Friday, May 05, 2006

Feedback on My Novel Ms.

Well, so far seven people have completed reading my novel manuscript. Overall it looks like about a second-base hit, so far. I was hoping for a home run, but I guess that’s tough to pull off.

Actually, it’s been surprisingly difficult overall to receive the critiques, though some have been quite complimentary. I’ve invested so much time and energy into this project that it’s harder to take feedback than if it were a shorter, less-invested piece. When someone suggests that I rewrite the book to include chapters from other character point-of-views or completely restructure the plot, I find it quite depressing because that would require another several months or full year of work, and I couldn’t even restart it until this fall, because my summer is already booked with freelance teaching and writing. Anyway, I feel willing to do only so much work on this book without some guarantee of publication and a little money to grease the skids…

So it’s been a real roller coaster ride for me emotionally over the past three weeks or so as comments have come in, and I’m all over the map in terms of how I feel from day to day about the novel’s status and potential. A few days I’ve actually been in a funk about the whole thing, although other days I’ve managed not to think about it much.

Here are some tidbits from the feedback I’ve received so far, without the person’s name since I didn’t get their permission (if you're irritated that I quoted from you anonymously here, let me know and I’ll remove it):

“This is shaping up to be the most entertaining LDS novel I've ever read. Your novel is unlike any other LDS work I've read in that you realistically describe celibacy in terms of struggling with sexuality. I love the focus on physical details that are not conventionally attractive -- very real and sensual.”

“I'm reading through it very slowly and carefully because I'm very impressed with it -- I think it's an exceptional work. This thing of creating a whole bunch of interesting characters and having them interact with each other in amusing ways is favorite style of novel, so I'm savoring it.”

“I'm really impressed with your portrayal of the polygamy issue and the mixed feelings that modern LDS have towards it. The portrayal of how important Eliza's pioneer family history is to her contrasted with her mother's gut-level revulsion at the idea of sharing her own husband with a rival is masterful. You've really captured it.”

“I think it would be a shame if you toned down the earthiness and explicitness in your novel just to make it more palatable to Mormons. I think it works in your novel and my impression is that it's an integral part of setting the tone. The type of people who would want the explicitness toned down are never going to read your novel anyway. Really, you need to market it to a general audience rather than an LDS audience. Still, you can find a fair-sized audience on the fringes of Mormonism.”

“When I described it as a book going nowhere, I certainly didn't mean I didn't think it would ever get published. Instead, as I'm sure you know, I meant that it didn't have any clear ending. Books usually have a plot line, and then a resolution of the problems with a clear ending. Your book doesn't, and in this way, it really does reflect real life. It's like a trip where you don't really care where you're going, you just want to enjoy the trip. Perhaps there's a sequel. The ending will fly if folks understand that real life doesn't have real endings.”

“I really enjoyed Kindred Spirits. You done good. I know a book has struck a nerve when, after I finish, I feel so intimately connected to the characters that I half expect them to meet me for lunch. The cast you created is phenomenally crafted: These people were real. You have a great sense of what comprises a chapter and I often found myself chuckling.”

“You wanted to know how you did in writing about intimate issues from a woman’s point of view. Naturally, we females are all different--and I know some out there would disagree with me–-so I’m going to lay it out for you according to “my world.” (Nervous?) As a man, you did one of the best jobs of representing woman as a sexual creature that I have ever read. And, for the record, I’m notoriously–-make that NOTORIOUSLY hard on men who attempt this.”

“I wouldn’t say it bogged down, but sometime late in my reading on that second day, I did become aware that I, as a reader, was less compelled to press forward than I had been earlier, on that first day of reading. I asked myself why and have given this some serious thought. As I said, the subject matter is compelling, the characters are great . . . so why was I less involved than I had been? I decided the most likely reason was because there seemed to be a significant reduction in tension between characters once Eliza got engaged.”

“I think its strong enough for publication as is, at least in the Signature market. I don’t think that this will play so well for non-LDS audiences because I don’t think non-Mormons will like Eliza. After all, she is ‘only’ concerned with converting others, a thing which makes us infinitely unlikeable. And I think the LDS themes, while funny and quirky to us, will seem like something from another planet to them. Also, I don’t think non-Mormons give a second thought to polygamy.”

“What you have created in Kindred Spirits really is a winner. You have a great style and have created characters I not only believed, but feel like could walk in the room and hang out with me. And the book has ideologic ‘meat.’ It was a fun read and, when its published, I’ll slap down the money for a copy. This ms was too good to be allowed to be read for free.”

“First, I have to say just how smoothly the prose flowed. On a sentence-to-sentence level I almost never encountered a speed bump. It was totally smooth sailing. I’m assuming that you did a lot of editing on this baby, and it really shows. Very professional.”

