Write Byte

On Reader Feedback

(January 10, 2001)

Romance author Teresa Medeiros recently shared with our readers the possible pitfalls of Internet literary criticism. She wrote, in part:

"From a writer's point of view, it's nearly impossible to create something beautiful and original and dangerous with thousands of people looking over your shoulder during the very act of creation. If you partake of it very often, it becomes an insidious poison that kills every original and thought-provoking idea before it has a chance to take root. Not only do you start second-guessing what the Internet critics will think of the book that's about to hit the stands, you also start second-guessing what they'll think about the book you're just attempting to start."

Author Chris Gilson, whose debut novel, Crazy for Cornelia, released last year in hardcover and about to be released in paperback, has a decidedly different viewpoint of reader input. He has awarded dozens of copies of his book along with questionnaires, requesting reader input. In fact, before Maria K. became an AAR Reviewer, she read his book and the two conducted an online discussion about the book which both found useful.

With Chris' advertising background, is he utilizing a "focus" group concept on the art of writing books? And, is there any danger that his use of reader feedback will contaminate his art? A couple of weeks ago I watched a favorite old movie on AMC, The Bad Seed (will I ever get that song out of my head?) only to discover the ending had been changed from the version seen on stage to satisfy viewer demands. We often hear today that previews of movies lead the the re-writing of endings; many films we see are diluted from the concept as initially sold to Hollywood. Teresa Medeiros believes the writer's muse must not be contaminated by outside sources. What does Chris Gilson believe?

I can only agree with the beautifully crafted logic of Teresa Medeiros. No writer who wants to get through her first sentence would invite a critical audience to her moment of creation.

My approach to soliciting reader response began after my first novel, Crazy for Cornelia, had been published by Warner Books. Thousands of copies had landed on reviewers’ desk and store shelves. I could hear the door to “no, no, just one more draft” slamming forever. Now people would vote with their VISA cards.

But I had to wonder, “what if I could actually hear from those people, to find out what worked for them and what didn’t?”

Crazy for Cornelia had become a labor of love for me, a quirky Rapunzel-in-Manhattan story that drew on my personal struggles, dreams, and from a lifetime in Manhattan. Maybe too personal. I recalled Dennis Hopper’s immortal words, just because something happens to you doesn’t make it interesting.”

While I have never taken a literature course, my business background taught me that communication is a one-on-one relationship between sender and receiver. A too-isolated sender can easily become a tree falling in the empty forest without anyone hearing the crash.

Ultimately, I decided to actively seek out reader-reviewers who’ve taken the trouble to read my first book with one eye open for criticism. I “sample” Crazy for Cornelia, as the marketers say, to many different groups - members of MENSA who express an interest in reading, visitors to my website from other sites such as AAR, Book Magazine and Romantic Times. They’re a good, if unscientific, cross-section.

When I read what they write - sometimes with glee, sometimes wanting to chug a bottle of Tequila, I’m always fascinated by the effort and work they put into being both honest and helpful. Many love Crazy for Cornelia. It seems to have a cult following of people who, loosely described, enjoy funny, soaring, big-thumping-heart stories.

On the other hand, some don’t. One woman who read the book in hardcover wrote, “I would read this mind again,” (meaning mine), “but I would wait a year to read it in paperback.” That comment alone stung me to work harder to connect with my readers.

From my responses, I pull out themes and underlying threads. Mostly, they confirm that I do best when I use my intuition. If that sounds like a “duh” conclusion, remember that a first author gets advice on their work from agents, editors, and others who’ve spent years in the business. You tend to listen. Sometimes a first author tends to listen too much.

Does reader feedback improve my craft any more than plain old writing practice? Yes, it’s a constant reality check of what’s right and wrong with my work.

For example, “The style is neither literary nor poetic”, one reader commented, “but there is something witty or interesting in every sentence.” I should keep those words cuddled under my pillow at night, because they sparkle with the best of an author-reader relationship - not the rumble of critical thousands, but one reader whispering, “Here’s what you’re doing well, now get up two hours earlier and work on what you could do better.”

For the paperback release of Crazy for Cornelia, I’m offering a $5.00 rebate to the first 100 buyers who send me their reviews. You can find the details on www.chrisgilson.com.

I hope you’ll take me up on it, because I’m dying to hear what you have to say.

-- Chris Gilson

Read two AAR Reviews of Chris Gilson's Crazy for Cornelia