Getting a Second Opinion

Robert Burns said it best: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” No matter how fine a job you may think you’ve done in writing your novel, you must always be willing to seek out and listen carefully to input from knowledgeable readers. You may think you’re such a genius that this principle doesn’t apply to you; but you’re not.

Today I received a professional evaluation (not free — I paid $900 for it, and the pay was up front, not on delivery) from a developmental editor. I had already gone through two complete drafts of this new novel, and was confident that it was as good as I knew how to make it. And now I have some serious rewriting to do.

Until you’ve worked over your manuscript to the point where you’re confident that it’s as good as you can make it, there’s no reason to send it out for reading. Paying someone to read your rough draft would be a complete waste of money. Also, you can’t rely on beta-readers. A beta-reader, if he finishes reading your book at all (not guaranteed), will probably have neither the insight nor the communication skills to tell you what you need to hear.

In the old days, publishers had editors who could help whip a novel into shape. I’m pretty sure that’s no longer the case. Today, mainstream publishers face such a glut of submissions that they can easily afford to offer contracts only on books that are solidly commercial from page 1 clear through to the end.

If you already have an agent, you may (if you’re lucky) be able to get some advice from the agent on how to tighten up or add punch to a story, but in order to attract an agent in the first place you’re going to have to submit a manuscript that’s already damn close to perfect: An agent is not going to waste ten minutes on a manuscript that’s promising but needs work.

If you happen to have a friend who is a professional editor, you may be able to get a free critique; but realistically you should plan on paying someone.

To find an editor, I looked around on Reedsy dot com. I’m by no means convinced that Reedsy is a one-size-fits-all solution for writers who are seeking services, but if you’re careful about vetting your freelancer, it can work. This particular editor shared with me a couple of critiques she had given to other authors. On reading those, I was able to see that she knew enough about fiction to be helpful.

I may not follow all of her suggestions, but even when a suggestion or observation feels off-base, I need to be willing to think about it in an open-minded, non-defensive way. Why did the editor have that reaction? Did she notice something that I missed? If her suggested fix for the problem won’t work, what sort of solution might I be able to imagine that will work?

She suggested writing the opening chapter from the point of view of a different character, but that feels very wrong to me, for reasons that it would be spoilery to explain. Nonetheless, she’s right that the character whose point of view I chose doesn’t have his own conflict. He’s emotionally uninvolved. Now that I have the benefit of a second opinion, I can see that he’s basically a reassuring father figure. That fact drains some tension out of the scene. It also, in a subtle way, undercuts the suspense clear through the book. I may have to change his character in a major way, and that will affect every scene he appears in.

Okay, it’s time to start working on the third draft.

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The Unknown Unknowns

The assumptions that will hurt you are the ones you don’t know you’re making — the unknown unknowns, in Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable phrase. This is as true in writing fiction as in any other field.

I was reflecting on this last night while reading Jacob Bronowski’s slim book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. This book is a series of six lectures Bronowski gave at Yale in 1967. I bought it because I don’t know much about epistemology — hardly anything, really — and I thought the book might be approachable. What I found — well, let me digress for a moment.

A hundred years ago, when Darwin’s theory of evolution was shiny and new, scientists in Europe and North America, not just crackpots but some quite reputable people, went to ludicrous lengths to “prove scientifically” that white people were superior to those of other races. Looking back on it today, one can only be bitterly ashamed. What happened was that these men (they were all men) simply assumed that white people were superior. They then set out to find “proof” of what they already believed — but without admitting to themselves that that was what they were doing.

Bronowski makes the same mistake with respect to cognition in the animal kingdom. He simply assumes that non-human animals (and he uses the term “animals” to refer to non-human animals, as if we were something other than animals — a revealing mistake) are incapable of having knowledge. Fifty years on, we know a great deal more about animal cognition. Bronowski’s view of how human cognition works stands revealed as threadbare, if clothed at all. He was making some serious anthropocentric assumptions, and without knowing that he was doing it.

