Dear John: Enclosed you will find my editing comments for the first few chapters of your book. Overall, it looks great! Your story has wonderful suspense (will the Pharisees manage to kill the protagonist or not?), a sense of mystery (the miracles are fascinating, though a couple, like raising people from the dead, strain credibility), and lots of good characterization (all those wise sayings of Jesus make for great sound bites; we'll use some on the flap). It's going to cause quite a stir in the Christian bookstores, though it will probably have only limited crossover potential in the secular stores. It should get rave reviews in CBA Marketplace and Moody.
There are a couple of problems, however, that we need to work through.
Structure. Right off, consider deleting the entire opening section. All that "In the beginning was the Word" stuff is confusing, abstract, and sure to make the average reader say, "Huh? What's going on here?" As you probably know, storytellers have always used the technique of starting in medias res—that is, in the middle of the story. (Have you read John Grisham?) I recommend you begin chapter 1 with John the Baptist's interrogation by the Pharisees. It's so intense! And it gets the reader hooked right away.
Scene. In your writing you tend to emphasize character at the expense of developing the scene. For instance, where does John's encounter with the Pharisees take place? What kind of day is it? Are there mosquitoes and that kind of thing? Only after the dialogue ends do you mention that it takes place "in the desert, near Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan." Let's beef up that section and move it to the front as exposition so the reader will have more of a sense of locale. Don't be afraid to make the reader sweat; after all, it's a desert.
Dialogue. You really need to work on your dialogue. I recommend you read Hemingway to see how a true master handles it. Your characters speak all these great, dramatic lines, but they sound so stagy and formal, as when John says, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert." It certainly has a bell-like tone, but people just don't talk that way. You've already characterized John as a kind of wild man (have you read Iron John?), so why doesn't he speak like one? Remember, he's a vagrant, really, an outcast. He goes around in sandals and animal skins. It will help your development of his character if you have him say, instead, something like, "Hey, I'm shoutin' my fool head off out here and nobody's listenin'!" See what I mean? It's so much gutsier. It portrays his frustration and his colloquial way of talking.
Market sensitivities. First of all, the mention of wine at the Cana wedding will be a problem in our market. Wouldn't the scene work equally well with some other beverage? I recently attended a wedding at which nonalcoholic punch was served. Though I have no objection to wine personally, we are sure to get angry letters from readers if we leave the reference in.
Also, in the opening section you refer to Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Spirit and not by "human decision or a husband's will." Many readers will find that sexual innuendo tasteless, and it should probably come out. (We have to be extra careful in our romance novels on that score.)
Similarly, I'm surprised that Jesus, in chapter 8, doesn't deal a little more harshly with the "woman taken in adultery." I know you want to portray his compassion, but the fact that she gets off scot-free will leave us open to the charge that you (the author) and we (the publisher) are tacitly condoning her sin. As it stands, parents would have a hard time sharing this book with their teenagers, wouldn't they? Isn't the whole point of Christian stories that evil people get punished?
Since the whole issue of prostitutes and adultery is probably too much of a "red flag" for our market anyway, maybe you could rewrite it as "the woman taken in shoplifting," or something like that.
Finally, while the conflict with the Pharisees is extremely well developed and moves the story along nicely, I think we need to show some sensitivity here. You characterize the Pharisees, basically, as the legalistic, conservative religious establishment of the time. This may cut a little too close to home for some readers. Could we possibly characterize them instead as the secular humanists and religious liberals of their time? If not, maybe it's best not to say anything at all. We'll just let the reader fill in the blanks.
Naming. Since another character pops up later in the story, the Beloved Disciple, who we know is really you (like Alfred Hitchcock making cameo appearances in his films), it will be confusing for readers to have two major characters with the same name. I'm not alone on this one—all of the major books on narrative technique say the same thing. Therefore, I've taken the liberty of changing the Baptist's name to Bill. I like the phrase "Bill the Baptist." It has a certain punch.
Market position. We're really pumped about pushing this one in our market. "Spirituality" and "narrative theology" are big buzzwords right now, so I think you'll be hitting the market at the right time. My gut feeling is that you've hit on a very hot topic—believe it or not, we are currently considering three other manuscripts on the same subject.
One of the unique things about your book is that it can be read not only for its fast-paced story line but also for its devotional value. In fact, one of our marketing people even suggested that we divide the chapters into short passages and number them for those readers who would like to read just a couple of sentences each day. Makes sense to me. What do you think?
Title. We haven't decided on a title yet. Our committee is still working on it. I will warn you in advance that I'm fairly certain we won't be going with your original title since several people on the committee felt the word Gospel is too overused in book titles nowadays. (Have you seen John MacArthur's The Gospel According to Jesus, or the humor book The Gospel According to First Grade?) It's a cliche, I'm afraid. We need to find something epic, suggesting intrigue and suspense, as hard-hitting as a good movie title. Something like Prophet would be ideal—but Frank Peretti has already used that. We'll let you know.
Author photo. I don't know how to deal with this next issue other than honestly. We've decided not to use your photo on the back cover. It's nothing against you personally, but you must understand that people with dark complexions and strong Middle Eastern features, like yourself, are looked upon with considerable distrust in the United States right now, and our marketing people are afraid that having your picture on the book could hurt sales. It's just one of those hard realities we have to live with. Sorry.
Marketing plan. As for promotion, I think you'll be a natural for radio interviews, and that will certainly be key in selling your book. I would suggest, however, that you don't mention your belief that your work is directly inspired by a Higher Power. As real as that may seem to you, it's bound to strike most Christian radio listeners as smacking of New Age religion—you know, channeling, out-of-body experiences, and all that. Also, speaking of out-of-body experiences, I would avoid any mention of the heavenly visions that you told me about over the phone recently. No offense intended, but it might give listeners the impression that you're a little off-kilter—or else a charismatic. Then again, with all the interest in angels recently, maybe you should collect those visions and put them into your next book! Send us a proposal. If anyone can make it work, you can!
Sorry you couldn't make it to the Christian Booksellers Association convention. Your agent said something about not being able to get a flight out—hey, must be tough living on a sunny island in the Mediterranean! Hope all is well on Patmos.
Sincerely, Your Editor.
Bob Hudson is a senior editor at Zondervan Publishing House, and coauthor, with his wife, Shelley, of Companions for the Soul (Zondervan).
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