Beta Report for Seriality
Congratulations on a story which held my interest from the first to the last page!
I hardly know where to begin with this novel, it is so well-written. From the very beginning I was struck by your deceptively simple style of writing. Not every writer is capable of avoiding the tiresome clichés that clog so much that is written these days, nor avoid a flowery writing style. You write clearly and directly, but there is nothing trite in the words you choose, nor in the way in which you phrase them.
I immediately liked Phillip. There is something about him I was drawn to, perhaps it was as simple as his endearing love for Sinela. For though he kept denying it throughout the story, I believe he is in love with her. His interest in her, and his concern for her after she’s been shot and taken to the hospital, goes beyond a mild infatuation, or ordinary lust.
Phillip is wrestling with many things in his world. His failing career, getting older (and the concerns he has about his heart since his bypass)–and I got the impression that he is also trying to figure out just what went wrong with his marriage. He is just trying to live his life. He’s not looking for adventure, but suddenly he is thrust right smack into the middle of something that reminds me of what the result would be if you were to combine a creepy Twilight Zone episode with some good old Hitchcock.
I like how the story begins. We see Phillip in the restaurant, where it is his custom to eat every week. It’s a good choice to show your protagonist in his normal, ordinary life before his world is turned upside down.
He longs for a glimpse of Sinela. He has a present for her. The setting seems innocuous enough. There is the obvious tension of her uncle not approving of Phillip’s interest in her, but for a while we can put that issue aside and watch as Phillip waits for the opportunity to speak to her. Here is an example of a passage that is moving in an understated way:
“Finished?” asked Sinela, who had stolen up behind Philip.
He waited to hear her voice again.
“Are you finished, Mr. Raine?”
Now she stood at his side, gazing down at him. Was that her breath on his cheek?
Philip removed his knife and fork from the empty dish. Her brown eyes remained on his famous blue ones, like a schoolchild in a staring contest. She snatched up his plate, glided backwards toward the dome-shaped kitchen door and nudged it open with her hip. As the warm, cumin-scented kitchen air escaped, carrying with it an old Beatles’ song, Sinela’s tunic tightened on her leg as if blown by a strong wind.
…still you don’t regret a single day…
This is beautiful writing. Where some writers would go on too long about the characters’ feelings, you state only what the reader needs to know in order to understand their brief interaction. And throughout this novel you stick to the maxim all good writers know: Show, don’t tell.
Once Sinela is shot, their lives are never the same again. The novel takes a twist that is like a scary carnival ride. I loved every moment of it, but I confess: I didn’t always quite understand what was real, what wasn’t. Another good move was to bring a rat onto the scene on page two, then tie it together with the Wind in the Willows, which has significance for Pillip. When Sinela has conversations later in her hospital room with Ratty, the reader has already been shown that he has a place in this story and so this doesn’t even seem all that odd.
On page 3 we are shown the young man at a nearby table with a stack of engineering manuals. Phillip’s immediate thought ties the young man in with his now defunct TV series, Seriola: “If this were an episode of Seriola, Detective Sinead would have had him in a half nelson . . . but it wasn’t. That show was gone.” The reader has no idea what the ending of this show might mean to Phillip; that’s something to be learned as the story progresses. What does it mean that his thoughts automatically went to the character he used to play on the show? Force of habit, maybe, or a yearning for the series which he will never have again? I like that you just brush on the subject, and then have Phillip’s thoughts turn once more to Sinela.
By the end of page 3, we’re shown that Phillip is in the habit of checking his pulse frequently. This is a good detail, it shows that he is anxious about his health, which in turn causes the reader to wonder, as the plot becomes more and more outrageous, if he isn’t perhaps just a bit off his head since he had his bypass surgery.
“With a footstep, the hard world became soft and tantalizing.”
His world has become hard. He’s lost his TV series, his marriage and nearly his health. Sinela is a soft spot whose presence in his life (however infrequent) gives him hope.
Your description of Sinela’s henna tattoos is a nice touch. And the phrase, “agave-colored skin” is indicative of your knack for using precise and colorful words.
When violence is about to erupt in the restaurant, you lead up to it matter-of-factly. I like this simple sentence: “Phillip’s iced tea clinked.” Oh, the simplicity of that!
The ensuing violence is told in near slow motion, giving it much more impact than if you’d written it in a fast paced, frenzied manner. Sinela has been shot above her left eye, and rather than screaming, she asks Phillip:
“Detective Sinead, if I go with you to the Getty, will you go with me to –
“She took a shallow breath and then murmured, “Shangri-La?”
This is understated writing, perfect for this novel. In a moment of confusion, and with possibly a numb yet growing terror within her, she asks the kind of question you wouldn’t expect from someone whose life may be hanging in the balance.
This chapter ends perfectly, with people pleading with Phillip to let Sinela go.
“But Phillip held to the quiet little body that wanted his company in Shangri-La.” This sentence reveals his tenderness towards Sinela.
You have strong chapter endings. They leave the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen next.
Phillip wants to wait at the hospital for Sinela to get out of surgery, but is met with hostility from her uncle and others. It seems they might even try to stone him if he doesn’t leave. I love that part about the stones. They seem somehow more threatening than if they flashed knives or guns.
From this point on, nothing much in his life seems to make sense. After returning home from the hospital, he tries to sleep, but he hears the backyard swing as if someone were pushing it. He sees a tall man in a cowboy hat standing by the swing; he gives it another push before moving off into the darkness.
