How connecting with early readers through my “Reader Feedback and Serialization Project” helped me improve and publish my first novel


Charmed Particles  Headshot

When I finished writing my novel, Charmed Particles, and was ready to begin the search for an agent to represent it, I wasn’t new to the agent-hunting business: a few years earlier I’d tried and failed to find an agent for the first novel I’d written; I heard over and over again “There’s some lovely writing here, but I don’t think I can sell this.”

In retrospect, I’m glad that first book never made it out into the world. In all sorts of ways, it wasn’t ready—I was still learning how to write a novel. But when I put that book aside (a painful and difficult decision at the time) and began work on a new novel project, I knew I wanted to do something different when the time came to take the book out into the world in search of an agent and then a publisher.

I wanted to know what the experience of reading the book would be like for readers, and I knew this would be especially important given the subject matter for this new novel: particle physics.

Charmed Particles tells the story of the events surrounding the U.S. government’s attempts to build a scientific tool—a particle accelerator–called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) during the late 1980s. Communities under consideration as locations for this facility were wary of it—a giant circular tunnel system built under their homes, schools, and farmland. They worried about whether it was safe to be living on top of such a thing. The project was begun in Waxahachie, Texas, but ultimately abandoned to the great frustration of the particle physics community. Many scientists argue that had the project gone forward, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson (often referred to as the God particle) would have occurred much earlier and on American soil instead of in Switzerland at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But that description of the book is perhaps deceptive, because while those events inform the novel, the story is really about the people—two families in particular, who find themselves grappling with ambition, curiosity, and uncertainty against the backdrop of this controversy as it unfolds in their town.

So I knew that I had a previous failed attempt at publishing my first novel, and now I had this second novel on a challenging topic. What to do to give this strange little book a fighting chance out there? Well, I thought back to the issue of salability. To the challenge of getting books into the hands of readers who will care about them. To the importance of writing books that will resonate with readers, not just with other writers.

At the time, I was teaching a course on the history of book publishing, and we were studying the way many of Dickens’ books originally went out into the world as chapter-by-chapter serializations published in periodicals. I was also thinking about something I often tell my beginning creative writing students: that what matters isn’t what you intended to do with the piece, but rather what the reader’s experience of it is.

So here’s what I came up with: The Feedback and Serialization Project

Here’s the initial pitch I made, via Facebook, word of mouth, and sign-up sheets I circulated at a few works-in-progress readings I gave:

You’re invited to participate in the Feedback and Serialization Project

What is it?

A weekly e-mail that will include between one and three short chapters of Charmed Particles, my novel-in-progress, for you to read and respond to. The goal of the project is to

  • Provide an innovative opportunity for community involvement with and participation in the arts
  • Provide an opportunity for me to connect with a community of readers and to learn from the feedback these readers offer as I revise the manuscript.

Why?

The writing life can be lonely, especially while in the midst of a large, several-years-long project, and writers often get feedback on our work only from other writers.  For me, the project is an experiment in avoiding the pitfalls of being a writer who writes only for other writers and an opportunity to connect with a large and diverse audience. I especially look forward to feedback from those participants who identify as readers but not as writers.

How will it work?

I will share the novel in weekly chapter installments, giving readers time to respond to the work via e-mail. I’ll then be incorporating feedback and suggestions from participants into a revision of the novel in preparation for submitting it to literary agents and publishers.

What kind of feedback should I give you?

Anything. From “Hey, you forgot a comma here” to “I forgot who this character is–you might need to remind readers” to “Oh, man this book is a snooze-fest!” For those of you who haven’t before critiqued a manuscript, this may feel strange and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but writers are used to hearing feedback (often negative) on our work, and it’s what helps us make our work better. And it’s helpful, too, for us to hear about what is working or what’s almost working. So have at it!

Want to know what the book’s about before you sign on?

Set in a fictional prairie town in which the two overarching industries are a colonial American living history facility and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics, Charmed Particles tells the intertwined stories of two families.

Abhijat is a theoretical physicist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory. His wife, Sarala, home with their young daughter, Meena, focuses her energies on assimilating to their new American culture.

Meena’s best friend at school is Lily, a precocious child prodigy whose father self-identifies as “the last great gentleman explorer” and whose mother, a local politician, becomes entangled in efforts to stop the National Accelerator Research Laboratory’s plans to build a new Superconducting Super Collider.

The conflict over the collider fractures the community and creates deep divides within the families of the novel.

Interested in participating?

If you’d like to be part of this experimental project, you can sign up by e-mailing me or contacting me via Facebook with the e-mail address you’d like me to use.  And thank you!

