At the end of last year I was invited to a preview of paintings by local amateur artists. As I wandered along the corridors studying the exhibits, my heart went out to the creators of these works, also eavesdropping incognito not only on the compliments, but also the ‘hmmms’, and sudden silences, and occasional unflattering comments. They’d laboured long and hard over those canvases, pouring something of themselves into their art. Irrespective of the appeal of any given painting, I had to admire their courage hanging their work for public scrutiny.
So, given the hazards of parading one’s creativity, you might well ask, what on earth possessed me to put myself in the firing line quite deliberately, by asking a group of very excellent and discerning women readers to tear my current novel to pieces in front of me. Hello? I’ve long been conscious of the fine dividing line between normality and insanity, and my own teetering vulnerability. But this time my lapse was calculated.
To begin with I have a healthy respect for this group of professionals. Last year they invited me to go along to one of their bookclub meetings where they were discussing Right to Die, and I was impressed by the quality of their discussion. They engaged fully with the issues relating to assisted death as well as with the actual story and the art of writing.
And as far as my current writing goes, now is the time to hear constructive criticism, not when it’s between covers. Hitherto all my novels have been published by independent publishers, and the journey to the bookshops by this route includes stages of critique and editing. This might not happen if I do decide to self-publish Over My Dead Body, so I’m going to considerable lengths to get it polished as much as possible by other means. Approaching the bookgroup seemed like a splendid next step.
I made sure they all knew the terms of engagement from the outset: the book is in draft form and I’m looking for rigorous and honest analysis and comment. Flannel and flattery would render the process useless.
So I duly rolled up on Monday evening prepared to be slaughtered in the name of my art. (Can you smell the adrenalin already?!) In the event it turned out to be a really enjoyable and interesting experience. Initially they were concerned for me, being on the receiving end of their criticism, but I can honestly say I was not in the least bothered by it. There was a constructive point to it; it wasn’t malicious or personal. Indeed I’d invited it. It’s always a real thrill to have people talking about my characters as if they know them, and as one of the women said at the end, to have a roomful of people discussing a book in such an animated and engaged way said something about its overall appeal.
So what did I learn? The subject of organ donation is fascinating; all of them agreed on that. They actually wanted more fleshing out of the transplant bits (that really surprised me). Indeed, some found the subplots I had included as hooks, ‘distracting’ and ‘too emotionally draining’. Curiouser and curiouser! (Does this say something about my own over-exposure to the subject?)
The other surprise was that a child character I struggled with most, they all loved. I’ve several times been on the point of removing her sections; now, thanks to their input, I have the confidence not to do so.
So, what next? I have to weigh up each of their comments and consider how much any changes would disturb the overall balance of the book. Taking out a child crime and/or a missing woman and/or a psychotic father and/or a severed limb and/or a wrecked marriage and/or a drug smuggling would inevitably alter the weightings. And might result in a total collapse of the infrastructure of the story … HELP! Adding more descriptive detail might alienate people who want fast action and variety.
I’ve been scribbling furiously ever since, but trying not to rush into too many radical revisions. After all, as the familiar adage has it: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m the one who has to stand by the finished product.
I do love hearing from readers, and I’m always impressed when they make contact. It’s something I rarely do, but should do more often – no, not with myself, with authors whose work I’ve enjoyed.
‘Star letter’ this week goes to ‘Trish’ who wrote asking for the reference for a medical thriller mentioned in my novel Right to Die. The main protagonist, Adam O’Neill, a journalist who has developed Motor Neurone Disease, lends the thriller to his GP, Dr Curtis, and writes in his diary:
He’d brought back a book I’d lent him, a brilliant medical thriller about a serial murderer who developed aplastic anaemia. I’d been impressed by the twist in the tale, and thought Curtis might appreciate its medical cleverness. The killer went on to have a bone marrow transplant from his sister. Result: when he was a suspect years later the forensic people said he couldn’t be the killer because his DNA didn’t match the samples from the crime scene. Naturally, the hotshot detective got hold of some distant relative and winkled out the story of the transplant and hey ho, the villain’s clapped up in jail and they’ve thrown away the key.
The crime story was entirely fictitious, but of course I was chuffed to find someone wanted to read it. And more delighted still that my correspondent wrote to me subsequently to say she was a nurse who works with people with MND, and how true Right to Die rang with her experience. That kind of endorsement from experts is special. Very confirming.
In a couple of weeks time I’m due to attend a bookclub where the members are going to be discussing Right to Die, so I’m hoping they’ll be as enthusiastic as Trish. I know there’s at least one doctor in the group, so I’m not expecting an easy ride. But the challenge is stimulating, and there’s a particular thrill in hearing other people talk about my characters as if they’re real people. To me they are; I know them intimately.
Trish’s endorsement made me feel so chirpy I abandoned research into auto-immune hepatitis (for my current novel) and went off to try out a new recipe for a raspberry and amaretti gateau.
It’s odd how when your mind is steeped in a particular subject you see related things everywhere, isn’t it?
As part of preparing for the publication of Saving Sebastian I’ve been thinking a lot about fertility treatments, the rights and wrongs, benefits and risks, should we-shouldn’t we? Because as well as working on the book itself, I’ve had to bend my mind to the assorted peripheral tasks that dog any writer – publicity and marketing, updating my website, events, that sort of thing. Not nearly as much fun as the creative writing but just as necessary, I’m afraid. Anyway, I was deep into drafting questions for bookclubs, and challenges for teachers and students of related subjects, when lo and behold, two articles jumped out at me.
One was a news item saying that a Brazilian fertility expert – the very one who helped the famous footballer, Pelé, become the father of twins – is suspected of having deceived patients at his Sao Paulo clinic into raising children who were not biologically their own by implanting other couples’ embryos to boost his success rates. Wow!
And why did this leap out and sock me between the eyes? Because in Saving Sebastian, a Nigerian couple have twins through IVF – one black, the other coffee coloured – and there’s a big old stooshie going on in the fertility centre to establish just what went wrong. Was it deliberate? Was it a genuine mistake? Is there something else lurking in the undergrowth? Too bad real life beat me to it, eh? If my publisher had stuck to the original publication date of 1 May my novel would have been out a fortnight before this Brazilian story broke. Heigh-ho.
The other sucker-punch was by Daily Telegraph columnist, Dr Max Pemberton (16 May). He starts by saying he thought long and hard before writing this particular article because he knew he’d attract condemnation. OK, I’m listening, Doc. The gist of his argument – please note his not necessarily mine (I want to keep my powder dry meantime!) is
- the NHS is strapped for cash
- hard decisions have to be made about how to use limited resources
- there is now an expectation that the NHS will provide fertility treatment on demand and the belief that everyone has a right to be a parent
- childlessness is not a disease but a grief based on people being unable to have what they want
- in these straightened times life-threatening and debilitating diseases should take precedence
- therefore, he concludes, ‘IVF is a luxury the NHS just cannot afford‘.
And the relevance of this piece? Well, in Saving Sebstian, Yasmeen and Karim Zair are fighting to have a baby by IVF who is the same tissue type as their son, Sebastian. The little lad has a rare blood disorder from which he will die if he doesn’t get stem cells from a saviour sibling. And already he’s having punishing treatment to keep him alive. At four years of age … imagine! Should they be allowed to have this treatment? There are plenty of people opposing them. What do you think?
Maybe reading the book will help to crystallise your own thinking so you can agree or disagree with Max Pemberton more logically. But in the meantime please do have your say on my blog if your dander is up, steam is exploding out of your ears, and you feel like adding to the debate right now! You can always publish an addendum or a retraction later. Remember …
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind (William Blake).