I’m not a big fan of writing critique groups. I know they work well for some authors, but you need to get really lucky to land in the right one. For most, it’s just too darned easy for members to offer up facile opinions not grounded in anything but personal taste or worse.
On the other hand, I’ve assembled a handful of first readers I’ve worked with for many years (and for whom I’m happy to return the favor any time). They’re all pros whose feedback I value and trust. Usually, I find consensus that helps me fix problems before turning the manuscript over to my editor. It works like this: if the majority zeros in on something (such as a scene I really love but has no place in this particular project), I have no choice but to cut it. On the other hand, if their input is all over the place, it’s up to me to decide what stays, what goes, and what needs a major overhaul. That’s where experience, judgement and instinct come in. Mainly instinct. With a dash of stubbornness tossed in for extra flavor.
This happened with my new Las Vegas ghost novel, “The House Always Wins,” scheduled for an October launch just in time for Halloween. While most readers had pretty much the same things to say, one hated it. Absolutely hated it, saying the changes in tone made it impossible to figure out what kind of genre I was writing in. Was it a Lifetime movie, a road trip, a ghost story or a murder mystery? Well, guess what? It’s all that and more.
I respect genre. Some of my favorite books fall under the categories of mystery, horror, true crime and a dozen others. I know publishers love genre because it helps them figure out how to market your book.
But mainly I want to write something different. Something that veers all over the place. Maybe even something completely unpredictable. Much like life itself. My favorite authors do this. Robbins. Hiaasen. Chabon. Murakami. Role models all.
It’s the same reason I think critics and instructors who bag on deus ex machina are full of crap. Think of the times when everything changed for you in an instant, particularly for the better. Maybe it was a financial windfall, a new job offer, a medical diagnosis, even a publishing deal. Sure, you probably did all the hard work leading up to it. But so do a lot of other people left with nothing to show for it. Call it luck, karma, lightning in a bottle, or whatever. That’s deus ex machina at work. And it fascinates me no end.
But back to the subject at hand. After I wrote “Dice Angel,” a hotshot Hollywood agent offered to take me on if I’d trim 25 years off Amaris, one of the main characters, and turn it into a love story. Well, I’ve seen that movie a thousand times and I’m bored with it. Call me stupid, but I took a pass. No regrets. (Okay, maybe a few but not enough to notice.) Because as nice as it would be to see my stuff on the big screen, I want it to be my stuff. Which is probably why I’ll never be super successful by conventional standards. I can live with that.
In any event, I listened to my gut and I’m happy to report “The House Always Wins” is what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. (It helps to have a great editor.) I hope you enjoy it. But I’m okay if you don’t.