Sex, Magic, and Rocket Engineering: the Extraordinary Life and Death of Jack Parsons

In the course of writing a novel you come across some very interesting stuff. In fact, some of the research can be so interesting that it becomes a danger to your progress, consuming increasing amounts of time and attention far beyond what was necessary for the writing.

During the writing of my new novel, a supernatural thriller titled Black Easter, I needed to research the Waffen-SS, the legendary black magician Aleister Crowley (aka ‘The Great Beast’), and the internal workings of the Greek Orthodox Church in some depth. One particularly fascinating area of study involved life in the closed monastic communities of Mount Athos, an autonomous peninsula in Northern Greece entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Absorbing as all this material was, the most fascinating subject I came across was Jack Parsons, occultist, libertine druggie, explosives junkie, rocket engineer, and one of the founding figures of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) right near my home in Pasadena.

Parsons (nearest on right) and colleagues preparing for a rocket engine test in Pasadena, 1936. (photo: JPL)

I stumbled across Parsons quite by accident when a friend, who knew I was doing some background research on occultist Aleister Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, mentioned him to me. After reading the Wikipedia entry on Parsons, I found a number of further articles about him and a biography. Despite being a key figure in the development of modern rocketry, Parsons’ extreme eccentricity has led to his being pretty much written out of NASA’s history.

Parsons developed a childhood interest in rocketry from reading Science Fiction. He and a friend founded a rocket research group which received National Academy of Sciences funding in 1939 to develop JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) for the military. In 1942 they founded a new company, Aerojet, which just a year later became JPL.

Paralleling these material ventures were Parsons’ curious spiritual adventures. In 1939 he became a disciple of Crowley’s and adopted Thelema—Crowley’s magical teaching—as his religion. Just a couple of years later, at Crowley’s behest, he was running the Crowley-affiliated Agape Lodge (from the Greek, αγαπε, “love”, “love of man”, “highest love”) from his Pasadena home in Orange Grove Avenue.

Sex and magic were inseparable in the Agape Lodge’s rituals. Partner-swapping, orgies, and ritual masturbation in the performance of magic ceremonies were common practice, along with marijuana and cocaine use. This behaviour eventually led to Parsons’ expulsion from JPL.

Parsons’ pursuit of esoteric knowledge continued unabated. Somewhere around 1945, L. Ron Hubbard (who later went on to found the Church of Scientology) moved into the Lodge, and he and Parsons became close friends. After losing his girlfriend, Sara, to Hubbard, Parsons decided on a series of rituals he termed the “Babalon Working” aimed at bringing about an incarnation of Crowley’s Thelemite goddess Babalon on Earth. After the final ritual in the Mojave desert, he became convinced that Marjorie Cameron—a young unemployed artist who’d just come to visit the Lodge—was the incarnation of the goddess he had summoned.

Following further adventures, which included being defrauded of his life savings by L. Ron Hubbard, an unsuccessful court action, and finally unwelcome attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in the FBI’s revocation of his security clearance, Parsons returned to occultism with a vengeance. Working in a gas station and selling homemade nitroglycerin on the side to earn money, he wrote several occult texts, including The Book of AntiChrist, in which he prophesied that Babalon would manifest on Earth within nine years and bring about the downfall of the Abrahamic religions. Parsons and Cameron separated, and she went to live in an artists’ commune in Mexico.

Parsons was able to start working again after a closed federal court hearing resulted in his security clearance being reinstated. He was hired to design and build a chemical plant for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, but was fired in 1951 on suspicion of stealing classified company documents and spying for the Israeli government.

Parsons and Cameron, now reconciled, moved into a former coach house in Orange Grove Avenue, where he converted a room to a lab. He brewed absinthe, held parties with members of the new Beat Generation, and started a new Thelemite group. He founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company, which specialized in making explosives and special effects chemicals for the film industry.

