Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Can I get a second opinion?

After weeks of planning, writing the first draft of my book, and then several more months editing it into reasonable shape, I started to look at it and despair. It could have been written in another language for all the sense it made to me. Every word was so familiar and so ingrained in my brain that I couldn’t see a way to change it. The only way to move forward from this point was to get a second opinion. What I wanted out of an early review, or beta read, was to know in broad terms which parts of the story, and which bits of my writing, were working and which weren’t.

When you’re looking for someone to review your manuscript, you have several options. There’s friends and family, of course, but be sure that whoever you ask is prepared to give you constructive criticism when it’s needed. Absolutely the most important thing in a reviewer is that they’re able to be honest with you - a review is no use if it doesn’t help you improve your book. If you don’t like the idea of asking a friend, then you have a couple of options. You could ask a professional editor to appraise your manuscript and make suggestions, or you can take to Twitter, blogs and forums to find beta readers or a crit partner. Chat with people who read and write in your genre, find someone you have a connection with, and ask! If possible, make yourself available to other writers who want beta readers – you learn so much about the craft by finding what works and what doesn’t in other peoples’ writing.

I’m very fortunate to have a brilliant friend, who also happens to be a brilliant editor (@SarahLou_Long – follow her real-life romance here:, agree to read my manuscript. We read and write in similar genres and I knew that her editorial instincts would be too strong not to suggest improvements wherever she could. I’d have been happy to have comments on just a few chapters, but, as I said, she is brilliant and agreed to read the whole thing.

When it actually came to reading this honest feedback and (plenty of) constructive criticism, I felt a bit ill. I’d not had anyone comment objectively on my writing since school, and had major attacks of the doubt crows (my current favourite phrase, courtesy of Maisey Yates). Mostly though, once I got into it, I found reading the suggestions for improvement more frustrating than painful, because once it was pointed out, every mistake seemed so obvious! Not only that, but a lot of the comments were requests for more information – often about the finer details of setting or subtext – that I had already thought about and written into my notes. It was absolutely crystal clear in my mind, but I’d somehow forgotten to get the words on the page.  By this point I knew my characters and my scenes so well that my brain was filling in gaps. But at least this meant that the negative comments were easy to tackle, and even the littlest positive ones (‘Love this J’ or ‘I love this whole page!’) made me do a little happy dance.

Of course, the reasonable part of my brain knows this isn’t the purpose of positive comments. What I need to do is pick apart these good bits, trying to work out what I’d said, or not said, that made Sarah smile, or gasp, or hate me (my favourite of the bunch was this one: ‘What? Don’t stop!! OMG, I have to get back to work now and I want to keep reading – you’re such a bl**dy tease!!’). And I will absolutely do this. Right after the happy dancing. 

But by far my favourite thing to come from this process is the homework – so far, I’ve been instructed to reread Marian Keyes, spend some quality time thinking about Jonny Jefferson, watch Entourage and listen to Matthew McConaughey’s voice. With advice like that, who am I to argue?

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