Thank you for sharing your imaginative novel with me. The premise is intriguing and ambitious, and it’s full of strange and memorable details. The mystery of the machine and what it may or may not reveal to its users gives the novel a great engine that kept me turning pages and makes for rich material for fiction.
As you’ll see, you’ll find many of my comments and suggestions in the margins of your manuscript in the form of comments and tracked changes, including some that are fairly substantive. Below, though, are some additional big picture thoughts.
There’s a lot here that is working really well, but I do think the book would be even stronger with a bit more development, both in terms of the characters and the premise.
The mysterious machine is a wonderful concept, and I like how it functions as almost a character in the novel. Every time another user tried it, I felt curious about what his or her experience would be like. I enjoyed the ongoing debate about the machine’s risks and possible value for human life, especially as this debate developed and deepened throughout the chapters.
However, I think the idea of the machine, especially its meaning and its purpose, could be a bit clearer and more specific, especially by the end of the book. I like that there’s a bit of mystery to it, a sense that some things are just unknowable, but I think the significance of the machine feels a bit murky at the moment, or unnecessarily vague or submerged. At times, I felt that the book assumed that the reader had a clearer sense of what the machine offers than we really do. For a while, it seemed to me that the machine seemed to provide a form of time travel, so I was a little confused (though intrigued) by the idea that some of the characters see it as proof of the afterlife. Is the reader to understand that the visions people have in the machine are possible visions of the afterlife? Or visions of the past? Or, is it up to each user to decide the meaning of what they’ve seen? All of this seems to waver a bit throughout the book. (It’s possible that this kind of uncertainty could work, but then I think the mystery should be discussed more explicitly, and the question of what the users are really experiencing should be more specifically debated. As it is now, I couldn’t always tell if this question of what the machine does was meant to be a mystery in the book or if the murkiness was more the result of a slight lack of clarity in some of the writing.) I think this issue is most important in the later chapters. As the book progressed, I expected to learn more and more about the machine, especially as it seemed to become a larger and larger part of the culture.
Here are the main specific questions I had on this subject as I read:
*What does the original Dr. Rosenblum think the machine is going to do when she invents it? Does she expect it to have this strange mystical element, or is that just an unexpected side effect of what she hopes will just be a medical treatment for the sick?
*What does Maria hope to get out of using the machine? (Her experience definitely feels like time travel.)
*What about Susan’s experience makes Susan believe in the afterlife? (as opposed to time travel etc.)
*I like the way the machine is referenced as part of the culture, something that is sort of debated etc. But what is society’s general understanding of what the machine does? I feel like the reader should be a bit more included in this debate and have a clearer sense of what the possible interpretations of the machine’s effects are.
*What does Anna expect to get out of using the machine? What does her father think she’ll get out of it? Her section and her interest in the machine feels a little underdeveloped to me.
I’m not sure the book opens in the right way. Since this novel is so much about the machine, I think the machine should be referenced or alluded to earlier. I love that first scene between Dr. Rosenblum and the sisters (pg. 6), and it made me extremely curious about what this treatment would do. I wonder if this scene could be the opening of the book. Instead, the book begins with description and backstory about Dr. Rosenblum that feels ultimately sort of nonessential to the story and which is not nearly as intriguing as the scene with the sisters. The risk of this kind of opening is that it misleads the reader in terms of what the book’s interests will really be.
I noticed a similar pattern in the Danilo and Maria sections, and I suggest you consider trimming the openings of both of those sections as well. In the Danilo section, I suggest you shorten and condense the grocery store scene, which feels a bit long and loose, and instead get to his interest in the machine more quickly. In the Maria section, I suggest you begin the chapter at a point when she is already a congresswoman and then simply reference her childhood panic attacks in the context of the adult Maria instead of taking us through scenes of her childhood at the start.
Structure/Development of Premise:
The kaleidoscopic structure is smart and ambitious, and it feels really right for the book to show the machine and its effects from the perspective of various users at various times in its history. I think the structure works best when each chapter adds something to our understanding of the machine, its significance, and the technological progress that has been made over the years since its invention.
