Developmental Feedback Example: Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith
I hope spring has sprung in Georgia as it has here in Spokane, and that this letter finds you well. This is Kevin from Latah Books. As I know Jon has already expressed, we are both incredibly enthusiastic about publishing Twentymile. In reviewing your manuscript this time around, I was struck by the quality of your prose and your knack for structuring this complex novel. With its many components—different POV characters, a lengthy timeline, and layers of plot threads woven together—your novel could easily become jumbled. And yet, Twentymile delivers a number of “surprising and yet inevitable” moments. Those kinds of moments—when different plot elements click into place—are so satisfying to readers. Alex’s penchant for anger, for example, and the way it leads to his death, checks this box. And there are many other places where seemingly disparate plot threads align and deliver those “oh, I see!” moments.
I also appreciated the attention you paid to the mechanics of each scene. Sometimes (and especially in high-octane storytelling), so much is happening that the actions themselves are hard to track. Subsequently, a character might need four arms to simultaneously do all the things described in a scene! But you are skilled at writing intense, fraught scenes and still managing all the characters’ actions. For me, this is illustrated in the moment when Tsula’s coat bunches around her shoulders after she flips her attacker on page 210. It’s a small detail, but the world contained within your novel is built of these small moments—ones that quietly reinforce the believability and plausibility of Twentymile.
In this developmental letter, I’d like to highlight some bigger-picture revision ideas. I tend to try and describe the issue I’m seeing, then propose a solution (or a series of solutions). By separating out the identified issue and the solution, my hope is that even when we don’t settle on a path forward, we can agree on the issue identified. If you think of a defter change, or a different resolution, then all the better. After all, this is your book, vision, and story to tell. At this stage, my goal is to support you as proactively as possible. I really believe in this novel and its success; as such, this letter aims to be scrupulous. The highest praise I can offer your work is a thorough review of it. I am pointing out these editorial issues because I believe you can tactfully address them, and that even a 10% improvement in Twentymile will take it from great to excellent.
Throughout this letter, sometimes editorial topics will overlap, a single solution will address multiple issues, or a particular problem will manifest itself in different ways. Despite that disclaimer, I have tried to organize my feedback in a way that makes it as useful to you as possible. I will address larger, more bird’s eye concerns first, then grow increasingly granular with my feedback as the letter continues.
For me, there are four primary things to address in the developmental edit: Harlan’s origin story, Choctaw’s character development, outlier POV chapters, and the Stephens Cavern conflict. I’ll dedicate a paragraph or two to each topic now:
Harlan is one of the two most important characters in Twentymile. Throughout the novel, his actions are certainly the most consequential. His perspective is also presented to readers first. And while he is a forceful, commanding presence in the story, Harlan’s “origin story” felt underdeveloped to me. As I understand it, Harlan became who he is through the following events:
According to his father, Harlan’s ancestor had a bucolic piece of land stolen from him by the National Park Service. Harlan’s father resolves to find it and reclaim it. He does locate it, but through a mix of alcoholism and police profiling, Harlan’s father becomes imprisoned and dies in jail. Before this, though, he abuses Harlan until Harlan kills a man that allegedly slept with Harlan’s mom. After this, Harlan determines that his father’s on-the-radar existence was his downfall. He resolves to keep a low profile in service of his ultimate goal: reclaiming the homestead. Through high school and beyond, this goal is his north star: it’s why he cuts his hair, marries a plain woman, and takes jobs up and down the East Coast.
