Friday, July 8, 2011

Dust-Off Challenge Number 3


The Newfoundland Vampire by Charles O.
Genre: Horror (Vampire)
80,200 words

***Penumbra Publishing’s Summary Critique***

Note: Query packet excerpts are provided below the critique for reference

A. QUERY LETTER. Overall, the query letter follows an expected format and content, with the exception of telling what the story is about. The letter starts off giving the story statistics and title at the very beginning, mentions some outside editing on the story, some online marketing avenues, lists the author’s background and education, mentions some more marketing objectives, then ends. The storyline itself is not mentioned within the query letter, but a synopsis outside the body of the letter is attached at the bottom.
1.      STORY STATISTICS. An RE (regarding) line at the beginning, that contained all the story statistics such as title, genre, and word count would be more helpful than burying that information in the first paragraph.
2.      BACKGROUND. The author’s writing background could be summarized more positively by removing or rewording negative references such as, ‘This is my first novel so I have not had anything else significant published.’ Alternative wording might simply mention this is the author’s first novel.
3.      EXPERIENCE. References to review and newsletter writing experience could be condensed and summarized with less specific detail. For example, instead of saying, ‘I used to write for a student newspaper in at [XYZ] University and had music and movie reviews published. I also wrote for, edited and produced a newsletter for a Star Trek fan club also at [XYZ] University.’ this information could be placed immediately after the educational information and reworded as, ‘Several of my music and movie reviews were published in my university’s newspaper. I also produced and edited a Star Trek fan club newsletter.’
4.      WEB PRESENCE. This author states he did not feel having a web site before getting published was necessary. However he did note two author friends and gave their web site URLs, suggesting they might help him develop a web site later. We recommend the author have an active web site for his writing before contacting prospective agents or publishers. There are several reasons for this. The author can have others give him tips on how to improve his web site and make it look as professional as possible. Fellow authors can help with this. Then when the author contacts prospective publishers, they’ll be able to see what kind of self-promotion activities the author has already been doing. For authors short on funds or web savvy, we recommend a ‘starter’ site, maybe a free hosted site with a subdomain. Free templates and easy user interfaces make this a simpler job than it may seem, and we do recommend that every author have some kind of rudimentary web site so readers and publishers and other professionals can go take a look and ‘meet the author.’ The author can always make changes/improvements later.
5.      STORY SUMMARY. The story summarized within the query letter should be very brief, no more than two or three short paragraphs, and should give a general idea of what the story is about, with just enough specifics to sound enticing or at least interesting. A typical query letter gives story statistics then dives right into the introduction and overview of the story, giving the writer’s background and marketing ideas last. This query letter deviates from that format by barely mentioning the story and focusing almost exclusively on the author. The purpose of the query letter is to introduce the book as well as the author, and to give an idea of the story’s appeal as well as author’s credentials. It is a ‘first contact’ selling tool that must sell both the story and the author, and do it in as little space as practical. An overly detailed story summary tacked on at the end of the letter after the closing signature but included as part of the letter bogs down the ‘first contact’ query letter with too much detail and information. A better approach is to supply the lengthier and more detailed story summary in a separate document as requested.

