Hal Duncan is the award-winning author of VELLUM and INK, along with numerous short stories, poems, essays, and even a few musicals. Homophobic hatemail once dubbed him "THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!" (sic), and you can find him onstage at spoken word performances or online at www.halduncan.com, revelling in that role.
You say you write Strange Fiction rather than Science Fiction, can you explain why?
When Vellum first came out, people asked me whether I saw it as science fiction or fantasy. My answer was just: Yes. I mean, even before I encountered New Wave SF like Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, or Delany's Dalghren, you have Philip K Dick getting all metaphysical--and in Ubik, never mind VALIS. Meanwhile, as far as fantasy goes, even before I read Kafka and Borges, Bradbury was shaping my idea of fantasy more than Tolkien or Terry Brooks. For me, both of those genres always had open definitions and an interzone that wasn't "Science Fantasy" but rather bugfuck high concept metaphysical conceits. On the one hand, you have Zelazny's Roadmarks, with a road that can take you anywhere in time. On the other, you have Borges's Book of Sand, a book of infinite pages. One is SF in its broadest sense, the other fantasy in its broadest sense. In terms of the type of conceits they're operating with, I don't see a whole lot of difference.
Set against that though, you have these marketing categories and the factions of true believers invested in closed definitions: science fiction as a Rationalist project to which magic is anathema; fantasy as a Romantic enterprise that's all about the secondary world quests. The amount of utter bollocks I found myself arguing with on the internets, trying to defend an open definition for either genre... I just got tired of pissing in the wind. With the category labels, it's an endless turf war, where the taxonomies end up tribal claims as to what constitutes "proper Science Fiction" or "proper Fantasy," and fuck it, I just can't be arsed arguing against the constraints many see as essential. It's no skin off my nose if my work doesn't fit your definition of Science Fiction because you see the Cant looks like "magic." It's no skin off my nose if it doesn't fit your definition of Fantasy because it's got Phreedom being all cyberpunk. I'm happy to let it be published and read as whatever. I call it "strange fiction" simply as a descriptor, not a genre label--hence the lack of capitalisation I go with.
What I mean by that is simply fiction that is strange--the strange as I'd define it being based off Delany's talk of subjunctivity level in his essay, "About 5750 Words." To go into that fully would mean a long explanation. The short version is that I'd say the strange can be defined textually, technically, delimited as clearly as a literary feature like metaphor or iambic pentameter. Some sentences describe things that could not happen, simple as that--that's Delany's subjunctivity level in essence. The nuance I'd add: some things are only temporally impossible--e.g. the current technical impossibility of a terraformed Mars, or the historical impossibility of a world where the Nazis won WW2. Others are physically or even logically impossible.
So, any time a sentence in a story gives us an impossibility like this... that's the strange. Jaunting in Bester's The Star My Destination. The nursery wall in Bradbury's "The Veldt." An AI run amok, Cthulhu, Elric's sword--these are all the strange. From a magical wardrobe that takes you into Narnia to the oneiric ruptures in the very fabric of narrative that you get in a David Lynch movie. Any fiction that utilises this tool in the toolkit... that's strange fiction.
This is, I think, a technically accurate descriptor for the whole panoply. When people cast SF as dealing with what could happen, they're focused on the physical and logical impossibilities, glossing over the temporal. Which is wrong. Sorry, but the futurology and alt history is still trading in the impossible. Deal with it. The breaches of possibility come in different flavours, for sure, there are different approaches to using them, and there's whole other dimensions, e.g. where fiction may deal also with what should or should not happen--turning the strange into the marvelous or monstrous--all of which serve as factors in how we construct our definitions of the genres, but the basic concept offers a way to look at a text in and of itself, disregarding the contentious taxonomies entirely.
When I say I write strange fiction then, that just means I use this technique, full stop. And that frankly I'd rather deal with the incomprehension where most folk don't have a clue what that means than spend another second arguing with any statement of the form "SF is/does X while Fantasy is/does Y."
