[Note: this was Scott Meredith's evaluation of book one of Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, a three-part comic novel now in its sixth printing from Doubleday.] SCOTT MEREDITH LITERARY AGENCY
April 17, 1992
Mr. C.D. Payne
Berkeley, California 94702
Dear Mr. Payne:
RE: YOUTH IN REVOLT
This is well-written and consistently amusing; usually the subtitle "a comic novel" on the manuscript of newcomer or experienced writer alike is a signal of desperate trouble (just as a certain famous magazine likes to label certain articles "satire" or "humor", doubtless on the premise that readers need a strong signal that something is meant to be taken as funny), but Nick Twisp's journal of adolescent horniness, partial sexual success, fragmented living and automotive disaster is handled with a good deal of felicity and insight.
For the last forty years editors, critics, reviewers, random readers have taken to referring to any first-person novel in an adolescent voice as "reminiscent of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE" or "the new Holden Caulfield" or "in the tradition of Salinger", and I don't want to debase the work by reaching for that easy comparison; certainly Nick Twisp is very much his own character and this novel of middle-class fracture and disorder may owe more to Peter de Vries (who sets his grotesque visions in Connecticut) than to Salinger; in any case we're taken with many aspects of this novel, the first of a completed Nick Twisp trilogy you tell us, and it's been the subject of much respectful attention here.
Unfortunately, YOUTH IN REVOLT doesn't really have a plot. It has everything, one might say, except a plot interesting characters, a complex tangle of situations and some powerful setpieces like Nick's semi-successful courtship of Sheeni or the absolute demolition derby of the final scene. It also has a good deal of social observation and some unpleasant insights into Nick's version of the adult world. (Nick's divorced mother is, one can grasp through the refraction of the diary, not a very nice woman, a self-involved, sexually grasping and indiscriminate woman who has sacrificed her marriage, her son and her own self-worth to her obsessions.) But there's no real plot here, no dramatic evolution of character or circumstance; this is a novel which bounces, not always effortlessly or pleasantly, from one event to the next and which simply stops (with Sheeni's departure and the news that Trent, the narrator's rival, is pursuing her to the exclusive private school to which she has transferred).
The absence of a developed conflict, of some continuous plot line and payoff, means that YOUTH IN REVOLT is thrown back upon its page-by-page inventiveness and originality of characterization/circumstance as a means of carrying the work forward and that isn't enough. Nick is a thin and stereotyped character and the insights here although well-handled are predictable and simplistic. There are several generations of YA and adult novels which have dealt in an ironic way with the fractured and confused inner lives of self-conscious, bright
adolescents (Robert Cormier and Judy Blume have been the most successful, the best known writers within this genre) and there's little in YOUTH IN REVOLT which can be seen as having moved much beyond the familiar and the predictable. That scene in which the mother's cop boyfriend sadistically beats up Nick, nominally as punishment, has a fair amount of implication,
but it isn't really considered material and there's a lot of byplay concerning Nick's lust for his divorced father's 19 year old girlfriend which takes up space and goes nowhere. The father for
that matter isn't well characterized at all and the device of making the diary an hour-by-hour reconstruction of events with Nick often racing to the diary to (improbably) record events which
have just occurred is artificial and seriously limiting in its contrivance. Ultimately YOUTH IN REVOLT is a series of notes, scenes, setpieces and monologues in search of novelistic
fulfillment rather than functioning as the novel itself.
That's giving you a great deal of news at the outset, to be sure.
I do so, Mr. Payne, in deference to your ability which is considerable and out of the desire to treat you with utmost professionalism from the very start of our relationship; having done so, however, having indicated the fundamental nature of the problems here, I'd be remiss not to take a few moments before going on further to thank you very much indeed for having sent along YOUTH IN REVOLT for our reading and market-evaluation and to welcome you most warmly to SMLA; new scripts and writers, to be sure, are of the most compelling importance to all of us in these offices, it is from their ranks that will be drawn the agency mainstays and the steady clients of the times ahead and we're pleased indeed to be working with one such as you. I hope that this will mark, accordingly, but the first of many of your works to come across my desk in the times ahead and that we'll be moving together toward truly mutually profitable outcome. This has been the subject, inevitably, of many extra readings and staff conferences at all levels here and the final decision has come in an atmosphere of much respect and regard for your work and promise; I only wish that we could have gone on from here to grant you a completely favorable report and to have told you that we were taking this promptly to the marketplace or, failing this, that we could recommend a revision or series of revisions which would make the novel saleable; that however cannot be the case and neither as a self-standing novel or as the first novel of a proposed trilogy does YOUTH IN REVOLT work (and the odds that publishers would commit to a trilogy by an unknown writer in the face of such daunting problems of structure are daunting indeed). We've no alternative to declining the novel. It's not presently or potentially saleable. We have our doubts as to whether the two later novels would be anymore likely a market prospect, although of course it's hardly within our purview to make judgements on that which we have not seen. That's hard news, I know.
I can tell you in partial compensation that most published "first" novels aren't first novels at all but fifth or fifteenth works by writers who have had to bury a great deal of their earlier
work in pursuit of professionalism. This is a skilled, rigorous, demanding and difficult craft, it takes at least as much of an apprenticeship as any skilled craft or profession and if you look upon YOUTH IN REVOLT as a learning experience and at our remarks as falling within a pedagogical framework you will have approached this in precisely the right spirit. Needless to say, Mr. Payne, we're more than routinely sorry about this; the main business of SMLA is involved, crucially, with taking manuscripts promptly to the marketplace and earning commissions on their sale and this is a category of work into which we'd hope to place you and your material at the earliest juncture possible.
