Bad Book

You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published?  I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”.  I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling.  By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.  He is now 86 years old.

In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins.  As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.”  Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.

So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write?  The answer to the latter question is not in the public record.  The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.

In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”

Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?

This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats.  There are plenty of adventures:

  • Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
  • The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
  • There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
  • Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship.  (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
  • Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
  • Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school.  He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
  • The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
  • Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
  • The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
  • Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
  • They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
  • Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
  • The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
  • The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
  • The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
  • Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
  • Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
  • Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
  • The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
  • Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
  • Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.

But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex.  Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears.  The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity.  And what motivates our hero, Tom?  It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands.  The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved.  It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.”  One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story.  The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.

There were several factual errors in the first few pages.  East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa.  During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword.  This is extremely unlikely.  The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire.  The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley).  There is also mention of an un-manned broadside.  To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.

There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.

Give it a pass.

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.

6 Elements of a Good Book Review

There is a post on the above subject which appears of the Steve Laube Agency blog.  It was written by Karen Ball, who was a literary agent with the Agency, but has now gone back to writing.

Karen Ball

She said that a “good review” is helpful to readers in deciding whether the book is for them.  “So here are some things, based on book reviews out there, for reviewers to keep in mind.

“A good review is balanced. It takes into account that we all have likes and dislikes, and while this book may not be our cup of tea, it could be someone else’s absolute favorite. (Hey, it could happen!) Yes, share your honest opinion. But realize that’s what it is. Your opinion. A subjective evaluation of what you’ve read. No more, no less.

“A good review is about the book, not the author. Focus on the writing, on the treatment of the topic, on the characters, on the storyline, on the research, on the facts, and so on. Don’t make judgment calls about the author’s faith, intelligence, relationships, parenting skills, parentage, or whatever. A reviewer’s job is to share your opinion of the book. You don’t have the right to go beyond that.

“A good review is about the author’s craft, not the book’s packaging. Don’t base your review on the cover or endorsements or things over which, I guarantee you, most traditionally published writers have absolutely no control.  (Now, if the authors are indie, then yes, they control those things…) But remember, what you’re reviewing is the writing, not the packaging.

“A good book review doesn’t give an extensive summary of the book and then one or two lines about your thoughts. Readers can get the summary from lots of places. What they want to know is what you thought of the writing, the message, the story.

“Even more important, a good review doesn’t give away the ending/secret/mystery/twist! Please, friends, for the love of heaven, don’t ruin the read for others. If you knew who the killer was on page 2, fine, say, “I knew who the killer was by page two.” But do NOT say, “I knew by page two that the butler was the killer.” If a book has a great twist, say that. But don’t give the twist away. Have mercy on not just the readers, but on the author.

“A good book review is specific. Don’t just say you loved the book or hated it, tell us why. And tell us what specific aspect of it you loved or hated. For example:

What did you like or dislike about the writing?

What drew you to–or left you cold about–the topic or characters?

What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?”

I think this is all good advice.  I would add that there are almost always some things things the writer has done well, and that praise should come before criticism.  I may have a tendency to give too long a summary of the story, but when I do this, it is for two reasons: first, to show that I have actually read the book (there have been cases where a reviewer based his critique on only a sample of the book), and because I may want to make a point about the plot in my critique.

Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, published a post on her blog, https://ellenbrockediting.com, with this title on February 16, 2015, but it is still timely.  She works with about 150 authors per year as editor, plot consultant and writing coach.

Ellen Brock

She said, “It’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.”

Here is where she says many of these bad books come from:

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A ‘Catchy’ or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept That Is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.”

I think it would be very interesting to spend a couple of days with an experienced and successful acquisition editor, looking at synopses and samples of novels s/he has rejected, and discussing the rationale for rejection.  It would also be interesting to understand her/his evaluation of why a published novel failed.

Review: Jesus: A Pilgrimage

This book came to me by a trade.  I traded Stoney the Road, about black reaction to Reconstruction , and its aftermath, in which my son-in-law had an interest, for a book he was reading that I thought was Jerusalem.  But the book he was reading turned out to be Jesus: a Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest.  Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fair trade, because I enjoyed Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It was also a New York Times bestseller and Christopher Award Winner.

