Noel Coward said (1) “I love criticism so long as it’s unqualified praise.” My own relationship to criticism has been long in developing. As an unread author, to start with, you tend to be short of any actual constructive feedback. It is a curse, and it is also a shield. Whilst the only criticism you might get is on the “why’d you want to go writing a book” level, the actual text will remain inviolate and as good as you believe it to be (3).
Or somesuch. The other problem is that once you can actually cajole anyone into reading the wretched thing, those readers are likely to be family or friends (4) who are far from likely to give you a stern ticking off over your lazy characterisation and inadequate grasp of the semicolon. Noel Coward would, on the whole, be satisfied with the general level of criticism that this sort of audience generates.
Another level of audience that you may be lucky enough to have access to is the writing group. This is that pack of like-minded aspirants who get together on occasion to read their latest pieces to one another. I’m sure there is a whole gradient of these, from the formal (paid-up?) kind, nightclass-like, all the way down to a few kindred spirits who get together on occasion just for the joy of it. Grandfather Tolkien had his Inklings, after all. The tradition is an honoured one. I’ve been lucky enough to be welcomed into a group called the Deadliners, the modus operandi of which includes giving the member set rules to write short stories to, which was a particular spark of inspiration to me and led my writing on paths that otherwise might have remained untrodden (5). However, these sorts of groups are probably not a good source of disinterested review. Everyone’s work is on the slab, after all, and so people will tend to cut gently. When I joined the Deadliners I was quite overawed by a lot of the work on show, and suspected that my own offerings were being handled with unmerited kindness.
However, whilst in my early writing years I was essentially violently allergic to criticism of any non-gushing kind, I have since learned to listen to it. The key has been that review is a dish best served at least luke-warm. I am always in love with anything I’ve just written, but leave it a month and even I will tend to push it around my plate and poke holes in it.
So, the agent read the first draft of Empire, is what I’m working up to, and I received for the first time a serious critique of it, with three pages of suggested changes.
Now, this process is like an onion. I don’t mean that it necessarily makes you cry, but there are layers and layers. Later on I would have an editor go over the manuscript, and then again a proof-reader, and each reader would feed back on a very different level.
My agent, then, fed back at a kind of macro-level. Nothing of punctuation or grammar or the like. His major points fell into these categories:
(a) Major themes of the book.
(b) Reordering of sections
(c) Television serial chapter endings
(d) Parts that didn’t make sense
(e) Slow bits that needed cutting
This all sounds very alarming, but in fact it wasn’t, although possibly this is a testament to my agent’s reserves of tact. The Major Themes bit is nowhere near as all-encompassing as you might think. It was more a matter of him saying, “…at this bit, did you mean…” or “…this almost sounds like…” and me thinking about this and realising that, yes, while the thought had been a million miles away at the time of writing, it seemed to have slipped in there anyway. At least one of these threads to the plot was detailed and (retrospectively) evident enough that we decided that I must have been thinking of it at least unconsciously, but it had entirely escaped me on a surface level. End result: a book with a lot more resonances and connotations.
The reordering is more of a technical matter. The original manuscript, where there were different characters off doing different things, tended to cut fairly rapidly (2 pages or so) between groups, which gave the manuscript a disjointed, jumpy feel to anyone who had not, in fact, written it. Sometimes, where interrelated action is going on in varied locations, this can be a good thing, but where there is no need for it, it only breaks up the narrative. The feedback on this was basically help in bringing related sections together so that, where possible, chapters would focus on one set of characters or another. The TV endings issue is a related one: I had a tendency to give chapters cliff-hanger endings that were immediately resolved in the next one, which works fine when you’ve got a commercial break, but not so well in a novel.
Other than that, you always need a fresh pair of eyes, especially when writing about an imaginary world. I’d lived with the insect-kinden for a long time before this book came out, and a lot of their world had become second nature to me. Sometimes I would know exactly what I was talking about, but those vital sentences, or even scenes, that would render the opaque transparent for the rest of the world were absent (6). My favourite one of these was when I had to eventually report that there was nowhere I could convincingly fit a discussion of the insect-kinden contraception and the mechanics by which conception of half-breeds occur. This remains absent, and no doubt these pages will eventually fill in the gaps (7).
So: Empire in Black and Gold had gone through the wringer for the first time (8) and come out decidedly more polished, comprehensible and rounded. Next would come more waiting, but in a sense the worst wait of all…
(1) I think it was Noel Coward that said… but I couldn’t swear to it. However, I’ve avoided the phrase “I think it was…” after it got so deservedly lambasted by Michael Bywater in his Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go. He cites this as a “lost world” because the internet has changed all that, and it’s the work of a moment to see who said what when, and how (2). In memorium of “I think it was” I haven’t checked, honest.
(2) Unless you’re looking on Wikipedia, in which case you get a peculiar concensus of “I think it was…” from all quarters of the globe.
(3) On a kind of Shroedinger’s Cat sort of level: lock a manuscript, an atomic source and a reviewer in a box: when the source decays it prompts the reviewer to write a highly uncomplimentary review of your hitherto un-savaged book. Now, as there is a 50/50 chance of a quantum event resulting in the review being written, is your book still any good or not?
(4) Oh you’d think so. This is, however, not counting on the one friend of mine who, given the (only paper) manuscript for one of my books, was discovered some six months later using the still-unread document to prop up his wobbling table. I mention no names. You know who you are.
(5) One memorable Deadliners challenge saw each member write a title down, and then there was a random drawing following which the writers would have to produce a story to the title that they were given. One wit decided that Cyber-Squirrels of Nutcluster 6 would be a lovely one to spring on someone. The luck of the draw gave his own title back to him, by sheer fluke and poetic justice. I can attest that the story of that title does now exist, and it is exquisite.
(6) I shouldn’t kick a bad film when it’s down but, well, regarding the Dungeons and Dragons Movie: if you’ve been luckless enough to buy the DVD of this execrable film then you will discover a set of “deleted scenes” thereon. The astonishing thing is that you become swiftly aware that these scenes appear to have been chosen because they made sense of the plot. The entire raison d’etre of everything that happens to the hero of the film has been carefully excised from the theatrical release. Moreover, there is also an alternative ending in which the annoying fool character stays dead and the hero is sorry about it which, whilst it could not quite have rescued the film from being atrocious, would still have given it one redeeming moment. Suffice to say, it would appear that someone got into the editing suite with the sole intention of absolutely and totally ensuring that this turkey would not fly, and they left its bloody, severed, stunted wings on the editing suite floor.
(7) When a mummy insect and a daddy insect love each other very much…
(8) And indeed a second time, as we went round twice on this one, but more of the same, especially the re-ordering, but I’m counting this all as one go.