On June 17, 1952, Parsons received a rush order for explosives from a movie company and set to work in his little Orange Grove lab. There was an explosion, which destroyed the lower half of the building and cost Parsons his life. The Pasadena Police Department investigation concluded it was an accident caused by sloppy work habits and clumsiness. But a number of Parsons’ former colleagues challenged this, stating that he was always extremely cautious in his work. One chemical engineer insisted the explosion had come from beneath the floorboards (a suggestion the police department accepted as a possibility) leading to speculation that Howard Hughes had Parsons assassinated for stealing company secrets. A friend of Cameron’s believed Parsons died in a ritual intended to create a homunculus. In the end, Parsons’ demise was declared an accidental death owing to the lack of conclusive evidence. He was only 37 when he died.

When I started writing Black Easter, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was shortly after our move to Pasadena that I began to research Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, and came across the extraordinary story of Jack Parsons. When I discovered the Pasadena-Crowley connection, I experienced a serious frisson at the very odd synchronicity. And it’s not the only the only one this supernatural novel has triggered in my life.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the everyday sometimes supplies characters way larger than life. Jack Parsons was one of those. It makes me want to write him into a novel somewhere down the road.

My supernatural thriller, Black Easter, will be released on December 5, 2015. Read an excerpt here.

About Black Easter

It’s Resurrection Time.

San Francisco antique dealer Paul Hatzis sells his business and rents an old house on the small Greek island of Vóunos. What he doesn’t know is that the house, which has a sinister reputation with the locals, was previously owned by black magician Dafyd Jones who—along with his seer companion Magda O’Whelan, and Klaus Maule, a seriously disturbed colonel in the Waffen SS—made a deal with the demonic, culminating in their planned bodily deaths during the final ritual in 1944.

In return for a lifetime of service on the frontier of Outer Hell, where all the demons of Hell fight a desperate, eternal battle against inconceivable powers that would consume both the human and demonic spheres, Jones and his companions will be reborn on Earth as powerful immortals…if they don’t go mad first.

As Easter approaches, Paul is preparing to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Greek calendar with his girlfriend, Elleni, and Alex, his adored 18-year old niece. But with the biblical threescore years and ten now up, the magician and his two colleagues are being called back from Hell by the ritual artifact they buried deep in the cellar of Paul’s house.

And all they need are three living human bodies…


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Review: “The House of Shattered Wings” by Aliette de Bodard

Shattered WingsThe House of Shattered Wings by multiple award-winning author Aliette de Bodard is one of the most unusual and absorbing books I’ve read in years. How unusual? Let me count the ways.

First, it doesn’t categorize easily—and bored as I am with the cookie-cutter offerings from the big houses, this is a huge deal. Although shelved as Fantasy, this book is so much more. It’s Alternate History; it’s a Mystery; it’s a Supernatural Thriller; and it’s most certainly a major Gothic novel.

The story takes place in a late 20th-century Paris devastated by the Great War that began in 1914—except that in this world the Great War was a supernatural one between warring gangs, or “houses”, of fallen Angels and their human followers. With no clear victor, the conflict has settled into a kind of supernatural Cold War in which the houses spy on and plot against one another in the ruined debris of the once-great city.

In the burnt-out shell of Notre Dame, surrounded by the hopelessly fouled black waters of the Seine, House Silverspires and its leader Selene struggle to maintain the house’s power and place among the others, and in particular to resist Asmodeus, the brutally cruel leader of House Hawthorn. But when the mysterious Vietnamese Immortal Philippe triggers a curse that brings down the deadly power of the Furies against Silverspires, Selene and Madeleine, House Silverspires’ alchemist, find themselves beset on every side. Especially since Madeleine—now perilously addicted to Angel essence—is an escapee from House Hawthorn. Added to all this is the mystery of Philippe’s connection to the Fallen Angel Isabelle, and the strange disappearance of House Silverspires’ founder, Morningstar (aka Lucifer).

