Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!
Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.
Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.
Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?
So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.
Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”
The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”
Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.
Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.
You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.