What does this have to do with writing fiction, you ask? Everything. Last week I was reading a manuscript by an aspiring writer. The story included a scene where the spunky princess is practicing archery, and an important dignitary (he’s described as a Senator) enters the courtyard. Whereupon, the princess curtsies to him.

I suggested to the writer that this was dead wrong. A princess is the daughter of the king. She is of higher rank than the Senator. He would bow to her; she would not curtsy to him. When he bows, she would probably incline her head an inch or two by way of acknowledgment (something her father would not do), because she’s a woman. But that would be the extent of her body language.

There’s a lot that I don’t know about traditional cultures; I’m not an expert on palace etiquette. But that curtsy struck a jarring note. It felt very wrong.

Palace etiquette is only one of the ten thousand things the writer of fiction has to think about. I know nothing about archery, so there could have been mistakes in the princess’s archery technique that I totally missed. A reader who knows archery might lose all faith in the author if such a mistake were included in the story.

The things that will leave you bare-assed as an author are the assumptions that you don’t know you’re making.

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Ultimately, the goal or task of any storyteller has to be to keep the reader, listener, or viewer wanting to know what’s going to happen next? At the point where your reader is not curious to learn what’s about to happen, you have failed.

Writers have developed all sorts of ways to do this, some subtle and not so subtle. Legend has it that Dashiell Hammett advised, “If the story starts to sag, have a man come into the room with a gun.” The central part of the formula “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” accomplishes much the same thing. Will the romantically linked couple manage to overcome the barriers that lie between them?

Displaying something mysterious and then not explaining it is a powerful technique. It can be abused, of course. If Barbara is speaking to someone on the phone in a low, urgent voice and then, when Howard enters the room, she says, “I can’t talk about it now,” and hurriedly hangs up the phone, that phone call had better turn out later to have been really important, and the writer had better explain it!

Of course, two hundred pages later the reader may not remember the phone call at all. But if you think you can get away with trotting out a bit of fake suspense like that and then not explaining it, I feel sorry for you — and even sorrier for your readers.

I’ve just finished reading Shadowmarch, the first volume of Tad Williams’s massive four-book epic. Picked it up in the used bookstore — a nearly pristine hardcover edition for a buck. So far, it’s an impressive achievement in storytelling. I’ve ordered the other three volumes online, and they should be arriving on my doorstep next week. But although I’m enjoying the story, I’ve noticed that Williams is dangling quite a bunch of mysteries in front of the reader. Much remains to be explained.

I’ve made a list of the unexplained elements in the story, because I’m a hard-ass — but I’m not going to share the list here. They would be spoilers, and if you like epic fantasy you could do a lot worse than dig into this series on your own. Well, maybe one or two. Is the king still alive? Why is a page missing from the letter? Who gave Gil the gold coin? Why did the Autarch pick out Qinnitan as a bride? And why was the boy brought out from behind the Shadowline?

Many things will doubtless be explained as the story progresses — but a thousand pages from now, who is going to remember to ask why a page was missing from that letter back there in Book 1?

I’ll remember. I’m a hard-ass.

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Thinking About Readers

I’ve been flirting with the idea that while writing you really shouldn’t think about your readers at all. I have a commitment to writing well, and a commitment to my characters, to bring them to life and to be honest about their lives and emotions; and I wouldn’t want my concern for what the reader will think to get in the way of that.

On balance, though, I’ve concluded that thinking about your readers is important. I just don’t think about it consciously, that’s all. Having spent many years as a magazine editor of nonfiction, I take it entirely for granted that I’m steering my prose in the direction of readers’ eyeballs.

The interesting question is, who is your intended reader?

My guideposts for nonfiction writing and editing are simple: What does the reader already know (so that it doesn’t have to be explained), and what information is the reader hoping to get from this article? Your answers to those questions will steer you reliably.

