4 minutes reading time (763 words)

When to trust yourself and when to trust your critics


by Neil MacDonald

Neil MacDonald won a year's mentoring from Cinnamon's Adam Craig in 2018 for his literary thriller The Tears of Boabdil. The book was published on 28 September, 2020.

Knowing how to respond to critiques may be one of the most difficult personal skills a writer needs to acquire. You need to cultivate that miracle skin—a hide that is tough as leather and, simultaneously, porous and open to change. The decision about when to listen and when to go your own way is a tricky one. Testing your ideas can really help, when you're uncertain.

During the year of mentoring, the book went through three drafts in response to three rounds of critiques, and became essentially the book it is today. This was my first experience of being mentored as a writer, and I wasn't sure what to expect. A mentor is neither a critique buddy nor a teacher, but perhaps something in between.

I have a tendency to very compressed writing. Adam urged me to give the story more space to breathe, and the book grew by 10,000 words. As my narrator's sanity crumbles, he begins to hear voices. Adam helped me see that these were confusing, so I turned them into characters with their own story line.

In brief, this is what the book is about.

Vince is an accomplished liar and undercover Special Branch agent. Truth, for him, is the story we tell. Sworn to his country, committed to his work, he takes on a new mission—masquerading as an Islamic convert to infiltrate a British Jihadi group. There, he meets the beautiful sister of the leaders and soon becomes entangled in a way he never thought possible and which threatens his grip on reality. He spins tales of Moorish Spain to seduce Ayesha. And reality weakens with each story. The fictional world blends into his world. Which world will he choose: a duty that strengthens barriers or a love that breaks them?

The story is complex and multi-layered. The narrator is a professional liar, and warns the reader in the first chapter that much of what he relates will be untrue, the narration jumping around in time and place. Adam felt this was a mistake, so early in the book. He argued it was important to allow the reader to immerse in the story first.

This was the advice I didn't take. I understood the critique completely and was aware of the danger. The device was intentional. It's what Brecht called "alienation"—preventing the reader immersing and confronting them with the truth that they're reading a fabrication. I stuck to my guns cautiously. So I tested the response to chapter 1, using thirteen independent beta readers, only one of whom had any relationship with me. Over three quarters of them said they would read on. As an ex-scientist, I'm driven by the data. So I made the chapter a little less demanding to navigate, left the basic structure untouched. Adam probably still feels I was wrong. He was kind enough to say that I'd added pace and tension, and that rendering of the voices as a new story thread was "both disturbing and arresting." He summed up the book as "Tears of Boabdil is a thematically ambitious novel, interweaving multiple narrative lines around a central character who does not have a fixed identity."

This book is the most complex thing I've written, and the work of which I'm most proud.

My plan was to conventionally publish but, as they say, life is what happens while we're making other plans. A promotional window opens this winter that was too good to miss. The book was inspired by revelations in 2015 of undercover "spycops" sleeping with their targets. The Undercover Policing Inquiry will begin hearings in November. That didn't leave enough time for going the traditional route. I decided to self-publish with Matador and to put considerable effort into marketing and promotion.

I was fully aware that the average self-published book sells 750 copies. So, I engaged the services of Palamedes, a publicity company, who were able to guarantee media coverage on a no-win, no-fee basis. And I spent a lot of time mastering the dark arts of advertising on Amazon, and compiling lists of book bloggers and reviewers to contact.

If my gamble pays off, I can still achieve respectable sales in the thousands. If it doesn't, I may have established a track record that will permanently damage my reputation with industry professionals.


Tears of Boabdil is available directly from from Troubador/Matador and from Amazon. It costs £7.99.

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Friday, 06 August 2021

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