I have recently spent quite a bit of time with readers of my debut novel, ‘Summertime’. Aside from the sheer miracle of their existence (it has only been two months since publication), it was also very illuminating to see the book through their eyes, this thing which had only lived in my imagination for so long. The characters were as real to them as they were to me, their lives and struggles just as interesting. I had to keep reminding myself that it was my book under discussion and not someone else’s. I’m not sure that this thrill will ever wear off.
The experience started me thinking about the role of the reader in the writing process. For debut authors, who inhabit the mystical Land of No Expectations, friends and family are commonly the main sounding boards. We need validation, confirmation that it’s not complete twaddle. However, this can be fraught with tension when the writer has a close personal relationship to the reader. The reader desperately wants to like the work, but may not. The author’s confidence is more fragile than a faerie wing, and can easily be shredded by exchanges like this (all real, by the way):
Author: Did you like it?
Reader: I liked your other book better.
Author: Never mind.
Author: What do you think?
Reader: I’m so proud of you!
Author: Yes, but what did you think?
Reader: You’re so clever!
Author: Never mind.
Author: Have you read it yet?
Reader: It’s not my kind of thing.
Author: In what way?
Reader: Sort of, all of it.
Author: Never mind.
My husband read four drafts for me, and friends read some of it, but I needed more objective—and less emotionally fraught—feedback. (Full disclosure: I have worked in academic publishing for almost 30 years, where my job was to get new book ideas assessed by specialists in the field. I then used their feedback to make the case for publication. I may still have this habit.)
No one is more objective than a stranger. So while writing ‘Summertime’, I posted my first two chapters on a feedback site for writers, www.youwriteon.com . The response was tremendously helpful, not least in confirming that the opening of the book was grippy enough to continue. And the community’s comments even convinced me to re-think one of my minor characters and turn her into a headliner. It was a safe, closed environment with a lot of rules in place to prevent abuse, and I would recommend the experience to other new writers.
Technology has transformed the author/reader relationship, democratised it. Before the internet, the only way to interact was in person or by letter. It was all very formal, with reviews the province of serious publications. But now the barrier has shrunk, become permeable. Bloggers get their reviews into circulation instantly. It’s possible for readers and authors to communicate at every stage of the process, from the genesis of the idea, to the story outline, to the draft manuscript. Readers can follow their favourites on social media. There are lots of options for authors to ‘crowd-source’ opinion (and funding) online.
I hear my fellow authors gasp, ‘But why, by Odin’s beard, would you want to?’
And that’s a very good question.
As I began working up ideas for book two, and wanting to share them, I started to wonder if I was just this needy, exhibitionist weirdo (entirely possible). Did other writers feel the same? Or would it seem like pulling back the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, revealing the workings of something that should never be exposed? Would it differ between new and established names?
So I sounded out some fellow authors at different career stages to find out a) whether they solicit reader opinion while writing and b) who they use. The results were very interesting, and worthy of serious study by someone with a sociology degree.
There is a wide diversity of opinion amongst my fellow debut novelists about who should see the Work in Progress (WIP). Not surprisingly, several relied in general on family and friends. S.D Sykes (‘Plague Land’) says, ‘I have a small group of trusted readers—my husband and grown-up children.’ Likewise, Fleur Smithwick (‘How to Make a Friend’) relies on her nearest and dearest for the first pass. And Jo Bloom (Ridley Road) says, ‘During the 3 years that it took me to write, I never really showed it to anyone other than my husband.’
And then there are those who produced their first book during a structured program. Karin Salavaggio (Bone Dust White) and Sarah Louise Jasmon (‘The Summer of Secrets’) took part in a Masters writing program, and hence had a lot of peer group involvement.
Claire Fuller (‘Our Endless Numbered Days’) is part of an informal writing group. She says, ‘They read my first-draft scenes and chapters, no matter how rough, and the input I receive is invaluable.’ Beth Miller (‘When We Were Sisters’) concurs: ‘They saw the first novel in bits, and then all read the final draft.’ Antonia Honeywell (‘The Ship’), says, ‘I have three close and trusted writing friends with whom I exchange work in progress and that’s invaluable in helping me shape and hone my stories.’
There seems to be a definite shift in approach when moving from first to second book. There is more reliance on editors and agents, less on ordinary readers, and more trust in one’s own judgement. Karin Salvalaggio says, ‘No one read my second novel until it was finished, and I think that it’s far stronger for it.’ It’s partly about protecting that ‘precious vision stored in the subconscious’, as Rebecca Mascull (The Visitors) says. It is so easily damaged, especially in the early stages. Rebecca feels that it’s about the writer’s growing confidence and professionalism, rather than not valuing others’ opinions any more. This is true for SD Sykes, amongst others, who sums it up as, ‘I know what readers expect…but essentially I write for one reader: myself.’
It was very interesting to compare the opinions of the debut novelists with some more established writers. Liz Fenwick (her third book, A Cornish Stranger, is out in paperback in April) has both a critique partner and a beta reader who see everything as the writing progresses. She also shares passages with friends on her Facebook author page. She says, ‘I trust my crit partner and beta reader in so many ways. They will tell me what works and what doesn’t, which is especially important when I’m too close to the work to see it.’
Essie Fox (her third book, The Goddess and the Thief, was published Dec 2013) takes exactly the opposite approach. ‘I love to discuss the origins and developments for the inspiration of characters, places and themes of my novels once they have been written…but while actually writing I tend to be silent.’
Finally, I asked Julie McRobbie, who is both my oldest friend and one of my WIP readers for her opinion of the experience. She said, ‘Reading early chapters and drafts and talking with Vanessa during the writing of ‘Summertime’ has given me an insight into the way that an author approaches a book. This has helped me to see more in some of the other books I have read recently, whilst making me more appreciative of a well-crafted tale.’
It’s been very informative to ‘consult my fellow wizards’ in this matter. Now, as I leave the Land of No Expectations, I do so with a greater appreciation for how my debut novel has affected readers. Their views and questions are mixing in my brain along with the ideas about plot, character and setting. I have a feeling that I will still want to pull back the curtain as the next book takes shape, which has more to do with my personality than anything else. But if I do, it will be with more confidence, more control, and more assurance than before.
After all, as Rebecca Mascull says, ‘what is the point of writing if you don’t want to show it to anybody?’