Thursday, February 23, 2017

The feedback I value the most



I sat back from the laptop with a satisfied sigh. Zipping dialogue that revealed a dishonest character’s unexpected intentions and tight action that left the reader hanging from the cliff with my main character.

The chapter I’d just finished was golden. Or was it?
 
Writers live in a bubble.  We disappear into a world of our own creation all times of the day or night at our characters' beck-and-call. We pull the strings in that world, making characters' lives easier or harder with a keystroke or wish scenery into existence with the stroke of a pen.

We live it. We breathe it.

Allowing someone else into that world can sometimes be difficult, but it's very, very necessary. It can be hard to disassociate yourself from the work you've put together - particularly if you've poured your heart into it - and it can be very hard to be objective about it.  In fact, it's impossible.

Getting feedback on what we write is important. It helps us to bask in reflected glory of the soaring highs and points out those flat spots or plot points that need work.

But getting the right feedback is even more important.  I've spoken to writers for whom this is the struggle - to find the right person who can provide feedback to improve the work, not just stroke the ego of the writer or destroy their fragile confidence.

I have a number of people who I have drafted into my writing process to ensure that my writing gets the best feedback it can. While they are chosen because they reflect the reader I'm ultimately trying to reach, there is one key thing I ask of them so that the feedback they provide gives me the one thing I value the most.

Honesty.

Honest feedback is a gift. As I tell my reading group, if the writing doesn't work, I'd much prefer to hear it from you than a publisher or an agent. 

But honesty can be hard – for both giver and receiver.

I've been on the other side of the fence, providing feedback to other writers and hoping not to crush their hopes and dreams when I tell them their work didn't grip me or lost me at times. But at this point I've realised that if I'm not up front with the writer, then the feedback isn't that valuable. (I'm quite sensitive in how I deliver my thoughts.  It’s not feedback all guns blazing off the hip ...)

It can be harder to hear that what you’ve just poured onto the page needs some work. But, with the right feedback, it can fill holes, bring out underplayed story elements and take the writing to the next level.

And dealing with honesty also can drive a temptation to change everything to suit everyone. I’m still learning the fine art of balancing feedback, and to recognise that gnawing feeling in your gut that the reader might be right. And to follow up all honest feedback with a 'why?' to ensure I can see why something may not work.

There is one story about taking honest feedback that truly inspires me. When James Rubart received his Carol Award at this year’s ACFW Conference for The Five Times I Met Myself, his acceptance speech covered the fact that when he completed his first draft, the publisher told him it wasn’t working and he needed to start again. An author with a host of novels under his belt needed to start again. So he did. And his improved version was voted as novel of the year.

So honesty is what I value. 

Oh, and was my chapter golden? Partially. It was less of the huge gold nugget I imagined it was and more of a prospector’s pan with gold flecks at the bottom. But at least now I know which parts are valuable as I polish up the rest.

Pen in hand, tongue in cheek, David Rawlings in writing contemporary Christian stories that explore God, faith, 21st century church and our modern society. 

He was a finalist in the 2016 ACFW Genesis competition, blogs at www.davidrawlings.com.au and, like 99.5% of the Western world, can be found on Facebook.

 

17 comments:

  1. Great post David. Yes, I have to agree that having honesty in feedback is key. Not that it is always palatable but yes, very necessary. Loved the story you shared at the end of what had made James Rubart's novel a success. It's probably part of God's humbling process too I think when our nugget of gold seems to have flecks of other minerals inside it. :) Many blessings on your writing journey, David and congratulations on being a finalist at the ACFW Genesis competition!

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    1. Thanks Anusha. I've been working as a copywriter for 25 years, so I'm used to constant feedback (often from uninformed sources), but when it's our own work it's often a bigger challenge. But the process allows the work to improve. My finalist in Genesis didn't make the semi finals the previous year, so I took the feedback away and improved on it.