B. THE STORY. This author provided the entire story for review as part of our regular submission process but gave us permission to use the submission as a Dust-Off Challenge entry as well.
  1. WRITING TECHNIQUE. The story is told in third-person past-tense, (he saw the dog and then ran), the usual method used by the majority of novelists. Technically the author’s writing is readable despite numerous and pervasive punctuation errors, mostly in dialog. The sentence structure follows expected standards with few surprises – and thus, unfortunately, offers little noticeable variety in sentence structure that would, if present, give the story a needed boost. Additionally, the inclusion of minute details that seem overall to be irrelevant to the story, are included in such a way that the writing quickly becomes pedestrian and tiresome to read. Below is an excerpt from one paragraph as an example to illustrate...
Joseph’s parents believed in ownership of multiple cars and vans but this one was principally his. It was a four-door blue 2000 Neon Sport. Joseph had just received it a few months ago as a birthday present and he dearly loved this car. It had nothing automatic but it had a spoiler on the back and could go fast. Joseph had almost lost his license from a large speeding ticket but had since slowed down. He pulled out the key chain and unlocked the driver’s side door and slid into the front seat. Immediately Joseph looked for his mp3 player and was annoyed when he realized he had left it in his room. He was never a big fan of the radio but he could handle a little classic rock so he turned on the OZ FM station. He started the car and pulled a left to get out of the car lot. It was 4:30pm and Joseph thought once off the Prince Phillip Parkway and onto the outer ring road he should be able to avoid some of the five ‘o’clock traffic. Newfoundland, aside from the weather, was ideal for Joseph. He hated crowds and traffic, which are two things Newfoundland had very little of compared to most places in the world. Joseph read on the Internet once that typical L.A. traffic lasted anywhere from two to three hours if you tried to get anywhere around 4pm.
These types of mundane details give the reader very little useable information that moves the story forward or even hints at critical character details. Really, no reader is going to care whether Joseph likes the car he’s driving or prefers MP3 players and is annoyed that he left his in his room. On the other hand, if he does something unexpected or exciting with the car or the MP3 player, then that would be information the reader would gladly want to read about.
  1. STORY TIMELINE AND PLOT DEVELOPMENT. The timeline of the story is uncomplicated, moving forward from a period when the main character is a teen to the time he is in college. There are no revelations presented in a way that surprise the reader. Instead, the surprise happens only to the main character as the story progresses. This is a direct result of the straightforward way the story is told. We recommend the writer retool the opening chapter and its scenes to create a sense of suspense that makes the reader want to continue turning pages to find out what happens next. There is no incentive whatsoever to find out what this apparently nerdy boy is going to do next. And the author gives too many hints about the woman who watches him, so it is no surprise to discover she is a vampire who is planning to meet up with him when he’s a few years older.
  2. THE CHARACTERS. The main character Joseph is obviously a nerdy thirteen-year-old. And, oddly enough, his age is never mentioned in the prolog but is revealed only in the story summary, so the reader would have to read the summary to know this detail. Joseph prefers playing with superhero action figures over socially interacting with other kids his own age. He’s a constant victim of bullying and recedes into role-playing games and comic books for solace. While the author does a good job of showing what a pathetic boy the main character is, he does nothing to interest the reader in this boy or what happens to him. The author may have hoped that the reader would feel sorry for the boy, but in fact failed to show the boy possessing any spark of inner strength or backbone that seems essential for a main character to succeed in a story. The only thing of interest that the vampire lady who was watching Joseph did was to leave her kitten where Joseph could find it, in the hope the cat would bring the boy some happiness. This plot device fails to engender any interest in the characters or the ongoing story. We actually found that act of leaving the cat a bit weird, even though it is clear it plays out later in the story – or at least is discussed again.
  3. HOOK AND SUSPENSE. The story opening lacks a hook or something to draw the reader in and proceeds in an anticlimactic fashion. By the end of the prolog chapter, the biggest suspenseful revelation is ... Ultimately Ginger became Joseph’s cat and she brought him much joy and comfort as the years went by. Never did he suspect that he was meant to find this particular cat. The cat perhaps plays a bigger part in the rest of the story, but really, by this time, a typical reader isn’t going to care enough to read further and find out just how this cat figures into the story. The reason for this is mostly because of the way the story is told in a straightforward style without holding enough back from the reader to create a suspenseful setup.
  4. POINT OF VIEW. Another inherent problem is the treatment of the story from a detached viewpoint. Statements like the excerpt above (Never did he suspect that he was meant to find this particular cat.) are disruptive to the reading flow and create a distance between the reader and the character. The revelation of Joseph’s future, which he cannot possibly know, is told to the reader by someone other than the character. The intrusion of an omniscient godlike invisible narrator who steps between the reader and the character to tell things about the character the reader could not otherwise know is a sure way to stop the reader from bonding with the character. Bonding with the character is essential if the reader is to care about what happens to the character throughout the story.
  5. BELIEVABILITY. Inclusion of unrealistic or hard-to-accept details or situations in a story will make the reader doubt the validity of the story and the author’s ability to deliver a believable story. For example, the fact that Joseph puts his winter coat on upside down and inside out without noticing it is quite unbelievable. A winter coat is bulky and tailored to fit the body in a specific configuration. With the bottom hem hunched up around his neck, how could Joseph not know his coat was on upside down? A thin nylon jacket ... maybe ... but not a thick winter coat. We recommended the author try putting his own winter coat on upside down just to see how it feels before including that kind of absurd detail in his story. While not every reader would question a minor detail like this, the fact that we noticed it is warning enough that one slip of disbelief can undermine the reader’s confidence in the author.