Having written poetry, short stories, novellas, novels, a musical and both fiction and non-fiction is there something you haven't tried yet that you'd like to?
There's at least one screenplay too, so I'm not sure there is any mode of written art I haven't at least dabbled in. Would TV count as a distinct mode? There's comics too--I've kicked a graphic novel idea about with an artist before, but nothing came of it. I'm not sure how far I fancy those though. I can imagine myself getting hooked by some idea that hit me as essentially a comic or a TV show, beavering away at it in some hypomanic frenzy until I end up with twelve episodes of a TV show or a six-issue comic miniseries or somesuch. I can look at a story like "Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!" and wistfully imagine a dark fantasy TV series a la Buffy, Grimm, Teen Wolf, Supernatural, and so on, based on that premise. When it comes to comics, I was a huge fan of Vertigo comics--I directly reference John Constantine in Vellum, if I recall correctly. And I totally had my Big Idea for a title bouncing off Gaiman's use of Cain and Abel in Sandman
But with the complicated process of making work in the visual media a reality beyond the script stage... it's not a direction I actively want to explore for its own sake; it would just be the idea itself taking me that way. And the truth is, I'm crap with deadlines--with discipline in general. I'd be fucking awful at writing any sort of commercial serial fiction to order. Add in the way that those industries actually work, having to deal with executives... the appeal of playing showrunner or of working with a shit-hot artist on a comic is maybe overweighed by a daunting downside.
Live performance maybe? I've done a fuckload of individual readings, but I'd kinda like to do a fricking tour of full-length gigs. Not a book tour, but straight-up gigs. I enjoy spoken word, and I can hold a crowd--if I do say so myself. I've even had a little taste of touring via a band I've done some collaborative shows with, The Dead Man's Waltz. But every time I do a little reading spot here or there, I come away kinda wishing I'd had a full hour or two to really cut loose, wishing I could just take it on the road for however long, city to city. Sadly, there's no way I'd get the crowd, I'm sure; I don't have nearly a high enough profile. I get a kick out of doing my Patreon video readings, so I guess I'll have to settle for that.
What form do you prefer - poetry, short fiction or novel & why?
Whichever I'm working on at the time. I'm actually undecided, to be honest, on whether I even think it's a different experience for me working in the different forms. Like, most of my poetry has some sort of narrative element, whether it's riffing off the stories of Orpheus or Lucifer, the myths of Sodom or queer Greek gods. My short stories meanwhile, as often as not, they're set in titled sections of a set number of passages--cantos and verses I refer to them as, for want of a better term, with the "verses" of a set word count, e.g. a hundred words exactly. I tend to use similar structural shenanigans in novels even. The latest novel, TESTAMENT: seven chapters of six titled cantos of four verses of exactly six hundred words each. Why? I guess I'm sort of scaling up from the regularity of rhythm you get with poetic metre, trying to build that into fiction at the level of passages rather than lines.
There are even passages in Vellum and Ink that, because they're adapting source texts like Inanna's Descent, Prometheus Bound or The Bacchae, actually utilise rhyme--dropping the line breaks, playing fast and loose with metre, but basically approaching prose much as I would verse. Part of it, I guess, is that narrative voice is crucial to me in the fiction. Whether it's Seamus in Vellum or Gobfabbler in a Scruffians story, or whatever, I do like me some distinctive narrative voice. I know a lot of readers and writers don't really hear the words in their heads as they read--they put the internal audio track on mute, so to speak. For me, that's unnatural; the voice is what makes it come alive, and the prosody is a key part of the voice, to the extent that I'll change a "though" to an "although" or vice versa just for the effect one syllable more or less will have on the cadences.
