Monday, 30 April 2018

Watchers, by Dean Koontz


I've read Watchers a few times, and love the concept, though I am a bit more critical of it nowadays.

It certainly has all the ingredients of a tense plot, all the pieces lined up to fall over at the end. It does some things well, some things very well. It works as a story. And it has a charming character in Einstein, who only says a handful of things in the book yet still steals the show. If you want to read a thriller, then this is a fairly good one. I'm torn between 3 and 4 stars. I'll go with my gut instinct of 4, because I always prefer to err on the side of generosity.

Where it drops the ball for me is in not going far enough. There's a noticeable authorial voice between the lines; and the beliefs it betrays, as with those made more overt in the plot, are those of an attempt to push at a boundary. But it does not go far enough, does not question enough, does not realise that it has pushed a bit but then created a new arbitrary boundary. If it pushed harder it would have been more true to its central thesis, and could have achieved much more.

I often ask what the values are underlying a work, as illustrated by the way it portrays happiness. Here, it is pretty standard Koontz (based on the books I've read). Success = a manly heterosexual man, paired with a less active woman (but who is a good home-maker), seeking monogamy/marriage with the ultimate goal of having children. There is no questioning of those values anywhere in the book, or even recognition that they are particular viewpoint - the underlying impression is that no other alternatives can be conceived. That's not a criticism, just a clarification of how the core values never drift far from what is seen as a predominantly conservative set of views. At the end of the novel the female protagonist is making apple pie. In another location a pair of men are "tending to the steaks on the barbecue" while "their wives made salads in the kitchen". This is the happy ending. It is presented without irony.

Many books are from this viewpoint - probably most books. Culture (mass media, entertainment etc.) is often presented in ways that will appeal to the biggest market, for maximum profit. In turn, that widespread prevalence creates the impression that there are no alternatives, and this is "normal". Again, it's not necessarily a criticism, though I do think the bias should be perceived by both creator, distributor, and consumer - otherwise, without perceiving the cultural values for what they are, it can lead to close-mindedness and perception of all other values as being "lesser", rather than just alternatives. A book that praises "the ingenuity of man" can become irony if that self-understanding is not then present in the text.

Back to the book. With this book Koontz tries to challenge a few values. You can see him doing that, and perhaps thinking he is being transgressive, making big changes. But in each case it is a tiny shift while following the same line, and does not follow through or recognise how much further the questioning could have gone. Okay, an example.

The plot involves Government experiments on different beings. In this case, putting human minds in non-human bodies. It involves death, failures, murders, suffering, madness, enslavement, enough money to cure a range of problems if spent differently, and much more. The author makes it clear that there is immorality involved. I'd agree. But he can't take it to the logical conclusion - and, as if in panic when he realises that the implication is that the same things apply to all non-human experimentation, he feels the need to suddenly have a character give us a mini-lecture from the point of view of those who exploit beings in this way. Watchers involves characters who take an experimental animal and keep it from the Government - it is not portrayed as "stealing", or "ruining years of important research" - because we have seen that the things referred to are a form of injustice, and we have been allowed to see things from the sufferer's perspective. But the author wants to have his cake and eat it, so he undercuts the whole point of the novel by having a character that we are supposed to respect say "People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research ... they make me want to spit." (He goes on to actually state that revering life is "ignorant" and "savage".) Whoa. Talk about being blind to the concept of hypocrisy. It doesn't even touch on the fact that the majority of animal research is profit-motivated (from the race to patent, to the "me-too" generic pharma industry). It's as if the author wants to question things, but then to suddenly fall back into accepting them; to claim that the overall thrust is not a questioning of concepts, but making a special case for the cute dog who can act as lucrative product placement for the rich Disney Corp in the inevitable film version.

Remember I said that the underlying author views were mainstream? (In this case, mainstream US.) Here's an example. The author is trying to think of examples of goodness to use in a simile. He suggests "feed the hungry or nurse the sick"; no argument there; but they come second place to "build a business empire" as an example of the most "worthwhile and commendable" goals. That's the protestant ethic of capitalism for you! Most people would see the generic goal of "business empires" as profit-driven (and, as stated in that generic way, inherently selfish - very different from, for example, building an ethical co-operative). Yet here, it is unquestioningly given as a specific example of goodness that is _higher_ than selflessly helping those in need (in that it is the first in the list, the first thing to pop into thought). Viewed from outside the unconscious cultural values of the author, it can seem bizarre. Though that continues - the character who makes that bizarre interjection speech about wanting to spit is a vet who is portrayed as loving dogs. So what does he want to do? Turn his dog into a breeder "and maybe wind up with some nice puppies to sell later".  Breed dogs to sell for profit. Despite there being no shortage of unwanted dogs in shelters desperate for homes before they are destroyed, the predominant value for this character is breeding more, and profiting financially from it. Mmm.