Accordingly it would be best to dispense with all further expressions of regret, continue to use this report as a straightforward means of showing you what has gone wrong here. Your basic problem, that which tends to make much of the other difficulty symptomatic outcome, has to do with plotting; you haven't yet learned how to weld and assemble disparate narrative
elements into a clear and coherent whole and accordingly I'd like to take the time and trouble to place the tools of the sound plot very much into your hands, with that accomplished we'll then be
in sound position to take this on its own terms and show you where and how the work has gone off the track. In my book, WRITING TO SELL, then, I discuss at length a device known as the "plot-skeleton" which must underlie nearly all successful fiction and drama, and briefly enough schematized, the well-ordered plot will almost inevitably look like this:
1) You begin matters with a sympathetic lead character with whom the reader can identify and from whose point of view the story is told; immediately that lead will be confronted by -
2) An urgent and vitally important problem which the lead must but cannot solve; the lead's efforts to come to grips with that problem will lead the narrative inevitably forward and through a series of rising -
3) Complications which based upon the successive dynamic of struggle and failure act to take the narrative forward and into -
4) A point of absolute crisis where all looks bleakest and in which the lead appears to have been undone by the implications of the original problem but the protagonist rallies penultimately to force -
5) The resolution in which your lead satisfyingly solves the original problem and effects lasting and meaningful change upon personal life and entire future consequences. Conversely, your lead might fail but arrive at a state of enlightened resignation (usually involving a more implicit and universally applicable kind of problematic basis) but in either case, however, your lead must have struggled against rising, antagonistic forces and have been tested to the utmost before coming through to that attained and meaningful point of resolution of his.
That is the scheme in a nutshell. It underlies over 95% of contemporary published narrative of all kinds: novels and short
stories, fiction and drama, stage plays and screenplays (and autobiographical and biographical work as well) but in fairness there are some important minor variations which ought to be cited.
One is the so-called reverse-plot or biter-bit; here the lead is an unsympathetic protagonist who is followed through a series of increasingly nefarious episodes toward his undoing by his own hand; then there is the surprise ending or delayed-revelation work in which one element of information absolutely vital to the reader's understanding of the work is withheld through its body only to be given at the end as the revelation; this revelation should utterly shock the reader and should vault the reader into an entirely new apprehension of the preceding material of the work. And in the novel there is the picaresque or bildungsroman format in which the lead, an unformed but highly individuated and accessible protagonist, is followed through a series of interrelated and inventive episodes toward a state of self-enlightenment; this self-enlightenment must be resonant, and must be fully predicated upon the preceding elements of the work.
And finally in the short-story there is the vignette or " slice-of -life " format in which one event in the life of a well-individuated protagonist casts subtle and inferential light upon the history and outcome of that figure.
That vital material in hand and it is worth your most careful study and attention under all of the extant circumstances, we're now in better position to take a closer look at this in those and other terms; the best way to approach the situation here would be through a series of general comments (ancillary to or expanding upon my earlier remarks) which comments although not
necessarily sequentially linked or in order of importance will hopefully approach a kind of inclusivity on the matter, and to wit:
1) Nick Twisp is engaging but he's more of a construction than a genuinely identifiable protagonist; he's a kind of by-the-numbers narrator who doesn't really grow/shift/change through the course of the work.
2) The staticity of the protagonist and the fact that events seem to have only a marginal effect upon him make YOUTH IN REVOLT a stunt or (more plausibly) a series of stunts rather
than an organized novel; it is an episodic work in which some of the episodes (like that car-wrecking, trailer-wrecking sequence toward the end) are quite successful, some are not (like the byplay with the father's girlfriend), but none of them can be said to have moved beyond sheer compilation of experience.
3) The diary device is inherently false of course, it's unlikely that the narrator would seize every free moment to bring his recollections up to date. More problematic is the falsity of the
voice here; Nick is a chillingly bright kid and we understand that but even conceding this the voice is just too mature, sophisticated and contrived for a fourteen year old, and this utterly diminishes the real credibility of the work:
I am writing this in the tenuous privacy of my bedroom on my annoying obsolete AT clone. (page 2)
In the condensed kitchen, Mom was staring sleepily at the kettle warming on the miniature propane range. (page 102)
Meanwhile, in between defending her lifestyle to Mom, Joanie continues to eye me suspiciously. I struggle to remain inscrutable. (page 145)
Ultimately, YOUTH IN REVOLT fails to be other than a construction; the problems of plotting, voice and conceptualization are so severe as to take this irreparably out of market range and, due to their pervasiveness, render revision or reworking of any kind absolutely impossible. This must go back without further recommendation of any sort and with a good deal of the most genuine regret under all of the extant circumstances. That's our loss to be sure and I wish the word could be otherwise, but don't be dismayed, do take these remarks much to heart and let's see some entirely new material from you soon. For now, Mr. Payne, it falls to me to thank you very much again for having sent this along for our reading and market evaluation and to thank you as well for the implied vote of confidence in SMLA. That confidence to be sure is much appreciated by all of us, my senior staff editors and myself that is to say, who occupy this set of offices.
And much reciprocated.
All best wishes for now.