Working With Readers To Improve Your Book …

21 Apr

About a month ago, I found I’d finally reached the stage with my follow-up to For Those In Peril On The Sea where I was going to have to try it out on a few people so I could get their feedback to help with the production of the next stage of manuscript development before I send off to an external editor to do the final grammar and spell-checking. This part of the writing process always leaves me feeling rather nervous because it’s the first time the book is exposed to the real world and I get to find out if I’ve really done as good a job as I thought I had. Sure, my girlfriend has been reading various drafts and working her editing magic on it, but this is the time when I get the first indications of how the story is likely to go down when it’s finally released.

So with intrepidation, at the start of April, I got a small number of draft copies of the book printed up and bound, and then pestered five people I know to read it and let me know what they think. Who are these people? Well, they’re a mix of friends, ex-students and work colleagues, ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties, and really all they have in common is that I know I can trust them to give me an honest opinion. I have said this before, but it’s worth saying again, this is the most important criteria when selecting readers at this stage in the writing of a novel. There’s no point in giving it to your mother, as she’s likely to tell you she loves it regardless of what she really thinks, and likewise, partners and friends might hesitate in being completely honest for fear of damaging their relationship with you.

This is one area where I find coming from an academic background useful. In science, people are used to giving and receiving honest, sometimes brutally honest, feedback. If someone thinks that you have done something wrong, or have not been completely clear in what you’re meaning, they will tell you without mincing their words and regardless of how well you know them and often in the public forum of an academic conference in front of several hundred people.

Now that a month has passed, which I’ve spent waiting with baited breath for each of them to fit reading my draft book into their busy lives, and I’ve got all the comments back. What, might you ask, is the verdict? I’m happy, and relieved, to be able to report that in general it has gone down very well. There were the usual little slips and errors (only to be expected at this stage), but in general everyone loved the plot and the new set of characters which are introduced in it. In fact, only two major issues have raised their heads. One concerns a character’s name, which several of them thought just didn’t fit with who he is. Looking back, I can see they are right, and I’m now hunting round for an alternative – although I’m struggling to come up with one. However, this will sort itself out eventually.

The second was potentially more serious and involved the way the book ended. I have to say, this was already troubling me and so, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to find out that people didn’t like it. It was just too abrupt and hopeless, and didn’t seem to lead anywhere which might take it towards the third book in the series. In fact, I’d probably violated my own advice on how to end a zombie apocalypse novel and ended it on too much of a cliff hanger. Having this confirmed by my readers was exceedingly useful, and one of them even suggested way to deal with it (nicknamed the ‘Jaws’ ending – although there are no sharks involved!). This has allowed me to go back and re-work the end by adding a few additional paragraphs which just wraps everything up in a much nicer fashion while removing the cliff-hanger element and providing a better lead in to the next book in the series (where the characters from this book and the first book will finally come together).

The total cost of printing up the drafts and sending them out to my chosen readers was about £125, and for that price I’ve been able to get honest input from five very different people, some of whom wouldn’t normally read post-apocalyptic fiction. This means that it’s substantially cheaper than the alternative option which would be to send it off to one of the many commercial operations which offers to give budding writers a critique of their work. I’ve never used the services of any of these companies, but I can’t see how it can give any better a service than just getting people to read your book for you and give you feedback. After all, these are your potential customers, and who better than them to tell you if your novel works or not? Of course, you have to work hard to get your manuscript ready for sending out to your readers (after all you can’t just send them your first draft – it needs to be close to the finished article), but that’s all part of the writing process.

So, what’s the next step? Well, I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and I finally feel that I’m edging towards the finishing line, but there is still some way to go. I need to take the comments and suggestions from my readers, and incorporate them into the next draft. After that, I’ll give it one further read through just to check I’m happy with everything and then it’s off to the editor for proof-reading. I’ll get it back at the end of May, and then I’ll need to do a final read through just to catch any last issues. Then, and only then, will it be ready to get sent to the printers for the first print run. These will go out to various reviewers to give them time to read it and get their reviews ready for the date of publication (which will be in mid-July). At this stage, I’ll also be running a competition on this blog which will give a few lucky people who follow this blog the chance to read it before it’s officially published (if you want to be one of those people, watch this space!).

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.


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