Chapter Eight - Seeking Feedback24 August 2010
You’re a young writer… you’ve been working hard… you’re proud of what you’ve produced. Do you show your stories to someone and solicit feedback?!? It’s a personal choice, but here are some of my thoughts about it.
I received the following email from Amanda: I’m writing a children’s fantasy (12+). I’ve been advised by a self-published author that I should not mix the real world with the fantasy world because it would scare the kids, but isn’t that the point? I don’t have nor mix with children. People within a writing group I used to belong to have offered their children as guinea pigs but no one’s given any feedback so I was considering asking a local library if they could ask children to read it. I’m nervous about sending it to a publisher without any children reading it first. What do you advise?
As I told Amanda, I gave the first draft of Cirque Du Freak to a group of kids to read, and provided them with a questionnaire to fill in with their thoughts and criticisms. I actually did that AFTER I’d first submitted the book—as many of you probably already know, CDF was turned down by every publisher in town in the UK when my agent first sent it out. I couldn’t understand why the response had been so negative, and I thought the publishers were wrong, so I printed up some copies of the manuscript and distributed them to some kids in my Mum’s school, along with a questionnaire, to see what THEY thought. They responded VERY enthusiastically, which helped bolster my belief that I was right, and gave me the confidence to fight on and try to find a publisher willing to take a chance on the book.
Having said all that, I think it’s important, if you decide to test out your material on friends, family, or friends of friends and family, to recognise that their response won’t be entirely the same as the response of somebody who buys a finished book in a store. I don’t think it’s possible to be completely objective if you get handed an unpublished manuscript and asked for your opinion, and I don’t think you can read it the same way you would a book that you’d bought. So you can’t rely TOO strongly on the response of these sorts of readers—nothing makes you look more amateurish to a publisher than if you trot out the line, “Well, everyone I’ve showed it to up to this point likes it!!” Market research of this sort needs to be done to help you knock your book into better shape, not to convince publishers that they should publish your work. It’s something that can help you fine-tune a book (as it helped me), and it can boost your confidence, but you shouldn’t get carried away if the replies are all overwhelmingly positive. If you choose to go down this route, try and come up with a detailed, useful questionnaire, one that will provide you with helpful feedback. I don’t think there’s much point in just asking readers to tell you what they think. Instead, ask probing questions—which part of the book did they least like? Which characters didn’t they like? Did they think the dialogue was realistic? Did the story drag at any point? Can they suggest any way in which the book could be improved? You probably won’t get told a lot that you don’t already know, but it can certainly be helpful, and sometimes readers WILL spot some glaring flaws that you might have missed.
I’ve been busy on the first draft of the fourth book of my future series (i.e. the one that follows my one-off fantasy book and the four-book series which follows that). I spent Wednesday plotting the book in detail.As I said in my Tuesday blog, I’d been frustrated by my failure to crack the big secrets of this new series. When I sat down to write that blog, I was feeling bitter about the day’s work, not sure if I was going to be able to make this series work. Then, as I set my thoughts in order and wrote them down, I realized that I was bitching about nothing. I’d plotted out TWO NEW BOOKS!!!! I had been looking so hard at the Big Picture, that I’d failed to give myself credit for figuring out the main kinks and twists in not just one new book, but two!!! That’s no small thing—in fact, it’s huge!!! By the end of writing that blog, I was grinning broadly. I don’t really discuss my work much with anyone until I’ve done at least a first draft and shown it to my agent. And I always tell young writers not to worry about showing their work until they feel ready, not to crave the opinions of family and friends. But sometimes you need to provide your thoughts with an outlet, to give yourself a bit more of an objective view of your work. I think that’s where a blog or diary can come in useful. It’s a chance to assess what you’ve done, to note the good things that you’ve achieved, rather than obsess inside your head about what you have fialed to do. That blog on Tuesday gave me the shot of confidence which I needed to move forward immediately and with purpose. So if you ever find yourself brooding gloomily about your work—or anything else, come to that matter—try blowing off steam in a blog (or diary, if you don’t want to share it with other people). You’ll probably find that things are nowhere near as bleak as they seem.