There comes a time in every writer's life when they must put their precious creation into the hot little hands of others, in order to glean that most important and potentially painful commodity - 'feedback'. I'm not talking about a professional assessor, mind you, the type where you pay for a report (and did I tell you I'm still waiting for mine? 1 week and 6 days?), I'm talking about friends and acquantances who you consider will be able to make some helpful comments at various stages of the draft process.
When I was a kid I did this a few times. I can remember giving a science fiction story to a friend at age 13, and a castaway story to a friend at age 14. I seem to remember them both laughing. The guy with the science fiction story told me that in reality it's impossible for a person to propel themselves through space with an aerosol can, and the guy with the castaway story pointed out that coconuts on a tree are green, not brown. Kids can be very cruel, not to mention painfully honest.
Anyway over the last few months I've done it once more, giving copies of the Ghost of Ping-Ling to friends in the hope of getting some helpful comments. Perhaps my childhood experience has scarred me, because I found it incredible difficult and to be honest, downright terrifying. It gave me a sense of being caught naked in a public place, not only exposing my ideas and abilities (or lack of) but inviting people to make comment! Is this insane?
Now I have most copies back, and I've been able to catch up with the readers and work through their thoughts and their feedback. How did I find this experience? Well, for one thing my fears of a repeat of my childhood experience were ungrounded. One person did give me nothing but negative feedback, and was occasionally mocking, but thankfully he was in the minority (and off my Christmas card list). On the whole I have to say I was deeply flattered, not by any gushing praise, but by the careful and meticulous attention almost everyone put into reading my book and giving me feedback. These are all busy people, but they took it on board and gave it 100%, and I felt very moved by that. The other thing that struck me was the number of readers who appeared to get quite emotionally involved in the process. Many people gave me feedback with a deep sense of ownership of the work, showing a clear sense that they cared about it and wanted it to be better than it was. I wasn't expecting that, and it encouraged me tremendously.
So I suppose I should say something about the content of their feedback. Let's just say, nobody was ecstatically positive, and nobody was ecstatically negative. Generally people admired parts of the book and found others requiring work. Interestingly, there was hardly any consensus on this. In only one case did more than one person comment on the same thing. That made it a little difficult sometimes to pick out people's personal tastes from genuine problems with the book, but on the whole I was able to make some fairly important changes based on what people told me.
In the end, it was a positive, enjoyable and extremely worthwhile experience. I only hope the same people are keen to read again for me when the next draft (or book) comes along.