I got a Facebook Message from Johan Lynn Carter, whose Friend request I has recently authorized -- though I didn't recognize the name.
She asked if I'd review her first novel. If a publisher asks, and I know that publisher, the editor, or the publicist, then I usually just say I'll read the book.
But if I don't have a clue what it's about or why a review from me, a professional reviewer who is apt to be stringent and demanding, would be relevant or useful in terms of connecting a novel to its proper audience, I usually ask some relevant questions.
It's a list of questions, pretty much set in stone by decades of practice with very busy publicists or editors. This is a business. There is no time to waste. Time is money. Information is coin of the realm.
The review request came with few of the answers to those questions -- which ordinarily accompany such requests. So I thought about the phrasing of the request, looked at Johan's profile on Facebook, and wondered if a real gem of a find had just fallen into my lap.
I think maybe so.
So I want to point your attention to this byline so you'll watch for it -- and I need to recommend that you pick up a copy of this first novel, even though it is self-published. Why? Because I liked it? No, because I deem this new writer has what it takes to curl your toes -- even though the first attempt may not quite get that far for you. The technique may be faulty but the payload is dynamite.
Reading, or just filing for future reading, a copy of this novel will allow you to watch the rising arc of talent striving toward commercial distribution and eventually mass market and awards attention.
This kind of a query is how that usually begins - and before self-publishing, other new writers had no way to access that first work that set it all in motion. This is valuable beyond words -- grab a copy.
Here below is Johan Lynn Carter (a pen name) speaking in her own voice. We exchanged these comments privately on Facebook Messenger, and she kindly edited the transcript to make more sense to you.
BTW - this is not the best way to approach a reviewer. Few would see through the amateur to the budding professional below.
Here is her original query and my first response:
Hi Jacqueline and thanks for friending me! I've been following your blog for quite some time and it has always been a great pleasure discovering new books thanks to you 🙂
I'm contacting you as I just finished my debut novel, The Sky Regency, which could be summed up as "Jane Austen meets a sexy alien prince". I've already received great reviews so far and would be honored to have your opinion on the book.
If you're interested in the science fiction romance genre with a historical setting, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Thanks a lot in advance and keep up the good work!
All the best,
Very solid, very nicely crafted query -- nice identification of relevance -- offering a good pitch summary. And short. Obviously, she's studied query writing, so that's a big plus, igniting serious hope.
Caveats: "just finished" and "debut novel." The end of the query asserts that I won't be disappointed, and the opening indicates she has an idea of what I read and like. The "I've already received great reviews so far" is too vague. If it said "5 stars on Kindle" or "New York Times Book Review" there would be little question. If it was a quote from a review in a newspaper, especially one large enough that I might have heard of it, there would be no question.
However, a writer's own judgement of their first novel length work is rarely accurate. In fact, a writer's own judgement of the reviews of their first work is rarely useful information. But this might be that rare case. Hmmm.
So I thought and thought, and finally decided I had to have more information from Johan.
I messaged back:
JL: Nice -- which blog of mine do you follow and what do you like most? Have you read any of my books? Are you on the Sime~Gen Group?
And JC - Johan Carter - messaged back:
JC: I follow aliendjinnromances and like the book reviews mixed with scientific articles
That was really helpful information -- a researcher after my own heart.
So I needed to know more about this writer's ability to take criticism which is the dividing line between an amateur and a pro, along with the ability to turn out publishable copy regardless of whether there is any inspiration and regardless of interruptions and distractions.
So I commented:
was pretty harsh. Yours might be similarly treated.
JC: I did like it actually. I also really liked your recent novel in the Sime~Gen universe. I actually read the Dushau trilogy as a teenager.
So this was getting even more hopeful -- definitely a researcher, which is a prime quality necessary to write Historical Romance and/or Futuristic Romance of any kind. I love researchers because they find out things I don't know -- I love learning new things.
Therefore, I replied:
JL: OK then tell me about your novel -- what is the story in one sentence? Whose story is it? What is their goal and why do they drive toward that goal? What is the theme? Oh, and who is the publisher?
At the end of the following exchange, I asked Johan Lynn Carter to edit the exchange and send it to me for posting here, with any additional commentary she thought appropriate.
Here below is the result -- and where to get her first book. It will very likely be one of the most valuable assets in your library within 5 years.
