The joys and pains of reader feedback

The joys and pains of reader feedback.


Having just finished my first draft of ‘The Constant Queen’ (Book 2 of my Queens of the Conquest trilogy) I am now at the tricky stage of asking people for feedback. This is an exercise fraught with danger especially when you choose, as I have perhaps recklessly done, to let your other half be one of those people. My husband is a calm and largely kindly reader of my work and given that he hasn’t a literary bone in his lovely body, he does brilliantly at offering constructive comments, but he’s still my husband and there’s still always the potential for an argument over any slight thing he dares to say.

All writers, I’m sure, know how hard it is to show our precious baby-stories to others, but at the end of the day we are writing them to be shared and that has to start at some point. My lovely editor at Pan Macmillan, Natasha, has offered to read my draft whenever I’m ready and although I totally trust her to recognise a not-fully-polished piece for what it is, I still don’t want her to throw up her hands in despair at what she’s committed to! So first I need a handful of tried-and-trusted readers to give me their outline thoughts. The two currently in action (if curling up on a sofa with a book is ‘action’) are my dad and my husband and no, I didn’t choose two men on purpose, it just happened that way.
My Dad is a good reader largely because he isn’t afraid to tell the truth. He reads a lot and he loves a good chin-wag so usually has plenty to say, but he also doesn’t pull his punches. If my precious MS really is all total rubbish he’ll tell me so and in vivid detail. That’s a bit scary but definitely valuable and at least he lives in a different house so that I don’t have to go on high-alert every time I see him pick it up. My husband however…
Last night I emailed ‘The Constant Queen’ over to the kindle and handed it to him as if it were a jewel he was about to cut into a thousand facets – each one of them a scar in my own flesh! We then sat in bed reading and although I’m deep into James Aitcheson’s fantastic ‘The Splintered Kingdom’ (also the second book in his wonderful trilogy about England in the aftermath of 1066) and really enjoying it, almost all of me was tuned in to my husband’s every breath, shift or sigh. I was convinced that every slightly twitch showed boredom, disbelief at the uselessness of the prose, or uneasiness at how he was going to admit to me that he hated it.
At the moment I am operating from the totally paranoid platform of assuming that the entire book – all 110,000 words of it – is rubbish, so if he says anything negative I will assume it’s the only thing he’s noticed. I suggested last night that I gave him a notebook to write down his comments so we didn’t have to bash every last detail out as we went along but he pointed out – totally correctly – that the minute I saw him reach for a pen I’d have to know what he was writing. We’ve opted, therefore, for writing down AND discussing and as my writerly paranoia gives me a tendency to be as defensive as an anglo-saxon shield wallShieldWall, it is not necessarily the best thing for marital harmony. Or, indeed, for sleep as ages after lights out I was pestering the poor man with ‘but what did you think of…’ It could be a long week!
On the other hand, once we’d established that he didn’t think it was utter rubbish and we’d had an interesting and totally uninformed debate about whether Vikings would cook a boar that they had hunted the same day or leave it to hang (if anyone knows I’d love to hear from you!) it was actually something of a relief to be able to discuss the book. Well it was for me; I think he might have preferred sleep! As I said in a previous post I have spent the summer operating on two levels – one in the real world and the other in the first half of the eleventh century – and it’s nice to be able to share my second world with my husband too, even if in a slightly tense way!
There are benefits for him - he may, for once, get told to ‘let me do the dishes; you sit down and read’- but largely I think he is very brave to undertake this and will do my best not to penalise him for any negative feedback with extra chilli in the curry. In truth, though, I don’t want him or my Dad to tell me it’s all marvellous (well, I do, but I’d know it was a lie – no first draft is perfect, or, indeed, second, third, fourth or twenty-fifth!) so they will get pestered for issues and confusions.
What I most want from my readers, especially at this stage, is the parts in the novel where they get bored – because those are clearly the bits that aren’t working. We’ve all skimmed sections when reading books and those are the ones I’d love to weed out so if I see his hand pressing the ‘next page’ button too quickly (because obviously I notice every single time) I’ll be onto him to find out which bit he’s reading. As I said, it could be a long week…

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Hope to see you soon - Joanna