At time of writing it’s a Monday evening and I’ve just finished a highly productive chat with one of my beta readers. Of the five engaged to test-read Traveller’s Sorrow she was the first to finish and whilst she sent detailed feedback – in a Word document, no less! – I always prefer to talk out opinions face-to-face; it helps to establish exactly what a reader’s feelings are, avoiding potential misinterpretation, and affords the opportunity to discuss points that they might not have focused on. For me discussing feedback is as key to the writing process as receiving it in the first place.
My beta reader had thoroughly enjoyed the book and had, for the most part, picked up from it exactly what I was trying to get across; there was a particular story thread, however – something that I considered key to the story at time of writing – that she didn’t enjoy and didn’t think added anything to the story. Her recommendation, as a reader, was to leave it out altogether and push forward with a shorter book. Criticism of that nature is very difficult for any writer to hear; the key to success, I think, is how you deal with it.
I still remember, quite vividly and distinctly, the first time I received criticism on the Traveller Series. A friend of mine had offered to give the book a professional-level proof-read, which in my naivety I assumed was nothing more than a glorified spell-check; instead, however, I arrived at my proof-reader’s house to find her armed with a printed, double-spaced manuscript covered in red pen. Lots and lots of red pen. My proof reader saw my face fall and gave a sad smile. “Now,” she said, “I’m afraid we have to butcher your baby.”
I sat there, cup of tea in hand (in my mind it was or should have been a glass of wine, but I think tea was all I had the stomach for) as she talked me through the bad news. I used to many commas. My sentence structure was off. I fluctuated between indented and non-indented paragraphs depending on what I was trying to convey. I put too much of my own personality into what should have been neutral narration. My children didn’t sound enough like children. This part didn’t make enough sense. That line didn’t make sense. Bullet point: fault. Bullet point: problem. Bullet point: issue.
At first I argued. I said that I hadn’t used too many commas at all; that was just how I wrote. How could it be wrong? I tried to argue for this sentence, that paragraph. Bullet point: excuse. Bullet point: mitigation. Bullet point: disagreement. My proof-reader was patient and she was kind. She empathised. She knew exactly how uncomfortable I was and she tried not to prolong it. She would have been quite entitled to say something passive-aggressive, like “Well, that’s just my observation. You’re welcome to seek a second opinion.” but she didn’t. She just let me have my barely-concealed tantrum and then moved on. And at the end told me that the reason that she had taken so long to proof-read was that she’d had to keep pausing in the reading, because she was enjoying the book so much that she kept forgetting to proof-read; she would literally have to re-read paragraphs, even pages, to make sure she was actually doing her job.
I left in better cheer than I had started with, but privately I was still convinced that my proof-reader had been too harsh. When I got home I cracked open a book my one of my favourite authors and counted the commas. I threw it to one side and chose a book my a different author. Then a third. Then I swore. It was a very humbling experience, to be proved so completely, utterly wrong and to realise that the person you were arguing with – the person who was doing you a favour and a professional-level job for free – was infinitely classier than you about the whole affair. I swallowed my pride and I called my proof-reader to apologise. She was classy about that too.
The next day I returned to my manuscript and I started a two-day process of reducing commas, correcting how I presented dialogue and general tidying up. Once that was done I began redrafting, tightening the story and streamlining the novella overall; then, and only then, did I send it out to my beta readers. I was a lot more receptive to their constructive criticism when it came.
Tonight’s conversation couldn’t have been more different to that inaugural proof-reading. Whilst it’s always disappointing to find that I have failed to connect with a reader in the way that I intended I’m now far more interested in why that connection has failed to occur than I am in satisfying my pride. This evening, in talking out an offending plot thread calmly with my beta reader I identified that a pivotal character development point had completely failed to register – I’d not been explicit enough – leading her to question the point of a large chunk of the book’s story. When I explained my intent suddenly everything made sense to her, and I was left with a clear picture of an improvement that needs to be made in the next edit. It’s an extremely positive outcome and one that would not have occurred had I plugged my ears and simply argued.
I love moments like this. I love being reminded of how far I have come since I first started writing; how my technique, my process, my attitude and my craft have evolved and improved as I have learned. Personally I hope that I never stop learning.