Taste Testing – The Fortnight

I’ve reached an exciting stage with the development of my new novel – it’s the Bake Off equivalent of creating a new recipe, baking it and then giving it to the judges for taste testing!

My 80,000 words are written, I’ve gone through the whole of The Fortnight and completed my editing to get it as good as I can. Now the text has gone off to my ‘beta readers’ who are the taste testers… they’ll read it and tell me about any parts they think need to be changed or improved.

It’s so nerve racking to send off a brand new novel to people who haven’t seen it before and who know absolutely nothing about it – my nightmare would be that one (or more) of the beta readers says it makes no sense and they hate the whole story!

Interestingly, when I got to the same stage in Landsliding, two of my beta readers didn’t like the original ending. They felt it was a little flat and too ‘sewn up’ despite my insisting it was the exact conclusion that I’d always planned. At first I stubbornly refused to change it, saying I was happy with it and didn’t feel inclined to make any amendments.

But after a bit of reflection, and re-reading the end myself several times, I realised they were right – it was too neat and too unexciting. So I added a new final chapter and it seemed to make all the difference!

In many five star reviews of Landsliding, I was amazed to see it was the ending that people enthused about. It’s a plot twist, which people always love, but it’s also completely unexpected and makes the reader sit up and think. I haven’t specifically tried to emulate that with The Fortnight but again the ending might surprise some people.

So this time, once the beta readers have given me their comments, I’ll go through the whole novel once more to assess their thoughts and decide which ones I agree with and which ones I don’t. It’s a tricky process because the book is very much my baby – it’s been developing for months, it feels like my special thing and I’m very possessive of it.

Making changes can be difficult and any criticism can feel very threatening; luckily my years spent in a writing group in France got me acclimatised to hearing critiques of my writing. We used to read out our work to each other and then listen as the group members in turn would give their opinions aloud: more than once I remember the writer ending up in tears.

You have to learn to develop a thick skin – there’s a great quote from David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas author, not the Would I Lie to You comedian!) that says:

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stick, lie down in your coffin and say ‘when you’re ready… ’

And that just about sums it up – putting your writing out there to the world is truly terrifying and leaves you feeling exposed and ready to be attacked. If you can’t face it, though, there’s no point publishing your book!

Hearing readers’ comments is one of the great joys of being a writer, but it’s better for everyone if the comments are constructive. My ex husband once told me my writing style was ‘boring’ …and that’s one of the reasons why he’s my EX husband. (Seriously, that wasn’t the only reason!)

Writing is massively subjective which is why book groups are so popular – it’s always fascinating to hear a diverse range of views about one particular book – but it always annoys me when people criticise a piece of writing without being able to justify why they didn’t like it.

Sometimes the reason can be as simple as the fact that it’s just not your genre, yet challenging yourself to try something different can lead to pleasant surprises. As an adult I’d never read teen fiction until my daughter persuaded me to read The Hunger Games series which I absolutely loved, finding it a real feat of imagination and storytelling.

Likewise, for many years I never read science fiction but eventually found myself thoroughly enjoying two classics: Dune by Frank Herbert and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, carried away into a parallel universe by both of those talented writers.

Other hugely popular books, though, just haven’t worked for me. Two that especially spring to mind are J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road; both mega successful prize-winning novels which I found totally depressing and hard to get through.

I suppose if you’re going through a tough time in your life and you’re reading a book in that period, you might end up with a bad taste in your mouth about that particular book. Ideally, if the story and/or writing is good enough, the hope is that you’d be taken out of your bad time and put in a better place.

So if you end up reading The Fortnight once it’s published, and leave me a review on Amazon, Goodreads or wherever, I won’t mind if you don’t like it so long as you tell me why. Fingers crossed, though, all the reviews will be positive!

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