Sunday, 19 February 2017

Dear New Author (1)


Dear New Author,

I'm writing to you about your first book, Sinking In The Amazon. I may write you further letters. I don't know how well you deal with constructive criticism, but having got this far I assume you're pretty good at it. So don't take any of this the wrong way. I know if I revisit my books I'll find improvements that could be made. It's never-ending because our craft keeps improving. Which is a great thing! I count myself lucky that I've worked with literary editors who are straight to the point and pull no punches. Thanks to that I learned a lot each time. Particularly with my first relationship novel, for which I got whacked with the stick so many times I couldn't walk straight.

"Show don't tell!"
"Let the reader do the work!"
"Be more concise!"
"Is this detail really important?"
"You are repeating yourself!"
"Cut to the bloody chase!"

Yes, my editor wrote all those things and more. But they stuck in my mind. Even if you don't want to revisit your book, the stuff you learn after publication will be worth bearing in mind for your next book. You will write one, won't you? The successful writer is the one that doesn't give up. (And the one that keeps improving.) So I'll give you some of my thoughts, and I hope you'll see them as well-meaning advice, some of which is vital, some which is hogwash, since I'm no more right than the next man/woman/demon. Though I often edit fiction, so that gives me an edge over supernatural entities that don't.

Firstly: don't be overly disheartened by the negative reviews you received. On the other hand, it is worth analysing any information you can get hold of as to why the people didn't like your book. In some cases it just isn't their cup of tea, or isn't their genre of preference: nothing you can do about that (apart from make sure the cover, blurb and categories metadata are correct and clearly indicate what kind of book it is). But if an issue comes up enough then it is worth considering.

Okay, structure: an issue with your book is that too much of it was setup. According to my Kindle I was 40% through the book before anything major happened, tied to the central arc. Up until then we just followed your protagonist Johnny Bigballs on his daily routine. The novel only really picks up after he finds the gun, so shorten the first bit, get rid of some repetition, get to the hotness sooner, let it shine front and foremost. Every scene in a novel needs to do something concrete in terms of revealing things or moving plot along, not just passing time. If it's really important make that clearer. Because it is good once it gets going! That Johnny, what a character, eh? You just need to crank up the engine sooner. Focus on that escalating series of events - each has to have a greater risk for the protagonist than the last. In terms of how quickly we get to the tension I like to think of other books. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is fantastic (despite that author's abuse of apostrophes). Cormac could have begun the book by showing the relationship of the protagonist with his wife, the war starting, how they survived in the house, the wife leaving - but no. He begins at the point of highest drama, tells the story from there, using flashbacks if required, and it keeps the reader tense. We begin at the core of the real story: the boy and his father. By the way, you might think "I can't shorten the setup, there's so much I need to say" but think about short stories - they might be able to get across a lifetime of background in just a page. Obviously we don't have to do that in novels, we have room to breathe, but we all know it can be done.

Another way to crank it up is to use subplots. Novels need conflict, but apart from the central murder (committed by tickling someone to death, which was certainly original), your novel has no other plots running in parallel, nothing to give it depth. Everyone Johnny meets is really nice to him - colleagues, police, family, friends, torturers. So it is harder for the reader to feel engaged. We need conflict between desires and outcomes, between characters - add some extra strands and increase the tension.

I want to mention use of detail. When to include it, when to omit. It felt like I was often told everything Johnny did, every trip to the toilet, even if it didn't reveal anything new or move the plot along; yet other times I wanted to know details and they weren't given. I'll give some examples.
  • A few times he sat down to watch his favourite old films, and cried: but the films were never named, which makes it feel a bit unreal. It helps to create sounds and memories and tell us more about him if we know what he watched. There's a world of difference between him crying while watching It's A Wonderful Life, versus The Exorcist, or Porky's II: The Next Day.
  • Likewise when Johnny spies on martial arts classes, none of the martial arts are named, turning the concrete to vagueness. Martial arts do not all look, sound, feel or smell the same. There’s variety: from the bangs of judo throws, to the kiai shouts and punches of a karate class sparring, to the silence and effortless throws (and lots of rolling on the floor/ukemi) of aikido. If you spend the time talking about something, piquing the reader's interest, then you have to seal the deal.
Okay, let's look at one error, and ideas for fixing it.

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub. That would be me and my daughters on the news."

The full stop leaves the clause unfulfilled.  It needs joining.

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub that would be me and my daughters on the news."

Or you could pause for emphasis:

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub ... that would be me and my daughters on the news."

Or maybe even better:

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub ..."

i.e. leave it hanging and let the reader do the work. There's often a temptation to explain too much. Sometimes we don't need to. Trust the reader to fill in the blanks.

General tips for you.
  • Don't repeat things multiple times, in different ways. She agreed, then she nodded, then the narrator says she was sure it was right ... This happens quite a bit, and many words could be cut which would speed up the novel.
  • Johnny summons a policeman when he suspects danger next door, but never insists the policeman check inside the house, even though Johnny has a spare key. I wanted to yell at him to do this: Johnny was far too passive. Never miss a chance to let a character make a decision, to overcome a challenge! As it is, this scene is not earning its keep the way it could, tying elements of the novel together, and you missed the opportunity to weave in tension.
Okay, that's me done. Don't be put off, but if a few of those things are useful, or lead to a bit of revision, great. They could help fix some of the criticisms in the negative reviews if you're willing to put in more work. And trust me, nothing I've said is as harsh as what my current editor says to me. Once she told me "I skipped this chapter, pretty much. You'd bored me and I couldn't face it."
After that I went back and did some major re-thinking. And it was all the better for it.

Good luck with the book! I want to know what Johnny Bigballs does next!

Karl

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NB This is not a real letter, but it is a combination of points I made in some past editing commissions, anonymised and merged together. There are further examples in my post 13 Tips for Writers. Oh, the book and the characters I refer to are fictitious too. Though I'd possibly buy it if it was published.

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips.