A Book, By Theo

It was the ever lovely Sarah who commented that I should write a book. I approve of this suggestion. If there is anything this world could use more of, it is drivel written by me. If it can be delivered in book form for which people are forced to part with currency to acquire, so much the better.

As it happens, like every blogger on the interweb, I harbour secret dreams of being an author. I would like nothing better than to receive quarterly royalty checks and get paid to visit bookshops. I yearn for the days when I can inform people where I get my ideas from and tell them whether or not I base my characters upon real people.
For me though, this remains something of a vague notion which I may or may not do something about some day. Although I write, it is very clear to me that I am not, nor will ever be, a Writer. I simply don’t care enough about it and take rejection with a shrug rather than crumpling to the floor and weeping over my failed MS before opining that the person who did this to me doesn’t know anything about anything and that they’ll be sorry when I win the Nobel prize for literature, as I obviously will, because I’m that great.

To be a Writer is to fail to understand that a commercial fiction agent is never going to represent your epic 18 part science fiction saga even though you’ve managed to use the letter X 432 times in the first chapter alone. To be a Writer you need to have a bag full of excuses and the certainty that anybody who doesn’t like your book must be blind, stupid and a much worse writer than you are. I see a routine rejection letter for what it is, not as a personal attack against my person.
It is no surprise then, that I and Harper Collins’ Authonomy Website do not Get Along.

If you’ve not heard of it, the idea of Authonomy is that writers can upload an amount of their MS onto the site and other users can review and suggest ways to improve it. If a person likes your MS enough, they can place it upon their “bookshelf” which raises its ranking. Whichever book has the highest ranking at the end of the month gets a review by an editor from HC.
In theory, this is a sound idea. Peer review can be the most effective way to improve what you do. Unfortunately, the Authonomy site is basically a popularity contest and the book which makes the top of the pile is not the best or even the most interesting, it is whichever one has an author with a lot of time on their hands.
You see, rather than just looking around the site and seeking out the books which interest them, the vast majority of users do trade reads, usually initiated by a random message asking you to read their novel first. Anybody who is attempting to climb the greasy pole of the rankings chart will place and remove dozens of books to and from their personal bookshelf in a single day in the hope of other users returning the favour.

Of course, the other trouble with this system is that it does not help users to become better writers; all it manages to do is drown them in obligation. How on earth can you give an honest review of somebody’s MS when you are desperate for them to have a look at your own? Or point out flaws when they’ve just given you a glowing appraisal? You can’t, so the result is a website full of reviews suggesting everything is marvellous. In what way does that help anybody?
The other trouble is that if you sit down and work out how many hours you need to spend courting other users and worked out how much you could earn if you worked that time, you’d have enough money to pay for several editor’s appraisals.

When I uploaded a rather ancient MS I have mouldering on my hard disk, it was more in the curiosity of what feedback I would receive because, in all honesty, I have no idea if it is any good or not, let alone publishable (although given the timeframe between my writing it and now, I would say no. I’ve improved a lot since then). The first feedback I received was from somebody who absolutely loved it and thought it was wonderful and who thought, on the basis of what they’d read, that I would be really interested in their novel. What they’d read only seemed to be the synopsis, but never mind, eh?

My second review came from somebody whose work I’d given the once over. They’d very kindly sent me a note asking if I would like to have a look at their book, so I did.
At first, I was a little taken aback. The synopsis was a little jerky and didn’t make a great deal of sense, it began with an author’s introduction containing an anecdote about shooting the wife of the local Labour MP which was meant to be funny but which I thought wasn’t (maybe it’s something to do with all the masked gunmen in my area), and the entire first chapter was written in a vague play script form which I found almost entirely unreadable.
Yet, I persevered. As recommended by the synopsis, I picked out a few chapters to read at random (this being structured as standalone stories) and continued until I had formed my opinion.

To begin with, I was careful to let the user know that anything I said would be of limited use to them as I was not the intended audience for this book (it was aimed at children and I don’t have any) and it was not the sort of book I would be interested in reading. This was my first mistake.
I then compounded this error by suggesting their synopsis could do with some polishing and opining that the opening anecdote fell a little flat. I suggested that they might think of moving the play script chapter to further on in the book as it gave people a false impression of what the book was like and may be putting them off from reading further. I went on to say I felt it was a little contrived and unoriginal in places (the final chapter sees the child hero thwart a terrorist hijacking on an aeroplane by tying the shoelaces of the terrorists together – his mum manages to sleep through the entire drama) and recommended that they have a little more fun with it.

The response was astonishing. I could hardly have done worse if I’d drowned their puppy and spat upon their mother’s grave. The rebuttal boiled down to “Loads of other people say it’s great and find all the bits you’ve cited really funny”. An hour later, they left me a second message to ask me why I’d bothered to read so much of it if I had hated it so much. An hour after that, a third, from which I got the impression they believed I’d taken offence from their original review request because it included the line “I don’t mind that you’re Welsh” and that was the reason for my criticisms. They defended themselves this racist aside by mentioning Anne Robinson. Anne Robinson? Shakespeare made Welsh jokes for heavens sake.

To this, I wrote an eloquent and polite response in which I tried to be encouraging and reiterated that it was only my opinion. Unfortunately, because I wrote it in Word and cut and pasted it across in a hurry, I failed to notice I only managed to post half of my message back to them. Even more unfortunately, this included the half which stressed that, as I mentioned clearly on my profile, I did not give reviews in the expectation that they would be returned and urged them not to trouble themselves with it if they felt disinclined to.
The following day, I realised my cut-and-paste error when I encountered their review of my MS. It was told me that they had really wanted to like my MS(!) but that my style was repetitive and my protagonist boring. They also said they could make no sense of my first line. I can only assume they thought this was going to really hurt but unfortunately, I’m not about to take offense from somebody on the interweb I’ve just managed to upset. That, and I didn’t have any confidence they’d read past the third paragraph.

So, I tried again. I thanked them for their review, said I was sorry they hadn’t liked it and promised to bear their points in mind when I came to do my revisions. I also said I had noticed they had improved their synopsis and agreed it was clearer now.
Yet, that didn’t seem to be the end of it. I was left with the impression that they really wanted me to approve of the changes they’d made and declare that actually, I really liked their book. Why they would be so desperate for my appreciation I have no idea, but there you go.

Clearly, when it comes to seeking opinion on creative work, I am better prepared to handle it than a lot of people. I’ve been to Art School. I’m used to sitting in a room full of people who are discussing what I’ve done wrong and it frustrates me not to have access to a group of people who can honestly discuss and give constructive feedback to me on something like creative writing.

Anyway. While my experience on Authonomy was a brief and perplexing one, it would certainly be remiss of me to suggest that everybody on the site is a jerk. They aren’t. Even my antagonised chum stated that they felt bad to being mean to me when I was so nice and kept trying to help them. They didn’t actually apologise nor have a proper look at my MS, but never mind.
Authonomy sounds a good idea but, in all honesty, anybody who wants to be an author, rather than a Writer, would do far better to spend their time on their MS, synopsis and covering letter. An agent will get you published, Authonomy won’t.


Anonymous said...

I'm totally up for reading and being honest if you ever want to pass something on. I provide a similar service to a friend of mine who is studying screen writing.

sarah said...

`ever lovely`
that should totally be my middle name

in fact, it should also be your main character`s name.
sarah ever-lovely.

sounds superb.

i would part with my currency. would you sign it?