On March 10, 2015 I entered my “cyberpunk” novel Computing Angels in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. On November 13, I received commentary and scores from “Judge #16,” as follows:
Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 3
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 2
Production Quality and Cover Design: 4
Plot and Story Appeal: 4
Character Appeal and Development: 3
Voice and Writing Style: 2
Computing Angels makes an odd first impression with a rather striking, surrealist cover that hints at the weirdness to come. Inside, this science fiction/fantasy mash-up is a bit slow to start but winds up into a rather strange and fascinating tale.
Typos abound, though, like: “That’s why Jackson had picked up him up for assists.” This can make it difficult to sort out what’s a mistake and what might be a part of author Jeff Bagato’s creative voice and unique world building. This leaves the reader spending too much time trying to decipher things, keeping the otherwise wildly imaginative story a bit at arm’s length. This is an issue easily enough solved by the services of a good editor.
The science fiction world building is fascinating and richly realized, beginning with some archetypal ideas but quickly unspooling (in a good way) into something truly original. Enormous creativity has gone into this spare, fairly short book, and as such it calls out for a more thorough read. With an editor’s help in organizing concepts into a more cohesive narrative, this exciting novel of ideas could be something really special in what has become, unfortunately, a very tired genre, mired in “hard” science fiction.
If Jeff Bagato can take the craft of writing to the next level, he will be an author I’ll want to see a lot more of!
I still feel especially proud of Computing Angels, from the story to the book design to the cover art, all of which I did myself. On first read, the comments seemed completely ignorant, particularly those relating to “grammar” and the abounding “typos.” Throughout 2014 I proofread the complete manuscript multiple times (8? 10? a dozen times?), so I’m pretty sure that the book is relatively free of errors. The example cited is not actually a mistake at all, but an idiomatic, informal expression of a first person narrator. It seems within the realm of correct usage to say, “He asked me for an assist.” In this case, the reference is to multiple “assists.” Just because a word is marked by spell check doesn’t mean it’s incorrect or unintentional.
The story’s narrative structure is somewhat complex, as if follows multiple characters from their own points of view who are scattered across the solar system. To help the reader place the character and location, each chapter heading contains that information. Nonetheless, the judge seemed to have trouble with this, which made me wonder how closely he/she was reading the story.
Another thing that irritated me: the repeated references to “hiring a good editor” to improve the manuscript. Surely the judge doesn’t mean him/herself? Among other things, Writer’s Digest sells editing services to aspiring writers who dream of breaking into the publishing game. For years, I’ve gotten emails from them almost every day pushing these and other services (which is how I learned of the contest.) The subtext here seemed to be: Since you were dumb enough to pay to enter our contest, let us sell you our editing services. No thanks.
It’s funny that when a writer receives criticism on a piece of writing, the focus is on the negative remarks. OK, so this judge misperceived the narrative style and structure. I do get it that if the reader has to struggle to keep up with the story, he/she isn’t going to enjoy it very much, and it probably means that more work is needed. On the other hand, after a third or fourth reading of the total comments, I began to see the very positive remarks, and they began to sink in. The first paragraph, for instance, which gives props to a piece of collage art I’ve always liked, and the “strange and fascinating tale” lurking behind it. By the third paragraph, the judge dishes so much praise, I began to wonder why the book wasn’t rated higher. “World building” seems to be the new buzzword for evaluating a science fiction novel, and apparently Computing Angels succeeds wildly at this, despite being “spare” and “short.” One of my major goals in any of my writing is originality, and it felt good to know the judge thought I had achieved that. I also like the compliment that the book is a “novel of ideas” that “unspools” quickly in a good way.
One never knows how an audience will perceive one’s work. Some of this judge’s remarks irked me, because I believe they are unfounded, and possibly the result of an understandably rushed reading. But his/her positive comments reaffirmed some elements that I have always hoped were present in my stories, and which I’ve always seen as the hallmarks of a great piece of writing.