De Bodard deploys the full range of her writing skills and inventive audacity in this dense and deeply melancholic novel. There are strong echoes of both Western and Eastern mythologies, of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the underwater Dragon Kingdoms of East Asian folklore. The novel’s characters are real and believable, layered with tragic pasts and complex motivations as they move through their haunted, broken city. Yet even as the action and intrigue—and sometimes horror—ratchet up relentlessly, there is always a vivid sense of remembered splendour and grandeur, a yearning for the vanished beauty and elegance that seems to shimmer just below the surface of the ruined city.

Those familiar with the author’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy will be delighted to discover this new world in what is hopefully—de Bodard seems to be keeping her options open in this standalone work—the first book in a new series. That this book is both darker and more complex is certain, and some may need a few chapters to adjust to its Gothic tone. But this is a powerful novel that sinks deep into the reader’s psyche, taking you into a world so rich and characters so compelling that they linger for months after turning the last page.

Don’t miss it.

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On Rewriting

I used to hate rewriting.

As any writer knows, it’s not over when you write, THE END. It’s a glorious moment, to be sure, and one to be savoured—but what it usually means is that you’ve completed the first draft and will soon be getting to grips with the dreaded rewrite.

Writers come in all kinds. There are those of the down-and-dirty first draft persuasion whose prose floods onto the page so fast they can barely keep up. I know authors whose early drafts don’t even come with punctuation, with hash signs or XXX marks peppering every page as placeholders for a word they can’t think of in the instant. I admire these people for the sheer energy and momentum of their attack—they can often get 4,000, 5,000, or even more words on the page in a day, but I don’t envy them the task of rewriting—it’s going to be even more work than the first draft! That said, it’s easier to strip down and rework rough writing than prose that’s almost good enough to publish already.

Which would be the way my first drafts tend to be. I manage around 1,500 words on a good day. Not a lot: I think and compose in the process, and don’t plot ahead. But the prose is clean. The upside of my method is that I don’t have to do a great deal of rewriting; the downside is that teardowns in which large structural changes need to be made and entire scenes or chapters recrafted are more painful, since it’s hard not to be somewhat invested in prose that already has  a good shine on it.

Today, as I approach the end of the rewrite on my new suspense novel (working title: Black Easter), I’ve come to look forward to and even enjoy the process of rewriting.

Why? Because it’s where the magic happens.

This novel was, for various reasons, the devil to write—and given that it concerns itself closely with Hell, (and no, not your usual Hell, as I have a whole new and twisted demonology for the reader), this is probably appropriate.

The rewrite began no easier, and at first I struggled to engage the correct gears. Stephen King compares writing a novel to rowing across the Atlantic in a bathtub: you’re alone, and most of the time you’re out of sight of land. It’s dark, and there are storms. Fear and self-doubt pluck and worry at you constantly. As is so often the case with writers, especially novelists, despair is never far away. You know you suck, and pretty soon the whole world will know it, too. Maybe you should just bury the manuscript and take up origami.

And then, at the darkest hour, magic happens. A character suddenly reveals the motive for which they said something, took some action, or made a key decision. You see a connection between two story events that casts an entirely new light on a pivotal plot point. You understand why you wrote a particular scene that seemed to have no immediate meaning at the time. You realize that you have two characters transposed, that one should be doing this particular action, not the other. Your characters that looked like stick figures suddenly take on form and solidity.

Before long, the entire work which felt like a pile of dry, lifeless bones just yesterday has come to life in your hands. Tendons and muscles appear from nowhere, and the loose collection of bones tautens and snaps into an ordered skeleton. Flesh begins to cover it, it acquires a face; and pretty soon your formerly dead creation is breathing and moving and talking. Despair turns to elation, defeat to victory.

What’s happened of course is that your muse has delivered the goods. By just keeping at it and showing up at the keyboard, your subconscious mind (and that is the muse, the place where the magic happens) has had the time and been served sufficient material that it’s now delivering the output to you in the form of insights, explanations, connections.