If you’re writing fiction, the picture is fuzzier. If your intended reader is your mom, then of course anything goes. Your mom will like it no matter what you write, so no worries! Conversely, if your intended reader is Dorothy Parker (if she were still alive), then probably nothing you could ever write would be sufficient. She’s not going to like it. Between those two extremes, there are a lot of possibilities!

How intelligent is your intended reader? Your answer to this question will affect your choices in vocabulary and sentence structure. How patient or impatient is your reader? This will affect the way you structure your scenes and plot. What is your reader’s cultural background? This will affect, if nothing else, your decisions about whether to include explicit sex and violence. What other novels has your reader read, and what did he or she like about them, or dislike?

What is your reader hoping to get out of  your story — a deep insight into the tragic nature of the human condition? The surrogate fulfillment of some wish, perhaps the wish for a thrilling romantic encounter? The opportunity to explore, in depth, an exotic locale? An evening’s entertainment, and no more than that?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. It’s up to you. But I’m pretty sure they’re important questions to ask yourself.

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The Vision Thing

I’ve written a few bad novels. At the time I thought they were good, but they weren’t. I don’t plan ever to publish them, so you’ll be spared. I mention this because I don’t want to give anybody the impression that I think I’m hot shit. I’ve also written two or three that I think are quite decent and should hold up pretty well, though of course I’m not in a position to be objective.

This week I’m reading the opening chapters of several novels by aspiring writers. I’m asking myself whether anything helpful can be said in a general way about the weaknesses in what I’m reading, and also about my own failed manuscripts.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way. But I think perhaps what unites quite a disparate set of difficulties is the failure of vision. When a writer attempts a novel and doesn’t quite manage to bring it off, or thinks she has brought it off when she hasn’t, I suspect the problem always comes back, in one way or another, to the vision thing.

Some writers fail to visualize their scenes clearly. The actions are disjointed or implausible. Or the writer may resort to telling rather than showing because it’s quicker and easier than patiently visualizing exactly what’s going on.

Some writers fail to see clearly the multifaceted world in which their story is set. This is often the case in less-than-stellar science fiction and fantasy, because the writer has to envision an entire world and its various cultures.

Some writers have difficulty visualizing, though perhaps that’s not quite the right word, what their characters are thinking and feeling. Their characters do bizarre things for inadequate reasons because the writer hasn’t troubled to think how the character would actually feel, or what the character does or doesn’t know in a given dramatic situation.

Some writers seem not to see the totality of their story clearly. They may glimpse bits of this or that, and some of the glimpsed fragments may be evocative, but the progression of events as a whole isn’t seen clearly for what it is. The story remains a jumble, and bits that are boring may be left in the book because the writer is not seeing how it all fits together, or fails to, or where it sags. (As I look back on my own failed books, it’s clear this is my biggest problem.)

Some writers have failed to survey the published work in their chosen genre. They may be enamored of tired old ideas, ideas that Heinlein and Asimov had already left in the dust fifty years ago. Or they may be setting forth their ideas in ways that are far too simple and cartoonish because they have never troubled to seek out or read what’s good and current in their field.

Finally, I suppose I should mention the necessity of seeing one’s own prose clearly. One of the opening chapters that I looked at this week used “lay” instead of “lie” three times. Another had stray bits of punctuation that hadn’t been cleaned up. If your eyes glaze over when you gaze upon your own writing because you really don’t want to be bothered to get it right, you’ll never be a writer.

And what is one to say to aspiring writers who haven’t grasped the importance of the vision thing? Shall I run at them waving my arms and shout, “Wake up!”? Or would that be pointlessly cruel?

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The Wounded Bird

This week I’m reading some thumbnail descriptions of novels by a group of aspiring writers. Those in the group have been asked not to reveal what others have written, so I’m not going to get into specifics. But I do want to take note of a trend, lest it slip my mind before I get around to writing about it.

