Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Book Group

Not the Mod Mums Book Group!
(Image: German Federal Archives. I know, I know, but you try finding a copyright-free image of people reading that might sum up the idea of a book group...)

One of the most commonly-recurring pieces of advice you will come across about writing is this – get your work read by strangers.

Platitudes from friends, family and colleagues are all very well, and many of those close to you will have insights and criticisms that can be useful. But there is nothing that matches the honesty of people who don’t know you. They have no reason to be either unnecessarily harsh or unduly kind, and will simply say it as they see it.

This is why I was very pleased early last year when my old friend Amye asked whether it might be possible for the “Mod Mums Book Group”, of which she is a member, to have some copies of The Wicket in the Rec to read. I enthusiastically provided her with some copies of the manuscript, and she promised to pass on any feedback the book might get from the group.

Well, the verdicts have come in. And they are not good.

However, I was quick enough to crow a couple of months ago when I got a very nice review from a complete stranger. So it would be dishonest of me not to disclose the thoughts of other strangers, who were somewhat less enamoured with my work.

One of the main complaints seems to be a certain immaturity regarding how some of the themes of the novel are tackled. Says one commentator:

“It read, to me, like it was written by someone who is obsessed with sex and all things sexual. It displayed classic schoolboy trait of 'those who boast the biggest d!ck, in reality, have the smallest wiener'.”

It’s not a new criticism of my work that sexual themes may be unduly prominent – my colleague Steve once stopped reading one of my books because it had become, in his words “too porny” for his tastes. But it was something of a surprise to read the above, as there are no sex scenes in Wicket. Goodness knows what the reaction would have been if I’d given them Honey and Harvey to read...

The plot itself also came in for... not so much out-and-out criticism, more apathy, I suppose: “A little predictable at times... I found the general story line a little simplistic (a bit dum de dum de dum if you know what I mean)” being one such comment. And another: “I remember feeling quite a lot that I knew what was going to happen... I didn't really get grabbed by the storyline nor the characters.”

Probably the criticism I most expected – and the fault of which I was already most aware of in Wicket – was the fact that there are just too many characters, or at least too many introduced in too short a space of time, if nothing else. This is a weakness that’s simply inherent to the text as it stands, and was one definitely picked up on and repeated by the book group commentators.

Similarly, observations that “...I felt that some characters were pointless, and you do feel after a fairly full description that they should have some bearing on the plot, and this didn't always happen. I felt that sometimes a character was introduced as a 'writing to describe' exercise,” and “I found the introduction of characters too in depth, eg physical description down to tiniest detail and info about their past n personality of characters who barely featured in the story itself,” are probably well-taken. They confirm my decision to try and adopt a much simpler, more stripped-down style for my current project, Another Life – far fewer characters, sparser prose – and we’ll see how that goes.

But I think the comments that really caused my heart to sink the most and brought the greatest self-doubt were these:

“It did feel a little bit like the author had been given a checklist of things to remember about writing style when writing and book and had strived to achieve every point... Try not to follow conventions of a 'good short story' as learnt at school and go more with your own style and see where it goes.”


And, from another reader:

I also feel that the author uses 'big words' unnecessarily which, unfortunately, rather than impress me it makes me feel like he is constantly referring to a thesaurus..”

I found these particularly grim reading because... Well, that’s not what I was doing in either case. Had I been consciously following some set list of conventions, or looking up big words to use, then these would be faults which I could fix.

But I wasn’t. I was writing, as I always do, in my own style, without deliberately attempting to conform to or copy anybody else’s styles or guidance. I was just writing as me. And seeing where it went.

Not far, evidently.

So there isn’t any obvious fault I can fix there. Or rather, there is an obvious fault, but it’s not one I can easily fix – the very fact that my writing style, the way I naturally bolt words together, is one that results in such observations of poor quality from two separate readers.

And it’s hard to know what to do about that.

It was a fairly soul-destroying experience reading through some of these comments this morning, as you can probably imagine. I spent a reasonable amount of today wallowing in self-pity, but when I got home from work and re-read them, I felt slightly less bruised by the whole experience – after all, for all the criticisms, there were still some positive comments in there, such as: I did enjoy the book in the end... it was better than some of the trash that I've made myself read!”

And it would in any case be silly to be upset by criticism, really – especially when it’s kindly given by people who’ve taken the time to read the novel when they had no need to – because I spend a lot of my time convinced my writing is crap, just within my own mind. So why should it feel worse to have someone else confirming what I already knew, or at least suspected?

Yet somehow, it did. Despite knowing how useful it is to have this feedback, and being genuinely grateful that these ladies took the time to read the book and to give me their thoughts, it still felt bad to know I was found wanting – and by quite some margin.

But what can I do? Nothing different to what I always do – keep on going, keep on writing, and keep on trying to create something better.

Admittedly, having read that lot you might think the most sensible course of action would be to give up. (I certainly suspect that would be the advice of the Mod Mums Book Group members!) But I could no more give up trying to be a writer than I could give up breathing. It’s who I am, and for better or worse I am stuck with it forever.

In slightly happier Wicket news, those behind the website of the village in which it is set, Clapham, have kindly put up a link to the book. Whether the members of the Mod Mums Book Group would consider it worthy of being brought to the attention of further readers is another matter...!

But thank you, ladies. I am flattered and grateful that you gave your time to read it. I only hope you enjoy it more in the, admittedly unlikely, event if you ever willingly reading another of my novels in the future!