Father James Martin is a prolific writer having authored thirteen books.  He is also editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine, America.  He was born in 1960 and grew up in Plymouth Meeting,  Pennsylvania, United States (near where I grew up).  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1982 and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years.

Dissatisfied with the corporate world, he became more deeply involved in the Catholic Church and decided to enter the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits) in 1988. During his studies to become a Jesuit priest, he earned a M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago in 1994, an M.Div. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 1998, and a Th.M., also from the Weston School, in 1999. He was ordained a priest in 1999.

Father James Martin

In Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James describes a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land to view the many historic places associated with Jesus in Jerusalem and vicinity and in Galilee.  He describes the site, his reaction to it, reveals what other religious writers have said about it.  He includes the New Testament verses that relate to the events that are though to have taken place there, and he offers theological commentary on the significance of the events.

But this book is not a heavy theological tome, because Father James also covers the joys and difficulties of journeying through the Holy Land.  His touch is light, his prose in simple; the journey is spiritual, but also light-hearted.

I found nothing to criticize in this book.  At 465 pages, it was lengthy, but it progressed naturally from site to site, following Jesus’ time line.  To have abbreviated it, would necessarily have made it more superficial or more theological.

The book was particularly interesting for me as my wife and I toured Israel several years ago and visited many of the sites mentioned.  Since our interests were secular as well as religious (we wanted to learn more about Christianity, Judaism and Islam), we missed some of the iconic places mentioned.  It was good to draw a mental and spiritual picture of them.

Those of you who have read my books know that I am a committed Christian. I was entirely comfortable with nearly everything Father James said; his spiritual beliefs tended to confirm my own.  But what advice can I give to those potential readers who consider themselves adherent of other faiths, or agnostics, or atheist?  My view is that Jewish and Muslim readers, who may have some curiosity about Christianity, would find the book interesting in that it clearly defines what Christianity is about, without any reference to other religions.  Agnostics may struggle with the intensity of the evidence that Father James presents.  It is difficult to be ambivalent about it.  Atheists will almost certainly put the book aside after reading, at most, the first four pages, and declare: “this book isn’t for me.”

How Long Does It Take to Publish a First Book?

Lucy Ayrton was featured on the Jericho Writers blog recently with her story about the time it took to get her first book published.  Lucy’s debut novel, One More Chance, is out 28th June (ebook and audio) and 15th November 2018 (paperback) with Dialogue Books. The novel follows the story of Dani, a London prison inmate, and combines physiological suspense with contemporary women’s fiction.

How long does it take to publish your first book

“The first time I thought I’d finished my novel was in November 2015. It was 80,000 words and it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and I’d given it to some friends for feedback and made some minor changes. I was DONE. Well done, me!

I sent it off to a couple of competitions and put my feet up, resolving to send it to some agents in the new year. I felt very, very pleased with myself.

The next time I thought I’d finished my novel was the summer of 2016.

I’d been shortlisted for one of the prizes I entered and had some feedback from agents and publishers. I’d done a rewrite, swallowed my pride, deleted a load of my beautiful, precious words to make way for new ones, and done another proof.

I mean … NOW I was done, right?

The next time was the spring of 2017. I had found a brilliant agent who loved my book and had some ideas of how to make it even better. We had worked on it together, tweaking, making changes, polishing and rearranging. Now, it was the eve of the London Book Fair and we were officially ready to send it out on submission. The book was surely finished.

In September that year I started working with my publisher and editor. Of course, the fact that “editor” is a job title should have tipped me off that she may want me to spend further time on the work. I was really happy about the changes that we were making together! It was exciting to be nearly finished.

In October that year I discovered that line edits were different to structural edits.

In November I discovered that copy edits are different again.

In January this year, I was sent a fully typeset manuscript to proofread. My book, typeset! Now for real it was done, hurray!

All I would have to do, I was sure, was have a quick skim through to make sure it was all in order – something I had done many times before – tell them it was all okay, and we were off. I set aside a whole day to do this, which seemed excessive. I figured I would probably be able to knock off and go to the pub mid-afternoon.

