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Friday, August 17, 2007

 

Showing work in progress

Somebody asked the following question in the last thread:

When you had a finished draft of your book that you were pleased with, did you get anyone to read it for you before submitting it places? (Friends, relatives? Some kind of professional reader?) Did you get any useful feedback from anyone before it started going out to agents?

The answer is yes, in some places; I'll elaborate with some general points in the hopes that it's useful. Because of my own experience, though, I'll have to go through a digression first...

Writing my first novel, I had to show a first chapter to a class I was going to, and was pleased to get positive feedback. Actually, the majority of the session involved people asking, 'So what would happen in this or that situation?', which is generally a sign that people find your premise interesting. It confirmed my feeling that I was on to a project worth pursuing, but I had that feeling anyway: I'd written the first two chapters in one of those creative rushes you sometimes get, wanting nothing more than to be left alone and carting my notebook from kitchen table to bus to bar table, doing the rounds in as anti-social a way as possible.

Once it was in progress, I had a stroke of luck. My first boss was a publisher and writer herself - a writer of non-fiction books and copy, rather than a novelist, but a very bright, language-sensitive and cheerful person. We got to be friends, and out of interest, she asked if she could see the novel I was working on. Her response was so positive that she encouraged me to spend lunch breaks working on it, and ended up giving me Wednesday afternoons off as well (there should be more bosses like that, eh?); after I stopped working for her and went freelance, she kept reading the book. Basically I e-mailed her each chapter as it was completed and got her feedback, and occasionally discussed plot points with her when it got sticky, and it was all tremendously helpful. If you look in the dedications, you'll see that they say the book would have 'no middle' without Peggy - well, that was Peggy, and her hand-holding, advice, and help was invaluable.

In my experience, having the book read by somebody who gets it can be very beneficial. Having it read by someone who doesn't, on the other hand, can be detrimental. I remember one very talented person I was on a writing course with who took to heart some comments about how her writing style, which was very rich and intense, would probably be difficult to sustain, and she spent months trying not to be so rich and intense. In fact, while such a style would have been difficult for most people to sustain, it was her natural style, and she ended up playing against her own strengths, purely because she'd taken too seriously some well-meaning advice from people who'd only just met her. It's probably better to have no reader than a reader who doesn't seem to click with you. And even once the book is finished, and published, I can tell you there will always be people who simply aren't on the same wavelength as the book: this is always discouraging, but no one individual should be taken as speaking for the whole of literate humanity.

The one thing I would make a point of distinguishing, though, is that there's a difference between letting someone see the written part of a work in progress, and discussing a work that you're planning on writing. Once the work is written, no discussion can unwrite it, but I find that talking about something I haven't got at least a first draft of is a disaster. It's my experience that the creative mind is pretty much a one-shot creature: it only wants to tell a story once, and after that it gets bored. If you tell the story before you write it, the creative mind thinks that it's all finished with that story, and is very reluctant to tell it again: it's already done it once. Discussing how to solve a plot problem with a sympathetic listener is useful, but narrating in full a story you haven't yet written down wastes energy: a mind aware that it only gets to tell the story once will put all its fire into telling it properly when you pick up the pen.

This may well be different for other writers. As I've said in previous posts, I'm a scatty writer rather than a planning writer; for someone who feels comfortable working everything out in advance, talking about unwritten stuff may not be such a fatal act. (On the other hand, why take the chance? Being frustratingly banned from telling it before it's written should at least be an encouragement to get on with it.)

Another piece of professional advice I got once the book was written may also be relevant: it was shown to Philippa Harrison, who acts as an editorial consultant to the Ed Victor agency, which represents me. She was terrifically helpful; basically she sat me down, went through the few plot points she thought needed tweaking, and did a demonstration on a couple of pages how she thought the length could be pruned down: having seen it done, I went away and did it on the rest of the book, which at that point was overlong. Philippa is another person I'm immensely grateful to, as she improved the book enormously and was a great pleasure to work with.