From my vantage, this origin story falls short in a couple ways. Primarily, it’s because his goal remains static from adolescence until present day. He decides on something as a teenager, then works toward it—without wavering, modifying, or adjusting his goal—for the next couple decades. That lack of development made Harlan’s motivations tougher to understand and his character less complex when compared to others like Tsula or even Alex. I wondered to myself: What is confirming, challenging, or altering Harlan’s perspective during this time? Or, put another way: What nearly changes his goals or mind? What has stood in his way, and what has he sacrificed to get here? I would feel more invested in Harlan, for example, if he loved his wife and chose to sacrifice his marriage because of his unwavering belief in freedom. As it’s currently written, Harlan merely uses his wife from the start. That one-note version of Harlan will be harder for readers to understand and believe. Of course, Harlan is the novel’s villain; he doesn’t have to be likeable. But I do believe readers need to understand him, even when they don’t agree with him. Similarly, it might be more humanizing if Harlan didn’t murder someone as a teenager. Perhaps he witnessed his father do this, or maybe he put the pieces together about why the florist disappeared. In that version, Harlan is more an accessory to the event; it’s about what he chose not to do (turn in his father), rather than what he did (murder). Subtle changes like these allow Harlan to grow into his worldview more slowly than if he became who he is—a villain—in high school.
My feedback about Choctaw is along the same lines. I was interested in Choctaw as a character—his POV section was interesting and I liked the way his first chronological interaction (at the job site) with Harlan characterized each of them. That said, we get Choctaw/Leonard’s POV section roughly 200 pages into the novel. Before that, he didn’t factor meaningfully into the story. The combination of those two factors will make it tough for readers to feel invested in Leonard’s character arc.
In my mind, there are two possible remedies for this issue. The first would be to incorporate Leonard’s POV sections into the narrative earlier and with greater frequency. Doing so might allow readers to invest in Leonard’s character arc. It would also provide an interesting third-party perspective on Harlan, his sons, and their endeavor. By that, I just mean Leonard’s view of their “mission” will be slightly different than the others. He may silently disagree or view their aims with skepticism. Having this perspective—close to Harlan but different enough to contrast Harlan’s POV—would add interesting complexity to the narrative. I believe that multiple-perspective novels (like yours) are most interesting when they allow readers to triangulate the truth. One character has their version of events, a second character has a slightly different version, and readers are tasked with reconciling the two. I see Leonard’s POV as an opportunity to do that more in your novel.
That said, this revision path is more labor intensive than option #2. The second remedy would be to remove Choctaw from the novel entirely. Again, I liked having Choctaw in the novel, but I don’t feel that he currently does enough to justify his place in the story. One could argue that Choctaw mostly behaves in the same way as Harlan’s sons, though he seems more capable and also free from Harlan’s abuse. Despite those differences, Choctaw’s qualities could just as easily be assigned to Joseph. Joseph could sell the ginseng root, follow Tsula to the fire lookout, and die there. Making this change would uncomplicate the group dynamics—readers won’t be asking why is this guy along for the ride? Instead, the homesteaders would all be members of Harlan’s family, and thus their goal would feel clearer.
Part of the challenge with Choctaw was the late introduction of his point of view. I had similar issues with the addition of Alex’s point of view and, to a degree, Otto’s. Having said that, I think Otto’s perspective is a necessary one for the ending, so I went along with it. Alex’s section, though well written and interesting, introduced a structural wrinkle that felt jarring. If we can posthumously dip into the victim’s point of view, then that opens a can of worms for the novel’s sense of suspense and mystery. Better, I think, to simply shift Alex’s point-of-view chapter into Harlan’s perspective (or even Otto’s for that matter). In that revision, Alex still stumbles into camp, and we watch as he comes across the elk hide and grows enraged. From this, readers will still be able to piece together the motivation for him approaching the homestead, even if the scene is in Harlan’s perspective. Again, I really liked Alex’s section, but I think moving it into Harlan’s perspective keeps the narrative tidier.
The last broad revision note I have deals with Stephens Cavern and Tommy Weathers’s involvement in it. Of all the real-world details in the novel, I had the most confusion around these elements. For one, I had trouble believing the park would keep Native people from accessing the cavern unless they had a very good reason (like health and safety concerns). I also doubted the plausibility of Weathers’s goal, that the land be returned to the tribe. In my (very) brief research on the topic, I couldn’t find precedent for this. What deepened my skepticism is that Weathers is a local politician, appealing to older adults in their community. To me, his proposal of returning National Park land to Native people is a somewhat radical one. In other words, I could see Weathers being a grassroots activist who is appealing to younger Native Americans (and other stakeholders) about this issue. But him being a politician and drumming up support among older locals seemed less likely. I don’t think these details require a massive overhaul to feel more plausible. Still, when taken altogether they struck me as less believable than other elements of the novel. I would also say that if you have any historical or current examples that you’re drawing from (when creating the Stephens Cavern premise), it’d be helpful to directly reference them in the text. For example, perhaps Tommy Weathers tells the congregation he feels this advocacy work is possible because of what happened at so-and-so reservation on such-and-such dates.