“I was also quite taken with Eliza. I think she was well drawn and very sympathetic. She was the type of character that I would happily follow through a novel. I thought you handled the mid-30s single Mormon woman in Boston thing very well and created an excellent opening through her for a novel.”

“Another thing I really loved was your similes. The swan boats that hung up on a coat rack. The numerous meanings of Eric’s eye mole and the Prudential building. George Washington surveying the flowers. They were wonderful bits of quiet genius that I really enjoyed.”

“The buildup to Eliza and Eric having sex was so long, and so filled with worry that the one paragraph you gave us when they finally did have sex – and seemingly with little provocation – was (dare I say) anti-climactic. In fact, this scene is kind of a microcosm of the way I saw the structure of your book working. You were constantly inserting worries, but either those worries never surfaced as an actual problem (making me wonder why you put them in) or when they did, they fizzled out rather than exploding. I think I know why you took this approach though. I know that literary novels often eschew ‘plot’ in order to do a ‘character study.’ In other words, ‘yeah, not much happens in this lady’s life, but we get to be a fly on the wall with a direct line to her brain.’ The idea of these kinds of books is very much steeped in what is ‘real.’ Because normal people’s lives are messy and anti-climactic, so some authors want to make their novels reflect this ‘reality.’”

“There were way too many Mormon tidbits, in my opinion. I was trying to remember how Potok writes his stuff, and it seems to me that he spends very little time on the history and doctrine of Orthodox Jewish culture, except insofar as it advances the plot. I would recommend going through and cutting out all the Mormon tidbits that do not have directly to do with the plot.”

“Here's what bothered me about it: not the Mormon angle, of which I thought you captured a large and colorful range--but rather, this story, on the plot surface, wants to be a ‘chick flick’--lonely woman senses her life passing her by, cheats on her Mormon vows, goes through repentance, meets a guy, falls in love, conflicts raise their heads, will they make it to marriage...yet it's littered with unromantic images and bizarre sexual references that would alienate the female audience that the plot seems to court.”

“There is no doubt that you are a good writer. Your characterizations are strong, the plot interesting, but somehow, in the end, I felt this book didn't quite know what it wanted to be.”

“It takes a long while for me, as a female reader, to trust the ‘love’ that is growing between the main characters--in fact to decide if I even like them, because of their many strange, off-putting or gross habits that you tell us about. Because the main love relationship is lacking, all the sex, back-casting about strange sexual experiences, seems to feel very unnecessary to the story. I am not saying I object to all the sexual reference merely on the ground that they're sexual, but some of them felt too forced and too jaded.”

“One final beef. I felt ripped off on the ending. There is a hopeful note I realize, as she calls Kindra, but I had the distinct reaction ‘that's all?!?!’ I'm not saying how I think you should end it or that resolution needs to be shown. It just felt like it stopped to me.”

“I am not building a relationship of trust with the author here…believing in this world enough to follow willingly into it. I’m starting to wonder what gross detail of sexual objectification he’s going to drop into the story next, and to what end. And I can’t tell if the references like this [spiritual experience] are meant to be taken seriously or if we’re meant to think of Eliza as a rube for having them.”

“These people are just kind of gross. I hope you don’t have one of them pick their nose and wipe it somewhere. These are just not very likeable traits. Why the focus on the mundane gross behaviors of humans, that people with good taste have the sense to keep private?”

So that's a pretty wide range so far. What I’m really waiting for is my agent’s response. If she rejects it, I guess I’ll let it simmer all summer and then see what I feel like doing with it this fall, probably some rewriting and then sending out queries to different agents. If she gives me input for rewriting it, I guess I’ll try to find time to do that as soon as I can, despite my current workload. If she agrees to start showing it around to publishers, I won’t hold my breath, because in my experience what usually happens is that an editor gets somewhat interested and perhaps asks for certain changes and then doesn’t end up signing a deal. But maybe I’ll get lucky this time!

Anyway, I'm grateful that I've been getting some very thoughtful, thorough readings, even if many of them aren't what I was hoping to hear. One of my problems is that I think my main audience is non-Mormon, but nearly all my readers are Mormon or ex-Mormon.

If you’d like to read the novel and give me your feedback, drop me an e-mail at chrisbigelow at gmail dot com.


Rebecca said...

I'm totally going to email you in about 10 seconds -- this sounds really interesting and I want to read it! The criticism part is definitely hard - I think even when it's good sometimes it's not the "right" kind of good -- someone liked it, but missed something you feel is key, or liked it for what you consider the wrong reasons. My brother's a writer, and the feedback part is just tough. Good luck!

C.L. Hanson said...

Hey Christopher!!!

That's really fascinating to see what some of the other readers thought of your book. Fortunately I had already written my review before reading this post so I wasn't unduly influenced by what other people thought. ;-)