These, though, are mostly talking about whether to show a work that doesn't have a finished first draft yet. It sounds from your question as if you're in the position of having a finished draft and are wondering whether to show it to anyone before beginning the agency round. I fear my own experience may not be helpful here, as actually I was lucky enough to get an agent before the book was finished - my friend Peggy talked me up to an agent she met at a launch party and showed her a first chapter, that agent offered, and the two of us spent the next week doing something you're probably not supposed to do, which is contacting any agents we had any history with - people she shared mutual acquaintances with, people who'd approached me having seen short stories of mine saying 'let me know if you write a novel' - and saying, 'This book has an offer, would you like to see it as well?'. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that to anyone - it was kind of an unusual circumstance - but it does mean that I was mercifully spared the usual 'Now it's finished, what do I do?!' experience; it was more, 'Now it's finshed, I guess I'd better drop it off.'

From experience as a publisher and of having friends who are also writers, I'd say that the best course of action in a case like yours (or what I'm assuming yours is, I may be wrong) is going to vary a lot depending on circumstance. Feeling pleased with a work is a good sign, but I know from experience that it's easy to confuse what you meant to say with what you actually said; I call it the Overhead Projector: a device that sits on top of your skull projecting what you meant onto the page in such a way that it blurs what's actually there. I've written plenty of sentences that were perfectly clear to me and made no sense at all to anyone else. Because of this annoying little gadget, I'd always advise someone preparing to send a manuscript out to get some feedback on it at some point, as many books benefit from the degree of polish that only an outside opinion can lead you to; the question is in finding someone you trust to give you that. Whenever people ask me this, I usually suggest they ask around and try to get the opinion of someone who could reasonably be expected to be a fair judge - someone with experience in publishing, for preference, but those aren't always on hand. In the absence of someone like that, it may be best to ask the opinions of several friends, preferably your more book-oriented and intelligent ones, and preferably with a variety of tastes between them so you can get a balanced perspective. If one person who reads nothing but hardboiled crime says your romance is sentimental, for instance, that may be just a mismatch of tastes, but if your romantic friend and your science fiction friend and your literary fiction friend all agree, then it's probably time to cut down the sentiment. Think of friends you like to discuss things like books and movies with, and consider which of them come out with the best analyses. A box of cookies and a 'You're always so smart in your analysis so I'd love your opinion' can go a long way.

There are also book doctors. I've worked as one myself on occasion; the thing I can tell you from the other side is that it's always going to be one person's opinion, so anyone who decides to go that route should be careful to vet that person to be sure that their opinion is likely to be reasonable and their prices fair. Getting your book doctored costs money and may or may not get it sold - it's a living, so a book doctor who's getting paid is not in a position to say, 'Sorry, I think you can't write and you ought to give up'; all they can do is give you the best advice they can and hope that you follow it. There are scammers in this field, as there are in most fields of publishing, so the thing to do is check their credentials to see if they actually have respectable publishing/writing experience, and that they don't charge too much: anything over about £500 is a bit steep for a basic report (most people charge by the day, so line-by-line critiques cost more), unless that person is right at the top of their tree, in which case they'll be able to give you an impressive CV. Any book doctor that gets defensive when asked for credentials is not somebody you want to work with, and probably hiding something.

So, in my experience it's generally good to get feedback, with the proviso that it needs to be from a trusted source. What do other people think? Any advice/experiences to share?

Comments:
I pretty much agree with you. I've also done writing classes and found that showing works-in-progress to be critiqued by other people was a disaster. Too many mis-matched cooks spoiling the broth! What did you do in publishing before your book was published (I'm new to your blog so sorry if you've already explained this elsewhere). A x x
 
Hello and welcome!

Basically, I was an editor. I worked freelance and in-house, doing various stuff; my longest two jobs were working in a bargain-books non-fiction editorial branch, which much broadened my knowledge of true crime, and in a popular-fiction editorial job, which is what I was doing when I finally quit to work full time. In freelance, I've compiled gift books, done book doctoring consultancy, reader's reports, a bit of reviewing, writing copy and jacket blurbs, coming up with projects, and oh, all sortsa things. Publishing is a difficult game to get into, so you have to pick up work where you can. :-)
 
Thanks for that! I've just been looking at your website (should probably have done that before asking the question! but I appreciate the concise answer). My friend recommended your book so I'll look forward to reading it. Best Wishes, Amy x x
 
I can't seem to get anything between friends who love my writing (or claim to), which is flattering but unhelpful and people who tell me "was" is passive, and I should really eliminate "the", or that if my (alternate history) novel is meant to be mainstream historical, I should probably check my facts. Bah.
 
I don't know what I would do without my writing posse. Over time, I have gathered a number of writer friends who are willing to read finished drafts. I do the same for them. We don't always agree but we do help each other a lot. It is trial and error, though. Two people have critiqued work whom I would NEVER ask again. You shrug and move on.
 
