A Book Contest, Prizes and Reviews – Part Two

In my last blog I outlined the BookLife Prize for authors with unpublished/self-published books.  If you need the criteria for the contest, it’s in my last blog, where I mentioned entering all three of my novels for evaluation: ‘The Odin Incident’, ‘Punto’ and ‘Punto and Me’ (all these novels have excerpts in earlier blogs if you want to check them out).  My last blog also shared the evaluation results for ‘The Odin Incident’.  This time I’ll share the evaluation I received for ‘Punto’.  I originally thought ‘Punto’ would do better than ‘Odin’ but one can never guess what might appeal to any given reviewer. 

Assessment:

Plot: The concept for this fictional biography—the life of an underappreciated 18th century musician—is well-grounded and deeply intriguing. The author capably blends elements of truth and fiction, though readers may crave greater fact-based insights into Punto’s musical achievements and excellence.

Prose/Style: The prose style is smooth and straightforward. The details of Punto’s daily life are alluring, while the writing provides a vivid sense of atmosphere and the historical moment. Use of modern phrases can be jarring. 

Originality: Punto is likely unknown to most readers outside the classical music field, and Walker’s fascination and affection for his exceptional subject is evident. 

Character Development: Walker creates a vibrant cast of characters to surround Punto, while the protagonist is himself, magnetic. The book may be well served by a sharper focus on the musical and performative aspects of Punto’s life over the interpersonal elements.

Score:

  • Plot/Idea: 8
  • Originality: 7
  • Prose: 7
  • Character/Execution: 7
  • Overall: 7.25

While there are some positive things to be happy with, I’m afraid parts of this review left me puzzled.  Punto is a very minor historical character and the totality of information on his life might take up three or four pages of small sized paper.  Everything I could find out about Punto is actually in the book, so I’m at a loss as to how to add ‘greater fact-based insights into Punto’s musical achievements and excellence’.

Not only that but the comment seems to be related to the concern that is expressed at the end of the review.  Regretfully, I also find the admonition to give ‘a sharper focus on the musical and performative aspects of Punto’s life over the interpersonal elements’ to be rather vague and it left me wondering what the reviewer meant.  Taken at surface value, this comment seems rather strange.  How many people would really be interested in a novel where greater weight is given to some musical performances than is given to delving into the main character’s interpersonal relationships?  It is, after all a novel, not a non-fictional history of Punto’s contribution to the musical culture of his time.  What novel is going to sacrifice relationships to a focus on the ‘performative aspects’ of anyone’s life?

I ended up having to speculate as to the real meaning of the comments.  In terms of interpersonal relationships, I wrote this version of ‘Punto’ with the main character gay, twice obsessed by men who couldn’t return his love while missing the one person who really did love him.  Compounding his struggles with his sexuality is a relationship with a wealthy female patron who is enamored with him.  As with many contemporary historical fiction novels, I included a few sex scenes.  Perhaps these scenes are the cause of the critic’s remarks.  If so, why not say so up front – that way it would be clear and useful to me in rethinking the work or perhaps entering it into the ‘Romance/Erotica’ category in future.

I did appreciate the advice about the ‘use of modern jargon being jarring’ as it’s a difficult thing to achieve in a historical novel.  I remember in one draft using the phrase ‘cut to the chase’.  I took it out when a friend reminded me that the saying originated in the 1920’s in movie making.  But there are more dilemmas for an author than using an anachronism.  In this case the main character was born in Bohemia in the 1740’s and likely spoke German, Czech and French. The novel may be set in the 18th C, but the readers are in the 21st C and not likely to appreciate the florid grammar and sentence construction commonly used in conversation three hundred years ago.  The problem is compounded when the author is creating scenes and dialogue from European countries – rendering into English what would have been a slightly archaic version of a different language in the first place.  Part of the choices I made involved a balancing act – how much old phrasing, word usage and grammar to use for a 21st Century reader.

It’s not easy.  Consider the F word.  Would it have been used back then in speech?  I’ve never seen it written in the 19th C. novels I’ve read.  It doesn’t come into common written usage until more contemporary times.  But, much to my amazement, when I looked up the etymology of the word, I discovered the roots of the F word go back to the 1300’s.  Somebody must have been swearing with the F word back then, even if you don’t find it in the famous books from that period.

So… should I have a character from the 18th C. using the F word?  I thought in reality its use must have been more than just a possibility.  But in doing so, irrespective of historic possibility, it created a jarring effect – at least to this particular critic.  That helps me clarify my thoughts on the choice and leads me to think a revision without modern language usage might be better.

Overall I found the contest experience useful.  I’ve never had any luck in interesting an agent or publisher in my books, despite friends who’ve read them and told me they were really enjoyable.  This isn’t an uncommon occurrence for unpublished authors these days and I’m told publishing is not an enterprise based strictly on merit. However, it can leave you questioning whether your writing is just too awful to merit consideration. Honest input, criticism and suggestions are important to anyone hoping to improve their work and it’s often hard to get – even from friends and relatives.  Paying for such criticism is an option if you have buckets of cash, but professional editors charge anywhere from three to seven cents per word for this service.  So a hundred thousand word novel would likely cost the author more than they would make if the book got published.

BookLife offered a different option in getting a couple of professional evaluations, even if they are a bit thumbnail and you never know if the reviewer read the whole book or just a few pages and the plot outline.  I learned a little and the experience hasn’t soured me on writing.  I’m still confident that my novels will offer a reader a competently written and enjoyable reading experience.

Of course I still haven’t heard about my third book ‘Punto and Me’.  It’s supposed to be evaluated within eight weeks.  I’ve seen nothing yet and eight weeks lapses tomorrow – do I hold my breath?  It’s the one I spent the least amount of time in writing and I tailored it for the ‘Romance/Erotica’ category.  The main character is more than a bit quirky and kinky –  let’s just say that if the general fiction evaluator’s real concern about ‘Punto’ was the sex, then it’s a good thing I didn’t enter ‘Punto and Me’ in the General Fiction category…  When I entered the three novels, I expected ‘Punto’ to do the best, ‘Odin’ to come second and ‘Punto and Me’ to come third.  I can’t wait to find out if I’m wrong again.  Stay tuned…

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