Shortly before my birthday in April this year I finished my second novel. I feel pretty good about it - it's definitely better than my last attempt and I really do love my characters (in the kind of scary way like they're my friends and we hang out together...sad but true).
The thing is, I did this a year ago. I finished my first book, gave it to my husband and sister to read and was told it was great. I then sent it out to all and sundry without the merest nibble. Having finished the second I've gone back to the first and can agree that yes, it's not very good at all. But why didn't anyone tell me?
One of the blogs I read is named 'the elephant in the room' - referring to the fact that lots of people can't actually write. But how are we supposed to know if we can't? Agents sure aren't going to tell us - only the most dedicated amongst them send anything more than insipid responses that provide absolutely no guidance as to what the problem was. Friends and family tend to just say 'oh, it's fantastic' - or worse, 'I'm sure it's fantastic', which is about as far from helpful as is possible to be.
What is this hypersensitive beast, the wannabe writer? The oddest thing about this world of the not-published is that, if you make it through to being published, you need to develop just about the thickest skin known to mankind. You need to handle having your year's work torn apart, mocked, criticised...even compared unfavourably with every author you've always sneered at yourself. Writing means exposing your heart and soul to the world and waiting for everyone to spit on them. So why protect the unpublished writer from the realities of the realm they dream of entering?
Personally, I'd rather know as soon as possible if I'm utterly hopeless. That way I'll keep my writing to myself and will stop spending half my time dreaming about having my words printed in an actual book by an actual publisher. Why can't agents just print out a slip saying 'Badly written - no chance of publication. Give up while you've still got a day job'...or, as the case may be, simply 'boring'? It would hurt, but at least it would be a sharp blow rather than the painfully slow chipping at your confidence that comes from those meaningless slips of photocopied paper saying 'it's not for me'.
Anyway, my new book, which is currently entitled 'The Sisterly Conspiracy' needed some harsh and uncensored feedback before I sent it out to agents. However, I know that my friends and family love me and don't want to hurt me, so how do I get their true opinions?
I started with my husband, who doesn't hold back. He read it, made loads of great comments and generally proved himself to be a pretty outstandingly perfect man by reading chick lit and (saying, at least) that he enjoyed it.
I then chose six people - three friends, my two sisters and my aunt - to get their views. I asked them to send all feedback through my husband so that it could be anonymous and they could be as harsh and critical as they liked.
Anyhoo, the feedback has come back and, while I expected it to be useful, I've been really stunned at just how useful it has been. In this one process I have learnt more about my writing than ever before. Interestingly, none of my friends sent any feedback (or read the book at all, it seems). My two sisters and my aunt read it and sent loads.
So...what have I learnt?
- I can’t seem to keep my finger on time passing - whether in the book or in characters' ages.
- I use the word 'seriously' way too much. Seriously.
- I’m a little over fond of commas.
- I use too many adverbs when writing speech (I noted, truthfully.)
- I would have sworn black and blue that it was St Suplice, not St Sulpice in Paris – I’ve always mispronounced it!
- While I know how to spell 'dyed' and 'tyre' my brain doesn't compute this when I'm in the midst of a writing binge. In those cases it is 'died' and 'tired'. Embarrassing but true, and perhaps a little Freudian?
And...not only was the feedback I received detailed and useful, it was also a fascinating insight into the different minds of my family members.
One person was an absolute guru on punctuation...another calculated that time had passed incorrectly (ie sunflowers blooming in April, trips stretching between 9 weeks to 6 months)...another gave advice about characters. Almost all the errors picked up by each had been missed by the rest, showing the value of multiple feedback.
Whether they like it or not, my aunt and two sisters have just been nominated to read every book I produce from now on.