I shared the first full-length story I ever wrote with half a dozen people, and heard back from four.
The first told me she liked my character development (though she absolutely disliked my main character), and thought I used dialogue very effectively. But, she informed me, the story flagged in parts and I would have to ruthlessly re-write huge chunks of it to keep the momentum going. Never one to shirk from hard work, I saved a new version of the manuscript on which I could start editing, when I heard from the second reader.
She loved the story. The voice, the characters, the way the story was pulled on through dialogue, and the sheer chickiness of the whole thing. She pointed out a couple of places where I had to do a bit of re-writing, but those were weak points that I had identified even on my own. Since I wanted to believe her, I did one round of revisions, and sent off queries to three publishers.
A couple of weeks after that, I heard back from a third reader. She liked what she read, but from a purely marketing viewpoint, felt I should focus on one of the four characters, instead of having four that are equally important. She suggested I start with a conflict, maybe flashback a little, but keep the focus on one character, with the rest of them being important supporting characters. Given the number of re-writes this particular writer has gone through for a book I thought was better than many published works even in the first draft, I was ready for a long haul.
But even before I completely digested the review, a fourth reader got back to me. She likes the book as it is, and her only suggestion was that I delete entirely a chapter which would have worked if it were a tale of one woman, but which only distracted from the main plot since I had four parallel stories.
The good news is that all four readers like the tone of the story, because that is the one thing most difficult to change. The bad news is that while two of them recommend making minor changes, and two others say it needs total overhauling. If I have to rewrite completely, I am more than happy to do so, but the opinion is divided 50:50 on whether or not the book needs it. Readers 1 and 4 are from India, the other two are not, so it is not a geographical thing. Readers 1 and 4 are exactly my age, the other till a little older, so it is not an age thing. All four read a lot, and all except 1 have written more novels than I have. Each of them is qualified to pass judgment, and I trust all of them to be impartial.
Then how this disconnect?
Reader 3 (Hart Johnson) perhaps nailed it with her comment “I LOVE sort of nebulous books that are about lives that connect but that don't acutely focus (like A Suitable Boy), but I KNOW . . . you can't sell anything that is too diffuse. I think it would help you to be a little less subtle as to who is the primary protagonist . . . focusing on one story as primary will help you sell it.”
Readers 2 and 4 looked at it as a story of four interconnected lives, while 1 and 3 looked in vain for a primary protagonist. It was upto me to decide what I wanted it to be, and re-write accordingly.
It was written as a story of four characters, and I would hate to dilute that by picking one primary character. I don’t have writerly aspirations of the magnitude of a Vikram Seth, but even chick-lit has examples of multiple protagonists *cough Candace Bushnell cough*.
I had to take a decision, and I did. I will go with my gut and send off queries to the other publishers on my list. If I don’t hear back from them, I can demolish and rebuild the entire structure, and re-submit to the same publishers under another name. To me, that sounds like the most sensible thing to do.
Update - Hours after posting this, I heard back from the publisher I thought would be the one most likely to take the bait- "this doesn't fit in with the immediately publishing plans". One down, five to go (yes, that is how many publishers we have in India). The good thing is that I can always do a total overhaul and re-submit next year.