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!


  1. Well, personally I disagree with almost every quoted criticism there (possibly excepting the one about too many characters too soon) and accept that not everyone is going to love it, which is true of anything. The comment about 'a writer obsessed with sex' struck me as frankly peculiar, and any criticism which presupposes "big words" as something that might potentially impress a reader... ugh...

    Pft. Take note of that which seems useful and carry on. You're doing fine.

  2. Bit late to the post mate but I feel I should boost your morale a bit by pointing out that finding decent 'beta readers' is actually one of the trickiest things any writer ever has to do. No really, it is.

    As you say friends and family are usually no good because they have a vested interest in either praising you too much or (if it's your mates) relishing an opportunity to take you down a peg or two (it happens).

    But the opposite, finding complete strangers with that putative 'no vested interest', the Holy Grail of beta readers, is also a minefield. And things like book groups and reader/writer forums are often the worst places to get the straight dope. Why? Because people therein tend to see themselves as professional critics; worse, some see themselves as kingmakers, relishing the power dynamic.

    And both of these mean they will spout any amount of bollocks when asked to read/review something which they would not have thought or said when reading for pleasure. No offence to your friend's book group but it's often all about showing how perceptive they are and how honed their critical faculties.

    That's not to say that everyone in these categories will be useless to you, but as a whole they are not reliable barometers. And that's why publishers and professional editors don't use such 'resources' for pre-published work

    The truth is that reviewing pre-published work is a specific skill; a craft in itself. You're judging a work that is not fully formed yet. Trust me, even if you think you have written the last full-stop of the final ever draft, if your book ever gets picked up by a publisher chances are it will be eviscerated and rebuilt in conjunction with a good editor. In fact you should hope it will otherwise you are being ill-served by the publisher (sadly happening more and more these days).

    In addition he reader does not have the 'vindication' of a work having been published (and thus found acceptable to hardened professionals), and nor is there any 'talk' or hype or word-of-mouth as a guide. Instead it's that rare situation when one has to react to a piece of work entirely on ones own and not as part of an audience. Generally people in such circumstances are far too critical because (subconsciously) they feel it's better to come across as punctilious, with high standards, than as 'easily fooled' or someone who praises something that then fails to be published.

    So what do you do? Firstly don't feel so downhearted. I've only read a bit of the book (sorry it's taking so long) but so far I have a positive vibe from it. It'll need some work, but it's not a dead loss and nor is your style. And secondly search, search; scour the universe to find one or two genuinely useful beta-readers; folk who understand what they are being asked to do (judge a pre-published novel, a work-in-progress), and when you find them, cherish them, keep them close and buy them lots of drinks.


  3. (cont)

    It won't be easy, because it never is. But here are some tips:

    - One option is to find people who like the sort of thing you write. Your aim is to appeal to the correct audience for your style of work, not to appeal to 'everyone'. Have you any idea whether anyone in that book group liked your style of novel? If not then of course they are going to fail to connect. Again 'book group/forum' type people like to think of themselves as complete readers who can judge any style of work but in actual fact such paragons rarely exist. We all have our areas of expertise and many more we don't have a clue about

    - Alternatively good beta readers can be built; they don't necessarily come about naturally. You need to find a few people whose general honesty and discernment you trust and then talk your work through with them in detail, rooting out whether they 'got' what you were trying to do, whether your themes and subtexts came through or not, or whether you were too heavy-handed. Explain what you are trying to achieve so that their feedback can guide you to that goal. It's not unheard of for a reader to feel cold towards a work only to change their mind once they learn what the book is actually trying to achieve. Go through this analytical phase now, so you'll have the best and most balanced version to put before the general reading public.

    - And the third (and hardest) option is to try and get a professional (writer or editor) to read your work. Assuming they are honest and willing to help, they will have the right mental tools to judge your work properly.

    Anyway, I'll stop blathering if you promise to keep on writing and keep learning. I've said it before, you have those crucial attributes that most wannabe writers don't have: tenacity and determination. I have no doubt you will succeed.

    All the best


    1. Sorry I've only just seen this! Thank you for all your kind words, and helpful advice, and taking such time to comment. You're right, it is very hard to find the sort of person who can give good, unbiased feedback... But on the other hand, if you do win over a hard-to-please audience like a book group, you might at least know you have something going for you...

      I'll certainly not stop trying, anyway!