Saturday, 16 April 2011


I've recently been sending out early draft copies of my second novel, Dudlham Sings, to peers for feedback and there are some interesting points emerging that I thought may be worth sharing. The reviews, as expected, have been excellent because these are mostly people I know, and the few strangers must think I am a nice enough guy to wade through a hundred thousand words of a barely coherent story and provide me with useful tips for free.

This book is set in an estate in London called Dudlham Farm (the name is fictional but this place is real). It also has a detective in it. So, as well as giving it to some folks from Dudlham, I thought I would need to find a nice cop to run some ideas by. I can hear the collective gasps, but believe me, her majesty’s law enforcement operatives can be extremely helpful if you haven’t any outstanding issues with them. I got much more information than I asked for. And, like any human, my first instinct was to use it. I thus found myself on the brink of re-writing half the Dudlham Sings manuscript to accommodate my fresh knowledge. Then I came back to my senses. This information is invaluable and I will no doubt find use for it in life and maybe in future projects. But the original idea of Dudlham Sings was to tell the story of a place called Dudlham Farm, overloading it with police procedurals would only distract from the point. The Who-dunit mystery within the plot is just a vehicle I use to drive a tale of classic urban decay in a contemporary developed world. So I kept on track and only made minimal adjustments with respect to the police routines.

I didn’t need the expert opinion on Dudlham Farm as much because I grew up in a place like this, and the issues are always the same. But I solicited their opinion anyway and this is where things got interesting:

“Oh, I absolutely loved it, Michael…”

Course you did, now get to the point.

“… But, in the scene at the beginning of chapter eight it is raining. I don’t remember it raining in Dudlham Farm on Thursday the 2nd of….”

It is a work of fiction, ladies and gentlemen!

A good friend of mine once said that he would move a whole city if it didn’t suit his plot (Okay, his name was Mark Twain, and the friendship is imaginary). My point is there is a difference between fiction writers and people writing under the fiction tag.

Thriller writers are chiefly entertainers, like wine; not a life essential, but try organising a party without one. We try to educate and inform whenever we can but we don’t set out to demonstrate our expertise at anything else other than writing and entertainment. This is not to say we are not experts at anything. I just think it is wrong to document a technical manual on your area of expertise and label it fiction. I, for instance, am an expert in Fluid Vortices - the sinews and muscles of fluid flow. Yeah… yeah… I know; a genius could make that sound entertaining, but I’m not one.

In trying to comprehend a literary critic’s mind I started studying reviews on books I know have done reasonably well, and some that have bombed. I checked out The Lincoln Lawyer (Lincoln the car, not the president). It's basically about a lawyer who drives around in a Lincoln. I know it is a good book because it has been made into a film and it has hundreds of five-star reviews. But there is always that single “one-star” standing firm and proud in its lonely corner. These are the ones that interest me; what did this guy see that five-hundred others missed? So I click on it and it turns out that this person’s only gripe is that there is a scene in the book where a prosecutor is clearly leading the witness and the defence lawyer fails to raise an objection. I decide there and then that I do not want to understand the critics anymore - we shall live side by side but we will never get along, we shall always need each other but we will never be friends. A man whose background is in journalism combines two alien subjects, the Motor Vehicle and the American Justice System, manages to get most of it right, and you discredit all his efforts for this small moment of oversight? Come on, man… dock him a point, or two if you’ve been a recent victim of sloppy legal defence. But don’t take away everything.

Fiction is the cover that protects us when we are not prepared to stand in a court of law and defend why we said roses are green, or that Jesus married Mary Magdalene (mum, if you are reading this, Dan Brown said that, not me). It feeds our imagination and engages our brains in a different way to say, TV documentaries. It can make us laugh or cry or curse but when the curtain falls we all go back into the real world. And you, Mr. Critic, would be surprised at how many of us are wise enough to know the difference.

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  1. The average person, even with a reasonable knowledge of the law and the workings of the court (and who hasn’t watched or read a thriller that doesn’t include a court scene?), wouldn’t know when a witness was being led and at what point the defence should raise and objection…would they? It is a point, I suppose, but did that minor detail really warrant blowing what to most people was an outstanding piece of fiction out of the water? Hmm? I think not. Still, everyone is different—and we do want reviews good and bad. Criticism can always be used positively. It’s a shame if the crticism falls into the category of nitpicking though.

    I love the sound of Dudlham Farm!

  2. Thanks, Leanne. I'm notorious for throwing my views around carelessly, and it's always nice to know someone agrees.