- By Harry Bingham
- Published 10/19/2011
Most events for writers (including the ones we run) have at their heart a set of Book Doctor sessions. Those sessions, if you don’t already know, work something like this. You send in 5,000 words of your book, including covering letter and synopsis. The book doctor reads your work in advance and then, in the course of a fifteen minute face-to-face meeting, goes through their thoughts and comments on your book, including a set of written feedback. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like much, but the experience can be mind-blowing. Writers, inevitably, are close to their work and new writers, inevitably, don’t have huge reserves of experience and technique to draw on when they hit a problem. The result, very often, is that a book doctor can put their finger on an issue that echoes right through the book. Writers often feel as though they’ve been given the keys that unlock the entire manuscript. Countless times, writers have told me, eyes shining, that their book doctor had been amazing. It’s worth understanding what feedback can and cannot do for your writing. First, the concept. A good book doctor will tell you if the basic premise of your work passes commercial muster. For example, we came across one book about shenanigans on a summer archeological dig. The author was literate, intelligent and a decent writer, but his book was too quiet to be taken on by a publisher. It wouldn’t have stood out enough. That’s a fixable kind of problem, but it’s essential to identify such things really early, otherwise a huge amount of editorial work may be put in to no great effect.
The next huge issue which feedback will reveal to you is the quality of your prose. The quality of someone’s writing can reveal itself incredibly quickly – and it has to pass muster. There are a host of little issues, none of which are individually all that important but which collectively can ruin a book. The issues we typically come across are matters of economy, precision, cliche, specificity, use of imagery and much more. You can present gene
ral guidelines for getting these things right, but really it’s only when the feedback gets up close and personal about your own writing that you truly start to understand how to put these things into practice. What’s more it’s amazing how these things can start to feel like they hold the key to much huger structural elements in the novel. For example, if your characters seem a little limp, a little unlifelike, that can often trace back to some bad habits in your basic writing style. Again, those things, once identified, can be fixed. You’ll often feel as though some great weight has been lifted from you. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of work to do – there’s always plenty of that – but you start to get the sense that you know where you’re headed and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s a huge relief. As for the big structural matters of character and plotting, those things are ideally evaluated by an assessor reading the entire novel (or non-fiction book, of course), though you can hope to get some really useful pointers from a shorter review. A full length manuscript assessment will also deal with all those other things that you have to get right: pacing, character arcs, points of view, scene construction, and the like. Again, you should expect to get a host of actionable points, but also a more experienced, more intelligent editorial eye. The feedback doesn’t only give you information. It develops your skills, builds that writing muscle. Getting feedback of this sort can be life-altering. That sounds like an over-large statement, but for some writers it truly isn’t. If you’re really serious about your writing, then encountering the right piece of professional feedback at the right time on the right project can make all the difference between success and – not failure, exactly, we never call it that – but an absence of publishing deals. As it is, we find ourselves regularly toasting the success of clients who have used professional feedback to parley their own undoubted talent into book deals.
There’s nothing more wonderful than seeing this happen: watching a writer get picked up by an agent, then hearing about the subsequent book deal. Long may that go on!