I love this passage from when Phillip is in the hospital cafeteria the next day:
“Meeting Phillip’s eyes, the surgeon in the cafeteria smiled and held out his hand in which there lay, red and glistening, a beating heart; the operation left a beating heart. Every waking moment.”
“An apple a day,” said the doctor, before biting into the Macintosh.
Not a beating heart after all, simply a red Macintosh.
How is it that Phillip could have mistaken one for the other? Is it the aftermath of his heart surgery, even though it wasn’t recent, that has him imagining things? Or maybe it’s just his worry for Sinela, and the way in which her family showed such hostility towards him. Whatever it is, Phillip seems emotionally and psychologically lost.
I love that you tell Sinela’s story, in her head, while she lies in a coma. It creates more of a well-rounded story to have her thoughts added to Phillip’s.
She sees a rat in her room, and thinks, “I wonder if it’s Mr. Raine’s rat? Do you remember telling me, Mr. Raine, how the most joyful moments of your life were when your father used to read to you as you looked out your little window to see a tree just like the willow in the story? In that story there was a rat and a mole and many other little creatures.”
Ratty becomes a listener to Sinela’s story of her life. This is a great technique for getting her story told from her own viewpoint.
At the beginning of chapter 5, Sinela is being driven somewhere by her father. He drives slowly, as if reluctant to arrive at their destination. He doesn’t come right out and tell her where they’re going. There is a sense of doom; I can’t help feeling that Sinela is like a lamb led to the slaughter, though I don’t want to imagine that of her own father.
How painful to read that Sinela has been promised as a bride to Sameer, a thickset man of forty. This is why her father brought her here. This is her future, a future she doesn’t want. You are able to get inside the mind of this girl, and express her emotions in such a way that my heart hurt for her. You didn’t resort to melodramatics to do this; if you had, I doubt I would have felt such a sense of moral outrage on her behalf.
The end of this chapter is sorrowful:
“I do not remember leaving the house, all I remember is walking past my father when the red gate opened. My father’s cheeks were wet, and as we walked back down that hard dirt road, the two cattle a distant white beast, he pleaded for my forgiveness.
I dropped my flowers behind me in the dirt.”
I like the pacing of this novel. Events happen with enough regularity to keep up reader interest, but you obviously have such a sense of your unique writerly voice and vision that you don’t feel the need to rush. There is also no long meanderings in the characters’ thought processes, which tend to slow down a story to the point of boredom. You’ve managed just the right balance.
There was no point in the reading of this story when my interest lagged, and no sentences or passages I skipped to get to a more absorbing part. You’ve pared everything down so nicely that I couldn’t afford to miss anything.
Phillip runs into a man at his audition who resembles the little man with the shopping cart at the restaurant shooting. Could it be the same man? He remembers the nonsense at the hospital cafeteria with the doctor with a heart in his hand. These are the kinds of scenes that kept me unbalanced throughout this story. I couldn’t tell if Phillip was simply paranoid, imagining things because of the trauma of what happened to Sinela, or if everywhere he went people were messing with his head. If you meant to keep the reader puzzled you did a grand job of it!
I like that the play Phillip is in is all about coincidences. And the fact that after his mother died, he would pretend to be her. Then he entered the high school theater program to be close to Abha Chowdhury, with whom he’d fallen in love.
I can’t help but wonder how much these experiences have to do with the frame of mind he’s in after Sinela’s shooting. Does the possibility of losing her too cause his mind to unravel? Is the fraying of his mind what causes him to see The Cowboy, or the man with the shopping cart, and any number of people who seem to populate his world suddenly by some weird coincidence?
A clue seems to be given when Sinela tells Ratty, “If you play a mad character you must go mad yourself. But then someone came up with something else to pile on top of it all: that an actor must dream his role.”
Is this entire novel Phillip’s dream about the role he’s taken on in the play? Sinela even says to Ratty that she’s wondering if Mr. Raine could dream her.
You’ve written a novel with an intriguing plot, but it’s not all about the plot events. You get inside the minds of Phillip and Sinela, and as a reader I was able to feel a bond with both of them. I came to care what happened to them, and this is not always the case with the many stories I read. Your characters are always credible, no matter how outlandish the plot seems at times.
I realize that no two readers approach a novel in the same way. I’m the type of reader who must connect with at least one main character in order to be able to continue reading. No matter how exciting the plot might be, if there isn’t at least one sympathetic character I lose my interest fast. I think one of your strengths as a novelist is in how you create such compelling characters. Each one is unique; they all have their own particular way of expressing themselves, and there is never any confusion as to who is speaking.
As I continued with this story my admiration for your writing skills grew. You’ve managed to create a world of suspense which is as deliciously haunting as it is puzzling. I mentioned that this has (for me) overtones of Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone. Add to that Alice down the rabbit hole! I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to be able to figure out the mystery, in which case I’m especially dense because I couldn’t—or if you mean to leave the reader in suspense. Perhaps the story can be taken in more than one way. Is it all a play? A dream, and if so is it Phillip’s dream or Sinela’s? Is it Phillip dreaming as Sinela, or vice versa? Or perhaps none of it is a dream but Phillip himself can’t make heads or tails out of what keeps happening around him because the events are so emotionally triggering due to the losses in his life, and his worry about Sinela.
This story is full of so many beautifully written passages that it made my heart ache. You’ve obviously a great affection for your characters, as well as respect for your story.
I want to congratulate you on a compelling story which, in my opinion, is good enough for publication. You keep the reader interested all the way to the end, and with all the distractions of life in this busy world that’s not always so easy to do.
Please let me know when this gets published!