And if there are different types of fun that come with different works, I'm not sure that maps to the form rather than directly to the work. Like, there's a fun in the mischief of something like the sonnet sequence "Sonnets for Kouroi for Old and New," where it's riffing off the Greek myths to describe gay sex in graphic detail while affecting blithe innocence. But that payoff in the writing feels more akin to the fun of writing a short story like "And a Pinch of Salt" which is wreaking similarly bawdy mischief (on Anselm's Ontological Argument) than it does to, say, "Sonnets for Orpheus." The latter is tapping into fiercer passions, resonates with moments in all manner of short stories, and in the longer fiction too. So I can't even say that this form or that is more suited to that or this mode of self-expression. So I'm not sure I could differentiate them in terms of the rewards let alone rank them. Novels are obviously more hassle simply in terms of length, but that's kind of a superficial criteria, and it's all inventing work for yourself, really, if you're thinking of it like that.
It's been ten years since Vellum, and yet people still often refer us to that book, what do you attribute its longevity to?
Ambition. I'd love to flatter myself that it's all due to my sheer genius and all, but I'm not that cocky a motherfucker. And even if I'm cocky enough to think the book merits longevity, I'm hardly unbiased there, am I?
What I can say though is that however you rate the result, it was unashamedly bold in its aims. It aimed for the moon with gay abandon, written over a ten year period by a writer who pretty much figured they'd be that obscure one in their group, the one who only really ends up known about to the wider world through the biographies of their mates who made it. Fragged linearity, fragged characters, fragged setting. I didn't think a book like this stood a hope in hell of getting picked up by a major publisher. Had it aimed for the middle of the road rather than the moon, maybe it wouldn't have. It might have been a decent book, but fuck that shit; decent isn't good enough. So I went uncompromisingly ambitious with it.
If you aim big, the thing is you will inevitably fail spectacularly for some readers--possibly for a fuckload of them. But a glorious failure is at least memorable, as opposed to some interchangeable exercise in spinelessness. Aim for mediocrity and you have more chance of achieving it for more people, but who the fuck cares? Who gives a shit about that TV show they just killed time watching. Who remembers that bland meal they got some time or other, somewhere, wherever, what difference does it make? I remember eating calf brains in Romania. I didn't like them at all, as it turned out, but there they were on the menu being all unapologetically outré (to me, at least.) The gamble didn't pay off, but I sure as fuck remember them.
And when the ambitious gamble does pay off for you, people sure as fuck remember that. If some threw the book across the room after fifty pages, others have literally told me it blew their minds, changed their lives; and even allowing for hyperbole, well, it made a mark. Those people make it worth the gamble to just fucking go for it. They're the ones who foist it on their mates, keep people reading it, keep people talking about it.
Which fantastic city would you visit if you could & why? Which would you avoid & why?
Which would I visit? Sodom, of course. It's my people's lost homeland, after all, Mother Sodom, the cradle of the Sodomite tribe, my sibling citizenry all born into exile as cuckoos in the nests of other tribes. A wicked city, you say? Hey, when you're damned by the agitprop of bigots who pedestal the murderous zeal of a man who'd slit his own son's throat to obey their tyrant God, you gotta know your lost city was a haven of the heterodox. Like a pious racist casting Katrina as God's wrath on New Orleans as sink of inquity, as with a sanctimonious bigot cursing San Francisco for its bathhouses, painting AIDS as punitive plague, the hate tells you all you need to know.
The Sodom I see through the agitprop-tinted lenses of fuckers who'd piously preach "They deserved it!" after some natural disaster, that's a fucking cosmopolitan culture of sacred whores and faggots--the quadishtu of pagan polytheism. I like to think the mob at Lot's door weren't out to rape the visiting angels, only inviting them out to some holy orgiastic rite, to be feted, to be fucked and/or fuck in whatever glorious communions of flesh they so desired: the wrath of God as the first Gay Panic Defence. Part Yeats's Byzantium, part Virgil's Arcadia, my Sodom is a lost idyll of the urban pastoral. Lost, yes, but I like to think we can visit it now and then, in a way. Every city as a little of Sodom to it.