That was the place where I questioned the novel’s believability most. Here are a couple other places where I also got hung up:
Is there a precedent for NPS taking land from settlers like Harlan’s ancestors? To my knowledge, when National Parks get established, private landholders can be permitted to keep their property. For example, McCarthy, Alaska is a town of 100 year-round residents that exists within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. I understand that ultimately this is not what happened to Harlan’s ancestor; still, the possibility has to be legitimate enough for him to believe it.
How close is Harlan’s homestead to Twentymile ranger station? Is it staffed seasonally—is this area popular? Knowing this would help me understand how they hadn’t been discovered up until now.
Why does Harlan chase Tsula in the snow when it’s clear she isn’t his biggest problem? Does this choice come from a place of anguish and revenge (his son is dead)? Or is it solely about pride? Or another element that’s perhaps at play?
My feedback so far represents the bulk of my developmental edits. Beyond these notes, I did want to flag a couple smaller-scale edits I’d encourage you to address during this revision round. But compared to my previous notes, I think these comments will be more cut-and-dry.
Tsula’s first scene: Though I loved the writing in this section, I worry about introducing your Native American protagonist with a Native creation story. It’s early enough in the novel that you (as the author) are still trying to win readers over. I think skeptics out there will view this passage as a trope, or even as stereotypical. There’s no reason to risk losing the trust of those readers. My suggestion would be to simply cut this portion. But, if you really like this section and want it to remain, I’d suggest moving it later in the novel. Deeper into the novel, readers will feel less on-guard about how qualified you are to depict Tsula and other characters whose identities are different than your own.
Pacing from Abbott’s death to the fire lookout: To me, this section felt like it rushed by more than any other in the novel. There are certainly good reasons for this—everything that happens is intense and our protagonist’s adrenaline is pumping. Still, I think there are ways to include more of Tsula’s interiority—and even reduce some of the actions—so that the pacing becomes more even. For example, the chase through the forest (until the free-solo climb) could be pared down without sacrificing much.
Role of fire in Harlan’s discovery: It struck me as surprising that Harlan would allow something obvious, like smoke, to give their homestead’s position away. This happens with Alex and later when Tsula and Abbott are on horseback. I made comments via Track Changes related to this topic, but I think there are some simple remedies to this issue (Maybe the others light the fire, then Harlan admonishes them when he realizes what they’ve done. Maybe they’re building a smokeless stove, but it doesn’t work properly. Maybe you establish that the homestead is quite far from Twentymile, which would make the fires seem more plausible and less self-implicating.)
Those were the issues I noticed during this developmental edit. Again, I want to reiterate that these edits taken altogether represent an undramatic change in the novel. I think that speaks to how strong Twentymile is already. The prose is regularly excellent, the plot weave is satisfyingly complex, and the setting is rendered in stunning detail. I think these changes—fleshing out a backstory or two, bolstering the believability of some premise elements, and streamlining the novel’s points of view—will only enhance a story that’s already working well. I am happy to talk with you about any aspects of this letter (or of my Track Changes notes) if that’d be helpful. In the meantime, thank you for entrusting us with this editorial work. I’m excited to see how this novel continues to shape up.
PS: I tried to consider what other titles, apart from Twentymile, might suit your novel. Uncomfortable Inheritance and We Are Not the Ones Who Will Go struck me as candidates—both are lines from the novel.
PPS: Many of the survivalist and self-rescue elements of this novel reminded me of a podcast I frequently listen to. In each episode of The Sharp End, the host interviews someone about a wilderness accident they survived. The conversation revolves around what went wrong and what could be learned from the experience. Anyway, I thought you might appreciate the show. Maybe it’s worth mining for future Tsula Walker novels!