C. IN SUMMARY. While the story mechanics and writing style are acceptable, they are not exceptional in the current state. Our recommendation is that the author take this very competent first draft and tweak it in a number of ways to add some intrigue and interest to the storytelling itself.
  1. First, delete an overabundance of nonessential details. Include only what is necessary to directly show characterization or to set the mood for the story. Do include enough detail so that the reader can figure out the basic who-what-when-where-and-why of the story as it unfolds.
  2. Second, create more suspense, especially at the beginning, by not telling too much up front and by working in some intrigue for the reader to discover. Doing this will subconsciously pick up the pace for the reader by making the reader more eager to read what happens next, thus making story seem to move along more quickly.
  3. Clean up punctuation, especially for the dialog in the beginning several chapters.
  4. The storyline deals with a sensitive young man trying to come to terms with the violence and death inherent in being a vampire. This story treatment is not new and has been literally done to death. This novel, if it is to garner any interest at all from readers in a genre overflowing with vampire stories, needs to run deep as far as character arc is concerned. Either the character interactions must be unique, or the experiences the characters undergo must be unique. To ensure this isn’t more of the same old thing already out there, the author should read as much vampire literature of the same type as he is writing, to make sure his book brings something new and different and interesting to the reader.
  5.  It is not enough to slap a location title on a story and put it in a locale different from that expected for a vampire tale. We’d like to see a real sense of the area with more references to what makes Newfoundland a unique place in the world to live.
  6. The epilog ending seems ripe for a sequel but is rather anticlimactic. It should be shored up with the same suspense techniques listed above.
As always, we genuinely and deeply appreciate each author’s willingness to allow us the opportunity to review their work. While we do not always accept for publishing every submission we receive, we are always happy to review a manuscript again once it has been modified. This particular story appears to have great potential but does need some reworking to reach that potential. We invite the author to contact us privately with questions if further clarification is needed.


[portion deleted for privacy concerns]

Please find attached a copy of my manuscript, The Newfoundland Vampire, for publication with Penumbra Publishing. It is a work of fiction and would be considered in the horror/vampire genre. It is 80,228 words. I hired a local editor, [portion deleted for privacy concerns], to look at my manuscript twice before submitting it. You may notice my Facebook and Twitter pages are personal ones, I know that both pages can be made for a book but I saw little point in doing so until it becomes published (or is about to). Also I will make a website once I know the book will be published.

 I used to write for a student newspaper in at [portion deleted for privacy concerns] University and had music and movie reviews published. I also wrote for, edited and produced a newsletter for a [portion deleted for privacy concerns] fan club also at [portion deleted for privacy concerns] University.

I have a BA in [portion deleted for privacy concerns] and a Masters in [portion deleted for privacy concerns]. Currently I work as [portion deleted for privacy concerns] but I have plenty of free time and I am prepared to fully promote my book. First off I would be able to sell copies at my workplace. I would also do all the traditional activities such as book readings, book signings, conventions, conferences, writing workshops, a booth at a trade show, a booth at a flea market, spots on radio, interviews with papers, radio and television if possible along with Facebook, Twitter and a website with a blog. I am fortunate to have two author friends who can help me in this regard. Both of whom you can look up at [portion deleted for privacy concerns] and [portion deleted for privacy concerns]

The ideal audience would be 20-45 year old males and females. I think a combination of history, nature and culture combined with the vampire myth makes this novel unique. I peppered the book with humor and try to show the comical aspects of vampire life as well approaching it in a serious manner. I put a lot of myself into this work and I did the best I could with it, I think that’s all any writer can do. I have spent over a year writing it and I believe through careful editing (and plenty of feedback) that I have written a good story that many readers will enjoy. I also think that Ebooks are the future of the industry and I hope this book can be a part of it.