In late March, after a fair few back and forths and me spending an entire panicked weekend staring at a text, believing myself to have forgotten how to read. (Professional proofreaders spend FIFTY HOURS with a novel, guys! It turns out you can’t knock it out in a long afternoon.) I got an email from my production manager. She said that this was the very last round of edits, and that after this one, we wouldn’t make any more changes – it would be sent to the printers. It would finally and truly be done.

As I emailed back the approval, I didn’t feel as triumphant as I thought I would. I felt a little bit sad, almost scared. I’d spent so long with that book, with my protagonist and in my world. I didn’t really want to let her go. I love that book. What if I couldn’t write anything as good ever again? I almost didn’t want to sign the proofs off.

But I did it. I hit send, and I turned back to my work in progress. And over the next couple of weeks, I found I had a lot of energy on this new project. It seems so unlikely that a scrappy little manuscript will ever come to anything, but I think this one can. I know I could do it again, you see, because I’ve done it before.

I’ve finally finished a novel.”

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives

The following review is from K. C. Finn for Readers’ Favourite:

“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives is a novel in
the literary genre penned by author William Peace. In this sweeping
narrative that crosses cultural divides and exposes the realities of
living on the continent of Africa, we encounter the choices of three
young people and how their lives are shaped by the society around
them, even when they try to break out. Dorothy is a high flyer from
a middle class family, but her political sensibilities give her cause to
protest. She becomes involved with both Hassan, the child of a
powerful Muslim family who accidentally becomes embroiled with a
terror organization, and Kamiri, a poor migrant who faces
disablement and a potentially tragic future.
“Author William Peace has created an incredibly emotive and
powerful tour de force of literary fiction, bringing East Africa to life
as the lives of three young people are changed forever. I
particularly enjoyed the omniscient narration and the conceptual
‘voices’ that the author employs to exemplify the characters’
conflicts and their concepts of right versus wrong. The
socioeconomic and political climate of Africa as a whole is very
astutely described, lending itself to the plot but not overtaking or
turning the whole tale into a commentary. Although the moral and
social points are well made, the story is what comes forward
through powerful descriptions and excellent narrative and dialogue
skills. Overall, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives
is an accomplished work that comes highly recommended for
readers who enjoy cultural exploration and emotive, character-driven
tales.”

Adult Illiteracy

There was an article in The Daily Telegraph written by Anita Singh on January 5, 2019 entitled “Adult Illiteracy is Ignored, Says Top Publisher”.

“Millions of British adults are functionally illiterate but the subject is ignored because it is not a ‘fashionable’ cause, according to the most powerful woman in publishing.

“Dame Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House, founded the Quick Reads scheme, which distributes specially-written books designed to encourage adults to discover the joy of reading.  Dame Gail devised Quick Reads after first founding World Book Day for children in 1997. She said: ‘At the time, and this seems like another age, people were worried about kids watching videos. They weren’t reading – this was pre-JK Rowling and there was a real sense that we were losing a generation.’

“The scheme began in 2005 and attracted some of the country’s best-selling authors, including Joanna Trollope, Adele Parks and Andy McNab. But this year it faced closure after failing to find a corporate sponsor and was only saved after Jojo Moyes, the writer, stepped in with £120,000 of her own money.

Jojo Moyes

Wikipedia says, “Jojo Moyes (born 4 August 1969) is an English journalist and, since 2002, a romance novelist and screenwriter.  Early in her writing career, Moyes wrote three manuscripts that were all initially rejected. With one child, another baby on the way, and a career as a journalist, Moyes committed to herself that if her fourth book was rejected, she would stop her efforts. After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin. It sold six million copies, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.”

“‘It’s a huge sum of money but not to a corporate sponsor, Dame Gail told the Telegraph. ‘But the point is, it’s not fashionable, is it? You can talk about little kids reading – we can all relate to that, we all want children to read books, it’s lovely.’

“‘But adults not reading? Or adults in the workplace not having enough literacy to fill in a form, to work on a computer, to be promoted? That’s not something that people like to talk about. But it exists.’

“The National Literacy Trust estimates that 5.1 million adults in England are functionally illiterate, meaning that they have a reading age of 11 or below and can understand only the most straightforward, short texts on familiar topics.

