I had so much fun reading Lattermore Prep. Your book is action-packed and full of great visual details. You lure us in with glamor and keep us going by dangling the promise of intrigue. I knew from the outset that some of these beautiful characters must have something rotten at their core, and I kept turning the page (well, scrolling down) to find out what it was.
My overriding suggestion is that you pare down the subplots so that we can focus on the main lines of tension. Your manuscript felt busy, and it was hard for me to keep track of what was important. But don’t worry—this is a good problem! It’s much easier to take something out than it is to put something in. If you prune the garden, the events and relationships that matter will get more sun.
Now it’s time for a trigger warning of sorts: I’m about to make lots of suggestions, some of them major. That doesn’t mean the book is bad; it means that your book, like most, could be improved. Do not be discouraged! You’ve already done the hardest part: you’ve written the first draft. Now it’s time for the next part of your journey, and I’ll be there with you. I believe you have lots of work to do, but I also believe in your book, and I want to help it reach its full potential.
Okay. Let’s go!
Main Characters, Conflict, and Desires
You want your plot to arise out of your character’s desires; otherwise it’s the tail wagging the dog. Let’s consider each main character, and think about how her motivations drive the story.
Main desire: To work in the food industry and date Joe.
Main conflict: Daddy doesn’t want her to do either.
My analysis and suggestions: Audrey, your main character, is also the least vivid. This is actually fairly common, in part because writers tend to inhabit their main characters, which makes them feel like they don’t need to work as hard to convey the character on the page. The other problem is that Audrey’s conflicts are purely external. Drama lies in a character’s subjective experience of difficulty, and because nothing ever feels too difficult for Audrey, her troubles—including, to a certain extent, her abduction—never feel high-stakes.
I’d like to see Audrey get upset. I’d like to see her struggle internally. One possibility is to have her put more stock in her father’s wishes. For most of us, it’s no easy thing to defy our parents. Of course, to make us believe that Audrey struggles to defy her father, you might have to soften up Mr. Park. I’d suggest that you add a scene in which they enjoy each other. You’ll have to make Mr. Park behave for a few pages. Given that Audrey is his only daughter and he seems lonely, I can imagine he might spoil her. Meanwhile, she might take care of him, even when he’s grouchy, the way Cher in Clueless takes care of her workaholic father.
Dial up the Daddy issues.
Main desire: To rule the school.
Main conflict: Blair rules the school; Queenie’s been kicked off the swimming team, and her star is waning.
My analysis and suggestions: Queenie seems like an antagonist at the beginning of the book, but by the end, it’s clear that she’s your number 2 protagonist. I think you can make better use of her antagonistic qualities. First, show us how jealous she is of Blair. You put a lot of emphasis on the parade—Queenie is angry that Blair gets the position of honor—but this scene doesn’t end up showing Queenie’s jealousy so much as it shows that she’s spoiled. I’d put more emphasis on Blair’s first party. Show us Blair through Queenie’s eyes: pretty and, I assume, refined in a way that Queenie can’t hope to be. Queenie might watch as people gravitate towards Blair. She might be in a conversation with a boy and watch as his eyes stray over to Blair. Later, at the school’s opening ceremony, she might note how the media is paying attention to Blair, and remember how they used to pay attention to her—Queenie—when she was on the Olympic swimming team. Queenie’s own father might pay more attention to Blair than Queenie.
I think it should be Queenie who seduces Franklin, not the other way around. If Franklin hits on Queenie, the event isn’t all that meaningful: he’s a sleaze; she’s lonely. If Queenie hits on Franklin, we know that she’s trying to take something from Blair, because she feels that Blair took something from her. We might think Queenie is mean, but if you can show us her jealousy and hurt, we’ll identify with her anyway.
Main desire: To get more serious movie roles.
Main conflict: She’s been typecast.
My analysis and suggestions: Bridget’s fight with Joe ends up being a distraction. It doesn’t tell us something about who Bridget and Joe are, and it doesn’t bear fruit later. My suggestion is to cut their fight. Consider introducing us to Bridget through Queenie’s eyes—in which case, Bridget is just one more person for Queenie to envy. Introduce Bridget’s conflict quickly, perhaps through a disagreement she has with Blair or her manager.
I don’t totally understand why Bridget decides to go to college. Does she want to try being normal? Does she want to study English literature, or biology? Make this more clear.
I also don’t understand why Bridget leaves Blair in the lurch at the beginning of convocation. Why wouldn’t she tell Blair that she can’t make it? Does she want to get Blair back? That’s interesting, but I don’t see her motivation yet. Tell us why she wants revenge.
