This fall was a very intense writing time for me, as I took my third book (wow!) from a first draft to the version I submitted to my editor. Before the end of the month, I’ll finalize it and it’ll go off to copyediting, to become a Real Book. My editor and my agent are absolutely key to my writing process, but so are a handful of other trusted readers. Some writers work best in isolation; I’m not one of them. I need to focus alone on producing that first draft, but once I have it, feedback is crucial to my ability to make each book the best it can be. This fall I asked half a dozen crucial readers for feedback, and every one came through.
Every writer has to decide for herself what level of feedback to ask for and whom to get it from. Once you have that feedback, you have to decide what to do with it. Lots of great writers have talked about that process (you have a copy of Author in Progress, right?) so I want to take a slightly different angle today.
The feedback you don’t get can be just as important as the feedback you do.
When I finished my first draft in September, I felt happy and relieved and all that; what I didn’t feel was satisfied. I didn’t feel like I had a book. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Was it because this was the first book I’d written in years without a critique group? Were the characters thinly drawn, the plot unbelievable? Was the book actually — gulp — no good?
I needed help, and I reached out for it.
My first round of readers told me a few key things. One zeroed in on the lack of historical detail, a hallmark of my books — that was missing, she said. Another questioned a couple of character issues, places where they said or did things that didn’t entirely track.
Instantly it began to feel like a real book to me, and not just because of what they’d said, but also because of what they hadn’t said.
No one questioned the world I’d created. (The book is mostly set in a women’s insane asylum, a fictional one, in 1888. It’s kind of a 19th-century “Orange Is the New Black.”) No one had trouble with the structure of the book, which includes substantial flashbacks — a decision I’d been concerned about. Other things I’d been worried about, they praised, and some, they didn’t mention at all. The missing historical detail that my first round of readers had flagged? By the time I sent the draft to a second round of readers, I’d sufficiently addressed it, and several of them mentioned how rich it felt. (Phew.) The character issues? Eh, some of them still popped up on the radar for the next round of readers, and I knew I had to try harder.
Now, a word of caution. I’m not saying that if your beta readers don’t pick up on an issue, it’s not there. Even the best readers can miss things. And if there’s a big issue, they might focus on that one without mentioning allll the others. Plus, reasonable people can disagree. In the end, it’s still your name on the book, and you’re still the one responsible for the decisions.
But it sure is nice to have help along the way, and to hear both what they say and don’t say.
Q: Do you work best with feedback or without? What’s your process?