I was doing some filing this evening and found a negative manuscript assessment for my first book Loving Richard Feynman. It’s probably ten years since I read the report.
It’s even more critical than I remembered, and still hard to read. Most of the feedback focusses on the main character, Catherine. The assessor described her as “insufferable” (emphasizing they didn’t say this lightly) and as “a big liability”. At times the assessor seemed angry at the character, writing that Catherine needs to think about “just shutting up”. Catherine was unsympathetic and needed to be reworked or no-one would want to read about her.
Catherine was based on people I studied maths with at school and uni. I found some of them annoying due to their superior maths skills and lack of tact. But Catherine was also me. I knew other people might see me the same way at times. The book included many anecdotes of things that I actually did and thought in high school, some of which I’m not proud of.
So the assessors feedback felt personal. It seemed to say that people who I’d tried to understand and empathize with, including myself, actually didn’t deserve that. We needed to be more likable to be acceptable.
The report advised me to read more Australian YA, study basic narrative structures and make major revisions.
I was dispirited. I’d put a lot of work into the manuscript. I’d made changes based on feedback from friends, family and another manuscript assessment service. I’d had positive feedback from an agent and publisher who had asked to read the full manuscript after seeing the first chapters.
Honestly, I’d submitted the manuscript to this assessment service assuming I’d get a positive report that I could use as leverage with publishers. Instead, the report said it had major flaws, and I was unlikeable even from my own perspective.
Two weeks later I was still contemplating how to proceed (and crying) when I got an email from an agent saying she wanted to represent me. Thanks Sophie Hamley.
A few weeks later I had offers from two publishers. Neither wanted major changes to the character or structure. I chose the publisher who met me for a drink and gave me free books. Thanks Kristina Schulz.
In the end Loving Richard Feynman did quite well. It was short-listed for the CBCA awards and WA Premier’s Award and ended up in a lot of libraries.
That doesn’t mean the assessor was wrong. Catherine was insufferable to some people. Lots of reviews mentioned being irritated by her condescending attitude. I wanted this to be read as Catherine lacking social skills and being insecure*, but to some readers she was simply awful and it ruined the book.
Since Loving Richard Feynman was published I’ve realised people won’t change their opinion on anything based on its success or otherwise. I’m sure the assessor would stand by their opinion that Catherine’s character flaws made the book unloveable to them.
But people have loved it. Not everyone, but enough.
*If Loving Richard Feynman was published today there would probably be discussion about Catherine being neurodiverse, but I hadn’t heard of that term in 2008.