Sophie Calle’s book, Take Care of Yourself is a collection of analyses of a single letter. Calle was broken up with over email, and as a way of coping she analyzed the email, and then had people she knew analyze the email, and then she had people she didn’t know analyze the email. As a result, there are 107 analyses that all differ from each other greatly. A psychologist, a writer, a mediator, etc. All with different ways of looking at it according to their profession.
I’ve decided to take a page from Calle’s book, figuratively speaking.
The other day I received in the mail a critique of Finding ‘Ohana from a literary agency which had requested seventy-five pages from me. Well, I happened to be a little down when I read the letter, so I decided to give it a couple days and then look at it with fresh eyes.
So I’m going to post the letter and my analysis of it here, and I welcome any outside eyes who will also offer their opinions.
Dear Ms. Leeder:
[Anonymous Agency] would like to thank you for introducing us to FINDING ‘OHANA. We regret to say that we aren’t the best match for you.
Cinnamin’s relationships with Naali and with Lucas are sweet and sincere, though they may rely a bit heavily on pop culture references.
[Here’s where I was first confused. The only pop culture I can think of including is Cinnamin and Naali’s song: “Ma Belle Evangeline,” which is in the movie The Princess and the Frog. They saw the movie on their first date, and held hands for the first time during the song, which is why they made it their song. It became kind of a thing for them, and they even engraved their wedding rings with “You are my Evangeline” meaning “You are the only one for me.” I thought it was sweet, but I can also be known to be quite cheesy at times. Is it too much? Anyway, I’m not sure what other pop culture they may be referring to, especially with Cinnamin’s relationship with Lucas.]
The flashbacks are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and never muddle the timeline. [Thanks!]
However, it is unclear to whom Cinnamin is telling the story. She says that it is a parent, but she also refers to her mom and dad without addressing them directly — when she talks about her dad kissing her goodnight, for example.
[This I did specifically because my workshop suggested it. The professor as well as students in the class said that the second person was jarring and that I should try to avoid it when possible without losing the suspension of disbelief that Cinnamin is writing the novel as a letter to her parents. My professor noted that when you talk to both parents, you might say, “Dad did this…” if you’re only talking about one of them, but then use “you” when talking about both of them. So I’m not sure what to do about this critique…]
Cinnamin’s relationship with Nicole and Kalani both clearly help shape her, and I think that they could be expanded upon. [Great! I need expansion!]
Nicole is her first real girlfriend, as well as the first person she knows who is familiar with the LGBTQ community and comfortable with being out. You mention Nicole’s frustration, both with Cinnamin’s self-loathing and with the homophobic atmosphere at the school. I would like to see this addressed more directly, and I think it would be valuable to the story for you to show the growing tensions in Nicole and Cinnamin’s relationship.
[I agree with this, I think. Nicole was one third of a chapter, and I didn’t want to spend too much time on her and have my flashbacks and present time be lopsided. I mostly didn’t want to distract too much from the main point of the book, which is Cinnamin grieving over Naali’s death. Would she be thinking about an ex-girlfriend at this time? I think in this case she might be since, as the agency pointed out, Nicole is Cinnamin’s first girlfriend, Cinnamin’s first peek into an accepting community, and the first to address Cinnamin’s self-hatred. And after Naali’s death, Cinnamin struggles with acceptance versus hatred for the first time since meeting Naali. I’ll never know about the balance thing until I try it out. So I think I’ll write it, save it in a separate document, and see how it turns out.]
Also, Nicole’s break-up speech seems a bit too on-the-nose for someone so young. [Again, I agree. This should be a quick fix to one or two lines of dialog.]
Kalani, born as Naali dies, clearly brings up complicated feelings in Cinnamin. You touch on them when he is first born, and later, in Chapter 5, but I think you could delve into them further, particularly during the middle of this excerpt [during the flashbacks with Cinnamin’s ex-girlfriend(s) mentioned earlier?], when Kalani seemed conspicuously absent from Cinnamin’s thoughts.
[Once again, I did this to try to avoid distraction. Chapter 4 is the only one in the book which is entirely composed of flashbacks. I wasn’t sure if including present time thoughts would seem out of place. However, since it is the only chapter of its kind in the book, it might benefit the flow if I do include present time here and there. I’m sure I can find a place for it.]
Since Cinnamin is otherwise so open and straightforward, it did not seem as though she was intentionally repressing thoughts of him. [Good point. While writing a letter, thoughts will come in out of order. I’ll work on it.]
We encourage you to continue editing this novel, and wish you every success in placing it with someone who is as committed to it as you are. Thank you once again for giving us the chance to read your work.
So there it is. Please feel free to comment with your own interpretations and thoughts.
I’m not sure if this is an agency which I can resend to once I make changes. They don’t specifically say that I should send them changes, but they might be implying it: “I would like to see this addressed…”
I’m also not sure about making permanent changes because of one agent’s suggestions. Any agents that are interested will surely have changes of their own in mind, and they may not agree with the changes in this letter.
So, again, any thoughts and responses are appreciated!