I’ve been sending out a lot of horrible Frankenstein things to people and asking for them to pretend it’s a real boy! This has been for two main reasons: 1- I’ve been sending out ARCs of A Man Made Entirely of Bats to writers and editors that I respect and admire to see if they’ll provide a blurb or a fluff or that sentence that you see on the back of the book that says ‘well, this isn’t entirely awful’. And 2 – I recently sent out a manuscript that I eventually submitted to the Scribe Nonfiction Prize to a bunch of people for feedback, of which I have amazingly been shortlisted for, amongst some absolutely intimidating and genuinely lovely and talented writers.
The first emotion that swamps my brain like an upside down portaloo is fear and guilt, because here I am pushing this thing on somebody and I have no idea if they’ll like it. And the second emotion that I feel, and the one that I embrace after I’ve done the breathing exercises to get rid of the first, is gratitude. Gratitude because I have the immense privilege of knowing people who will go out on a limb and read my Frankenstein thing, who will take time out of their incredibly busy lives to give me feedback. What an amazing thing to do for someone. And in my case, an amazingly useful one – the feedback I got for my nonfic manuscript polished it to a level I believe I wouldn’t have been able to achieve normally.
My mate Daniel East wrote this great post about receiving criticism, in which he makes the point that ‘No book is perfectly written’. I think it helps if you consider your creation a thing that needs to be tended by a whole team of medical experts, rather than one lonely weirdo in his crumbling castle. If Dr Frankenstein had a couple of nurses, maybe his monster would’ve been known as Frankenstein’s Totally Normal Guy (you can’t even tell he’s had work!).
All criticism is useful – any issue that a reader has had is an issue that could be shared by any reader anywhere once the book is published. But, again as East points out, it means you just have to consider the info, see it as being highlighted. It might make you say ‘yes, correct, I will definitely change at least one name to something other than Billy Burpton in my manuscript’ or it might make you say ‘actually, Billy Burpton is a choice I’ve made, I’m obviously going to have to push the Billy Burpton issue so that the reader really gets what I’m going for.’
Because I am me, with my Scribe manuscript I couldn’t just settle on general feedback from my readers – I gave them a colour coded ranking system, so that each story in the book was either Green (yes, this is good, choose this) Orange (Not as good as another similar story, has a dud ending but a great beginning, just remove the paragraph with the gratuitous wank) or Red (no, hell no, not for me). This was meant to make the cutting down of a roughly 30,000 word manuscript to a lithe 10,000 word excerpt easy – which like most brilliant plans, mostly worked? There was only about six sections that were universally loved. For most Green, there was someone who gave it a Red. People who have never met provided amazing arguments and counter-arguments to why something was excellent/bad. It was amazing. It was extremely helpful. In some cases I rewrote things entirely to incorporate both perspectives. In other cases I decided that one side was a crazy person, who’s been huffing too much crazy gas.
As well as wandering around asking for feedback, I’ve been doing a bit of feedback myself. It’s a big responsibility. There is a lazy part of my personality that just wants to get along swimmingly with everyone and have tropical cocktails in a pool. That part of me whispers ‘just say it’s all amazing, it’s all perfect, c’mon they’re playing reggae-fusion in the dining hall!’ But writers don’t ask people for feedback to get lied to. I feel like you’re giving them a much bigger insult if you do that. I think the rule that people have to realise is that if someone cares enough about your piece to tell you the potentially upsetting truth about how you believe it can possibly be better, then you have succeeded in writing something that people care about.
The generosity of people who have spent time helping me out with my writing not only really makes me uncomfortably grateful, it also makes me really excited. I think if there’s one thing I’ve always wanted in my life, it’s to be a part of a vibrant, passionate, creative community, and I definitely feel connected at the moment, like there’s a big mob of people with pitchforks and torches marching up to my house, but you know, those pitchforks and torches are gifts perhaps? Maybe I’m digging a big garden and setting fire to it. I dunno. I let metaphors run way too long.