In which I read a Bad Book

It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”

Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.

Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.

And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.

I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.

So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.


In which I consider when critique and comments are useful and when they’re really really not

A blog post for the writers out there this week. I’m heading out in a few minutes to my little writing critique group, where I’ll be offering some comments on a chapter or so of another writer’s children’s novel.  Last time we met the opening chapter of my new work-in-progress (which could, possibly be the next big thing) was up for discussion. Usually I put short stories up for discussion or chapters from a novel that is already close to complete. I’m not sure how helpful critique on writing that is still very much in development really is.

My ideal writing and critiquing pattern goes something like this.

1. Write a first draft.

2. After a short hiatus read through first draft and deal with the horrendously glaring problems. You know the sort of thing, characters that age 20 years in a single chapter to make the plot work; sections where the first draft simply reads “Put a scene where x happens in here.” That kind of thing.

3. Then let another carefully selected and trusted person have a read.

4. Then do a proper 2nd draft in light of their feedback.

It is good to get feedback. Novels are big and complicated and it can be hard to see the problems when you wrote them yourself. Inevitably it either all makes sense in your head so you don’t notice the plotholes, or you’ve spent so long staring at the thing that you’re convinced it’s all a big ol’ pile of steaming terribleness and you should never be allowed to Do Writing again. A fresh pair of eyes is a thing of great wonder at that point. They have to be eyes belonging to the right owner though, not a person who will tell you it’s great when it’s not, but not a nitpicker who will steamroller through whatever fleeting confidence you might be clinging to by this stage in the process.

It’s bad, for me though, to get feedback too soon. People tend to ask questions to which the only possible answer is, “I don’t know yet. I’m still making it up.” Questions about character’s motivations and how you intend to get from the current point in the story to whatever vague end point you might have in your mind. There is also a risk that they’ll make suggestions about what should happen next, which is unnerving in the extreme. An embryonic novel exists only inside the writer’s imagination, and other people shouldn’t be allowed to wade into your imagination and move stuff around. It’s not good to go to your mental happy place and find that someone’s been in and rearranged the deckchairs. Embryonic novels are delicate transitory things, which can easily get broken by too many people clomping around in them and kicking the metaphorical tyres.

All of which means that while novel 2 is an embryonic work in progress, I’m going to have to write some short stories to keep my little critique group happy, which is good. I went through a long phase of not writing shorter stuff at all, while I was drafting novel number 1, but I increasingly find it to be a useful writing work out.

So, writers amongst you, when do you let someone else read works in progress? Do you like feedback as you go along, or do you prefer to keep your writing in a bubble until it’s reasonably well formed?

In which I offer musings on what it means to “finish” writing a book

My first ever attempt at writing a novel is nearing completion. And let me be clear, by “completion” I don’t actually mean “completion” in the sense that any sane and normal person would understand it.

The non-writers amongst you will probably be open to two potential definitions of when a book is complete. It could be when the writer has typed their way all the way from “Once upon a time…” to “happily ever after” and stepped away from the keyboard. It could also be when the book gets handed over to a publisher and winds up in actual bookshops. Well, I’m not at either of those stages. The first passed some months (years?) ago, and the second may never happen at all.

So what have I been messing about at for the last two years, since I completed my first draft of this novel? Well, various things. There have been periods of having to leave the house and earn some actual money. Although he is astonishingly supportive of my whole penniless writer thing, much beloved husband does also remain fond of more mundane stuff, like eating and paying the mortgage.

There have also been periods of watching my life inexorably ebb away through the medium of my twitter and facebook news feeds. There has been a brain-mushing amount of watching old episodes of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model on youtube, and falling ever so slightly in love with both Heidi and Tyra. Turns out my ideal woman is a German version of Tyra Banks. Who knew?

There have been periods of sitting staring at my novel-in-progress on the screen and rocking gently before flicking back over to youtube where it’s safe. But mainly there has been editing and rewriting and editing again, because starting at “Once upon a time..” and typing through to “happily ever after” doesn’t get you a book. It gets you a draft, and within that draft there will be plot holes that you could drive a truck through. I mean, YOU could drive a truck through them. I couldn’t obviously. I have driving-terror. The draft will also include characters who change their personality for no reason partway through, and, in my case, one character who changed their name for no reason partway through. That first draft was like a route map for the whole – it was only after I’d written it, that I could really start navigating through the novel.

There have been periods of very bravely allowing other people to read bits of my work for feedback, occasionally leading to periods of weeping and periods of defensiveness (usually followed by a much longer period of acceptance). Feedback on work in progress is interesting. The main thing I’ve learnt is that it’s wise to be careful who you ask. The best writers aren’t always the best critiquers. Twitter and facebook are brilliant for chatting to other writers, but the best feedback can come from intelligent readers outside of the little “writer bubble” we sometimes occupy. (Although I have had top feedback from some v talented writers – Huzzah for Holly Magill,  Lisa Bodenham-Mason and the RNA New Writers Scheme.)

I am now very nearly done with the editing and rewriting. I’ve (I think) beaten my insubordinate opening chapter into submission. There’s one more chapter to rewrite and then a few bits and bobs of line edits and then, and then… Well, and then, it’s time to send baby out into the world. I’ve made my list of potential agents, and prioritised within that list. I’ve identified publishers who accept unagented submissions. It’s pretty much all over bar the posting.

And after that, I start back at “Once upon a time…” and do it all over again, with a whole new set of problems and anxieties trying to get in the way. I “finished” one novel, but was it a fluke? Can I do it again? The rejections for novel no. 1 will be flowing by then too, trying to distract me with their depressing hints at my inate lack of ability. And that’s not even the worst thing – the worst thing is that I’ve now watched ALL the episodes of Top Model on youtube, even Canada’s Next Top Model. Can I write at all without a Top Model based word count incentive? I’ll let you know…