One more example of the mainstream views: celebrating Christmas. In one speech it is actually equated with "life", and nowhere does the text acknowledge the overt shift from religious meaning to one of force-fed consumerism (even though the book shows the level of it, equating spending money on unnecessary consumer goods as being the same as loving someone, and refusing to see over-consumption as a possibly bad thing - those big companies and business empires have sure done their work on indoctrinating all these characters). People can do what they want, but we should always be able to trace where values come from, and what they really are. It's part of being responsible.

So we have a story that seems to push at boundaries, to question things, but which pulls back from any genuine commitment to the line of enquiry. It's similar to the difference between the viewpoints of animal welfare/vegetarianism ("it is okay to exploit other beings for our own ends, but we should try to be a bit nicer about it, and kill less") - which represents a shift, but not a qualitative change, from mainstream speciesism - and the viewpoint of animal rights ("we should not exploit other beings for our own ends, and rights should be regardless of sex, age, species, intelligence, skin colour, sexual preference etc. etc."). The novel shifts slightly in that it says the application of value should not be on the arbitrary basis of species; but instead of questioning all arbitrary values, it simply picks another one (in this case, intelligence) as a means to assign rights. Obviously this is pre-Singer.

One other annoyance - it regularly has chocolate being given to dogs as a "treat". That's quite surprising when the author acknowledges himself as a dog lover. The chocolate consumed by humans is often highly toxic and poisonous to dogs.

There's one other element I'd like to touch on: antagonists. This book has two. One is a hitman. One is the creature known as The Outsider. A problem for the author is that The Outsider is far away from the main characters for most of the novel, which is probably why the hitman was needed as a more imminent and portrayable threat. But The Outsider is a double-edged villain, because it is also a victim. It suffers deformity; it is aware of how people feel revulsion when facing it; yet it is intelligent. It has been imbued with killing urges it never wanted. Like Frankenstein's monster, it is an intelligent being cursed by its creator. It is a victim. It does some horrible things, though far fewer than those done by many humans. By the end it is "whimpering and hugging itself"; it is in pain, and taught itself to say so; it possibly showed pity on another creature and temporarily overcame the nature that had been forced into it by humans. And yet, on the previous page, the novel's main protagonist (through whose eyes the author wants us to see most of the story) describes it as "an enemy of unparalleled evil". Hold on a minute. Unparalleled? It is described as the most evil thing that is possible to exist? More than anything else, this made me question the authorial voice, because that description would apply more accurately to the military scientists performing these experiments on intelligent beings, with the goal of being able to kill other humans more efficiently. But the text falls back on black-and-white extremities, with the worst vilification applied to a victim. I didn't like that.

When I was fifteen and first read the book, I didn’t think so deeply about what is said overtly in books, and what is also said between the lines. As an adult, I’m more critical. But that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be a 5* book for you.

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Bad Language

My irregular series highlighting common mistakes that make me want to do the angry dance. Who has incurred my wrath this time?

This is the most horrifying thing when people write about zombies

HORDES. ZOMBIE HORDES. Hordes are large groups. Hoards are secret stores. Please, this kills me a little more every time.

"Save Big"
Marketing speak is often a culprit of bad language.
"Save big."
No. Big is an adjective. Save big what? Coins? Christmas baubles? Testicles?
Lulu actually mean "save money." Though even that is disingenuous. You would actually spend money, which is the opposite of saving it. What they mean is that you will spend less. Or rather, they are offering a discount on their usual price.
Either way, the printer/distributor Lulu has made disappointing.

"that game suffered an apparently torturous development process"

It was probably a tortuous development process (long, convoluted, winding), rather than a torturous one (involving torture). Though who knows with big publishers?

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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Tips For Working With Editors


Over on the ALLi website you'll find an article where I give various tips on how to choose and work with editors. Here's a backup of the article.


These tips can save time and money when working with an editor. It follows on from my article about Ways To Polish Your Manuscript.

Polish first

Make your work as good as possible before sending it to an editor. These self-editing tips will help with that. The editor can then focus on bigger issues. Or, if they are paid by the hour, you’ll save money because they won’t waste time fixing all the small errors you could have spotted. I’ve edited books for others that are a joy because they are so well-polished that I can focus on more complex issues of style and structure and character.

Provide information

If you use a particular style guide then let the editor know. Likewise if you have a house style covering things like which numbers will be written as words, serial comma use, -ise versus -ize etc., then pass that on too. If you don’t have a fixed style that’s fine, those things will come up in queries: but having one can save a bit of time (and money). I’d recommend that anything of this type that is raised by your editor should form the basis of your style guide for the future, or add to your existing one. After working with a few people you’ll have a comprehensive list of your editorial preferences, and it will soon become a subconscious part of your writing, aiding consistency.

