To call the feedback I got from my first two beta readers for Heaven Can Wait 'glowing' would be putting it mildly. I knew while I was writing it that I was on to something good, but even my most optimistic self-appraisal was outdone by those responses. I blogged here about dealing with that (very pleasant) surprise and the need to get other opinions.
The process of additional feedback is now pretty much complete. I've had three other detailed responses to the book, and a few bits and bobs from a couple of other people. All three have been less positive. My mother sent me a long email explaining how a couple of scenes were 'terrible' (her exact word - never let anyone tell you you can never trust your parents to be critical!), and listing several other problems, though when pressed she admitted she'd enjoyed the book as a whole. I took on board all but one of mum's criticisms, because all the novels that have been big influences on Heaven Can Wait have been books I've borrowed from her - she knows the genre very well.
A close friend (and, to a lesser extent, his girlfriend) who's a big reader of fantasy but not a writer brought up one stylistic problem - I have a tendency to write the early parts of my books a bit like scripts, with long passages of dialogue that need breaking up - and raised some issues over character motivations that needed clarifying in the climax. Those changes went in pretty much as requested because when I looked over the bits that were mentioned, I could clearly see the flaws highlighted. He clearly enjoyed it immensely, though, because he won't stop pestering me for a look at Some Kind of Angel (I'm enough of a gitwizard to have asked him to wait until the second draft).
The third response came from a friend who is a writer, who's read the latest draft. By the standards of the other responses I've had, it has been catastrophic. She found my characters flat, my environments blank and the amount of dialogue overwhelming. It's almost impossible for me to believe she read the same book as my first two readers, particularly given that the main focus of the changes over the last two drafts has been breaking up the dialogue and adding detail to the environments.
Can all five readers be right? I think it's impossible for any of them to be wrong, as it happens. When a reader gives you their response to something, you have to accept it - they can't be wrong about their response. But what the example shows is that you can't please all of the people all of the time. I am in the process of going through the book again looking for obnoxiously long passages of dialogue and blank rooms, but I'm not looking very hard - I've more than satisfied 80% of my readers so far (statistics are fun, aren't they?), so it can't be that bad.
One of the things I found really hard to deal with about this last response was that a lot of what I was told went against my instincts as a writer. The reader in question really knows her stuff, so I'm prepared to let my instincts be challenged, but it shook me so much that I actually went back and looked at some of my favourite books to actually study what worked for me as a reader.
Let's just say I won't be recommending many of my favourite books to this reader. The first book I picked up was Dan Simmons' 'The Fall of Hyperion', one of my two or three favourite books I've ever read. I opened it at random and found myself in one of my favourite chapters... and the chapter in question is almost entirely dialogue for about ten pages, with a few action tags, and almost no setting. Granted, it's a confrontational, highly-charged scene, but of the scenes I looked at it was the one I found most exciting.
It's a bit of an extreme example, too; the other scenes I looked at (one from 'The Ships of Merior' by Janny Wurts, one from 'Lord of Chaos' by Robert Jordan, and one from 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss) were more balanced, but all of them, consistently, went against the piece of advice I'd been most suspicious of - mixing environment description in with the dialogue.
The point I'm getting at is NOT that the reader in question was wrong. I know this person wouldn't lie to me and I trust her judgement, but I think her tastes and mine probably overlap a lot less than I thought. There's no point my trying to write a book which does things differently to the books I'm really passionate about - how could I find enough passion to do a good job of it? - but that does mean that people who like different books, who are passionate about different things in writing, aren't going to be able to help me write a book I am passionate about as much as people who share my tastes are.
The title of this blog post is a bit facetious - it's not that nobody knows anything, it's that when it comes to writing advice, two people can disagree and still both be right. Sometimes you have to go with your own passions and make your own judgements.
(A quick thank-you to James Tallett for setting my head straight on this issue while I was still reeling from the critique).
I am still hoping to publish 'Heaven Can Wait' sometime this week, but I doubt it will be out by Thursday, which I was originally aiming for. Soon, though.