repeats!). There is also the possibility that Ann Maurice may take offence. By subtly changing the title of the show and name of the presenter you can greatly reduce any potential problems.
First person narrative is actually not that easy to get right as the one voice can dominate and neglect other characters in the story. However, here it is clear to see what the other people Steph works with are like as they reveal themselves through their actions and dialogue rather Steph giving her opinion on them. Steph's voice doesn't always dominate the narrative but allows other characters to come forward.
The pace feels unhurried yet still maintains momentum and interest. There aren't too many asides and diversions and dialogue is used well to add variety to the text. The story moves on naturally with Steph meeting Rob later than evening, who directs her to another ideology and at the end of chapter one the reader has a clear idea of plot and tone.
Chapter two, the next day in the office, introduces some more characters in the office and further explains the culture of the company while still retaining the original focus - Steph's pursuit of a political ideology. It will be interesting to see how the plot develops further and whether interest in the characters and themes can be maintained. The first two chapters have been successful in establishing characters, setting, tone and focus but it is now crucial that an engaging story starts to unravel engrossing the reader and ensuring a page-turning appeal.
As already mentioned, the character of the main protagonist, Steph, is coming across well. She feels like a real person, who has the capacity to develop through the novel. I hope more emotional depth is evident as this happens - publishers are always saying how the reader needs to really feel the ups and downs of the main character. She is obviously in a crossroads in her life and young enough for life changing events to happen to her. She has a distinct character but is also someone people can easily relate to. I particularly liked the way her identity, both name and gender, were not revealed straightway. She is not a stereotypical female character and I wouldn't say, from what I've read, that this is women's fiction. There is also a hint here of her background (her mother not being around when she grew up) and there is scope to elaborate on this naturally as the novel progresses. Even references to her dress sense help to paint a picture of what she is like. Her relative youth also feels authentic, through her dialogue and thoughts. Above all, her character is consistent.
The characters in the office are also successfully brought to life without appearing too stereotypical, they still feel like real people even with their distinct shortcomings. It is through describing the characters that a lot of the humour is derived.
The rather dingy pub setting and bland, soulless office environment feel authentic and it will be interesting to see whether less familiar setting can be equally well described. I like the way that there is no unnecessary long descriptions of settings here, just for the sake of it.
As previously touched on, the slightly irreverent, wry tone with the narrator almost talking directly to the reader at times makes this an accessible and entertaining read. Often this technique can be irritating and the reader becomes bored with the narrator but this isn't evident so far. Added to this, because the first person narration is distinctive the writing doesn't feel bland or flat.
It doesn't feel as if there is any superfluous text and the sentence structure and use of language are, in general, easy to follow. There are a couple of exceptions - page 8 when Steph is talking to Henry in the pub 'You can have mine instead' - I read this as my clothes rather than my mother! And on page 14 does Steph say 'Sorry' about Mrs Jackson leaving? It appears from Martin's next speech that she does but there's quite a bit of other stuff discussed in between the revelation that Mrs J has kicked him out.
There are also one or two presentation points - titles of books are usually in italics with the first letter of each word in capitals, Houses of Parliament, May Day marches, salmon and cider are not capitalized, I'd maybe put the text about Abraxis that Steph looks up in a different font if it is taken straight from the internet, i.e. not her interpretation of what she reads. There are also a couple of small errors - page 3 'This government needs overthrown it had had yelled, page 4 'thinking out the box', page 13 'to remain a restricted to an elite group, page 15 'Even just in Britain there passions'. While none of this is disastrous, you might as well get it right.
Overall, the writing style is self-assured and competent.
The market for first-time novelists at the present time is tough. A publisher will only consider investing in a new author if the novel is outstanding, novels that were published five years ago would not make it now. However, a contemporary plot and setting is a good choice as there is demand for this type of fiction. Without knowing more about how the story develops it's hard to say what genre this is. Is there a thriller element, a relationship element, political intrigue, a humorous novel? One of the most common comments from publishers when rejecting manuscripts sent out by agents is that it lacks wide enough commercial appeal so always bear this in mind.
This is a very competent piece of writing and should persuade agents that they need to read more. Certainly the theme of young people lacking beliefs and ideologies to fight for is a topical one and should elicit a positive response. The slightly edgy, distinct tone will also help this to stand out from the competition. However, agents read a lot of promising first chapters only to be disappointed by plot progression, pace etc. so it's impossible for me to predict further than us. Saying that, I did really enjoyed this and am definitely intrigued to read more so I very much hope the rest of the novel lives up to the promise of the opening chapters.