Main desire: Not clear.
Main conflict: Her relationship with Franklin is troubled.
My analysis and suggestions: It’s hard to imagine that anyone who’s gotten as far as Blair has is unambitious. But what is her ambition, both now and in the long-term? Maybe she wants to run a presidential campaign, or own a PR firm, or go to law school. Maybe her ambition is more vague: she wants power. Whatever it is, you should articulate it to yourself, and make sure she acts accordingly.
Her short-term ambition—one of them, at least—might have to do with Franklin. I never get the sense that she cares about him, so I myself don’t care too much if she stays with him. I’d like to know if she’s in love with him, if she’s using him, or both. Whatever it is, I’d advise you to show them doing something other than fighting or having sex. What else brings them together? If you help us understand their relationship, we’ll feel like something is at stake when it starts to tank.
To keep the story of their relationship moving, I think Blair should find out immediately that Franklin sleeps with Queenie. It’s almost always more interesting if your characters are smart and sleuthy. That doesn’t mean, however, that she has to admit to Franklin that she knows. Maybe she tests him. Maybe she tells him and holds it over him. Maybe she breaks up with him immediately.
Blair’s set-up of Bridget seems unmotivated. What does she have against Bridget?
Main desire: To sleep with everything that moves—Audrey in particular.
Main conflict: Franklin plays a role in Blair and Queenie’s rivalry, but he himself isn’t conflicted—which is fine.
My analysis and suggestions: Drama is good. Melodrama is bad. Franklin’s love of Audrey seems a bit melodramatic. You could plug it into the plot—Franklin’s rivalry with Joe might come to a head—but my advice is to leave it out. It’s extraneous. Joe and Audrey already have a formidable obstacle to their relationship in her father, and Franklin already has a relationship with two women. Just as a lover can spread himself too thin, so too can an author. Instead of explaining Franklin’s crush on Audrey, spend the ink on deepening his relationship with Blair and Queenie.
Regarding those relationships: Franklin is a jerk, and your readers will feel more satisfied if he gets his comeuppance. At some point, perhaps after he hits Blair, Blair should dump him (this could also be a major, arc-completing moment for Blair). Then, after Franklin comes crawling back to Queenie, she should reject him in favor of Dilbert, which would neatly complete the Dilbert-Queenie plot line
Main desire: To date Audrey.
Main conflict: Joe has to choose between Audrey and his job.
Joe plays an important role in your story: he is the only character who isn’t rich. As such, he’s a stand-in for the reader—the non-rich reader. Let him pass judgment on the excess and privilege of everyone around him.
His background could, and in my view should, be an obstacle to his relationship with Audrey. He’s had to work; she’s been given everything. It would be interesting if, at the beginning of the story, he thought of her as spoiled, and had to overcome his own prejudice in order to date her.
Shakespeare’s line, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” is a writer’s dictum as much as it is an observation about the world. And despite the car crash, despite the threats of Mr. Park, Joe and Audrey’s relationship goes extremely smoothly.
Try letting the tension come from inside. Maybe Joe’s idea of a date actually horrifies Audrey—at least at first, until she loosens up. Maybe her cavalier attitude and willingness to order anything off the fancy menu makes him angry. At the very least, I’d like to see him make a faux pax the restaurant. The collision should be one of values and expectations, not cars.
As I wrote earlier, Joe’s fight with Bridget is less interesting than his relationship with Audrey and her father. Not only that, but his relationship with Bridget impugns his blue-collar bona fides. It’s hard to believe that he’s worried about work or money when his sister is not only America’s biggest TV star, not only his close friend, but also his once and future client. Joe and Bridget’s connection takes the air out of Joe’s job dilemma. Who cares if he quits? He can make another movie with his sister.
That’s why I’d advise you to sever the knot. Joe and Bridget don’t have to be related. They don’t even have to know each other. The revelation that they’re sister and brother feels like a cheap reveal anyway. Why? Because it’s not a secret in their world; it’s just something the author held back from the reader.
Main desire: To date Queenie.
Main conflict: Queenie.
My analysis and suggestions: Dilbert’s history with Blair feels like another distractor. She snubs him once, sort of, and we never again see him try to talk to her. Because you spend so little time on their relationship, it’s hard for us to care about it. And their history brings up a set of questions that you never answer: why DID Dilbert leave his old high school for Lattermore? Was he following Blair? If so, why does he give her up so quickly?
