Getting feedback on a draft novel isn’t optional. It’s essential.
Twenty years ago, I was very nearly published by a global book trade company. I’m so glad I wasn’t. I will always be profoundly grateful to the Acquisitions Committee who turned down that novel, three votes to two. Let me explain…
I’d been working for at least five years on that book, set in the world of Einarinn and now known with industrial-strength irony as The Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork. An earlier version had gathered a collection of standard three line rejections; ‘thanks for your submission, no thanks, best of luck.’ I’d persevered and evidently the book had improved because the second round of rejections were letters a paragraph long or a few handwritten lines on a compliments slip. These highlighted positive aspects, while regretting the book didn’t have that something special, wasn’t quite right for their list, though perhaps someone else would love it, I should persevere…
Then I got the letter saying this Acquisitions Committee had the book! Surely…? But no. The manuscript landed back on my doormat with a thud – remember this was twenty years ago. Only it came with the commissioning editor’s reports from professional test readers. I’ve since learned how unusual it is to ever see such reports. Because they were relentlessly, brutally critical. Was this a mistake? Or did someone give me the chance to see what I needed to do, to get good enough for publication? I don’t know and I’ll never ask.
There were issues with pace – the story took far too long to get going, and with structure – the plot veered off into ultimately irrelevant episodes. There was far, far too much detail about things with no bearing on events or characters. Some characters showed promise but others were clichéd or indistinguishable. There were positive observations but the verdict overall was this ‘rites of passage, youth leaves home, gets swept up in adventure’ tale was offering nothing new or noteworthy. There were specifics such as ‘the author appears to have lost interest in the protagonist half way through. If she can’t be bothered, why should I?’ You get the idea.
What did I do? Well, I sulked for about six months. Then I accepted this professional verdict meant I hadn’t reached the required standard. What next? Go on or give up? Back then, self-publishing wasn’t a realistic option. That’s something else I’m grateful for; starting out before the ebook revolution. Given the chance, I would most likely have epublished and consequently never learned how very much better my writing could become.
What I did was examine those reports to identify my key weaknesses as well as strengths I could build on. I borrowed bestsellers of all genres from the library and read them with an eye to understanding what they were doing with plot, pace and detail. I studied characters, from protagonists to one-page passers-by to identify what made them memorable and convincing. Where something didn’t work for me as a reader, I examined precisely why. I went to hear writers talk at library events and literary festivals about how they approached their work. Most of all, I searched long and hard for a distinctive idea. I looked at epic fantasy from all the angles I could think of, determined to find an original perspective on the genre’s core appeal. The more I did so, the more I realised the DBFM would never, ever make the grade. I had to bin all that work and start again with a new idea, fresh characters and a blank page. That’s when I wrote the first draft of what became The Thief’s Gamble. Then I revised it, focused on making every word in every sentence count.
Success? Not yet, not by a long way. What I needed now was the equivalent of those readers’ reports mercilessly highlighting flaws. I needed feedback from people who would read this draft with close attention and I must specifically ask them what wasn’t working. Where the plot dragged. Which characters were unconvincing. When the sequence of events was too predictable or implausible or just plain confusing. How internal logic or consistency failed them. And I would have to listen and learn from that criticism without taking any of it personally.
I was fortunate enough to have good friends willing to do this – friends I can go clothes shopping with and trust to tell me when something looks hideous, no matter how much I like it. I still had to bite my tongue on every impulse to say ‘yes, but, you don’t understand…’ because the writer has to make a reader understand through the words on the page, no more, no less. I had to accept when digressions and details I loved proved deathly dull to everyone else. I also had to learn to trust my own instincts when opinions varied. A good book can’t be written by committee. Though I still had to test those instincts against everything I’d learned about the art and the craft of writing. Then I had to identify when someone I’d thought could offer useful feedback was actually talking rubbish. And work out how not to say so.
Don’t underestimate this challenge – and I was only opening myself up to trusted friends. I didn’t have the courage to offer my work up to a local writers’ group or to a postal critique network – that’s how we did things pre-Internet. These days, the thought of handing a draft over to complete strangers online? Terrifying!
Success? Insofar as I landed a publishing contract, thanks to an editor who then said ‘do you think you could change the beginning, the end and make it half as long again overall?’ I still had a long way to go and a great deal to learn before The Thief’s Gamble hit the bookstores, but that’s another story. I still learn more with every book I write. For now though, this is how I learned just how vital accepting dispassionate critique from fresh eyes is to successful writing.
Juliet E. McKenna is a British fantasy author who has loved history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read. She has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble, beginning The Tales of Einarinn to Defiant Peaks, concluding The Hadrumal Crisis. In between novels, she writes diverse shorter fiction, reviews for web and print magazines and promotes SF&Fantasy through teaching creative writing and commenting on book trade issues. She’s currently exploring opportunities in independent digital publishing, re-issuing her backlist and bringing out original fiction with Wizard’s Tower Press.