Get a free sample

Most editors will edit a sample of your work for free, usually a few pages, and provide a quote based on that. Make use of the service. If (after due consideration) you don’t agree with their suggested changes, or you don’t feel like you’d enjoy working with them, then go elsewhere. It helps if author and editor think along the same lines. And if the editor made suggestions where you can see that your work would be improved by them, then you’ll be off to a great start.

Pay for a partial edit

If you suspect your work has problems of style and repeated errors, then you could save a lot of money by getting an editor to just edit a few chapters. Then whatever common things they pick up on (mistakes of style, grammar, sentence structures, overuse of passive voice, speech tags, punctuation etc.), you can go through rest of book yourself fixing those. Then you’ll really understand that issue, and be less likely to make the mistake in the future. Also any future editorial work won’t require the same little things being pointed out again and again.

Likewise you could get an editor to look at just the areas you feel are weaker, such as the opening of your novel. I did this once with a short story collection where I knew most stories were good since they’d been polished in the past; some had even been published already and just needed a few tweaks. However, other stories were brand new, more experimental, and I was less sure about their strengths. In that case I just paid a substantive editor to work on the new stories.

Types of edit

There are different kinds of editorial process.

The first edit (called the developmental, structural, literary, content, or substantive) will flag up the “big picture” story, character and prose issues. Much of their work will be suggestions. They can’t rewrite your book and make the decisions for you, but they will suggest what it is needed, and give pointers on how to do it – whether it is throwing out unneeded characters, adding in a subplot, working on style, or coming up with a different opening or ending. You read the suggestions, decide which way to go, rewrite as necessary. Yes, the author does the bulk of the work, because it’s your book.

Common advice is that it’s generally better to have two different editors than have one act as both literary editor and proofreader. The benefits go beyond fresh pairs of eyes, or the fact that one person will never find all the typos and errors in a book. The description of a developmental edit above shows why one editor can’t do everything – it is not a “final” edit, because you’ll make changes after that, which may well introduce new errors and create a new version of the document. Likewise there’s not much point the editor spending too much time correcting typos in sections that they are recommending for deletion and rewriting. The assumption is that after the first editor you will do more work. Sometimes a lot more.

When the book is deemed “finished” it needs at least one final pass for error-catching, ideally by a person who hasn’t read it before. This may be referred to as a copyedit or proofread (there is a difference between these, but both are final-stage types of edit). This is generally cheaper and quicker, and less work for you after it - ideally just making changes to errors and typos.

I use this two-step process. After I’ve done my first draft, as polished as possible after various re-reads, software tools and so on, I send it to my literary/substantive editor. They focus on the big issues like character, plot, style and so on. After more rewriting, restructuring, edits and fact-checking, and only when I’m satisfied that it’s the best it can be, it goes on to my proofreader for the final polish.

Use the right editor for the job

As well as finding the right type of editor, there are some other considerations.

Genre. Some editors specialise in particular genres or styles. They are more likely to know the tropes and expectations of the genre than one who is a stranger to it. Likewise they all have their own specialisms in terms of writing – one may be great at dialogue, another at structure, another at developing mood. This is where an editor who is also an author can be a big help.

Nationality/region. If your editor is in a different country (e.g. UK/US) then make sure they are familiar with your country’s spellings and idioms. If the book’s content is heavily tied to a region or subculture where there are all sorts of nuances of language or dialect then it might be advantageous if the editor is familiar with that area.

Editorial variety

There are benefits to sticking with the same editor over time. They get to know you and your style, the rapport is strengthened, and the writing can be taken to the next level. Sometimes it also becomes cheaper because they know your work won’t contain basic errors any more.

There are also benefits to working with different editors, since you learn different things from each of them, like having different teachers.

I adopt a mixed approach: I have my favourite editors, but when they are busy I never mind trying out a new editor.

Don’t look at it as just one book

When you work with an editor you are not just working on that single book. You are learning things that you will take forward and apply to future works. I always learn a huge amount from my editors, and I have worked with a lot of them over the last ten years.

Realise that you need more editing at the start of your career

Editing costs can go down over time as you become a better writer. Early in your career money spent on editing is as an investment in your writing future. When I left paid employment to become a full-time writer I invested most of my savings in my business, from buying ISBNs and software to going on writing courses and setting aside the money for editing and proofreading costs for a number of books.

Over time an author’s style and writing improves, especially if they’ve worked with good editors, until they end up with first drafts that need far fewer tweaks. (I work on the assumption that an author needs to write 5-10 novels, in a reflective way that involves feedback from others, to become fully proficient in the craft side of writing. The art side is a different matter, but in both cases good editors speed up the process.)

Related to this growth in skill, there is nothing to stop you going back to previous books and revamping them after you have a few more titles under your belt. I’ve done that with my early works, applying new skills, choosing new covers, reformatting interiors, and writing new blurbs. A lot of the rewriting was easy because I had learnt more in the interim, having worked with other editors.

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