So, I released my new novel The Devil’s Chamber into the wilds last weekend.
In my younger days I mainly used writers’ groups as a source of feedback on novels-in-progress. It was really useful for a number of reasons. First, you get used to taking tough feedback and developing the scar tissue that goes with it. Second, you understand the difference between constructive feedback and crap feedback (I once sat in an Amsterdam group arguing with an American guy for 5 minutes about my use of the word ‘pitch’ to describe a football field, which he maintained would cause American readers to throw the book out of the window in exasperation; I got my revenge the following week when he used the phrase “the unmistakable stink of elephant dung” and I pointed out that most readers had, unlike him, no deep knowledge of the different aromas of animal faeces).
I stepped away from writers’ groups once I grew weary of the storm of voices, and also decided to trust my own instincts more.
So for the latest novel I sent the draft off to my three beta readers. The Wikipedia definition of beta reader is somewhat unflattering, suggesting that the individual is “a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software) who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author.”
My beta readers are far from average. I think of them more as a league of superheroes.
First up is my fellow Scot Sean, who I’ve never actually spoken to other than on Skype, but I feel like I know him like an old mate. We first “met” on the comments string of a Scottish Literature article on the Guardian way back in 2006 and have since exchanged thousands of words of feedback on each other’s novels, along the way exploring and debating the big themes of Scottish literature, the epic storytelling universe of The Wire, the calamitous impact of misplaced commas, and the likely end of the world. Sean’s superpower is his line editing, an uncanny ability to remove words and strip flabby writing down to its fighting weight.
Second up is Mat, a Londoner I met at a writers’ group in Amsterdam way back in 2002. We immediately bonded over the awfulness of the group, and rebelled by setting up our own regular writing head-to-head over curry and beers which ran for the duration of my seven years in the Netherlands. He became a great friend as well as a writing buddy. His superpower is his eye for a story, his feel for character, and his humour.
Last but not least is Jeremy, an award-winning screenwriter who lives near London and adapted Amsterdam Rampant into a screenplay. I’ve learned loads from this Leeds lad in the year or so we’ve known each other. He described Amsterdam Rampant as ‘Trainspotting meets In Bruges’ which was the coolest thing anyone could ever say about it, as this was pretty much my objective all along. From Jeremy I learned the art of boiling a story down to its essence, the gun-to-the-head sacrifice of non-essential plotlines, and the relentless demand for entertainment from TV and cinema.
It’s an interesting exercise to canvas independent views on the same body of work, because when you get the same feedback more than once you know you have to act on it. You also get quite different views based on everybody’s inbuilt preferences for the types of books they like to read and the TV shows they like to watch. This is one of the reasons I started with Jeremy, Mat, and Sean – although I have several more writer friends whose views I trust and value, I decided to kick it off with these three because I know we have very similar tastes. I have a hunch they will give me advice on the type of story it should be, which is what I’m looking for at this stage. For the next wave of beta readers I will look for people with more diverse tastes who are likely to call out unexpected glitches and flaws, and also make suggestions that make me think more closely about what should and shouldn’t be included.
So my beta readers will be already wandering the new world of my novel, exploring its landscape, observing the characters like invisible ghosts. Scribbling notes. Hopefully smiling and nodding rather than tutting and shaking their heads.
Am I apprehensive about the beta readers’ feedback? Actually, unlike previous novels, it all feels quite liberating. It’s maybe a bit like kids leaving home – the first one leaves you with empty nest syndrome and niggling fears, but by the third one you’re relaxed and want them to go out into the world and find their own path. Over the many years I wrote The Vodka Angels (which I never published) I wasted countless hours trying to write something that would be Capital-L Literature. I re-wrote multiple versions of Amsterdam Rampant to get the setting and pace just right. This time with The Devil’s Chamber, I decided I want to keep the story simple and punchy, and get the novel out there quickly (not compromising on my own standards but not re-reading and re-writing each line obsessively for years either).
So here I am, sitting in a train station waiting-room with my main characters. There’s a large clock on the wall, its thudding tick resounding in the dusty stillness, and some of the people I have conjured into life shift nervously around me. One or two of them may have to leave; others may have a second chance, or a new destiny. A whistle blows in the distance and we sit in silence, waiting on news from the gods.
Photo: Jan Cocker