So, that was it! People kindly signed up, started reading, and offered lots of good feedback as the project went on!

Why feedback from readers as opposed to writers?

Writers spend an awful lot of time talking to one another, showing one another work, and giving one another feedback. While this is immensely helpful (not to mention generous on the part of other writers, who often don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands to do this sort of thing), it struck me that it might also be a little insular. That by doing this, I might only be getting a sense of what the book was like for other writers, but not for readers. I work in academia, and because we spend so much time talking to and working with specialists, we sometimes find it challenging to translate our work to a general audience. (Incidentally, this communication challenge also ends up being one of the central themes of the book.) I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here. As a writer, I care about writing books that challenge readers, but that also invite them in and engage them.

Who participated?

By the time the project began in the summer of 2011, my volunteers included members of our small town’s Kiwanis club; several former high school classmates; former students (who got a kick out of having the tables turned and getting to critique their professor’s work!); a local banker; the woman who used to own the house my family and I now live in; our university librarian; colleagues from across campus, in English, chemistry, biology, and political science; former coworkers; former college classmates; a high school student; and some of the physicists I’d interviewed during my research for the novel.

What kind of advice did you get?

All sorts! Little things like “I’m finding this sentence challenging as written” to “this chapter felt slow,” but what was especially cool (and unexpected on my part!) was that everyone brought their own areas of expertise to the project. One reader, Nancy, is a soils scientist, so she caught an obscure agricultural error I’d made. A former high school classmate, who’d had some run-ins with mean-girl types pointed out that initially, she wasn’t sure whether she or the character Sarala should trust another character–Carol’s– intentions. This helped me realize that while I knew that Carol genuinely cared about Sarala, the reader needed a few more clues about that along the way.

Were there any other unintended challenges or benefits?

Writing the “Want to know about the book?” section for the project description helped me practice the pitch for the book I’d use in my query letter to agents–that horrible moment when you have to take a 300-page thing you wrote and boil it down to a pithy two-minute elevator pitch!

I also mentioned the Feedback and Serialization Project in these query letters to agents, hoping it might pique their interest and help the book stand out from the rest of the submissions they received.

But by far, the most important benefit for me was that the project built an engaged and supportive community around the book. As any writer knows, the process of writing a book and looking for an agent and then a publisher can be a long, lonely, and discouraging process. But this project meant that I had a team of readers who were invested in and rooting for the book, who were hoping–right along with me–that it would find its way to an agent who believed in it and a publisher that did, too. (And it did! Hooray for Eleanor Jackson and Dzanc Books!

Every weekend when I stopped in to our small town’s lone grocery store to do the week’s shopping, there was Tom, calling out from behind the butcher’s counter, “Hey Chrissy! You found a publisher for your book yet?” On campus, as I taught and graded, friends and colleagues checked in to see how things were going with this other part of my work life.

And when, at long last, the book came out in November 2015, there was a crowd of people who were excited right along with me (and perhaps also a bit nervous, as I was!) to see how the book would do out in the world as the publicity team worked to help Charmed Particles find its way to readers and reviewers.

The participants in the project were from all over—Washington, DC; Wisconsin; Illinois; Alaska; and Texas—but the largest number of participants came from the small rural town where I live and work. Because of this, in many ways it felt especially like the whole town of Morris, Minnesota, was as excited about the book as I was. When the book finally came out, the local paper ran a huge story about it. (Link: http://www.morrissuntribune.com/news/3877628-family-and-physics-part-debut-novel-morris-author). The local library ordered 10 copies and hosted a series of book group events around it.

Morris Public Library Book Club event

The high school creative writing teacher invited me in to her classroom to talk with her students.

pic from Morris high school gig 1  pic from Morris high school gig 2

pic from Morris high school gig 3

My dentist’s office sent me a congratulations card signed by every person in the office, from the dental hygienists to the receptionists!

card from Morris Dental clinic

I’m hugely grateful to all of the participants in this strange experiment! You’ll find them listed by name on the book’s Acknowledgments page. In all sorts of big and little ways, they helped to make this a better book.

Would you do this again?

Absolutely!

Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her debut novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals.

She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.

Author Photo: Nina Francine Photography

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5 thoughts on “How connecting with early readers through my “Reader Feedback and Serialization Project” helped me improve and publish my first novel

  1. Oh, my gosh! I couldn’t stop smiling at the end of the essay where everyone in town was asking about her book. It reminded me so much of when Anne wins the baking soda-sponsored short story competition in the series Anne of Green Gables.

    Like

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