Which would I avoid? Sodom again, but the Sodom fantasised by those zealous bigots, where it seems my only choice is to be victim or villain. If I visit it as Sodomite, I'm stripped of identity, another faceless member of the furious mob, dehumanised to the monstrous, blind bestiality. If I abjure my membership of my tribe and enter Sodom as a visitor, I'm walking into a role as stranger for the mob to hate and harry. That fantasy others have of Sodom, I mean, it's an ugly projection with no place for anyone who doesn't conform to a warped worldview.
Even where the sin of Sodom is cast as breached hospitality rather than sexual deviance--as it is by those with enough ethics in their faith to abhor the bigotry of the myth--even that fantasy of the city is a hateful and hypocritical projection. If a foreign city is wiped out and you crow that Those People deserved it for their xenophobia, that's the pot calling the kettle black, I'd say; the accusation is fucking xenophobia in action, justifying a natural disaster as God's ethnic cleansing. Even if we ignore the ethnicity of the Canaanite target, it's no less pernicious: as those Sodomites come to represent simply the "bestiality" of a mob of unruled by the One True Law, it becomes pure misanthopy. Sadly, I think we do find ourself wandering about in that malignant fantasyland all too often, the phantasm conjured by those with much faith, but none of it in human nature.
Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?
The latest, always. In non-fiction, that would be the essay, "A Citizen of New Sodom," in Bahamut Literary Journal; in short fiction, it would be the story, "And a Pinch of Salt," in Farrago's Wainscot; and in poetry that would be the long poem, "Sodom," up on my blog and in a reading on YouTube--all three of which, as the titles make kinda blatantly obvious, tackle or tap into or touch on the aforementioned myth in one way or another.
It's become a growing motif in my fiction, ever since I got my monicker of "THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!" (sic) a few years back by way a piece of homophobic hatemail from one whose linguiphilia, shall we say, shone through in their exuberant overuse of excess capitalisation and spurious punctuation. I loved the swaggering sound of that title--it's like "The Outlaw Josey Wales" only with the AWESOMENESS turned up to ELEVENTY!!--but it also sorta clicked with the epigraph of Delany's Driftglass, which imagines a survivor lamenting their lost city: "Where now shall I go to make a home?"
For me, gradually a twist on the myth emerged, an idée fixe that even if one did imagine the Sodomites punished for a monstrous breach of hospitality, well, wouldn't those survivors be living foreverafter as strangers in the tents of others, relying on their hospitality? To be a Sodomite after Sodom is to know that one survives on the sufferance of the hospitable, and in part because of the monstrous inhospitabilities of history. To be a Sodomite after Sodom then is surely to see how one must give such hospitality wherever it is required.
That twist on the myth, in which the scattered survivors swear themselves to hospitality and go out into the world to make it so, to rebuild Sodom in every house or hostelry where the dispossessed are welcomed, that storifies my ethos in a way I've been working towards, you might well say, since starting Vellum and Ink. You can see those themes in Seamus's socialism. You can see me starting to tackle Sodom in the second part of Ink. With the latest novel too, TESTAMENT, as radical a take on the Gospels as it is, it's really quite passionately sympathetic to the couth of Yeshua. I'm most proud of that as the latest novel--or maybe not, maybe more proud even of the current work-in-progress and the one planned for after that, because in those I'm even more consciously addressing the idea of couth.
That word doesn't just mean manners to me, mind. With its sense of boorish vulgarity, we tend to think of "uncouth" as in opposition to... polite propriety. That terribly British etiquette which can of course be a transparent mask over the surliest spite. But for me "couth" is infomed by the Scots word "couthy" meaning warm, cosy, hospitable. Where a place or person can be couthy, that's a couth that's no mere observance of the protocols of propriety; it's heartfelt friendliness, a sincere welcome; it's empathy as ethos, ethos driven by integrity (coherence, unity, being true to oneself) rather than striving for honour (prestige, esteem in the eyes of others.) That development of the Sodom myth was synchronous, to some extent, with the current novel, a bawdy Space Opera rewrite of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped--where couth or the lack thereof is a distinct throughline in the hero's travels and travails. So, yeah, I'm proudest of these works because I feel I'm getting to the crux of my concerns.