“Dame Rebuck said, ‘I was asked to give a World Book Day lecture and I mentioned that there are five million adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate. After giving the lecture, people came up to me and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I actually hadn’t thought of doing anything, but it suddenly occurred to me that if you have a household where there are no books, where the adults are either illiterate or so nervous about their literary capabilities that they don’t get engaged in their kids’ education or their homework, you have a cycle of deprivation that goes on through generations.’

“‘We got publishers involved and create a library of books to excite and engage emerging adult readers. We are very thankful to Jojo Moyes, who passionately believes in the power of reading to transform lives.’

“Moyes will fund Quick Reads for the next three years. She said when the donation was announced earlier this year:  ‘There’s a political side of me that feels dismayed that it’s down to an individual to keep a scheme that is basically for the public good going. In an ideal world it wouldn’t be me … but we are where we are.  We live in really difficult times and I felt sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is, and this is a cause I believe in.'”

Brava, Jojo!

Review: Another Country

I bought this book at an airport bookshop in May, because I’ve never read anything by James Baldwin.  I’m glad I did, because Another Country is like no other novel I’ve read.

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924.  His mother left his biological father because of his drug abuse.  She then married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight more children.  Young Baldwin was treated harshly by his step father, but he followed in the elder Baldwin’s footsteps to become a junior minister.  He later described himself as not religious, but his church experience clearly influenced his world view and his writing.  In 1948, Baldwin emigrated to Paris, discouraged by the racial prejudice in the US and aware that he was gay.  He spent most of the rest of his life in France, returning to the US a number of times to participate in the civil rights movement.  He wrote six novels, of which Another Country is the third, two plays, nine collections of essays and one collection of poems.  He died in 1987.

James Baldwin

Another Country begins with Rufus, a young, black drummer from Harlem who has fallen on hard times, with drugs, too much alcohol, too few gigs.  Rufus meets Leona, a poor, white, Southern girl in a bar.  They go to a party, have sex and she follows him to his place, where Vivaldo, Rufus’ only friend, a failing writer, who is white meets them.  The three of them encounter Cass who is married to Richard, Vivaldo’s friend and high school English instructor, who is about to publish a novel he has written. Rufus drifts into a homosexual prostitution encounter, and losing his self esteem, beats up Leona and self destructs, committing suicide.

The scene then shifts to Ida, Rufus’ adoring sister, who becomes Vivaldo’s lover, but there is constant friction between them over their respective identities. They meet Steve Ellis, who is a promoter working with Richard.  Ellis senses singing and sexual talent in Ida.

The scene shifts to France where Eric, a bisexual friend of Vivaldo and Cass is making arrangements to travel to New York to take up a lead role in a play, and must take temporary leave from his young French boyfriend, Yves.

In New York, Cass, who has become estranged from Richard, has an affair with Eric, and Vivaldo who is desperate with suspicion over the affair between Ida and Ellis, also has a fling with Eric.

Richard learns of his wife’s infidelity with Eric; he had suspected Vivaldo; he is enraged but they are talking.  Ida confesses her unromantic affair with Ellis, and they, also are talking.   Yves and Eric meet at Idlewild airport.

This novel has a beautifully crafted, credible plot.  It delves into a nether world of drugs, music, self-gratification and self-deception. It deals with perceptions of racial identities on both sides of the divide in the US: neither blacks nor whites are happy, to the detriment of society generally.  It also deals with the gaps between actual and longed-for identities, and masculinity, which can lead to self-destruction.  As such, it is a portrait of a dysfunctional society.  One cannot help but feel that in the 1960’s when Another Country was published the portrait was accurate for some.

The only criticisms I have of Another Country are that some of the dialogue, while realistic, is just chit-chat and does not add value for the reader.  Similarly, some of the narrative about the perceptions and feelings of characters can be lengthy, complex and therefor loses some focus and clarity.  Finally, the environment of the relationship between Cass and Richard isn’t clear enough to support either Cass’ disappointment or Richard’s outrage.  I can only theorise that Baldwin did not have experience of long-time heterosexual relationships.

If you haven’t read Another Country, I highly recommend it.

Editing Isn’t Easy (for the author)

I have finished the manuscript for my latest novel.  I’ve read and re-read it several times, always finding small things that needed to be improved.

