This review is of an agent submission pack for a work of literary fiction which was near to being publishable. I reviewed her letter to agents, synopsis and the first 5,000 words of her novel (everything she would send to an agent).

(Names and identifying features have been changed to protect the privacy of the author.)

The original 1,800-word critique has been cut here for length and readability, with much detailed analysis of plot points and content removed.


This looks like a very interesting project to me and one that could certainly catch the eye of publishers as a theme for a work of commercial fiction. I see from your agent letter that you are an experienced novelist, so I am guessing you hope, with this novel, to move into the mainstream commercial-fiction market and attract one of the core UK publishing houses. This seems like a realistic goal to me and I agree that this project could be a good one with which to look for an agent to represent you.

Agent letter -

Your agent letter looks excellent to me. It is well-written and has a tone of authority and experience. My only suggestion is that it might be a good idea to add a sentence to explain why you think this novel is different enough (in scope or style) to be suited to publication as mainstream commercial fiction while your others have gone down a different route. Perhaps there ought to be something to convey to agents that you are now ready to produce a string of mainstream novels. Unfortunately, agents are generally only interested in authors whom they believe will keep writing the kind of work they can sell.

Synopsis -

Your synopsis, I think, needs substantial work before it will draw in an agent and interest them in your novel. You have crammed a lot of information into it and, as a result, it is hard to make sense of it. This is partly a problem of condensing too much information to fit into single sentences, such as, “Elaine, defying parental opposition, had, some months earlier, wed Malaysian businessman Roger, 32, shortly to return to his homeland and the prospect of a convenient marriage.” This sounds as though she marries him knowing he is shortly to leave and marry someone else, which begs the question why did she marry him? I think, where you are explaining the central plot, you can afford to use a few more words to make it quite clear what is going on.

You say a lot about the colourful characters who surround Elaine in Kuala Lumpur and their stories. I don't think we can absorb this in the brief space of a synopsis. The characters sound great but the number of them, and detail, is mind-boggling. In the synopsis we really only want to know the story of the main protagonists, otherwise we get lost. What I think would work much better for the reader of the synopsis would be to say that Elaine gets drawn deeply into a complex world of eccentric ex-pats and feuding politicians (if she is drawn deeply into it we will infer that the reader is too). Then you could mention sample dramatic characters such as: “including Roger's tango-dancer sister and Roger's rejected bride who sells drugs under the counter at her hat shop and elopes with a missionary.”

There really is too much plot and too many characters for it all to be included in the synopsis, and it is also very hard to work out who is who. We won't remember anyone's name. I really think your novel will sound most exciting if you explain Elaine's story: [list of the main events of heroine's journey removed].

It is great that your novel is rich and complex, but that does leave you with a problem: how to convey all that in your synopsis. I think the most important thing is that we really understand what you are saying, and also that it is as brief as possible. If you state that there is a lot going on the reader will understand that there is loads of plot you have left out.

I also think it is important to use the simplest language possible in your synopsis and be very careful of each word you use. Agents and publishers don't want to see fancy writing in a synopsis – it's purely functional – but they will judge your literacy, ability to write clearly and, to some extent, your taste and judgement from the synopsis. I'd be wary of using words like “wed” instead of married. I'd also avoid the word petty in describing the feuds between the communities of ex-pats; readers don't want to read novels about pettiness. And I recommend not using adjectives unless you really need them; it's better to save them for the novel. I'd certainly avoid double adjectives in the synopsis. Don't forget, you are aiming to convey the main thrust of your story in as simple, brief and functional a way as possible.

[More detail of specific points that need addressing removed]

Manuscript sample chapters -

The 5000 word section that starts your novel is well written and you get straight into the story. I did wonder, having read the synopsis, why [discussion of unclear plot point removed here].

My main concern about this opening section is that it does not really come to life and become engaging until we reach the scenes set among Roger's family in Malaysia. These scenes are detailed and take place in real time, so we get to see and hear the characters and start to get drawn into their world. The first part, which takes place in the UK, is sketched rapidly; you rush through a lot of information: Elaine's background, work and education, her family's attitude to her marriage. I think you can spend more time on this. It will make a big difference to the opening section if you show us extended scenes between her and Roger; we want to know how this relationship develops, what they are like together, how they communicate, what draws them to each other. Why is she so in love with him? We also want to know why he is in the UK and see up close what her response is when he says he has to go back to Malaysia, and also what their actual parting is like. This is all important to the story and I think we need to care more about her and about the relationship before you leave her behind in the UK and introduce us to his family. At present she is so hurriedly introduced it not only does not read well, we are not left with much of an impression of her or her family before you shift to the Malaysian part of the novel.

I do understand what you are aiming for here. You are setting up the facts before you get to the meat of the story. Once you get to Malaysia the pace changes and you start giving us a dramatic and detailed narrative with plenty of dialogue. The problem with this is that, in the opening chapter, we just see a story hastily related; there is a danger readers won't get far enough to see how differently you tell your story later. There are two ways this can be easily fixed: either by filling out the opening section to draw us into it, as I suggested, or by cutting the UK section completely and starting the novel with a young man coming home to his family in Malaysia from the UK. I know that sounds a bit drastic but if your interest in this novel as a writer really starts with what happens when Roger gets home, perhaps that's the natural start-point for it. Either solution can work well but I do think you need to do something to start with scenes that plunge us right into the heart of the novel to prevent the opening feeling rushed and sketchy.

[Discussion of some style points and concluding paragraph removed here.]