All of which is, I guess, a roundabout way of saying that pride is for me bound up with enthusiasm. I'm most satisfied with a work at the point when it's most alive to me, when I'm reading back a passage I've just reread however many times, chopping and changing, honing, until it feels like it couldn't be any other way. I can reread a ways down the line and maybe still feel the import I want it to have for the reader, but it'll never feel as right as it does in that moment when I'm thinking, Yes, that nails it. Whatever idea has its hooks in me, whatever I'm working on that nails that down... that's where the most pride is.
What inspired you to write a musical?
I dabbled in songwriting for a bit when I went through my second adolescence. As a child of the 1980s, stuck in a shitty Scottish New Town without anyone to clue me in to indie music, I trudged through the dead zone between punk and grunge with zero interest in the commercial music dominating the charts. I got turned on to The Stooges and suchlike by Jim Steel of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, but it wasn't until that resurgence of guitar music in the early naughties that something clicked for me. I turned into a bit of a mosh pit maniac, crowdsurfing like crazy--cutting loose to make up for the teenage kicks I missed out on first time round.
I never quite got a band together, but I had my band name--Fagsmoke--and a bunch of songs. Some daft ones in a Fat Wreck Chords sorta style--titles like "Where's My Fucking Record Conract?" or "Suicide Pact" or "Punk Music Makes Me Feel Big." Some more serious songs, veering into emo, I guess--one of which was "Nowhere Town." My tastes were fairly eclectic, so there was a bit of Tom Waits influence there too, in a song called "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky." And hey, I've always been a bit partial to musicals like West Side Story, or anything by Sondheim. Inspirations are like that: the roots can run deep.
All those tastes came together when I was urged into a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe by Neil Williamson (another GSFWC member) to see this wee show called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Which fucking blew me away. I must have seen that before writing the song "Nowhere Town," I'm sure; there's a heavy influence of Hedwig's "Wicked Little Town" in that number, because the Tommy Gnosis thread of the story hit me at the core of my fucking being. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, they just nailed for me tha experience of growing up queer in Shitsville, Scotland in the 1980s. The whole show is a glorious mixture of punk viscerality and breathtaking melodic poignancy, couldn't have pushed all my buttons any more perfectly.
Anyway, so that primed me for the trigger, which came in the form of a three-day weekend with a guy I fell for in utter "Imma write sonnets for you" overblown romantic folly. As I say, I was kinda having the adolescence I missed, so that was my First Love, really, for values of love equalling daft infatuation. We got together, spent three days straight living it wild, but the romance was all in my head: he didn't return my calls. I got the message after three tries, and truth be told, I probably knew I was infatuated with the idea of the romance as much as anything. I mean, my response was to go on a week long absinthe bender and write a fucking musical; I gotta suspect a part of me was like, fuck it, I shall throw myself into the tragedy of this lost love because DRAMA!
It might well have been then, come to think of it, that I came up with "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky." It was certainly this absinthe-soaked maudlin wallowing in Tom Waits circa Small Change that sparked a connection somewhere, produced the idea of a character called Chorus, this dive bar bum, part Tom Waits, part Alex Harvey, in a late night pub or club, the No Exit Lounge and Bar, a place like Brecht, Sartre and The Iceman Cometh all rolled up into one. I already had the characters of Jack and Puck from Vellum and Ink, with this idea of their story playing out in every fold of the multiverse. I can't remember exactly how the idea came, to be honest, but I'd always half thought of my imaginary band Fagsmoke as more aptly fronted by Jack. Anyway, vague notions collided and coalesced.