JL Carter – QA with Jacqueline Lichtenberg
JL: What is the story in one sentence?
JC: An alien invasion set in Regency-era England.
JL: Whose story is it?
JC: The story revolves around Margaret, a 20-year-old middle-class woman who is forced by her family to marry a duke.
JL: What is the theme?
JC: The main theme is relationships, either between humans or with alien species.
JL: Who is the publisher?
JC: I decided to self-publish this novel.
JL: How many rejections did you get first?
JC: I didn't approach any publisher actually. I considered traditional publishers for other books but I felt this one was better suited for self-publishing as it is a mix of genres and would be more difficult to sell to a publisher.
JL: Who edited it, then?
JC: I have a writer friend who edited it. We mainly worked on the outline and character development. My friend helped me structure it using the Blake Snyder beat sheets.
JL: How do you distinguish it from a Doctor Who episode? And what element makes it science fiction rather than steam punk?
JC: I did draw inspiration from Doctor Who but the treatment is closer to historical romance, following the codes of Regency romance in particular with some actual historical facts being depicted. It is a science-fiction story to me as it shows futuristic science and extraterrestrial life. It also shares elements of steampunk as we learn throughout the book that the alien invasion changed the pace of technology and brought new inventions before the Victorian era (where steampunk takes its roots).
JL: Can you enumerate the beginning, middle and end plot events? Can you enumerate the beginning, Middle and End plot events -- one short declarative sentence each of the form: Bob does this -- Bob changes his mind -- Bob succeeds.
JC: Margaret gets engaged young – Aliens attack – Fiancé leaves – Margaret is seduced by an alien – Fiancé comes back – Margaret betrays the alien and marries her fiancé.
JL: My next question would be for you to show me how the theme you articulated is hammered home by the plot.
JC: At first, Margaret is forced in a relationship with someone she doesn’t know. She grows to accept her condition even though she admits she doesn’t love her fiancé. There is a plot device in the form of a necklace her fiancé gave her as an engagement gift. The relationship is then challenged with the arrival of the invader, forcing Margaret to make a choice.
JL: Then I will ask for the elevator pitch where you pretend I am a TV producer and you want to sell me this series.
JC: It’s a Jane Austen story with sexy aliens
JL: Next test is pacing. How many pages is it? What happens on the middle page exactly half way? Is it the Bob Changes His Mind plot event? If not, do you fix it by cutting or adding, or do you need a new plot structure?
JC: The book is about 200 pages long. On page 100, Margaret is having a fever dream about the alien prince and begins to feel attracted to him.
JL: I suspect you have the outline for a series of novels rather than a novel.
JC: I did plan a series. I wrote an outline for the series and the first book as well. The first draft ended with a cliffhanger but I changed for it a happy ending (or rather happy for now)
-----------end TRANSCRIPT ------------
We did not get to the issue of CONFLICT and THEME STRUCTURE because this was enough for a decision on my part.
After I asked for Beginning-Middle-End summary, Johan asked if I wanted just the main plot or sub-plots. The pacing test, she answered with 200 pages.
You can't do such a complex, two-culture (human and Alien) depiction in 200 pages. Remember the key beginner's posts on Theme Structure:
These posts delineate how themes and plots are related, and how every sub-plot must depict a sub-theme derived from a main theme -- and how a dual or triple POV structure must reticulate through that same theme structure.
The shorter the work, the fewer sub-themes can be depicted, explicated, or hinted at.
There have been writers, like Theodore Sturgeon, for example, who acquired over decades as a prolific professional writer, the technical skills to carry off a tour de force such as that. Reading such works thrills the soul.
But a first novel -- from a writer without a long bibliography of professionally published short stories sold to very widely circulated (thus tightly edited) magazines -- has a very low probability of demonstrating such a skill level.
It is often said one must write a million words for the garbage can before attempting a submission to a professional publisher. That is because integrating all the skills we've discussed here -- most especially the intricacies of theme-structure layered under plot-structure mixed with story-structure, and then arranging the whole thing into an artistically satisfying pacing -- takes a lot of practice even for the best among us.
A big clue was the admission that there was a series lurking behind this 200 page work. I think you will all adore that larger series once it is arranged into publishable form. This is going to be great stuff, memorable reading. But it is a long way from being that, right now.
Nevertheless, go grab a copy for yourself.
This is very likely the most valuable book you will ever own.