Hi Kit - just writing in to slightly disagree with your don't-talk-about-it-till-it's written thing. Last time I was having lunch with Meg and trying to come up with a whole new section to replace the bit that needed taking out, I was spinning out all kinds of wierd shit (which we both thought was pretty good wierd shit, by the way) that I'm sure I couldn't have come up with if I'd just been sitting in a room on my own. Sometimes talking to the right person is like banging tinder and flint together (if that's actually what you do with tinder and flint, I wouldn't know) - you get sparks that you never would have otherwise. It really, really has to be the right person, of course. Basically it comes down to the First Law of Writing: There Are No Fucking Rules. Even basic spelling and punctution (see Ulysses, see Riddley Walker) can be chucked out if you know what you're doing. The tricky part is knowing what you're doing. Every rule everyone has ever come up with about writing (except for the ones about presenting it neatly and being nice to publishers, which are more about simple manners and sensible self-interest than actual writing per se) can be summed up as "this is so - except when it's not". It's working out the "except when it's not"s - when they work, when they don't, when they work for you in particular - that make this such a fucking heartbreaking, fascinating, impossible, wonderful thing to spend your life trying to do.

Anyway. If I'm going to rant on at this length I should probably get my own damn blog and stop cluttering yours up. See you next week!
C
PS: Written in a bit of a hurry, this, so if I'ver made any mistakes with spelling or punctuation, let the record show that in this case, I didn't know what I was doing.
 
Ah, but that's a slightly different case; banging ideas around with another imaginative person, with a view to generating more, is a creative process in its own right. What I meant was narrating ideas you've already worked out but haven't written down yet: 'This is going to happen, then that's going to happen, and then there's going to be a touching scene where he feeds her to the duck...' The former is a process that feeds back into the writing; the latter can end up replacing the writing, becoming a way of talking instead of acting.

But yes, there are always exceptions...

You get a fire by striking a metal edge against sharp flint and making sure that the sparks fall onto and kindle the tinder. I've got a device that actually does that hidden somewhere in all the boxes I haven't unpacked since the move.
 
Most of my friends have got their sticky little hands on my 'green' manuscripts at one time or another. Their positive feedback was wonderful, and fed one of those little doubting demons, but is not enough if you want to take your writing further.
I have read, reported, doctored and edited for others and never fail to state that my words may not be kind, but will be the truth as I see it.
Validation of one's writing before an attempt at publication is essential although not always easy, as you have said.

Self belief is all, but all writers could do with an editing buddy, a friend who is not afraid to speak the evil truth and one who can cut through that temporal jam and tell you when you have had an 'out of world' writing experience!
 
I gave my first book to my brother first, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, I've read worse in print."

Ditto my father and a few friends. I think it's much more difficult if you don't know anyone else who writes/likes to write. When I told those close to me that I'd written a novel they were really shocked (I'd been keeping shtum), and getting useful feedback before kicking the damn thing out of the nest and seeing if it would fly was problematic.

The only thing I'd say to the original poster is to just go with your own feelings about what you've produced - believe in yourself and promise yourself that you won't resort to a book doctor till you've got at least 50 rejections!

(By the way, now all my family and friends know my first book has got representation and that I'm writing a second, they all keep askng me how it's "coming along". This is really, really, really incredibly bloody annoying.)
 
Since the threads are open for questions, may I ask one? I was wondering how much an agent gets involved in line edits before trying to sell a novel, and after the sale, when the editor starts doing that job, does the agent back off?
 
Hi Chris. Yes, it's oddly uncomfortable when people ask about work in progress, isn't it? How are you doing, anyway? :-)

(Answer in next post, Bran Fan.)
 
Oh I'm fine really Kit, thanks for asking. The waiting thing is still a kind of torture. You know, only torture in the so-close-yet-so-far meaning. Not sure exactly what's going on with it right now - it got a half a dozen rejections in the first half of this year and it's with a few more publishers now. In the meantime, I put up a website of bits and pieces about my writing (it's at www.chrisjames.eu if you've really got nothing better to do), to try and help snag a publisher.

Still writng/trying to write number 2, little by little it comes along, and I'm still enjoying reading your blog and the posts people put up. :-)

Oh just read you're next post - I'll have something to say about that, just as soon as I've finished work. :-)
 
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