As the book progresses, I think the reader should get a clearer and clearer sense of what the machine may offer its users. In the first few chapters, the sense of mystery adds intrigue. In the later chapters, though, the mystery begins....
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Pg. 148-149: What does the scene of seeing the Christian woman a second time at the grocery store add to the book? Necessary?
Pg. 152: “in the late twenties” : does this mean that this is taking place in the future? Very interesting, but I think we should understand this earlier. I think the setting should suggest this sooner, at least subtly.
Pg. 163: Seems like reader should have a bit more sense of how many people are now using the machine. How widespread is its use?
Maria in the stadium: as a member of congress, seems like she would have special security with her at the stadium, rather than just wandering alone among the public. This seems even more likely if her staff is actually secretly under investigation and is supposedly going to try to kill her.
In general, the stadium section feels a little long and loose. Try trimming/condensing.
In the scene with Rosenblum at the stadium, his presence at the meeting is not explained. Why/how is here there in that scene?
Pg. 190s: there’s a lot of vivid, metaphorical description of Maria’s feelings after meeting with Dr. Rosenblum, but it’s not really clear what her reaction to the specific situation is. What is she thinking? Is she just afraid for her life? Or just angry? Or does it sort of open up all her other feelings? At the moment, her feelings seem kind abstract in a way that makes her feel not quite real and makes it hard for the reader to understand her/connect.
Pg. 193: Seems like we should understand Maria’s reasons for wanting to use the machine.
Pg. 228: The way that new subjects keep getting introduced in this section feels too lose, not quite directed enough. (names, Dr. g, Carrissa, the book, Julia, Julia’s mom, the circus.) Including so many sequential details makes it hard to tell what’s ultimately important.
Pg. 233: I’m not sure if this explanation about security at public events and the history of it is working. It feels a little artificial to hear so much information at once. Consider dropping some of these backstory details into the scene, instead of including this chunk of summary.
General: why does it tend to be older people who use the machine?
I enjoyed reading this novel. This really is a great premise with the potential (especially with a bit more development) to make readers think about the big existential issues. I found the whole thing quite memorable.
Let me know if any of this is unclear or if you have questions of any kind.
It has truly been a great pleasure to work on your manuscript, and to learn about Ruth’s amazing life. I’m so thrilled that you uncovered those letters, so mysteriously squirreled away, and I believe many readers will share my feeling. Ruth lived such a fascinating life during one of the richest, most vibrant periods in American history—and you have cast some of the most amazing episodes and events of her life in vivid color. I loved watching her race cars, taunt bulls in Spain, and dally in Tahiti. Of course, her passionate lifelong love affair with Alec is the centerpiece of your story, of her story, and it is a truly moving one. It’s hard for me to resist a story about a fiercely independent woman ahead of her time, both passionate and ambitious, in a setting replete with bathtub gin, toreadors and the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Frida Kahlo. All of that said, my greatest and most resounding editorial note for you is: more.
This is a great first draft, and you’ve been diligent about representing the important moments in Ruth’s life, her major achievements and devastations, and tracing her relationship with Alec, as well as with Govie. You will find later in this letter a quite extensive list of page by page notes and questions—and they are in fact mostly questions. The broad strokes of Ruth’s life are here, and you should focus now on filling in those strokes with richness, depth and context—atmospheric, historical and personal. Currently, the manuscript feels almost anecdotal in places, and the good news is that you have so very much to draw on and from to give this story that richness and depth that it deserves. We can and should talk further about your sources and how best to use them, and we can also talk about what to do when you don’t have original sources from which to draw. So first, here, I’ll talk broadly about some of the “more” that I’m asking you to think about, before proceeding to the real detail.