Just about all of the protagonists suffer from serious wounds, physical or emotional (or both). There’s a lead character who is dyslexic, one who is bipolar, one who was horribly disfigured in a fire, one who was injured in a glider crash, one who is a criminal, one who is a corrupt police officer, one who has a split personality as a result of trauma, and one who is trying to live down her past ties to terrorists.

Also, twelve of the fourteen protagonists whose profiles we’re looking at are women, and most of them are young. The two male leads are both young, and both have been abused. In this sampling, which we can probably assume is random, of novel manuscripts by aspiring writers, we have no older protagonists and no strong, capable men. The closest we get to “strong and capable” is the corrupt police detective, and she has some serious trauma in her past.

I don’t know if “the wounded bird” qualifies as a Jungian archetype, but it certainly qualifies as a cultural meme, using that word in Richard Dawkins’s original sense, not in the debased form that refers to photos and cartoons on Facebook and Twitter. Somehow, the image of the wounded young woman has become a cultural icon.

This may possibly be a healthy trend. If we no longer believe in Superman and Mike Hammer, surely that’s a sign of cultural maturity. But the extent to which the young women are damaged troubles me.

My own heroine, I hasten to add, is not physically or emotionally wounded, although she is an orphan. Just about all of the female protagonists in the Young Adult genre are orphans, one way or another. Their parents are either dead, missing, evil, seriously ill, or flagrantly inattentive to the young person’s needs. This is a requirement of the plot: A good, wise, available parent would screw up the plot by giving the young protagonist good advice and rescuing her from whatever predicament she has stumbled into. We can’t have that.

Still, being an orphan is one of the key features of the wounded bird protagonist.

I think maybe in my next novel I’m going to have a protagonist who is an old man. I don’t know who he is or what his story is about, but I suspect plotted genre fiction could benefit from a counterbalance.

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Got You Covered

I’m getting ready to do a self-published reissue of The Wall at the Edge of the World, which was published by Ace in 1993 and has been out of print for about 20 years now. Today I’m looking around for a cover artist. I really like what Karri Klawiter did for the Leafstone series (visible above), but I’m thinking maybe a slightly different style would be good for this book.

Looking around online for book cover designers, one discovers a thing or two.

First, most of the cover art looks really good! I’m sure a lot of these covers are better than the novels tucked away behind the covers. I’m seeing an endless procession of no-name-recognition authors with five-book series. They can’t all be good.

Second, gorgeous young women far outnumber the hunky young men on the covers. Also, women with their eyes cut off at the top of the cover — just the nose and lips visible, along with shoulders, cleavage, etc. — are often on display. There’s something deeply disturbing about this trend, but I’m not going to worry about it right now.

Third, it seems that all fiction covers these days use bleed images. That is, the image extends right out to the edges. This design choice isn’t just standard, it’s inevitable. Oddly enough, the original cover of Wall didn’t do that:


The painting was by the very talented John Jude Palencar, whose work I could not possibly afford on my own. I’m not responsible for the copy at the top of the cover, by the way. That was the publisher’s idea.

I’m thinking it might be good to do a cover with a one-inch-wide blank strip along the left side, with the title stacked one word at a time down the left, and an image filling in the main area. The point being, let’s not have this look like every other damn SF or fantasy cover on the planet.

There’s a beautiful young woman in the book, but she’s not the lead character. The lead character is … well, he’s an accountant, actually. He spends some time learning how to survive in the wilderness, he kills some people, and he saves some young people from being beheaded (those are the heads lying on the ground), but he’s not a swash-buckler. He buckles not a single swatch of swash. That’s why I think something fresh is called for in cover design.

A friend of mine has run the entire text through a scanner. As I tidy up the file, I’m thinking, “Damn, this is better than I thought it was.” Obviously I’m not in a position to be objective, but once upon a time I did know how to write, else Ace would not have brought it out. There is bloodshed; it’s not a nice friendly story. But it ends on a hopeful note.

I don’t think it’s going to need any re-editing at all. I could upload it to Amazon next week if I had a cover.

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