This history is one more element I’d advise you to cut. You don’t need it. If Blair has a dark secret, your characters can find it out by another means.
Main desire: Unclear.
Main conflict: Joe and Audrey disobey him.
My analysis and suggestions: Mr. Park knows everything about everyone else in the story, but we know almost nothing about him. Why does he object to his daughter’s relationship with Joe? Why does he object to her pastry aspirations? Why, above all, does he take the majorly creepy step of reading his daughter’s emails and installing cameras in her room?
I also want to know more about his involvement with Lattermore and President Lessig. You give us a tantalizing scene in which Park offers to renovate the school gym, seemingly in exchange for something, but we never learn what he got from the deal. It seems to me that their deal might be the dark secret at the heart of Lattermore Prep–which brings us to the next point.
The Dark Secret at the Heart of Lattermore Prep
What is it? You seem to promise one, but you don’t deliver. This story has plenty of other secrets, and you don’t necessarily need to invent a new one. But the narrative might be more shapely if you created a single secret to rule them all. What should it be?
- Park launders his dirty money by investing in Lattermore’s facilities.
- Park indoctrinates Lattermore students with his libertarian/Christian/Jewish/Zoroastrian/sky-worshipping beliefs.
- Park tests his secret super drug by putting it in the Lattermore cafeteria meatballs.
Lattermore uses a serum to turn all of its students into sleepwalking soldier zombies who will destroy Abnegation.
- All the dorm rooms in Lattermore have hidden cameras because Park is a perverted miser/secret porn mogul/Russian intelligence officer.
The Other Characters’ Secrets
You might be able to make the other characters’ secrets do more work for the story. Let’s consider them one by one.
Queenie got kicked off the swim team for being uncooperative. I wonder if you could make this more scandalous. Maybe she slept with the coach, or doped. Maybe the details of her meltdown are just more lurid and specific: she attacked the coach with a foam noodle and threw a hissy foot on national television. You might also take a page from Cecily von Ziegessar’s playbook and let the rumors swirl around Queenie without definitively resolving them. (Will we ever really know what Serena did at and after boarding school?)
Franklin is a coke head. This secret doesn’t go anywhere. Either cut it or let someone discover it. And it might be more on point if Franklin dopes.
Doyle is a murderous stalking psycho rapist. This reveal came out of the blue. I still think a major secret about Lattermore Prep might serve the plot better and lead to a different climax, but if you keep the Doyle plot line, you need to seed it by leaving clues.
A Word About Clues
Secrets are useful not just because they surprise readers, but because they create tension before the reveal. Each secret should have its own set of clues, its own enticing mystery.
Let’s take Doyle as an example. Maybe someone (Doyle, as we’ll find out later) leaves a red dahlia—Audrey’s very favorite flower—on the windshield of Audrey’s Audi. She’s only told a few people that she likes red dahlias, so she wonders who it could be. Her ex-boyfriend? Her dad? Later, as she gets together with Joe, she realizes that it must have been Joe. Then she asks Joe and learns it wasn’t him. The red dahlia gives us an inkling that someone is stalking Audrey and makes Doyle’s abduction less random.
Clues like this, along with your characters’ desires, will lead to your story’s climactic moments, so let’s examine them.
Your story doesn’t need a single climax that ties every plot line together. It’s okay if each plot has its own climax.
Climax: Danny claims Bridget slept with her to get the part. I think it’s really smart to make Bridget’s attempt at reinvention blow up in her face, but I had questions about this plot event. Why does Danny lie? What’s in it for him? What does he have against Bridget? And why does Blair set Bridget up?
A climax like this would be more satisfying if it arose from Bridget’s decisions. I’d like to see her do something wrong—take her friends for granted, let her fandom go to her head, whatever—to bring about the scandal.
Climax: Audrey and Mr. Park fight; Mr. Park cuts Audrey off. This is a great plot point, but I never felt that Audrey was in danger, or even that she was particularly upset. And the resolution—Audrey’s grandfather hands her a credit card—is too easy. Audrey should solve her problem with ingenuity, not more family money.
Maybe it’s Bridget who helps Audrey out in the end, as Audrey and Joe simultaneously help Bridget quell her scandal.
Climax: Doyle abducts Audrey. I found the story’s shift to be disjunctive here. It’s as if I’d been reading Gossip Girl, turned the page, and found myself reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Tone down the violence. I don’t think Blake needs to rape Audrey. Maybe he just hits her and threatens to.
