Before you take well-meaning editorial advice…

posted in: On writing | 28

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.

28 Responses

  1. Paul Anderson

    I participated on Autonomy for a season. The book I posted was “science fiction”. It was a story about an abduction experience of a 15 year old boy. The story is told by the “boy” when he is in his 6th decade of life. The narrator claims the story is true but understands why it has never been accepted as a true life experience. I wrote the book in a memoir style with much reflection on the difference in culture from the mid 1960s to the 2010s. The book was enjoyed by many on Autonomy but the “real pros” kept telling me that it sounded like a memoir as if it shouldn’t. I finally pulled it and left Autonomy. Although there are many good people and as you say Greta, well meaning people, it is no place to put a book that is written outside the lines and expect valuable input.

  2. Freed Writing

    Hm. Yeah, people, say that, about the site toughening you up as a writer. But writers managed fine for centuries before being beaten up online. If you make it to a place you get publicly reviewed I’m not sure it would really help any of you’d been given a seeing to first on authonomy.

    There are positives of the site, I’m not saying there aren’t. Most people seem to spend some time there and develop a few closer and more useful long term writing relationships. And it’s a place where you can ask questions, and learn about the publishing world, and there are some good crit groups that can appropriately focus on genre and so on.

    • Greta van der Rol

      The bit about relationships and so on is all very true and certainly what I found from my time there. About the criticism – I do think it helps to learn that not everybody likes your stuff. I think it comes as a huge surprise to some people

  3. Freed Writing

    You’re right, Greta, about reading out of knowledge zones. I’d try and stay away from genres I had no idea about, but the frenzy at that site to get reads and backings leads to a lot of people reading things they have no clue about, but passing comment anyway. I’m not sure who it was that put that comment on J.S.’s book, but it sounds like a notorious and annoying cookie cutter. I know the book in question quite well, and read some at autho and ordered the paperback when it came out, and I really do agree with the idea of needing a string idea of how to filter comments if using sites like authonomy. And Marj is right too, that good writing can be undermined by a lack of self-confidence.

    • Greta van der Rol

      It can, indeed, be a hard place to be for a starting author. You have to have confidence in yourself. But places like Autho do toughen you up for the real world, where there will be people who loathe what you write, no matter how good it is. One person deemed one of mine so awful he/she would have rated it zero if he/she could – which is that person’s right, and I have no reason for complaint, but I wasn’t always quite so able to take such things in my stride. It’s part of the journey, I suppose.

  4. Marj

    An excellent post, and very true. I know a particular book that had been on Authonomy – it was a great book, but the author appeared to lack self-confidence as the first chapters were written again and again listening to too much (usually conflicting) advice. By the end, though, she had it back to as good as she’d started with – ‘Simon’s Choice’ by Charlotte Castle. And that is also published.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Thank you. Literary work can be misjudged – but I think it’s often just lack of knowledge of the genre being read. For instance, I would never offer advice (apart from copy edits) on a book about vampires. I do not understand the attraction.

  5. Kristin Gleeson

    Jackqueline just shared this link with me and I found it fascinating. As someone who spent a lot of time on Authonomy I was interested to see your experience and I can only agree with you. I posted my own novel and had to carefully filter through some of the comments that might have seemed right for them, but I knew wasn’t right for my novel. It’s hard though and takes courage. I was asked to change things by a friend who plunged into my ms. with great enthusiasm and told me my main character needed to be pluckier and more interesting. My novel is literary, and plucky was not who she was.

  6. Pauline Baird Jones

    This would be why I use beta readers instead of a crit group. In a group, you often feel like you have to come up with comments or you aren’t doing your “job.” Good beta readers are hard to come by, but pure gold. They know your style well enough to know when you miss and don’t try to rewrite it the way they’d write it. Good blog post!

    • Greta van der Rol

      I agree, Pauline. Beta readers, not crit groups. Sometimes sites like Authonomy are good to connect with people but most of the ‘comments’ you get are worthless.

  7. J. Kathleen Cheney

    Hi Greta,

    Right on the nose!

    In my experience, people who start deliniating the ‘rules of writing’ for an author are often people who don’t know how to critique….so they spout what they’ve read in a ‘writing book’. When you get hit up with ‘show, don’t tell’, ‘don’t use words that end in -ly’, and ‘you can’t use forms of ‘to be”….then I tend to take anything that critiquer says with a grain of salt. Because each of those things has a place in writing, and all -can- be used well…

  8. Viv

    Excellent post. I’ve long thought that posting work somewhere, or even talking about it much is a way to effectively hex a novel. You cannot write a novel by committee.

  9. juliabarrett

    Interesting. This is the reason I do not post any of my work before I publish.

  10. MonaKarel

    Sometimes you really need to look at the source of the advice. They don’t have to be published to understand sentence structure and what reads well for them. If they are published, do they have a distinct voice, is their story easy to follow? I’ve had a few too many critiquers try to impose their own voice on my writing instead of helping to see the places where my voice tapers off.

  11. Marj

    An excellent article. I think I probably know the critic concerned, and I am quite sure that ‘A Darker Moon’ is a better novel than anything that he could produce.

  12. Paul Trembling

    Good point there, Greta. I’ve always said, ‘There are no rules, only guidelines.’ Of course, some of the guidelines are worth noting, and in general I incline to the ‘show don’t tell’ approach myself – but there are always exceptions. And perhaps the mark of a good writer is knowing when to make them!

    As for taking advice – while I was on Authonomy I had a lot of it. Some very useful. But it would have been impossible to follow it all, as some suggestions were contradictory. One person told me to scrap most of my prologue, some else told me that it was one of the best openings they’d read! Can’t please everyone.

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