Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Value of Feedback

It's said that a true friend is one who will tell you what they really think - and why. For a writer, getting reliable feedback is invaluable. Just as a good proofreader can spot those rogue apostrophes and homonyms that you read past without noticing, so a good reviewer can tell you the essential and occasionally bitter truth. 


One must use discernment these days, of course, when reading social media and online book reviews because they offer such a wide canvas for jealousy, mean-spiritedness and invective, as well as encouragement, support and constructive feedback - if you're lucky. 



It's all in the game, I suppose, and for every book that's praised to the rafters there will also be a proportion of readers who thought it stank like last week's haddock. In fact, I received what must surely rank as the worst review I'll ever receive (on that site at least!). If I tell you it was for my magical fantasy, Covenant, and on one of the major - and tax ambiguous book retail sites, you can easily find it if you're curious.


I'll wait for you...

Ah, there you are. What did you think? Me? I was both disappointed and amused by it. Firstly, it suggested that I hadn't given the reader something of value - which is what I think most writers strive to do, irrespective of the topic or genre. Secondly, it amused me because I'd be hard pushed to get a review that bad again under any circumstances. (Although no one has reviewed my gag ebooks yet...)

The real worth of feedback, to me, is that it's an indication of whether I've succeeded - in the reader's eyes - in parceling up my ideas, feelings and themes into a cohesive package. More than that, where it's fiction, I want them to have felt something. Where my reviewer, who didn't like Covenant, is concerned, I can at least be certain that they felt something!

Many months ago I spoke with my editor at Musa Publishing about finding out if my mid-grade book about bullying and transformation, Superhero Club, might be suitable as an education or support tool. With their blessing, I contacted two organisations connected with young people's well-being, as well as a couple of local schools in Cornwall. The schools didn't respond, but eventually, after some polite reminders - over five months and one year respectively - the two organisations said they either didn't have time or were not in a position to review my book. And you thought agents and publishers took a long time...

Undeterred, although frankly pretty ticked off by the experience, I contacted two more organisations, and almost immediately (within a day or so), I had responses from each. (Note to self: choose wisely in future and perhaps ring up first.)

One organisation has now provided three brilliant pieces of feedback, yielding some unexpected comments. Remember the context here - this feedback is from professionals working with vulnerable / troubled children.


Pros

- Suitable for a young person who enjoys reading.
- Liked the style and conversational approach.
- Felt it illustrated the benefits of talking therapy.
- It's simple and gets to the point, making it quite accessible. 
- It gives awareness that adults have issues as well.
- An interesting story covering various issues, giving an insight into how bullying affects people.- A very touching story and easy to follow, it could help a young person understand how a group could help them.

Cons
- Didn't like the use of American English although it probably wouldn't be a problem for young people.
- Concerns that the group of young people in the book were copying the bullying behaviour towards the bully.
- Some of the language was difficult for some children to understand.
- The supportive group of young children bullied the bully and the teacher just ignored the situation, sending out a negative message to vulnerable children readers that there's no point in telling teacher as they won't do anything about it anyway.

I'm indebted to the reviewers because it has given me a completely different perspective on my children's book. 

It all raises some interesting questions:
1. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club turn it into a useful educational / support tool?
2. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club increase its popularity?
3. If I hadn't had that feedback from professionals, would I have been content with the book as it stands?
4. What would my publisher, Musa think?

I was talking recently with abstract artist Harriet Hoult, who will be guesting on this blog soon, and she felt that each piece of art she produced had its own conclusion. Perhaps every piece of creative output, once it exists in the outer world (i.e. beyond a drawer or a file on a desktop), has become what it was supposed to be. Maybe, where a book or a story is concerned, revisiting and editing after that point only unravels all the elements that put it together in the first place? 

What's your feedback on that?



4 comments:

  1. A while ago, I watched an interview with Neale Donald Walsch (CWG Series) about the creative process. He said that the only purpose of the creator was to create. All that happened beyond this process was out of their hands and they should surrender to the adventure.......Having a musician partner, I put this concept to him......while he appreciated and craved its intention, he felt it was unobtainable as a human......

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Mel, I think that can certainly happen and it's a magical experience when it does. Things become complicated when money is involved and we start to derive a livelihood from our creativity. One cannot serve two masters, as they say. Interestingly, where Superhero Club is concerned, it was one of those occasions where the story was developed for me rather than by me. On that basis, it is what it is, and perhaps part of the creative process is to accept what you end up with unconditionally (recognising that it is a continuum and every creation informs those after it in subtle ways). Striving is its own reward!

      Delete
  2. Sounds like you got some good feedback from those organizations. Are you going to pursue pushing it as an educational/support tool? Changes might be a good idea then.

    It won't hurt to rewrite some of it with that in mind. But I suppose since Musa published it, it wouldn't be your decision. I guess it depends on your goals for this book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Suzi, and thanks for your thoughts. I've put it to Musa now, but I'm also mindful that there are no guarantees.

      We could rewrite and reissue the ebook, only to find it still isn't a good fit as an educational / support tool for other reasons.

      As we know there are so many reasons for writing a piece of work - expression, solving a challenge / problem, making sense of an experience, the joy of invention and, sometimes, wanting to make a difference for the reader.

      That last one is certainly part of Superhero Club's DNA, but it was written from an outside perspective. I'm now fortunate to know people who work professionally in the care and treatment of Children and Adolescents who face a range of challenges, so that would inform any new work. (After the latest novel, of course!) I enjoy reading your blog by the way!

      Delete