Please do not hesitate to contact me at the above listed number or via e-mail [portion deleted for privacy concerns]. Thank you for your consideration of my novel and I hope to speak with you soon.

yours truly,



The Newfoundland Vampire explores the vampire myth in a modern day setting with often serious but sometimes comical results. The prologue shows Joseph at 13 and introduces the second main character, Cassandra, as she starts to impact his life. Initially Cassandra sends Ginger, her cat, to comfort Joseph. In the first chapter Joseph meets Cassandra at university (10 years later) and is secretly turned by her that night. Soon afterwards they go on several dates and many hints are given as to what Joseph has become. We are also introduced to several of Joseph’s friends when they get together for a board game and they ask about Cassandra. Joseph has the strangest craving to drink blood from his cat and friends but he resists. By the end of chapter six Joseph can resist no longer and drinks blood for the first time, from a moose. He knows what he has become. He confronts Cassandra and learns she turned him into a vampire. He also learns how vampires can share each other’s blood through a blood embrace. This blood embrace allows Cassandra and Joseph to share thoughts, ideas and memories. Joseph in turn learns who Cassandra really is, [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea] and how she was turned. Once the transformation occurs the book examines how a good person copes with an unholy thirst for blood. A major aspect of Joseph’s personality is that he is an animal lover and vegetarian, as a vampire these things are both a challenge and a blessing for him. Joseph asks many questions about a vampire’s nature as they continue to build their relationship. Joseph then explores his powers by playing poker (learning he can influence people’s minds) and practicing sword fighting with Cassandra. Soon the temptation to seek out a criminal and deliver justice becomes his obsession and he is given that chance when a woman dies at his feet. The twist is that Joseph must drink human blood to [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea] and he regrets this action terribly. He is also horrified when the dead body must be [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea]. Joseph is threatened by Cassandra and their relationship is tested. Cassandra, meanwhile, has her own secrets and often manipulates Joseph to her own ends.

As the book progresses they find the woman’s killer and deliver a brutal beating to him. Joseph has more regret and has concerns about the way Cassandra has treated him. Cassandra shares memories with Joseph of how she met [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea], the twist that he too is a vampire, and was once [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea]. John Snow (Cassandra’s estranged vampire husband) has his own chapter where we learn some of his past and see the pleasure he takes in combat with other vampires. Cassandra, meanwhile, makes their training sessions more intense as she strongly suspects John will soon return but does not tell Joseph. Joseph and Cassandra, however, dream of John Snow as he approaches on the ferry to Newfoundland. Joseph is also given an offer to join with John in his dream but he only considers it for the briefest of moments. Joseph maintains his contact with his friends and Cassandra is brought along to meet them for a game of Dungeons and Dragons, despite the impending danger. After a climactic battle, where Joseph uses a moose to turn the tide of battle, they defeat John and it is revealed that Cassandra had another creation before him and that they are being watched. Joseph and Cassandra have an argument where more truths are revealed; she gave him Ginger ten years ago and did once make another vampire to defeat John. Joseph is shocked by these revelations and tells Cassandra that he can deal with no more secrets. He is hurt and his trust is shaken but ultimately he has come to love Cassandra and he decides the vampire world is too dangerous for him alone. While Joseph is out for a walk to think he finds a stray cat in a parking lot. He is confronted by another vampire, the same who watched their fight, sent by a [portion deleted to protect author’s story idea]. The epilogue features Donald Rathmore, John Snow’s secret creation and his brutal killing of a girl in Mexico. Donald senses his creator’s death and decides he would like the challenge of fighting vampires for a change as the story ends.



  1. Querying editors is a painful process I do not wish on anyone. At least with Penumbra Publishing you get an honest look, although they are getting busier.

    Keep writing and do not be shy. You goal is to put yourself out there and let everyone read your book. Keep writing and good luck.

  2. Thanks, Walt, for that encouraging note.

    Everyone enjoys praise, but the serious author will also appreciate some ideas on how to improve a writing piece. With specific tips, an author can be mindful of these improvements and hopefully utilize better writing techniques in future work.

  3. My writing tip learned from Penumbra:

    Expand on the strongest parts of your manuscript. Writers have parts of a manuscript that they are well done, because of inspiration, a unique idea, or expertise / special knowledge. Often these parts are the same length as the ordinary or 'filler' parts of the manuscript.

    However, if you expand on your strong passages, they will over-shadow the weaker parts. Not only will your final draft be stronger, but you will enjoy the writing process more because you are writing to your strength and passion.


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