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Roger Clarke's 'Dear Ms Paterson'

This article appeared in the 'Good Weekend' of February 11, 1994 (pp.44, 46). This is the Magazine distributed on Saturdays with 'The Sydney Morning Herald' and probably some other papers in that stable.

Now 100 years old, Waltzing Matilda has become the song people around the world associate with Australia. But would it pass muster with today's romance fiction publishers?

Valerie Parv is the author of 35 Mills & Boon novels and The Art of Romance Writing (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993). She is delighted to have her art widely available.

Dear Ms Paterson

© Valerie Parv, 1995

Reference: your manuscript Waltzing Matilda

We regret that it has taken us two years to get back to you on this but we did want to give your manuscript every consideration. Twelve editors, the postman and the cleaner have now appraised it and we offer these comments:

You did well to get the hero on stage as quickly as possible, within the first four words in fact. This is commendable but we have reservations about your description of him as 'jolly'. This is hardly a heroic image and having him camp (admittedly by a billabong) can have unfortunate connotations, given our readers' preference for demonstrably heterosexual heroes.

The location, under the coolibah tree, is fine, provided you supply clear definitions of such terms for our overseas readership. While the hero's name, Andrew, is acceptable, we find your repeated usage of the diminutive, Andy - as in Andy sang, Andy watched, Andy waited while his billy boiled - tends to demean him as a hero. We would advise usage of his full name in future drafts.

While you do not make his occupation clear, you describe him as singing beside the billabong. We should point out that musicians and performers in general are not popular hero figures with our readers.

Portraying him as an outdoors man is fine, but your use of the term 'swagman' is worrying as it connotes lower economic status. Suggest you make it clear that Andrew is the scion of a wealthy family. Perhaps, some indication of his true status should be foreshadowed, such as a gold-plated billy.

We do feel your heroine, Matilda, should make an appearance a good deal earlier than at present as readers are anxious to see the hero and heroine get together. As it is, there is a distinct lack of conflict between the two. In fact, Andrew gives little thought to Matilda until almost the end of the story when he invites her to a waltz.

This leads to an unfortunate lack of emotional depth which needs to be addressed. You could consider making the jumbuck the centre of a property dispute, for example, or have your characters enter into a marriage of convenience - always popular with readers - with the intent of providing a stable background for the jumbuck [sic - stables are for horses - Ed.].

A familiar complaint is the inclusion of too many minor characters. The squatter mounted on his thoroughbred is a colourful and interesting character but, as written, runs the risk of overshadowing the hero. In addition, instead of having Troopers One, Two and Three, could they be combined into one Trooper who fulfils all three roles.

We were also concerned at the minimal amount of dialogue used in telling the story. At present only one line of dialogue is given to the hero and its thrust, vis-a-vis, "You'll never take me alive", is definitely too downbeat for a fantasy-escapist medium.

Much more dialogue could benefit the manuscripts as a whole, but beware of giving some of the best lines to minor characters. Putting them in a position of authority over the hero, as indicated by "where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tuckerbag", can run the risk of diminishing the hero. This line could more advantageously be given to Matilda, serving the dual purpose of bringing her on stage much earlier and pointing up the conflict between her and Andrew.

The pacing seems to need work. At present there is too much watching and waiting while food is prepared. Perhaps the interval while the billy boils can be used to develop the romance between hero and heroine.

While on this subject, having the hero boiling the billy may be fine for a mainstream novel, but it is our experience that new-age heroes who do their own cooking do not go down well with the romance readership. Suggest employing a cook-housekeeper who could boil the billy and serve Andrew and Matilda. This would enhance the hero's status and further provide you with the scope to deepen the romance between the two.

We do like the Australian setting and your evocative description of it, which brings it to life very vividly.

However, please bear in mind that you are writing for an international readership and terms such as 'jumbuck' and 'tuckerbag' should be redefined so they are easily understood - suggest deceased wool-bearing ovine and food-receptacle as alternatives. It should also be pointed out that there is no place in a fantasy medium for heat, dust and flies so such aspects should definitely be avoided.

A happy ending is definitely indicated. At no time should the hero even contemplate suicide as at present. Lines such as "his ghost may be heard when you pass by the billabong" are far too downbeat.

We would much prefer to see the couple resolve their differences through their own efforts and look forward to a happy and fulfilling life together. To this end, the squatter should not be seen to be an authority figure, but may well turn out to be Andrew's long-lost brother, perhaps kidnapped at birth. Andrew's presence at the billabong and his pretence of being a stock rustler may well be a ruse to draw his brother to the scene in order to pave the way for an eventual reunion [pigs might fly - but jumbucks?? - Ed.]

Alternatively, the squatter may have been 'the other man' in Matilda's life and the whole jumbuck scenario may be an attempt by the squatter to discredit the hero. This would not succeed, of course, and the squatter's behaviour should be portrayed as reprehensible. Our marketing shows that readers do not enjoy having the heroine choose between two equally attractive heroes.

However, something along these lines may provide the vital sexual tension which is presently missing from your manuscript. At the moment, the hero's closest involvement appears to be with his sheep [but then again, this could be appealling in some export markets close to home - Ed.].

Ms Paterson, we feel your writing is fluent and interesting but we wonder if this story really suits the special requirements of the genre. Accordingly we do not advise you to do further work on this manuscript on our behalf but to try again with a fresh story-line which we would be interested in seeing when you are ready.

If you wish to submit this story elsewhere you might consider trying the Silhouette Shadows line which provides more scope for the darker side of romance. The paranormal elements in your plot would not go amiss here.

Another popular trend is time-travel romance. Could you consider a change of title as Waltzing Matilda was not considered romantic by our editors who suggested as an alternative, An Arresting Affair [There are ample possibilities, e.g.Phantom of the Billabong, I Love Ewes All,Waterchop Down - Ed.].

We also urge you to give some consideration to using a pen-name, as Banjo is also unromantic. Suggest you consider Joanna or Bambie Paterson.

We hope these suggestions are not too daunting, as your writing shows promise and we feel you have a successful career ahead of you, once you come to grips with the unique requirements of the romantic genre.

We shall follow your career with interest.

Yours sincerely, the romance editors.


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