Andrew Sharp's wonderful debut novel, The Ghosts of Eden, a story of medicine, love and redemption set in East Africa, was published by Picnic earlier this year. Andrew trained as a surgeon and now practises as a GP in Leicester.His website is www.theghostsofeden.com.
I have a notion that Wordsworth’s line, I wandered lonely as a cloud, has nothing to do with walking the Cumbrian hills but is a metaphor for the poet’s mental state when he wrote. Writers mooch lonely in their thoughts whilst under the tips of their fingers the novel forms and grows as they tap at the keys. Sometimes they think they have created fields of daffodils but even the prettiest words that appear on the screen have no guarantee of making it into the finished piece; at any moment they could be dragged and dropped, substituted or deleted, leaving not a trace.
But there comes a day when the writer has to say (like Pontius Pilate when asked to change what he’d written on Christ’s cross): ‘What I have written, I have written.’ No more revisions. The last pre-submission draft is printed out, is packaged up as if it's the stone on which is scoured the Ten Commandments, and sent to the publisher or agent.
Whilst the writer might have kidded themselves early on that they didn’t care if anyone else read their work, the truth is that a writer who doesn’t want to be read is like a composer who never dreams of having the Berliner Philharmoniker playing their work: they have a limited vision. However very few writers are happy to go in one step from a manuscript for their-eyes-only to a book open to the world. At some point in the late draft stage a writer starts thinking about their readers and - in Stephen King’s words from his entertaining book On Writing - wants someone around who’ll tell them, before they go out in public, that their fly’s unzipped.
What the writer would give their index finger for is an Ideal Reader. Someone who embodies the collective opinion of all the readers and reviewers of the world; someone who offers an unfailingly constructive and critical eye, pointing out what works and what should be deleted. For many writers, this is their agent, but it is ironic that when a writer most needs that Ideal Reader - for their first submitted manuscript – the agent is not available. How important this mythic figure can be is illustrated by the story of literary agent Charles Monteith who took a manuscript described as an ‘absurd & uninteresting fantasy …’ by a less visionary publisher's reader and provided William Golding with the editorial input that culminated in the finished novel: Lord of the Flies. (No pun intended with the close of the previous paragraph).
Inviting friends and family to comment might do wonders for a writer’s ego. They will make flattering remarks to avoid a lifelong rift (and because they are astonished to actually know someone who has written a book, however bad it is), but it’s hardly objective. The first reader feedback I received came in the form of, ‘Wow, Dad!’ as my youngest daughter ran her fingers across the top of the four hundred page high manuscript still hot from the laser printer. I guessed a publisher might be harder to impress.
There are critiquing services that will write a report for the writer in exchange for cash. Some will major on commenting on the marketability of your novel (let me save you the money: almost always the answer will be ‘unmarketable’ – gloom is programmed into the industry) and others will dissect, with surgical precision, the anatomy of the story itself but the truth is that even the most professional critiquing outfit can only afford to have one reader on the job and reading a novel is a highly subjective experience. After reporting competently on writing technique, plot credibility, characterisation etc the subjective element kicks in: what is Man Booker prize material for one reviewer will be shredder material for another. Several opinions that concur (as we say in medicine) are valuable, but would be prohibitively expensive if done through the critiquing service route.
Another route to pre-submission feedback is the writers’ group, either online or meeting face to face. Many writers find these disastrous. They're subjected to comments such as, ‘It’s kind of meaningful, I mean, I get the feeling that this is really heartfelt.' Some groups are let down by mutual back slapping or pseudo-intellectual point scoring. I’ve been fortunate. My group, the Leicester Writers’ Club, is as good as these get, although I nearly slunk out the back door on my first attendance.
I found myself sitting in a rather imposing hall gripping, unnecessarily tightly, four A4 sheets of paper. On the pages were a couple of thousand words from my recently completed debut novel. There were four rows of heads between myself and a wooden lectern which stood on its own at the front, the focal point of everyone’s gaze. By the lectern was an oversized microphone. It looked grand enough for an inauguration address. The chairperson was seated at a table, a little off to the side, looking extraordinarily intelligent and insightful. I could tell she’d be scornful of drivel. I convinced myself that the people sitting in front of me were all professors of English Literature or had written one of those books you see with titles like ‘the 1001 most common mistakes in fiction writing’. I hugely regretted putting my name down to read. I glanced down at my piece and convinced myself that the first paragraph was laughable.
The chair asked for announcements and acceptances. My perception that I was a tadpole in a pond of pikes was confirmed when someone announced that they had sold the German rights to their fourth novel. Then I heard, ‘We have a new member this evening ... who’s going to read for us.’ I found myself subconsciously screwing my pages into a tight ball. Why open myself to public humiliation?
After surviving the occasion it struck me that I had not been looking out on the literary equivalent of Dragon’s Den but was looking at a bunch of listeners/readers. Thirty willing, captive, readers. Where else could you find that for your draft manuscript? But it’s even better than that. The members of a good writers’ club are a very special type of reader. Because they’re writers, as well as readers, they’re well-versed in the techniques of the craft, and so are able to see why your favourite scene hasn’t worked and then suggest ways to make it work.
Even a good writers’ group has its limitations. In a meeting format where manuscripts are read out it’s only possible to get comment on a limited part of the novel and it’s difficult for the group to get a feel for the entire plot. There are, however, other benefits: it’s an environment to share knowledge of the writing and publishing world with fellow sufferers, to commiserate, encourage and to share in the joys of success. The group may not embody to perfection that elusive Ideal Reader but it’s good to feel that there is no need to do so much wandering lonely as a cloud.