Dear Dr Darwin
I’ve got to the stage where I want feedback on my novel-in-progress, but I only know non-historical novelists, or non-novelist historians, or readers of historical fiction who don’t write it. I don’t want to ask too many at once, for fear of getting confused, so which should I go for?
P.S. I love your column.
Dear Post Scriptum
I’m so glad you love my column, because with luck that means you love not being given one single, simple answer. There’s rarely such a thing in writing historical fiction, and there isn’t here.
Many non-writers would assume that a historian is your gold-standard for feedback, because writing historical fiction is all about getting the facts right. Of course, if you’re anxious about whether Romans rode with stirrups or where medieval weddings were held, then a historian of the right place and period is the woman for that: you want what she knows about the probables of the past as represented in history-writing, so you can turn them into the possibles and verisimilitudes of fiction.
But don’t forget that a historian’s job is to make big patterns out of small details, and it’s a very small human step from making a pattern to going blind to details that don’t fit it. I know a writer who was told he ‘couldn’t’ have his protagonist make flint arrowheads in her spare time, because flint-arrowhead-making was a major stone-age industry happening at large, specific sites, largely staffed by men. Which is a bit like saying, post-Apocalypse, that the rubble of the Peak Frean factory proves that no 21st-century homemaker ever made a cake in his kitchen. Will you have the courage to defy the historian who says ‘You can’t,’ while still convincing your more knowledgeable readers?
Then there’s readers of historical fiction who don’t write it – which might include professional editors. Avid and experienced readers of your kind of book are incredibly valuable, and if they’re articulate about what they’ve read, then their feedback may be gold dust, and platinum dust if they also know what agents and publishers like. Did the voice draw them in? Did they keep reading? Did they believe in it? Did they love (or gleefully loathe) your main character? Did they spot any howlers? Did it reward them, as fans of hist fic, with what they’d hoped for?
However, one of the arts of giving feedback is to be able to express how you experienced a piece of writing without telling the writer what piece should be doing instead. As my Itch of Writing post The Fiction-Writer’s Pharmacopoeia explores, when a reader says that a story is ‘too long’ or a character ‘is too passive’, the underlying reason for his experience may not be that there are too many words, or you need to re-draw your character as the Napoleon of her time. Will you be able to reject his solution but dig downwards from it, to the roots of what made him say it, and then tackle those?
And what about the non-historical novelist? A fellow novelist is more likely to have a direct sense of what’s going on at the roots, and of how fiction wrangles real-world stuff to make a new world out of possibility and verisimilitude. But many an excellent writer operates largely intuitively, and can’t step outside her own ‘I just know it when I see it’ sense of what works for her and her kind of storytelling, to work with what might work for you and yours. And if she doesn’t read historical fiction at all, she may not know the things you’ve been assuming your readers will know so haven’t made explicit. Worse: she may not enjoy what hist fic readers enjoy, such as the heft of world-building, the non-fiction pleasures of historical knowledge, and the frisson of strange voices and stranger personal habits.
So, is your gold-standard feeder-back a fellow historical novelist? Well, probably. At the very least, he’ll realise that your heroine is bland because you’ve been trying to dodge the fact that to be historically accurate she ought to sound like the nastiest product of the BNP. And he will be well tuned-in to the pleasures readers seek in historical fiction, and whether your novel supplies them. But even if he isn’t an ‘I just know it when I see it’ writer, he can’t help starting from his own experience of his own problem-finding and problem-solving, because none of us can. So you may still have to do the reject-and-dig thing.
More generally, it’s obvious that a super-literary writer or editor might not be the best feeder-back for your highly commercial plot-driven novel, or vice-versa. But if her fiction and yours are too closely aligned in your imagined readers, neither of you may realise how other kinds of reader might experience your novel. It can be salutory to get feedback from a writer or reader whose tastes are very different from yours.
None of which is a covert way of saying that you don’t need or shouldn’t risk getting feedback; a well-chosen beta-reader is unquestionably one of the best things you can do for your novel-in-progress. But, as with anything to do with the creative process, there are many different ways to the same end of a better-told story. When it comes to feedback, you need to understanding the pros and cons of each possibility, taking into account your writerly self. Which are you likely to get the best out of? Which kind of feeder-back do you most need? Which drawbacks can you most easily side-step or mitigate? Mind you, do keep an ear pricked for the moment when your writerly self shifts from ‘No, that’s not so useful’ to ‘No, no, no, that’s a nightmare idea!’ Have you intuited that this feeder-back is going to tell you to murder your darlings? Maybe he is exactly what you do need.
But that leads to my final thought. To quote Anne Lamott in the classic Bird by Bird, the sword of truth need not be used to cut, it can also be used to point. Neither the feeder-back’s apparent qualifications, nor her confident manner, nor the pain of her feedback, are proof that she’s right and you’re wrong. It’s your work and your writerly self, and your responsibility – and your right – to write your fiction exactly as you think best.
Got a question for Dr Darwin? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t promise a reply but all questions will be considered for future columns.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.