In my last blog, I talked about the process of revision. A key part of this process, for me at least, is getting feedback from a group of test readers.
A good friend of mine recently gave me a copy of A Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies. One of the things which Davies says early on in the book is that writing isn’t a democracy. When something’s out there, people will like it, love it or hate it – but they can’t change it. It’s not their job. Their role is to consume it.
I couldn’t agree more, I’ve long been a fan of autocracy as a means for getting things done, but there are dangers of working in a vacuum. When you’re an indie author, then you – by definition – don’t have the safety nets provided by an agent, publisher and editor. It is all down to you. Except it doesn’t have to be.
An essential part of my revision process is to get reviews from a group of trusted readers. In my case, I chose a diverse range of people from within my group of friends – people with different reading preferences, social sensibilities, interpretation skills and so on.
In addition, I had one friend with whom I batted around ideas – or, at the least, reran my thoughts out loud and then solicited feedback. She was the only person who knew anything of the characters and plot before I’d finished the first draft – and her picture of those was far from complete.
I released the first draft to a small part of the group and, once they had read it, gathered feedback. After reading the feedback, I discussed any points which I felt required deeper exploration. Once I started on my first revision, I had the collated feedback noted on a reference copy of the manuscript; I referred to this, along with my own notes, as I worked through the revisions.
As I progressed through my ten revisions, I widened the feedback group. Some people read the manuscript once, some twice.
The type of feedback varied enormously. Some people simply said they enjoyed The Well and pointed out a couple of typos. Some people went into depth about character motivation, or issues regarding logic and continuity.
It was a challenge. I guess there is a part of every writer which wants his or her work to be wholly their own – that somehow, asking for help, advice and comments dilutes the process and the finished work.
Well, I guess it could – if I felt I needed to please everyone or respond to all of the comments. As Russell T Davies said, it’s not a democracy. The feedback was always valuable. I’d guess that I acted, in some way, on 85% of it (although my changes might not have been exactly as the reader had proposed). Some of the feedback was harsh and it can hurt – but it’s good. Better to have that feedback during the writing and review process than when the book’s on the shelf.
I typically dealt with feedback in four ways:
- It’s a good point, incorporate.
- It’s an interesting point, discuss.
- I disagree, but there might be another underlying issue which I should investigate and resolve.
- I disagree: I’m the writer; this is my call.
At this point I want to say that I’m not a fan of focus groups. I honestly think the more opinions you ask for, the less clear the answer becomes. It seems to me that if the Beatles had been put in front of a focus group they would never have been signed. Work that’s bold and new doesn’t always appear saleable.
This seems at odds with my reader-group process, but it isn’t. At all times I made sure I wasn’t trying to ‘please’ the reader group but kept my sights firmly on my goals. But I am very, very certain that The Well is a far richer, far better book because of my readers’ feedback.
There is a trap – an agent, publisher and editor has far better knowledge of ‘what sells’. Hopefully it’s a more objective, expert view – but it’s definitely one that’s different from a group of readers, no matter how large.
My resolution to this is that there can be a downside to the publishers’ approach, too. Marketing people hold a lot of sway within publishers and there can be pressure to rework something so it fits in with the current best sellers. I’m not saying that’s across the board, but it can happen – lots of industries are risk-averse. If what you do is a little different, that means by definition a publisher is less sure of the outcome.
But hey, I’m writing my books for readers. So it made sense for me to work with readers while I was writing, at the very least.