Saturday, January 23, 2016

The essential purpose of feedback

Let no page escape unscathed.. .
I'm a writer. Which means I spend a lot of time alone in my head. While I am almost never lonely with the company of my imaginary friends, it can lead to living in a creative vacuum.

It's extremely difficult to both draft a story and objectively assess that story. One process needs the red hot fire of creation; the other needs a cold, dispassionate assessment.

That is one of the reasons solid writing advice always includes 'turn off your inner editor' when writing. I have more or less made my peace with my internal editor. She is usually awake and alert while I write and lets me know she's waiting for the draft to be finished before she tears it apart.

And I can be, if not dispassionate about my own writing, at least willing to admit it will need work. Hard work. And I'm willing to do that work.

I've been told I am a glutton for punishment when it comes to critique. I seek it out on each and every project I work on. Some of my early readers are my fellow writers, some are incisive readers. Regardless of where I receive my feedback, I take it very seriously and I am grateful for it, even if sometimes it hurts to accept.

No one wants to know their creation has flaws, even as we know that it does. (Silly humans and their denial!)

This week has brought me to a place where I had to accept feedback I really didn't want, but knew I needed on two different projects.

One is a novel that I originally wrote in 2006/7. I revised it at least twice, had a close call with a small publisher, then closed the folder on my laptop and moved to other things. But the potential of that manuscript has always nagged at me and I worked with a developmental editor to try to give it a new life. She wrote up 20 pages of notes that I put away because I was enmeshed in other projects. Until last week. I've been working through the story, reading and re-reading her notes, and trying to bring the story to my current abilities. (Thankfully, I can see how much better I am as a writer, instead of simply cringing about how I think this book stinks.)

Much of her commentary is spot on and makes sense. Some I don't agree with, but that's the author's prerogative. It does mean that I have to examine what I don't agree with and understand why. But that's also part of my job and I do enjoy this process.

I also have a short story in process that's due for an anthology project and has a drop dead deadline that is fast approaching.

Short stories are not my forte. Especially not ones that need to be between 5,000 and 10,000 words. I seem to be able to naturally write either really short - poetry and very tight short stories or novel length. Just not anything in between. But this one needed to be written. Again, it's part of the job of the writer and I do recognize the need to push out of my comfort zone. That's where growth happens.

I put out a call on G+ for beta readers for the story and many of my readers offered their time. I am extremely grateful to them. There are days where I wake up and realize 'hey! I'm a writer. And I have fans! Holy shit!' 

So back to feedback.

Yesterday, I received and was able to internalize several sets of critical feedback on both the manuscript and the story. And by critical, I mean in all senses of the word. Critically important. And critical as in deconstructing and assessing.

These are paraphrases (for both projects):

Why did you skip the scene where your main character has to react to realizing she's just been manipulated again and start with her waking up the next morning? This is a bad habit of yours in that you constantly 'pull your punches' on the emotionally difficult parts. 

I didn't like it, sorry. So while well written I didn't buy the plot. The sudden change at the end didn't stack up with anything we know about the character.

The pace was off. A bit of a rough start.

I wasn't hooked at all. ( -- that was from my husband! Ouch!)

Here's what's not working for me: We don't really know what's at stake for G. I think the problem is that the story is told chronologically  and it reads too much like a novel. Reader expectations are very different for a short story. Give us cause to worry about G right from the beginning.

Full disclosure: I did whine and stomp my feet (metaphorically, of course) in getting this feedback. But I'm a big girl and I put on my big girl pants and did what I needed to do. I took a deep breath and went back to work. For the manuscript, I added scenes and chapters showing the characters reacting in real time to difficult situations. For the short story, I cut nearly a third of it that I recognized was 'throat clearing' and rearranged the rest to start with the stakes. I also filled the plot holes that made the main character's actions implausible.

And sent the new version out for a few test readers. My husband gave me the thumbs up. A reader friend did as well.

Here's the interesting thing: I didn't make enormous changes to the bones of the plot. I just listened to what wasn't working for the readers and let my editor brain free to do her work based on objective feedback, instead of running around in circle in my own head.

When I was a young writer, I never wanted to 'sully' my creative endeavors with feedback. What emerged from my muse was sparkling and perfect and right. Any revision would only ruin it. If someone didn't like it, they simply didn't understand it. The act of creation wasn't work; it was waiting for inspiration to flow through me and onto the page.

It is any wonder that I didn't write anything of substance until I was in my 40s? That's when I finally understood the essentially relationship between art and craft and had matured enough to be willing to do what it took to be better.

So, I will end this by saying thank you to my colleagues and my readers who are willing to be honest and push me to be the writer I aspire to be. I am grateful.

Thank you.



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  1. I've been mourning the loss of a terrific editor I met via a ghost-writing gig last year; she was probably the most impartial, insightful source of feedback I've had over the last fourteen years in Publishing. I've never worked with someone so focused on story and nothing else -- and I think she was in her early twenties, which doubly blew my mind.

    Over the years I keep trying to dip my toe in various critique pools, but it's hard to find unbiased opinions. Too many times the feedback seems to come with an agenda attached, or riddled with inflexible/non-applicable beliefs. I also have personal trust issues. I'll never forget a colleague who insisted I join her little critique circle and then told me things like I couldn't write historical novels because that wasn't "my voice." I wasn't aware of it at the time, but she actually couldn't sell any of her historical novels, and her career was flat-lining. Much later I found out she only bothered with me in hopes of persuading me to talk my high-powered agent into represent her (and out of friendship I actually did recommend her to my agent, so it worked.)

    1. Girlfriend, I would beta read your shopping list. Anytime. Just say the word.