Soon after I started writing The Kosher Delhi, I gave my partner the first few chapters and asked for her feedback. She came back the next day after reading it on the train home and said, ‘Now I don’t want you to get upset, but this might be a difficult conversation…’ She then reeled off a series of points and thoughts about the book which she didn’t think were realistic, didn’t work, or where she got bored. I sat there, listened (very) politely and had to admit to myself that she was right on every account (well, nearly every point). It was sobering but unbelievably helpful. Oh, and she did also say what she liked!
When I look back now at what I consequently changed, I am sure that if I had presented that original version to my publisher, they would never have progressed their interest.
It was the same with my other early readers. (I hesitate to call them beta readers; from my software development background, I think of ‘beta testing’ as testing software which has at least had a fair amount of internal review already – so I think some of my early readers were pre-beta…) Every single one of them gave me useful feedback, made me think, and more often than not, I changed something. Not always – there are inevitably aspects where as an author you have to believe that what you have written is correct; but often. For example, if one reader gives one specific piece of feedback, that doesn’t automatically mean you need to change a point (although you can do), but, for me, as soon as two or three people commented on the same issues, well, clearly I should pay attention to that.
I did receive one person’s feedback where their comment was so blindingly obvious that I’m embarrassed I didn’t see it when I wrote it! But that’s one of the benefits of getting early readers – you can’t always see the wood for the trees; you’re too close to the plot/characters to see something doesn’t work. It may sound like the opposite should be true, but I found that it was possible to want to write a particular thing so much that I couldn’t see it didn’t work.
I was also very specific on what I asked my readers to comment on: I asked them to tell me ‘Did my book make you want to know what happened next?’ and ‘Did you manage to forget it was me (i.e. your friend/brother) reading it?’ And of course, please do tell me what you did/didn’t like if you can do – although I found that those two simple questions usually meant my reader told me their likes/dislikes anyway.
I should also add that although I have concentrated above on the criticism I received from readers, I was fortunate that all of them also said how much they enjoyed it! Which meant that even if they questioned aspects of the novel, it still made me feel fantastic that someone did like my writing!