The Omnivore is a website that rounds up reviews, bringing readers a cross section of critical opinion. Currently, they are running a Shortlist of nominations for 2013’s best “hatchet job.”
Last year, Adam Mars-Jones won for his review of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.
As the Manifesto on the website states: “[The Hatchet Job of the Year 1012 award] rewarded honesty, wit and good writing. It condemned mediocrity, sycophancy and lazy adjectives. It put the reader first.” Furthermore, it wasn’t just about being snarky and clever: “But this is not just about wielding the axe. Our guiding philosophy is compassionate criticism.”
And so, on the site, they list the contenders for this year’s Hatch Job. Among the contenders, a review about a biography of Hitler, a book by Martin Amis, a sequel to Treasure Island, and a “poetic novel” about mankind. Each of the reviews on the shortlist is scathingly honest, and even if you don’t agree with the reviewer, you have to admire the conviction within the review.
But I write about this because the reviews are excellent guidelines for writers: What Not to Do!
Read the reviews and see the concerns of the reviewers. How has each book failed? What traps might you best avoid? For example, Allan Massie reviews The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine. Here is an excellent criticism:
“Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad. Example: ‘He watched Rysiek’s brown lips move deliberately in his carefully trimmed beard, as if his mouth knew how handsome it was.’ You might be pleased for a moment to have written that sentence. Then you would read it again, and strike it out. Raine left it in.”
That’s called “slaying your darlings.” I’ve written about that before. When you edit your work, as you must once the first draft is complete, you should seek out those “darlings” you created, those lines that sing of your great creativity. If they sing to you, then they’ll stand out in the novel, and not in a positive way. They will likely intrude on the reader’s experience of story. For that reason, you must annihilate them. Never should the author intrude on the story.
Then there is this criticism from Craig Brown’s review of the Odd Couple by Richard Bradford:
“IMAGINE that we had all trooped into Skyfall to find it a mish-mash of all the old James Bond movies, with a couple of freshly shot scenes, and the producers had just trusted we wouldn’t spot it.”
It’s true that every story has been told, but that’s no excuse for lazy or sloppy writing. Tell the story anew. Don’t simply rehash what has come before and hope that the reader won’t notice.
Richard Evans is harsh about Hitler: A Short Biography by A. N. Wilson:
“It would take more space than is available here to list all the mistakes in the book. Most obvious are the simple factual errors. The ‘Aryan race’ in Nazi ideology was not ‘the Eurasian race’; it did not include ‘Slavs’, ‘Latins’ or ‘Celts’. … Wilson purveys many hoary myths long since discredited by historical research.”
When you are writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, do in-depth research. Don’t assume ignorance on the part of your readers. I once had a writer decline to work with me because I told her that “historical fiction” did not mean that she could change the names of historical figures “just because.” If you’re going to write about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, you must name the commanding officer Colonel Robert Shaw. He is a well-known figure from history. You can’t change the known facts. If you want a different officer, you can certainly invent him, but you can’t change the commander. She was rather indignant with me and wrote, “Ann, perhaps you don’t understand, this is historical FICTION and I can do anything I want.” I sincerely believe she simply hadn’t done her research, and didn’t want to take the trouble to do so. Needless to say, we parted ways.
I suggest you read these “hatchet job” reviews now and take notes. Further, I suggest that you make it a habit to read reviews on a regular basis, to see both the good and the bad in writing, and to gauge what readers want in their books these days.