Jan 2019 – #1

Quality Review Considerations  
OR How do you know if your book is as good as you can make it?

Thanks for coming here. This is the first article in the ‘4R’ themes above and probably falls mostly under Ramblings with a little under Review – in more than one sense.

There’s no specific reason for this being the first article other than as I continue work on my latest novel I think back to my current release, The Blue Bench. As I came close to finishing the first draft of The Blue Bench my primary objective was to make the novel the very best I could. I was under no illusions – the first draft was NOT that. And I knew that I could go through it time and time again, polishing and tinkering until I was sick of it but that was no guarantee of real improvements or of pushing its quality to as high a level as I could. Many of you will know I play the drums and there’s a saying regarding practice – you can practice as much as you want but if you’re practicing your mistakes don’t expect to get better. There is much truth in that and the same, I believe, applies to writing. I needed another view – the view of a professional and experienced editor. Fortunately a fellow writer, Anne Polhill Walton, recommended Paul Swallow. Paul’s expertise covers all aspects of editing and publishing but before I approached him I thought about the elements of the novel that I most wanted to ‘get right’. I was less worried about grammar and spelling and general formatting, being confident that an experienced proof reader and editor would quickly see the errors (& I had no doubt there would be many). No, I was more concerned about those elements that, when done properly, make an ‘ok’ novel, a good novel. For me, these elements included key elements such as:

Strength of narrative and characterisations; consistency of viewpoints; plot structure; pace.

These were the elements on which I wanted a professional view and which I considered, if done well, would most benefit my novel and help me make it the best I could.

Paul kindly agreed to work with me on the novel and we started on the review, edit, re-write, edit, review cycle that authors will know well (and not necessarily in that order). And I should say at this point that Paul was great to work with and I enjoyed seeing the novel improve. As we went round the cycle I began to refine the list of elements that I was most concerned to get right, adding to it and developing simplistic definitions of what I was hoping to achieve in those areas until I had a set of Quality Review Considerations at a ‘macro’ level against which I could compare the novel. I say ‘compare’ rather than ‘measure’ because few of the considerations are objectively measurable, for reasons that will become clear if you read through the list. They actually started out as ‘Criteria’ rather than ‘Considerations’ but I feel that to call them criteria might give them a degree of specificity that is unjustified. I would prefer to see more criteria that are measurable but perhaps this is symptomatic with writing being an ‘art’ rather than a ‘science’.

It might be worth noting that as I developed the list I thought increasingly about what I expect from a novel as a reader. It might sound obvious, but I’m not sure I’d ever given it a lot of thought before; I don’t know if readers generally compartmentalise their opinions in this way (and no reason they should) and I’ll be interested to see if I start to use it more as a reader. Perhaps I should re-read one of my favourites and then compare it against the list – that might highlight for me why that novel is one of my favourites. But what if it doesn’t compare favourably with my list? What might that mean? Can it still be one of my favourites? Hmmm…. Maybe I’ll start off with one of my less favourite books.

In the meantime, much as I feel the considerations give me a good set of ‘targets’ as a writer, there are a few issues:

  • They are not independent in the sense that they cover those elements of novel writing that are important to me and, more specifically, important to the style of novel that I hope to write. I make no claims that the considerations are necessarily suitable for all genres or styles, which in turn means that I may have reverse engineered the considerations to meet my aspirations. Such reverse engineering may have dramatically compromised the considerations’ independence.
  • The lack of objective measurements means it essentially comes down to my opinion regarding the extent to which the novel meets (or fails) the consideration. I’d like to think I’m impartial but really….?
  • It is possible to satisfy the consideration but still have written a novel with a fundamentally uninteresting plot that only I think is enjoyable to read and which is stylistically boring. I’m inclined to think that unless the basic premise of any novel, its key themes are engaging and the style entertaining, then all the quality considerations in the world may not save it. I appreciate this may be at odds with those readers whose enjoyment of Literary Fiction is based on how the language is used rather than plots and characterisations but, for the purposes of my Quality Review Considerations, we should probably leave that discussion for another day.

So, what have I ended up with? Despite the issues above I’m comfortable that my considerations provide good questions that I can use at a macro level to challenge the text and I have to believe that I’m sufficiently (if not perfectly) impartial to answer honestly. As my prime driver is for the novel to be as good as it can it would be ridiculous and self-defeating not to be as self-critical as possible. And if nothing else the considerations should help me get the foundations set.

In case they are of interest I’ve listed the considerations below. You may find some of them useful, you may disagree with them, you may think there are considerations missing. That’s all good and feel free to drop a comment on my facebook page or use the contact form on this website if you think I’ve missed something – I’m not inclined to defend them to the death and I’ll happily change or add to them as I learn more – and the more I write the more I learn.

Although individually the considerations may appear quite simplistic and obvious to some, I think that when taken and applied as a package they provide a holistic approach – one of those ‘the whole being greater than the sum of the parts’ kind of things, as Aristotle is supposed to have said.

Oh, and you might be interested to know about some research I carried out to see if publishing companies and agents used any objective criteria to help them with their engagement and commissioning decisions – but that’s for another time, perhaps in a few weeks.

Quality Review Considerations

Below are the considerations against which I checked The Blue Bench. The comments in the second column are not intended to repesent a definition or rigid description of the considerations – they are my interpetation of them, a reminder of what I hope to achieve and a way of prompting further critical analysis of on my writing.

It’s worth repeating here that these considerations are intended to be used as a reminder before and during writing and as a checklist afterwards. They are not intended to assist with the development of plot, character, theme, idea or narrative arc prior to (& during) writing.

1. Prime Purpose : Taking a ‘top down’ approach I wanted a quick reminder as to why I write and how I hope to interact with the reader. Remember what I said above about lacking objective measurements? This section is perhaps the biggest challenge as how will I know the work succeeds (or fails) until I begin to receive feedback? In that sense the considerations are aspirational but I feel it’s important to keep reminding myself – with emphasis on ‘Entertain’ as without that the rest is redundant.

2. Narrative: This section covers the basic elements that I think make up a story and my approach to those elements.

3. Style: This may not be the correct title for this section but highlights essential elements of language and how it is used and the need for consistency. It’s also important that these elements complement the narrative elements above.

4. Technical Measures and Product Specification: I’ve put these sections together because, to a large extent, they are the criteria that are measurable. In many ways they are the easiest to check and, if not accurate, correct. They can be considered as ‘hygiene’ elements which, if done properly will be invisible, but if done wrong can spoil the reader experience.

Conclusion: At the beginning of this article I wrote about the desire to make my novels the best I can. This meant taking time to consider what that might look like and how I might understand if I’ve achieved that. The Quality Review Considerations are one of the tools I use. I accept their limitations. And, fundamentally, unless I’m prepared to be self-critical they are of little value. But if I can be as honest as possible about my writing and use the list to improve it then it does provide some degree of confidence that I’m close to doing the best I can. I say ‘close’ because there is always the danger of seeking unattainable perfection and we reach a point where we need to accept the need to move on.

It’s also true to say that even if the writing does satisfy the considerations it doesn’t necessarily mean you have written an engaging and interesting novel that people will want to read. But, understanding their limitations, if there’s anything there that you might find useful then please feel free to adopt and adapt.

I hope there was something in this article of use. May you enjoy writing and/or reading and, if an author, find ways to be the best you can be.

Please check back for future articles.