Tag Archives: feedback

Book Week and beyond

Farts are funny. Comedy gold. Unless, perhaps, you’re mid-way through a speech to a Year 9 assembly…

I aim for my talks to hit a range of notes, to have highs and lows. It was during a sombre moment, a pause for dramatic effect, that a student let one rip.

To their credit, most of his peers kept it together. The hall did not erupt into riotous laughter. If the flatulent one was intending anarchy, I score his bold bid a fail.

Up at the lectern, I considered a wisecrack response but a) didn’t find a retort quickly enough and b) figured it was better not to acknowledge the eruption. I chose to stay the course and chalk it up to another Book Week moment.

For those of us who write for young people, Book Week can be the busiest five-days of the year. In my city Book Week blends into the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, prolonging the bookish buzz.

Authors and illustrators are out and about everywhere. If you spot a pale-skinned individual blinking in the city sunlight, there’s a fair chance you are watching a wordsmith newly emerged from solitary confinement in front of a computer screen.

In my case, Book Week morphed into three solid weeks of public speaking and conducting writing workshops in schools. There were plenty of memorable moments but one stands out. It reminds me why I write YA fiction.

My second novel, Five Parts Dead, is studied by Yr 10 students at an excellent school in Melbourne’s west. For the past few years I have worked with each class as they studied my story – an experience that tends to be as instructive for me as the young readers.

I’ve known for a while that my first novel, Game as Ned, is studied at a couple of schools. However, I haven’t ever had an invitation to visit and converse with the students. That changed this week.
I spoke to a Yr 8 assembly and tackled a wide range of no-holds-barred questions.

I was particularly chuffed to have teachers tell me that Game as Ned is “a joy to teach” because the students enjoy reading it. But the best piece of feedback came as I headed to the staffroom for a cuppa.

A teacher took me aside to tell me that one of her most reluctant readers had been caught out reading Game as Ned – in a History class, with the book hidden under his desk. Asked why he was reading his English text in History, he said it was because he couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. I call that a win.

Rejection letters and friendly fire

If you’re going to be a writer, you can take it as read that you will receive rejection letters. Not everything you do will be deemed worthy of publication. Sometimes the worthiness of your work will not be determined by the quality of your writing or ideas. Commercial considerations will generally carry the day. In the current economic climate, this is even more likely.

Truth is, you’re going to need to develop thick skin. Negative feedback is inevitable. (Hopefully it will be buried beneath a mountain of plaudits though.)

When I sought publishers for Game as Ned, I found myself with a couple of offers to print it. This enabled me to obtain representation from a literary agent. My agent then passed the manuscript on to other publishers to gauge the level of interest.

The final scorecard was two interested publishers, one direct rejection letter and four “no thank yous” sent to my agent.

One of the advantages to having an agent is that the rejection letters often contain useful appraisals of your work – things that you can address in a rewrite. If you submit a manuscript direct to a publisher, the “thanks but no thanks” is likely to be an impersonal form letter.

Feedback from family, friends and readers is an entirely different kettle of fish. It can make you smile or sting like hell. You need to accept that all readers have different tastes. I’ll wager you don’t enjoy everything you read, either.

So while you’re still developing that armadillo-esque hide, you might want to choose carefully who you show your labour of love to. Constructive, considered criticism is worth copping. Thoughtless feedback is potentially damaging and best binned as soon as possible. Think on it only as long as the unhelpful people who vomited it out did.

Fear of failure

I had lunch with an author friend yesterday. She is just about to have her second book published after genuine success with her first. I’m still working on my second and the first seems to be going OK. Both of us are living in fear that Book 2 won’t live up to expectations.

Before Game as Ned was published I had a conversation with my agent in which she candidly informed me “everyone expects your second book to be even better than your first”. The statement didn’t come as a surprise. As a consumer, I bring the same expectations to the next book/album/movie/performance from any artist I have previously enjoyed. But when I slip into my lycra author costume, Second Book Syndrome looms as one of the worst super-villains I need to defeat.

GAN is (mostly) fast-paced and tense. Book 2 is not. It can’t be. It’s about big ticket items such as living, dying, loving and grieving. The pace needs to be different. But even while my rational brain knows I’m writing a different story, the emotional brain thinks “everyone will hate it because it’s not like the first”.

Another author friend recently handed me the manuscript for his third novel, having asked if I’d be willing to read it. It takes guts to do that. I tested my first manuscript on maybe 15 laboratory rat readers and each time there was the potential for a very awkward moment when they handed it back. My rule for all of them was that they had to be honest in their feedback. Even if I got bruised. For the record, most were positive and/or constructive, a couple were tepid and one either lost it or still hasn’t read it.

Writing a book is often compared with giving birth. It’s true that there’s lots of sweat and groaning and no guarantee of a beautiful bonding moment at the end of your labour. What you get at the end of the process is yours though. And while you’ll probably love it, that doesn’t mean anyone else will.

So why do we do it? Why do we risk the rejection letters, bad / patronising reviews, poor sales and other forms of art-induced suffering? In my case, it’s because I love immersing myself in a story – a universe where I can see and hear and smell things and try to recreate the sensations for others. The magical moment when all the pieces of a plot come together is pure joy. The possibility of converting a reluctant reader into a regular reader is golden.

So yes, there’s plenty to fear in being an author. Indeed, I’ve read that even for the literary greats it doesn’t end with Book 2 or Book 3 or Book 14. But if we let the fear win and never take a risk, the world would be a much darker place.