Recently I applied to join a writers’ group. I didn’t particularly want to join the group. I already meet up fairly regularly with three fellow writers who offer mutual support and constructive criticism. I always find our meetings extremely useful and I doubted I wanted to commit to anything more.
The reason I applied was out of curiosity. No, to be totally honest, it was vanity. Acceptance to the group was conditional upon approval of your work. You had to submit a sample of writing, up to ten thousand words, which the group would then vote on. Moreover, you would receive feedback from the members who were, judging by their publicity flyer, a pretty illustrious and industrious lot. They met fortnightly and only accepted writers whose work lived up to their lofty criteria and was deemed to be of near publishable quality.
What would this group of serious writers, who knew nothing about me or my novel, make of my writing? And would I make the grade?
I sent off the first two chapters of my novel and a couple of weeks later I received an email forwarding the comments of nine of their members. What did they say?
Here are a few snippets.
‘This is very accomplished writing.’
‘The writing needs a lot of work.’
‘It’s certainly a page turner.’
‘I didn’t find the writing gripping.’
‘I felt very secure in the fact that the author knows where this story is going and will reveal to me exactly the right bits of information at the right time.’
‘We have not enough information to understand the irrational leaps the narrator takes.’
‘I felt as if I was being invited into a very weird world, full of strange, indelible imagery.’
‘All the characters are cliché stock characters.’
‘There are some minor quibbles, the majority of which wouldn’t stop it being published.’
‘It does not yet meet the criteria of near publishable standard.’
‘Loved it. Negotiating disturbing ideas while navigating through life’s absurdity and emptiness. Brilliant scenes. Fantastic.’
‘Not convinced by the story unfortunately.’
The one thing that could be said of this group’s responses was that they were magnificently at odds with one another. What on earth was I to make of this?
The email informed me that the vote was split right down the middle, fifty/fifty. To be accepted I had to receive a majority vote. In the light of this split I was neither accepted nor rejected, but invited to re-submit having edited my submission ‘in line with our suggestions.’
But whose suggestions? Whose opinions was I supposed to give credence to? Those who liked the work, or those who did not?
Some of the criticisms I was able to dismiss straight away. One reader, for example, objected to the use of the word, ‘coloured,’ as racist and offensive. I agree with them, but the novel is set in the seventies when the term was commonplace and racism was rife. I’m not going to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of contemporary sensibilities.
Other criticisms gave me more food for thought: inconsistencies in the narrative voice; too much happening too quickly. Hmm maybe.
I rather wished I knew who these readers were (they were all anonymous) so that I could make some kind of judgement about them. What kind of writers were they? What kind of people? Whose opinions were likely to be ‘right?’
This, of course, is the big issue when seeking feedback on creative writing. What is the ‘right’ response when it concerns something so subjective?
I am coming to the point now, nearing completion of my second draft, when I am going to be looking for feedback on the novel as a whole. Most writers have at least one trusted reader or editor who looks over their work. What I’ve learnt from this exercise is that, interesting as a ‘blind’ response might be, it’s not necessarily all that helpful. It’s important to choose your readers wisely.
I have mine all lined up (in my head at least -I haven’t actually asked them yet!). I’m not interested in flatterers who are going to tell me everything’s great. I want people to be honest, brutal if necessary. But I also need people whose opinions I trust: people perhaps whose own writing I admire, or whose opinions on other people’s work I broadly agree with. Not necessarily people with the same taste as me, but who are in tune with what I’m writing.
I will listen to their feedback as open-mindedly as I can. I envisage making many changes in the light of what they say. In the end, however, it’s up to me what advice to accept or discard. And, later, when it comes to submitting to agents, I will remind myself that each response is only one opinion and that, in the end, the person who knows best has to be me.