I believe that most writers—except perhaps those who indulge in very detailed outlining and plotting in advance, to the point where their process is more mechanical than organic—rely largely on the subconscious to do the heavy lifting. When I write my first draft, I have an idea of where my plot may go, and often extensive notes on my characters, but I really can’t see very far or deeply. Characters will do things I don’t quite understand at the time, and the plot will take odd turns I couldn’t have foreseen. This doesn’t mean I have no control: I do hold the reins, but loosely; and on the whole, I find I hardly ever need to tighten them and rein in the team—they seem to know where they’re going better than I do. Somehow I get to the end.

My point here is that what’s happening is an information upload from the writer’s subconscious to their conscious mind. I believe that in the first draft the conscious mind is putting down on paper a somewhat garbled version of the narrative that the subconscious, the muse, actually has worked out in great detail (this correlates nicely with the “found object” school of plotting). In the rewrite, the muse looks over what the conscious has put down on the page, laughing in some places and frowning in others. It then goes off to have lunch.

After a little more time in which you might find yourself spinning your wheels and considering those origami classes again, the subconscious returns from lunch and starts really delivering the goods. Suddenly you’re energized. You slap yourself upside the head and wonder how you could have been so an ass to not see this, and get that so wrong. You make the connections, your fingers fly on the keyboard. The magic is happening.

And those rewrites I once feared are something I’ve begun to look forward to.


How do you feel about rewrites? Have you experienced this same magic?








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Win a Free Audiobook of my novel, “Sutherland’s Rules”!


Since the number of entrants was actually under the free codes available, everyone who entered has won. All winners have now been notified; if you entered and haven’t received an email, try looking in your spam folder. Any problem with download, let me know. Happy listening!

Spring is here, the Sun is in Aries, and life is good. In celebration, I’ll be giving away TWENTY-FIVE free copies of my audiobook, SUTHERLAND’S RULES, produced and narrated by talented British character actor Andrew Cullum–and yes, he really has played Richard III!

Audiobooks are wonderful for listening to on your commute, on airplanes, while working out, or just relaxing at home. Just download onto your mp3 player or favourite device and you’re good to go!

To enter the draw for a free copy of this terrific 9-hour audio production, JUST LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. The winners will be decided by random draw on May 1st. Winners will be notified by email and will receive a free promo code  for an instant download at ( for winners in the UK).

Good luck!

(Note: commenting and entering will NOT get you on any lists–your privacy is absolutely guaranteed.)

Click here to listen to the free sample  and view the book description on , or here for (UK readers)


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Review: “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu

Grace of KingsI don’t write many reviews. Quite apart from the time investment, few books grab me enough to move me to the pulpit. Of those few, even fewer in recent years have been Epic Fantasy, a genre I view with some wariness for its tendency to never-ending series and faux-Shakespearian dialogue. And as an unapologetic fan of Tolkien, my personal bar—not just for story, but for the level of craft needed to pull off an original work in this genre—is set very high.

So when I heard that multiple award-winning author Ken Liu was embarking on an Epic Fantasy series, I was intrigued. Liu—one of the most extraordinary talents the Science Fiction/Fantasy field has seen in the last several decades—never disappoints. And the fact that the series, named The Dandelion Dynasty, was going to be informed by and draw upon the Chinese Classics suggested this might be something new in a genre which I’ve generally found to be rather disappointing.

Well, “new” doesn’t come close. With The Grace of Kings, standalone first volume in the series, Liu knocks this one out of the ballpark. This isn’t just a terrific book, it’s an important one that comes at the epic tale from a different angle, with an unusual sensibility.

At 640 pages, The Grace of Kings, by the standards of the genre, isn’t a very large book. But the scope of lives, of events, of pure, unalloyed story that takes place here is more than most authors pack into a trilogy.