So, a three day whirlwind romance ended by disinterest became a three day whirlwind romance ended by tragic death (because DRAMA!) and songs started connecting in a cascade of realisations: Jack as a punk rock Orpheus on a near-death experience; Chorus in this dive bar Limbo, there to guide him through Hell; Nowhere Town as the misery Jack almost saved Puck from; Puck as the love whose loss has driven Jack to self-destruction; Hell as a Weimar-era cabaret. Before I knew it I was writing more songs, duets and medleys and reprises and reprise-cum-medleys and full-on fucking ensemble numbers for the entire cast to sing as we build up to the big finish like something out of fricking Les Mis.
And so, yeah, I wrote the whole damn thing in a week of absinthe and catharsis, the songs orchestrated in my head. I'll note that my ability to sing amounts to a passable impression of Tom Waits at his least melodic, and I have zero skill with any musical instrument whatsoever. I managed to get the songs down in GarageBand with a fuckload of Apple Loops snipped and spliced and layered, vocals added by mates I roped in to make sense of my tuneless croakings, but that's a whole story unto itself. I still can't quite believe it got staged--by a college theatre group in Chicago, bless them. They made a fucking awesome job of it too.
Which upocoming writers are you excited about? Who should we be reading but probably aren't?
I'm not the best person to ask about upcoming writers, to be honest. I'm way behind on the current scene, playing catch-up with books that everyone else read long ago. What with the financial rollercoaster ride of life as a pomo homo boho hobo, the bulk of fiction I read these days, sad to say, is the unpublished manuscripts I critique to help keep food on the table and a roof over my head. I started the Patreon for readings in no small part to try and free myself a little from the constant attempt to make ends meet, maybe give myself a bit more time to read for pleasure.
The second question is a bit easier insofar as there are plenty of writers out there deserving of more attention than they might get. Even there though, with readers focused on the commercial strange fiction genres, the work published as SF/Fantasy, I hate to presume they haven't read a writer but am loathe to presume they have. I mean within one set of readers, I'd be insulting my audience to assume they haven't read Kelly Link. But with folk beyond that community, it would be criminal not to point them at someone I'd consider possibly the best short story writer I know of currently.
I might also name Anna Tambour, Amal El-Mohtar and Ruth Booth as must-read writers, but all three are award-winners and/or nominees, so we're hardly talking obscure unknowns. I'll give a shout-out to all the contributors to Caledonia Dreamin', the anthology I co-edited with Chris Kelso, all of whom I rate highly or I wouldn't have published them--and of course Chris is a fierce young writer in his own right. I think it's crucial to read outside the genre too though, and beyond what's current, to explore the margins, the strange fiction without the genre labels, so: Roberto Calasso; Guy Davenport; Edward Whittemore.
Lastly, I'm going to cheat here and throw in a what rather than a who. I'd be taking the piss to tout Delany as "probably unread," but I can't talk about must-reads without mentioning Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, given that a lot of folk may be frightened off by the reviews making a big deal of the graphic gay sex. Don't be. It's a post-transgressive book, not out to shock you but to disregard the notion of (yes, gross) festishistic sex being a transgression at all. Fuck that focus on the icky aspects. There's as much of a focus on cooking as on fucking. It's an incredibly powerful and poignant life story of a love that couldn't be sweeter and more life-affirming. I've called it the most significant book of the 21st century to date (that I've read at least,) and I'm not alone in that. If you haven't already: read it.
You also teach writing, and offer manuscript critiques, how did that come about? What are the top pieces of advice for offering critiques?
Another member of the GSFWC, Gary Gibson, put me in touch with Writers' Workshop, the agency he was doing manuscript critiques for. We both spent a good ten-fifteen years or more sharpening our critique skills at the Circle before getting the book deals, so that stood us in good stead for giving editorial feedback to others. I think he was referred by another writer; either way, it was a no-brainer. I would have been a bit wary wihout that connection given the sharks in the marketplace--it's the sort of service that could be done in an utterly mercenary way, without scruples and without any real value to the writer. With Gary and the other writers they have doing the reports for them, and with a few sample reports sent through, any qualms on my part were laid to rest, and my own experience fit the bill for them nicely.