It was time to call in a professional editor, and I wanted a good one.  The editor who worked on Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives didn’t seem to understand that there were three narrators: a universal narrator, God’s representative, and the devil’s representative.  She objected repeatedly when the latter two infrequently appeared, even though each of them introduced himself (or herself) on their first appearances.  This lack of understanding seemed to colour her experience of the novel in a negative way.  Only one of the reviews since publication has disliked this device.  One was almost ecstatic about it.  From my point of view, it didn’t take a great deal of brainpower to figure it out.

Author or Editor?

So, finding a good editor isn’t easy, even though there are literally thousands of them who have set out their shingles on the Internet.  I started off trying one of the ubiquitous websites that promises all manner of help for the Indie writer.  Their offering was that they have a stable of scores of editors, and that all I had to do was specify the type of editing, and the genre of the novel.  I didn’t want copy editing (spelling, punctuation and basic grammar), and I didn’t need a re-write editor.  What I wanted was a structural editor, who would pay attention to what could be deleted, what should be added or clarified.  My input yielded the names of five editors.  To each of them I sent a message: “Yes, tell me more!”  All five of them declined; some for workload reasons; some for “don’t do that genre” reasons.

At that point, I threw the Indie approach out the window, and started looking at professional editing websites.  Having narrowed it down to one website, there were two named editors, both of whom liked working on inspirational novels, and both had glowing testimonials.  I sent each of them the synopsis.  The woman said she would take a month longer than the man.  They both were charging $0.03 per word.  I went with the man, who was enthusiastic about working on a novel about fear of dying.

The editor overran his completion target by two weeks, but he sent me several “almost finished” emails.  Then, he wanted my postal address to send me the physical edited manuscript.  There was no soft copy.  He offered to get it scanned for an extra hundred dollars.  The problem for me is that I spend the summer in Sicily, which has a third world postal service.  It took two more weeks for the physical manuscript to arrive.

I found it somewhat easier to make corrections from the physical manuscript, with the original soft copy on my laptop than to switch back and forth between copies on my laptop.

The editor was very conscientious about use of commas (I use too many); he frequently broke my long sentences into two (I generally felt he was right); he corrected my use of ‘that’ vs ‘which’ (as a result, I’ve learned the ‘that vs which rule’); he put a full stop after each abbreviated title (Dr. vs Dr).  Actually, in the UK we don’t put a full stop after Mr.; it’s always just Mr; perhaps he should have asked, because the manuscript is set in London.

He commented when a point in the text wasn’t clear, and usually, I would make a clarification.  Exception: when he challenged a character’s statement to her husband that he had determined the gender of their unborn child.  I left the text unchanged and pointed out to the editor that the male sperm determines the child’s sex, the egg is neutral.

Occasionally, he would suggest that I show the emotion a character is feeling, rather than just have him/her express it.  Being a relatively non-emotive person, I have let the characters say what they feel, but gradually I have realised that it deepens the reader’s experience to have a character express and show her feelings.

The most difficult part for me was the very frequent suggestion to ‘skip this’ of ‘drop this character’.  The compromise I worked out was that I would eliminate the social, chit-chat portions of dialogue that make it seem more real but don’t add any value for the reader.  I also scrutinised scenes to eliminate portions which seemed real, but added no value.

Here is what I said in my email to him: “You made a number of recommendations to cut scenes and characters on the basis that they tended to “stop” the story/plot.  Leaving aside that to do so would have reduced the manuscript to a sub-saleable size, your advice seems to imply that a fictional biography has a linear story/plot.  I would argue that no one has a linear life; rather, it is a collection of kaleidoscopic experiences and characters that, in the end, make us who we are.

“I have tried to structure Fear of Dying with Bertie’s fear of death as the central theme, and with three supporting themes which converge on the central theme and moderate it.  The supporting themes are Bertie’s views and feelings about family, vocation and faith.  Having read the manuscript through an extra time, I’m confident that every scene and every character supports the development of at least one of the supporting themes.  If I had a doubt about the relevance of a scene or character, I had Bertie express his view.”

His response was to the effect of “it’s your novel, you decide.”

So, my next hurdle is finding an agent.  I’ll let you know how that works out.