From the sweeping, cinematic opening scene, the author shows a command of his craft that delights. Like his characters, Liu takes great risks, using narrative techniques and pacings that, in the hands of another, would result in distancing and detachment. Instead, the cumulative effect of Liu’s technique, with its free-ranging viewpoint and delicious digressions as new characters are introduced, feels very close to the oral storytelling tradition at the core of every culture. As night deepens, we gather closer to the fire, listening with rapt attention, fully immersed in a world so real and characters so alive that, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Zelazny’s Amber, it’s impossible to not wholly believe in them.

But Liu gives us more than brave deeds and battles, love and loyalty, passion and betrayal, song and spectacle. From start to finish, and with not infrequent undertones of wry humour, The Grace of Kings is a meditation and commentary on power, and the ways in which that power seduces, drives, corrupts, and (in Liu’s own words) occasionally ennobles. This is a novel that embraces ambiguity and relativism, that makes simple judgments difficult, even impossible. In a world as real as ours, in which “good” actions can bring catastrophic results, and where people, feelings, and loyalties are subject to living, dynamic change, what is right? Who can see around all corners?

Not everyone likes to face ambiguity. For many—including those of a secular bent—the essentially Christian narrative of good and evil is more comforting. The fact that Liu can bring these questions before the reader without for a moment sounding preachy or sacrificing story, wonder, and sheer, breathless adventure is a supreme achievement—and you’d have to be dead to finish this book without asking yourself where certain lines are, or if they indeed exist. And to his credit, even at the very end, Liu never tips his hand, never makes judgments. He respects and trusts his readers to be smart enough to think for themselves.

But, you ask, what’s the book about? Well, here’s the sketchiest summary:

The islands of Dara, a sprawl of historically strife-torn, warring nations, are finally at peace. But that peace has been dearly bought: under the iron rule of the Emperor Mapideré, clans are split, families are divided, and men throughout Dara are forced by corvée to work for years at a time on the emperor’s monumental projects, often never to see their families again.

Against this backdrop of totalitarian brutality, a series of small events started by minor players—a corvée gang leader trying to save his skin by faking an outlandish prophecy; a wily, charismatic tavern rat named Kuni Garu; and the vengeful giant, Mata Zyndu, grim heir of a noble clan expropriated by the emperor—escalates by degrees into an armed uprising.

Before long, Kuni and Mata, now allies close as brothers, find themselves and their trusted followers at the forefront of a revolution that breaks the empire apart. But as their power grows, so does the complexity of the politics and the influence of their advisors and generals, paving the way for miscalculations, misunderstandings, and treachery.

And the players in Dara are not only human. The fractious gods and goddesses of this ancient land have their own designs, and are not above taking on human form to help their favourites in the power struggle unfolding in the human realm.

As upheaval grips this land of nobles and peasants, rascals and heroes, exotic creatures and wildly imaginative silkpunk technologies, Liu delights us with a cast of unforgettable characters, among whom Jia Matiza, a skilled herbalist and Kuni’s wife; Gin Mazoti, a female street urchin who rises to become the world’s greatest military commander; Luan Zya, a brilliant adventurer and Kuni’s master strategist; Kindo Marana, a tax collector reluctantly placed in command of an army; the Lady Risana, a clever illusionist and Kuni’s consort; and Gitré Üthu, the magic book of knowledge that writes itself, given to Luan by a mysterious teacher.

In conclusion, The Grace of Kings is a book whose audience extends far beyond the traditional readership for Epic Fantasy, a must-read for anyone who enjoys a great story.

Now where’s book Two?


Full disclosure: I was a beta reader of an early draft of this novel, and also the editor/publisher of Liu’s award-nominated novella, The Man Who Ended History (in the 2011 Panverse Three anthology from Panverse Publishing).


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The Unplotted Plot

Recently I picked up a book by an author whom I’ve enjoyed in the past and which I was very much looking forward to reading. It was a big Science Fiction novel, and the author is one of those rare few who’s managed to break out of the narrow confines of SF and become a mainstream bestseller. His books, which often feature mysterious alien artifacts, are filled with wonder, his stories painted on big canvases–all stuff I love, unlike so much of today’s SF which I find either preachy, tediously dystopian, downright timid and petty, or all three together.