First, let’s talk about the historical context of Ruth’s life. The broad strokes and many pivotal moments of the time in which Ruth lived are here—but some are not. The two most glaring historical omissions are the stock market crash of 1929, and the repeal of the Volstead Act. You write a lot about Ruth and Govie’s financial troubles, and you mention the Depression in passing—but you do not actually cover the crash or write about the Depression in much depth. I think it’s important for the reader to see Ruth and Govie witness the crash and its aftermath, and to see how it affected them, how it affected their circle, and a bit about how it affected the nation at large. This is Ruth’s story, and we want to know about her world and how she lived in it—she was not a Dust Bowl farmer, so I’m not suggesting you write a chapter about that. But it would be helpful to see generally how Ruth’s life and world differed from those of other Americans, in addition to seeing specifically how her life was changed.
Prohibition was an important part of Ruth’s life—she was even writing a book about it—so it feels like an oversight not to see the repeal actually unfold in the pages of the manuscript, and to see Ruth and Govie’s reaction to it. How did it change their lives? You’ll see other places where I have asked questions that are pertinent to these issues, and suggested moments where additional context would be useful to the reader.
There are two other specific historical contexts that would be wise to explore further, and those are auto car racing and women in early cinema/ Hollywood. I felt confused about the relationship to women and car racing, and I also did not get a clear sense of what auto racing looked like at this time, compared to what it looks like now. Since racing is a pivotal event and experience for Ruth, more can be included in the manuscript to make this passion and what the experience looked like come alive for the reader.
Ruth worked as a scenario writer in Hollywood, and later in life, attempted to produce two films in Tahiti. How many women were scenario writers in Hollywood? How many women were making films, or trying to? Did they get as far as Ruth did, though her films never actually came to fruition? Ruth was an intrepid woman for her time, unusual and bold, and we will more fully appreciate this intrepidity and boldness if we can more fully see and understand the landscapes in which she chose to become a pioneer, and the challenges that she faced in doing so.
Ruth lives in and travels to some extremely exotic, storied places—Hollywood, Tahiti, Spain. While you share some excellent stories about Ruth’s trials, tribulations and adventures in these places, I don’t always feel that they completely come to life. I have offered specific directions in numerous places later in the letter but keep in mind as you write that a more robust rendering of these atmospheres will greatly enrich the story—I want to wander Papeete with Ruth, and know what she ate, what she smelled, what the water and the sand looked like. This is equally true of Ruth and Govie’s bathtub gin salons. The more detail, the better, when it comes to this.
Finally on this note, and most importantly, your greatest task will be to make Ruth, and some of the other important, fascinating, compelling people in her life really come to life. This is the emotional and personal context I mentioned earlier.
First, and most importantly, Ruth. From her exploits alone, I know Ruth was a charming, persuasive, charismatic woman who was able to get what she wanted, and gracefully navigate nearly any situation. Sometimes, though, we lose Ruth’s point of view...
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227: Who is Guy Tano?
227: Did Ruth voluntarily return to the station to revise her statement?
227: “This had been the happiest vacation I have had in a long time.” Was he staying with the Morrises? I don’t understand the circumstances that led him to be with them in the first place. Needs to be established earlier.
229: Is this is the first time that the neighbors had reported hearing gunshots? Or had that been reported in the first investigation?
229: Who might have leaked the letter? Victoria herself? This is part of why we need to understand more about Victoria and Govie’s relationship.
229: Was Govie questioned by the police? What were his claims? What was his experience?
233: What was the public’s reaction to this letter? Ruth and Govie’s friends? Did their friends support them during all of this? Any publicly?
237: When/ how was the final twist revealed?
241: It’s really surprising to me that the investigator just closed down the case. Was Govie that influential, still? He was close to broke, for one thing. And hadn’t been writing much in a long time, as far as you have told us. Was he really able to sway the case so easily?
242: When did the drinking become medicinal? You really haven’t set us up for this.
242: How old was Ruth in 1937?
244: How had Ruth become unmanageable? What were her symptoms? What were those days like with and for Govie?
244: To whom did Alec acknowledge this?
246: What happened to Govie? How much longer would he live? And Alec? What happens to him?
I really hope that my notes and thoughts are helpful to you as you move forward with the project. I’ll look forward to being in touch once you have had the chance to review and digest my letter. Do take your time, and don’t hesitate to reach out if anything is unclear or you have questions.
All my best,