I finished reading a book a few days ago. The cover’s at left – A Darker Moon, by J.S. Watts. This post is not a review. Yes I wrote one, and it is on Amazon, but I want to talk about the danger of making changes to an MS because of comments someone makes on a partial read.
I first encountered this book on the Harper-Collins slushpile site, Authonomy. This was some time ago, during a brief revisit to what had been a great place for me in the past. For those who don’t know, authors post at least 10k words of an MS on the site and invite people to read and comment, maybe offer some constructive criticism. The hope is the HC pixies will notice your masterpiece and sweep it into publication. It doesn’t happen often.
Watts posted the first eleven chapters of A Darker Moon. It was one of those rare books which grabbed my imagination, well written, intriguing. Despite the klutziness of the Authonomy reading interface, I read all eleven chapters – a rare and wonderful event. The book is an autobiography and a mystery as a man tries to find out about his past and why his mother abandoned him on the steps of a synagogue shortly after his birth. I always tried to offer some constructive suggestions when leaving a comment on a book, or at least an idea of my feelings as a reader. In this case I had little to offer apart from “I loved it – I would buy this book”. If I’d been an agent I would have asked for the full.
Some time later (still on Authonomy) I happened upon the book again and had a look at some of the other comments, posted after mine. One attracted my attention, written by a gentleman well known on Authonomy for leaving detailed criticism extolling the virtues of ‘show don’t tell’ and exhorting the author to learn the rules of writing offered in a certain ‘how to’ book. He panned the novel. Tell, tell, tell is all it was (he said). How much better if Watts had shown her readers what was happening? He gave many examples and many suggestions along those lines. And indeed, maybe that’s why the book hadn’t been snapped up by an agent or publisher at that stage, since ‘show don’t tell’ has become a mantra. I might add that I have absorbed that mantra and use it in my own writing (although I didn’t buy that ‘how to’ book).
Yet for A Darker Moon that approach would have been quite, quite wrong.
Abe, the main character of the book, tells the reader his story. He shares what he sees, his insights, what’s going on in his head as he meets the love of his life, as he doubts his sanity, as he’s faced with increasing strangeness. He also mentions things in passing, clues for the reader. He doesn’t join the dots – that’s your job. In a way the book ends up in the air, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It’s kind of ‘this is my life – deal with it’.
If J.S. Watts had used the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra this would have been a very different book. Would it have been as good? I rather doubt it because the narrative would have lost that brooding psychological depth. At a few points, the reader is even directly addressed, told, effectively, to mind their own business. What’s more, right at the end the reader learns why this book was written in the way it was.
So – listen to well-meaning advice. Most advice is well-meaning, even if it’s delivered as ‘this is how you should have written’. But take all advice with a bucket of salt, especially if the person offering the advice has not read the whole book. Remember, the rules of writing – aren’t rules.
What about you? Have you received ill-advised advice to change a story? Please share.