Back Around the Horn: POV and Characters
You jump between characters’ heads quickly, which helps to keep your scenes swift and exciting. But this technique is a double-edged sword: sometimes it feels like I never get to know anyone. And at the beginning, I was confused. You introduce me to too many people too quickly.
I think you should start the story from Audrey’s point of view and introduce us to Mr. Park, Joe, and maybe the other leading ladies through her eyes. Next, take us into Queenie’s head, and then either Blair’s or Bridget’s.
Right now, you start with a cinematic sweep over every character. That makes the story more confusing, not less. Get the machinery of the plot clanking along, and feed in new characters as needed. It will be easier to remember who people are if we understand their role in the story.
Let’s spend a little bit more time looking at some of the characters.
Audrey is so nice that I’d like to see her misbehave. Yes, she defies her Daddy to date Joe, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that she will do so. It might be fun and characterizing if she committed a bit of mischief of her own accord. Either that, or you might give her a flaw. Maybe, even though she has everything, she shoplifts. Maybe she drinks too much, or lies.
Queenie is such a prima donna that I want to see her vulnerability. Show us that her attitude is a front, at least in part. She’s frustrated and lonely; she used to be famous and now she’s not. Show her crying, or running away to hide her tears, or pounding her bed, or writing sad letters to an online advice columnist, or calling her little brother.
Blair is so Teflon that I also want to see her vulnerability. Does she struggle with the fact that she’s helping Mr. Park do something evil, or does she rationalize it to herself? It might be interesting to see her get defensive, which would reveal that she IS worried about her association with Mr. Park.
I’d also like to see her feel angsty about her relationship with Franklin. I had a hard time believing that she took him back so easily after he hit her.
Finally, given that Blair is a Yankee, I think you could use her to tell us something about the Southerness of Lattermore’s culture.
I want to know more about Bridget both as an actor and a person. How was she discovered? What are her movies like? Does she think she already peaked? Does she channel that fear when she performs?
Dilbert is too over-the-top nerdy. Try playing against type. Maybe he’s really enthusiastic about the Indigo Girls. Maybe he brews his own beer. Also, I think you should change your physical description of him. All the guys are muscly in the same way. Maybe Franklin is cut, Joe is shorter and thicker, and Dilbert is wiry. Maybe Queenie likes the contrast.
Franklin is also a bit one-note. Play against the stereotype of the caveman athlete, at least a little bit. Maybe he’s into politics. Maybe he prides himself on his knowledge of opera, but comes off as a buffoon when he tries to tell people about it.
If Joe is really into cinema, I’d love to hear his opinion of Bridget’s work.
Try to give each of your minor characters one characteristic that will stick in our head. For example, maybe Dylan hums “Little Drummer Boy” all year round when he’s working. Maybe Danny carries a small edition of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in his back pocket, positioned so that other people can read the title.
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Summary of My Recommendations
- Decide what big secret you’re funneling towards. Figure out what Park and Lessig agreed upon.
- Leave clues for each secret and plot twist.
- Make sure every scene advances the main plot lines. For example, you should cut Audrey’s fight with Dylan. You should either cut the scene in which Blair hits on Joe, or make it clear that she’s only trying to get back at Franklin.
- Heighten Queenie’s rivalry with Blair.
- Motivate Blair’s rivalry with Bridget.
- Give Audrey and Joe some internal as well as external obstacles.
- Give Franklin and Mr. Park their comeuppance.
- Differentiate the ladies, who are all equally beautiful, and the men, who are all equally muscly.
- Introduce us to the cast more slowly.
- Add scenes that show:
- Audrey and her father connecting.
- Audrey and Joe’s expectations colliding.
- The way that Blair and Franklin use each other and/or love each other.
- Queenie’s vulnerability.
- Blair’s vulnerability.
- Some of the unique features of Lattermore Prep.
Pick out a few things you want my help brainstorming (i.e., the big secret at the heart of Lattermore, how to make Audrey and Queenie more vivid). Take a few days. Put the manuscript down. Read a couple good books. After we talk again, brainstorm more about your characters, plot and setting. Then write a new, short outline. You don’t need to lay out every beat or even every chapter. You just need to lay out the major points of action and revelation. I’ll take a look at the new outline and give you more feedback. Then you should start your rewrite.
Congrats on getting through not just a draft, but my letter! I know it’s hard to hear that your manuscript needs work, but you ought to feel encouraged. The only reason I made so many suggestions is that you gave me so much to work with. I think it’s going to be easier to rewrite your book than it was to write the first draft, and by the time you’re done, it’s going to be a whole heck of a lot better. I can’t wait to read it!