After enjoying the first few dozen pages, however, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable. Despite the great setup, fine writing, wonderful worldbuilding, and solid characterization, the story felt as if it was on rails. It was meticulous, precise. It was too damn plotted.

The more I learn about this craft, the more I understand how very different every writer’s M.O. is. There’s no right way to write, there’s only what works. Some people are plotters; I’m not. I write largely by the seat of my pants, but I learned some years ago–a hard lesson, the result of having painted myself into an impossible corner on several occasions where I began a story without any sort of preparation–that even a “pantser” needs some notes and waypoints from the outset.

So today, when I embark on a long work such as the novel I’m currently about, I make sure I have a few things down on paper when I begin: a good setup and a rough outline of the first few scenes to serve as a launch ramp; full notes and backstory on my principal characters, including some psychological profiles about their deeper goals and motivations; an understanding of the “flaw in the universe”, the core conflict that drives the plot; some vague notion of the development of the story; and an idea of my ending (all of which can, and likely will, change). But I don’t even attempt anything resembling a full outline.

When I wrote my novel “Sutherland’s Rules”, two authors I respect a great deal made comments (and rather nice ones) worth examining here. One told me he wished he could plot so well–which made me laugh, as all I’d done was set the characters free to act and react, then chased them around with maps, calendars, and finally stopwatches to make sure it was all possible! The second comment about the book was that I did a fine job of not telegraphing my intentions in advance; well, how could I? How was I to know what my characters would get up to from one minute to the next? All I do is watch, and write it down.

Notice I mentioned “plot” earlier, but only as a noun. The reason for this is that I don’t believe in plotting. Like Stephen King (I was immensely happy when he made this point in his book, “On Writing”), I don’t trust plotting in the sense of a detailed, premeditated outline of story events. Plot is something that occurs spontaneously, a hyperdynamic web of forces that, for me, needs to develop organically as the writer’s well thought-out and very real characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or that flaw in the universe the writer has conceived as the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, doesn’t have a verbal form–it’s a noun, and another word for story.

When I read a book where the author has mechanically plotted everything out carefully in advance (the generic MegaName thriller authors that turn out several books a year are egregious examples of this), I can quite literally feel–at least I imagine I can–the poor characters struggling to break free, to have autonomy, to do something spontaneous and unpredictable, all the while screaming, “I am not a character, I am a free man!” It’s painful. It’s boring. Now, I don’t know if this is the way is the way these authors work, but their books feel that way to me–choreographed and mechanical. And that’s the kiss of death for me.

If, on the other hand, the author has done their preliminary work well, and has some clue what he or she is about in terms of craft, their characters will act like real people in a real situation in the real world rather than like marionettes on a stage set. Oh, there’ll be some tuning, and they may need reining in occasionally, but I find that’s more a question of keeping control over their time in public view rather than limiting their actions. I mean, why would you want to do that?

I think also that when some authors talk of plotting, they’re often referring to a rather different process than the premeditated, scene-by-scene working out of story events I’m grumbling about. What I think some writers do is write an initial outline that’s effectively a barebones first draft and in which the characters are organically involved as actors, and then expand that more and more; and I think this is where a good deal of misunderstanding arises as to what plot and plotting are.

My personal belief is that the time to plot is after you’ve got the first draft down. Even then, plot in its verb form isn’t the right word–I like to think of it as outlining after the fact. And the reason for this is that when you have eighty or a hundred thousand words, dozens of chapters over hundreds of pages that have taken you several months even years to write, you need to get an overview of the whole. At this point, writing a brief summary of what happens in each chapter and scene is something that I find vital to help me see what needs doing in the rewrite.

But, plot from the beginning? No way. If I can’t trust my characters to act independently, I’ve probably not done a very good job on them, have I?

*     *     *

What do you think? Do you find some books just seem to be too obviously plotted? If you’re a writer, what’s your own process?


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Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?


**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above


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