I LOVE getting feedback about my work. It’s one of two of my favourite parts of the writing process (the other is the rush of getting a BRILLIANT idea and turning it over in my mind). Working with an editor is blissful, and when it’s my month to have my material workshopped in my writing critique group, I’m rather a happy chappy.
Getting feedback is one of my main sources of professional development. I do other stuff too – read widely, go to festivals and read blogs about writing – but there’s nothing quite like getting specific feedback on my own work. It makes the work better, of course, but it also allows me to see patterns, which helps to break bad habits (Too many filter words! Not enough use of all five senses! And what’s with all the ellipses?).
There’s five things I try to keep in mind when receiving feedback.
1. Don’t get grouchy
Feedback is an opportunity. Although it can feel like someone’s opened fire on my poor little fragile heart when my writing is criticised, I have to remember that it’s not personal. The job of a critique group is to find faults or opportunities to improve the work, not to heap unwarranted praise on the author or to pay lip service. Neither of those things help the author or the work in the end.
2. Consider all suggestions
If my first reaction to a piece of feedback is to disregard it, I try to analyse why I was so quick to react that way. This analysis could last four seconds or four days. If it was because the suggestion goes completely against my vision for the book, then OK, I can probably bin it. But if I find myself bristling because the change would be too hard or too big, then I force myself to think again.
For example, when I did the edits for This Thing of Darkness, my editor suggested wiping out a whole character. It was a minor character, but my first reaction was defensive: But this character does xyz; I would have to make soooo many changes to accommodate it. But once I got over that, I realised she was right. We didn’t need him, and he was clogging up the story. If anyone ever makes this suggestion to you, it helped me to take a step back and think about the character’s role in the story. Could another character play that role? Could whatever that character brings be given to another character? In other words, can I combine two characters? (e.g. ‘the mentor’ is also ‘the funny sidekick’).
Sometimes I need to ruminate over something for a few days. If I can’t get it out of my head, then I know I should be considering it more seriously.
3. Temper the advice
If I get feedback that some element of the story isn’t working or doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t mean I have to get rid of it all together. It might mean looking for ways to make it clearer or for that character/scene/flashback to earn its proper place in the story. I might not have to murder my darlings; I might just have to give them CPR.
For example, someone in my critique group says:
‘I don’t understand why Sam hits that guy; it seems so out of character. I think he should just tell him off and walk away. I didn’t like him after that.’
This is a problem that needs a solution. I don’t want my readers hating my hero. The easiest solution would be to take the advice wholesale and make the suggested change. I could just have Sam shake his head and walk away. But maybe I have a really good reason for Sam hitting this guy. Maybe I see this is a major turning point in his journey. Yes, I have to fix the problem, but maybe I could do it by clarifying Sam’s motivation rather than taking on the advice holus-bolus. I could build up to it more or add some hints that he has an explosive personality. I could let the reader know that Sam grew up in a house where violence was normal or hint earlier at an anger management issue. There are lots of ways that I could help the reader more comfortable with an action like this. The other important thing, of course, is what Sam does next. Is he remorseful? Does he apologise later? Is this incident the trigger he needed to finally get help for his anger?
4. You can’t be all things to all people
My greatest fear when getting my worked critiqued (other than ‘this is a load of crap and there’s nothing salvageable about it) is disagreement. I want to walk away with a clear set of actions, feeling pumped about how much better the work is going to be. It’s great when the group unanimously agrees on a change because it makes my job easier.
It gets tricky in a group of four when two say one thing and the other two say another. A lot about good writing comes down to instinct, but sometimes it’s hard to trust my gut when people are making compelling arguments against it.
Say I have a situation where two of my critiquers say my character’s reaction to an event is too over the top (see example in point 3), while the other two say that the character’s reaction is not strong enough. In a case like this, I need to pick a side. What I absolutely don’t want to do is to try to find a middle ground. Readers want characters who take decisive action. In this situation, my character will either need to either go nuts or decide to take the high road and let it go. Both can be strong moves. If I soften it to try to please everyone, it will lose its impact and I’ll end up with something that resembles dirty dishwater. And no one wants that.
5. It’s not all bad
Oftentimes when people are providing structured feedback, like in a workshopping situation, they’ll say one or two good things (Liked the way you invoked the setting; LOVED the uncle – he was hilarious) but then launch into their laundry list of things that are wrong with the work. That’s human nature. As a reader, all the good things (the things that work well) kind of wash over you – you almost don’t notice them (that’s a sign of good writing). It’s the things that pull you out of the story that stick out. So these are naturally the things workshoppers will highlight.
It might seem like an imbalance, particularly when there are so many good elements that don’t get mentioned. But as seasoned writers, we kind of take those things for granted. In my group, it’s a given that the writing will be good, so now let’s talk about how the pacing or character or plot could be improved. Some things that may have seemed monumental to change at first may in fact be quite easy:
I don’t like the brother’s name; it sounded too much like the boyfriend’s name and I got confused. (Find and replace)
I don’t understand why your protagonist is so reluctant to commit. (Craft a telling flashback scene)
The setting/location isn’t vivid to me; I didn’t know where I was. (Add three instances of describing the town)
Even if the list of issues is a mile long, if the problems are relatively easy to fix, I feel good. If the only things beta readers are picking out is character names and confusion about the setting, then I can fix that. If they say that the story is completely implausible rubbish, then I’ve got a problem.
Making the work the best it can be is always my goal. Of course, it isn’t always easy to work out what ‘the best it can be’ means – it’s so subjective. And it can be hard to decide which road to take sometimes (Should I set the story now or in the past? Should I have the couple ride off into the sunset together or realise their relationship will never work?).
The other thing I try to keep in mind when considering what to do with feedback is to remember that, even though I might disregard a criticism, at least I know about it. Even though I know that some readers will object to something in my work, I leave it in knowing that it’s a point of contention. It’s good to know that the criticism will come back at me and some point and so can be prepared to speak to it.