Advice for offering critiques? On the pragmatics of the offering part first: I went through WW for a good few years before opening up to clients direct to offer a slightly more flexible service--where I can slip into more of an editorial role if the book's far enough along, give them back the actual line-edit it's ready for, where that's outside my remit with WW. And I'm very picky with clients working direct. The agency is a good practical protection both for myself and for the client. I don't know anything about that client beyond the manuscript itself and maybe a cover letter or a couple of forwarded emails, and writers are not always the most grounded. I've only had one or two who were edging into crank territory and/or who really just wanted validation, who were caught up in some fantasy that the WW would come back to them with proclamations of their genius and an introduction to a fawning agent. But that is a risk, so it's a damn good thing to have the buffer between you and the unhinged or simply disgruntled client.
You have to bear in mind also that many are coming to you for feedback like this because they can't get good feedback by any other route. They have friends and family who don't know shit from shinola and/or kinda have to be supportive rather than critical. They have no idea how to find a workshopping group that might help them; quite possibly there's none in their area to find. So for many this is their first experience getting any sort of real feedback, let alone from a professional. I'm always careful to make it clear upfront how painful this might be, but how that's what they're paying for.
I compare it to an MOT--and for the editor / book doctor, that's probably my advice for how to approach the critique. Your hope is that the report will galvanise rather than discourage, but your job is not to sugarcoat, not to pull punches. The client is not paying for you to obfuscate with shilly-shallying and weasel words the fact that the brakes are fucked. The client is not paying for you to croon admiringly over the fluffy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and the pretty pattern of the seat covers. Your job is to assess the mansucript with the brutally honest objectivity of a mechanic checking whether a vehicle is road-worthy.
It may not be a risk to life and limb if you sugarcoat the state of the brakes just in case the client gets snotty, but they're still going to crash and burn on the road to publication if you let them take it on the road while unsafe. You cannot mollycoddle a client, or you're not doing your job. As long as you can offer solutions to the problems identified, they should come away satisfied. And you should be able to offer solutions. Aside from the simplest issues where a particular fix may be objectively duh, you want to be clear that your suggestions are just posibilities, examples from which they might springboard to something better, but if you can't figure out some way to resolve things, what are you doing offering critiques?
There's a line to walk here. You have to be wary of imposing your own aesthetics--your job is also not to judge the fact that they've brought in a Mercedes where you think Jaguars are just plain better--but if you're in sympathy with the book, you may well spot a linchpin fix, a small but radical tweak with cascading repercussions that would resolve a host of substantial issues in any and every aspect of the craft. With glaring signposts in the text, it's clear when the book itself has been fucking struggling to wake the writer up to their one key misstep. You can't chicken out of offering such a linchpin fix even if it's way out of left-field, but it should be obvious how much of a risk there is in that of treating the book as your own rather than your client's. You have to be one self-aware motherfucker, critiquing your own critical responses to ensure it's the book's ideal realisation of its aims you're drawing out and not just your ideal version of the book.
In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
I don't think I'd give any advice to new writers in a single sentence; some of the best writing advice is also some of the worst because it's reduced down to some banal axiom--like "show, don't tell"--bereft of any explanation and nuance. When I'm asked about advice for new writers, I usually start with, "You are not a new writer," but what the fuck does that mean without the follow-up unpacking it? "A book is not a movie." Well, duh. That's a banal truism as a single sentence; I'd need whole paragraphs to explain how exactly writers go wrong in trying to transcribe the movie in their head, how that simply doesn't work in a medium where viewpoint is a key feature.
Hell, if you ask me for one sentence of advice for writers, really I'm inclined to say, "Do not trust any writing advice that comes in a single sentence; most likely it's reductive prescriptivist bullshit." And even there, you'll note how I cheat with a semi-colon.