Reviewing the Situation

It’s amazing how precious reviews and feedback are, I’m finding. As someone who has a fairly fragile ego (yes, I do. Don’t look so shocked. Or snigger) I’d have thought I’d either not dare show anyone any work or else put it out, and scurry into the corner with my hands over my ears so I couldn’t hear any reactions.

On the contrary, I’m almost hungry for feedback and reviews and criticism. I’ve been lucky enough to get some lovely reviews of my little ebook on Amazon already, but I want MORE! On the one hand, yes of course I want to hear people saying “Darling, it’s simply marvellous, you are absolutely going to be a number one bestseller” but I also really and truly want to hear what I’m doing wrong too. I have a shelf full of writing books and they are nearly all extremely helpful but what I’m finding is there is nothing as helpful as actually writing something and having someone who knows what they’re talking about point out what you could do differently. Let’s not say “wrong”, as obviously all opinions are subjective but someone who’s been round the block a few times or looking at your work with no bias can spot errors or give suggestions that you yourself can’t see. And I need that so much!

I went along to a workshop given by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators last night (SCBWI = Scooby. So I’m told) and if you were following me on Twitter you were probably sick of me going on about it. It was the first time I’ve been to a writing workshop and the first time (at least since GCSE English) that I’ve sat down with people and discussed different texts, looking for what works and what doesn’t. We started with some published (and very good) texts, both a picture book and a full-length YA novel, then moved on to anonymous critiques of members’ work. We did three picture book texts, a picture book synopsis and mine was the only novel excerpt – my first three pages. I’d agonised over whether to put forward my synopsis or my actual text and printed off sets of each, making up my mind at the last minute to choose text as I really wanted to know if the opening answered the questions suggested by the leader (if you’re interested I’ll do a post about those at another time as they’re really helpful). The really good thing about the anonymous critiques was that since no-one knew whose the work was they were more upfront and honest, I think, than they would otherwise have been. I know I was. This meant you knew that the reactions you were getting were completely based on your work and the question of whether people liked you or not was not colouring their perceptions. It also meant you saw how people read your writing without you piping up saying “Oh by the way, this bit means XYZ.” The work I took was my main WIP, a YA story set in 1816 about a young girl called Emma, and although I’ve had some very good and kind friends read it and be honest about it, it’s a different experience getting that completely unbiased opinion and actually sneaking a look at how people react when they’re reading it. I was so pleased – I kept hearing little chuckles and I heard at least 3 people (there were only 9 of us there) say they’d want to read the whole book. In the discussion people “got” how I wanted Emma to come across and the little hints as to what was to come. I even got compared, for the humour, to a prolific published YA author which gave me the most amazing boost.

All in all I went home floating on air. It gave me the motivation I needed to really push through and get that first draft finished, and encouraged me no end. I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to the friends I keep pestering to read my work; both them and my experience last night convince me that I might just get somewhere one day.

I know most people reading this are already writing and have probably had similar experiences already, but if by any chance you’re a new writer who is serious about wanting to improve, PLEASE be brave and ask for feedback on your work. Reviews and critiques and that fresh pair of eyes are what make you grow. On the flip side, leave reviews for books you have read as those authors, I imagine, never tire of hearing what someone thought of a piece of work they have put all their energy and talent into.

I said at the beginning that I would have expected myself to not dare put work out for review. Actually, a couple of years ago I didn’t. I maybe asked my husband for an opinion but that would have been the limit. The first time I did dare ask someone else, they were so helpful it encouraged me to do more and more. Lesson to self? People want to help. Let them.

UPDATE: As Kirsty points out in the comments, Emma actually took over my blog back at the start of the year. If you fancy having a read, here it is!

Good Reads on Goodreads

I’ve recently been digging a little deeper into Goodreads. I’ve been signed up for ages but, like when I first joined Twitter, I’m not making anywhere best use of it. Superficially, you add which books you’re reading or have read and do a little review of them. All well and good, and handy for dipping in and out of if you want an opinion on a specific book. This might be all you ever want, and that’s fair enough. Plenty of people use it, making it a pretty good resource for that kind of thing.

What I am discovering though is that, again like Twitter, the more you use it the more you get out of it. This works both as a reader and a writer. As a reader, if you start making connections and seeing what people are reading, you get introduced to some cracking reads. Authors and genres you might not have tried before but are much more likely to do so on a recommendation from a friend. Most books, especially the Big Deals, have reviews up and you can comment on these. The comment streams often turn into debates which are actually fascinating and make you really want to read the book. In my opinion, if a book gets so many people worked up in completely opposite ways, it’s worth a second look. I found that recently with Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. If a book you love doesn’t have a discussion going, start one.

Another feature for readers is the ‘explore’ menu which offers lists and suggestions for reading. There are thousands of books listed in the recommendations, sorted either into lists such as ‘Best Historical Fiction’ or even ‘The Worst Books of All Time’, so you can have a dig around and find what suits you. If you don’t like their suggestions, then take part and vote or put a book forward.

As a writer, it’s a whole other ball game. My little foray into self-e-publishing (I need to think of a better term for that. Independent feels far too grandiose) has gone right to my head and I’ve gone and updated my website, facebook page, and created a Goodreads author page. I think this could be a really useful feature, especially if I continue down the route of self-publishing more and more work. It keeps all my work together, it allows people to comment on my work and for me to see those comments as well as get notified when someone comments. I can get ‘fans’ who follow my activity on Goodreads (useful for when I’m  a literary megastar). I can list giveaways of the book, have my blog posts fed through onto the page and link through onto the book page on Amazon. I can even make ebooks available to preview and purchase direct from Goodreads. People feed their reviews onto Twitter and Facebook, so it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a little bit of good feedback here could go a very long way.

I genuinely think that as Goodreads takes off, and more and more join and interact with it, it will become immensely useful and a valuable part of every writer’s marketing kit.