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  2. Thanks, David. Your blog brought back memories for me of the agony I went through re feedback on my very first novel in 2004. I asked those manuscript readers to be honest too and deliberately chose readers from a variety of ages and backgrounds to try to discern what worked for some and not for others. But when I received the feedback, I felt I needed to put EVERY change each reader suggested in place in my novel--and that made things very difficult! So, like you, I have had to learn to consider all the feedback but then be discerning as I can about what to take on board and what to leave.

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    1. That's a big challenge Jo-Anne: to not change everything to suit the latest piece of feedback. You end up spinning in tighter and tighter circles and losing sight of what the story is about.

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  3. Great post, thanks David. As much as it can hurt at times, honest constructive feedback is pure gold.

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    1. Thanks Jeanette. I've found the hurt is temporary and usually pride-based, so that makes it easier to move on from once you've recognised that!

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  4. Thanks, David. Yes, nothing like good, honest and constructive feedback.

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  5. Good points, David!

    It's often difficult to give honest feedback - it needs to be honest, but not crushing, and that's especially difficult when we're providing written feedback (e.g. for a contest entry).

    I often look at a manuscript I've edited, and it's full of red, but sometimes one recurring issue (like using too many adverbs) can result in hundreds of suggested changes - so it looks a lot worse than it is. But that's at the copyediting level, and there are "rules" to guide us.

    What's harder is providing feedback at the developmental level, where sometimes it's a book with a great concept, but it's missing something important (like a plot).

    That's a lot harder to explain, and a lot harder for the author to fix, but I do believe we need to be honest in our feedback.

    The same holds true when we're receiving feedback. I've found the best contest feedback I've received has consistently come from the judges who have me the lowest scores.

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    1. Thanks Iola - I've found that plotting/story is always the hardest feedback to give. At ACFW in Nashville I spoke to people I'd barely met who regaled me with their storylines and I had to bite my tongue. I didn't have permission (or knew them well enough) to tell them they lost me at page 2. But for those people who I do know - who have given me permission to be honest - I try to be as constructive as possible. When I'm copywriting for a client, I always ask the 'why?' question if I get some feedback. It's one thing to say 'I don't like it' but it's not helpful unless you know why. So I take that into my critiquing of fiction as well.

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  6. Learning to separate ourselves from our work, look at it objectively and accept helpful criticism is tough work. The discipline of 'sucking it up' and starting again is never pleasant, but pretty dices better work. Then we go back for more when we begin a new project!

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    1. That's the challenge isn't it Elaine? Once you say 'I am a writer' that inevitably binds you to your work and sometimes it can be hard to distance ourselves from our words. But we need to ...

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  7. Yes, so very helpful. Early on in my work on my first novel someone told me, "This book needs drastic surgery!" That was hard to recover from but one good thing is that I had far worse feedback on non-fiction earlier on and so everything else is better in contrast.
    I too struggle with giving honest feedback. I always aim to be kind but much of what I've been reading lately has plot but no story! Having read 'Story Genius' I can now see the difference.

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    1. Thanks Christine. I've heard that too, and I've chosen to take that on board as "if it's surgery, the patient has a hope of surviving and getting better!"

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  8. You've done a good job in talking about the elephant in the room, David. I've had writers tell me they don't mind honesty and then get upset when they get it.

    I think I should have got the hint from the words "don't mind" rather than the word "want".

    Iola is absolutely right with her comments yet at times it requires some pretty creative thinking just to write the review so as not to step on toes and after all that you wonder if you really did the author a favour by holding back.

    As for being on the receiving end, I'm at that comfortable age where I don't take criticism as a personal attack anymore. In fact I welcome it as a slap to the back of the head - sorta like an "Aha" moment esp if the critic is right :)

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  9. Yes, David, finding the ones who can give honest, constructive criticism is a real challenge. I gave up after getting some indecisive views and then I found a person who saw the exact problem in one of my novels. She told me what I needed to change and at was as if my eyes were opened. I changed the whole book and it rang true.

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  10. Hi David,
    That's very true. Finding that rare person who isn't afraid to be honest. It's a relationship involving flip sides of a coin, since they have to trust that we'll know it'll be worth it in the end.

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  11. So true! Feedback from those whose opinion you trust is valuable! It can be hard to take (especially if it bursts that golden bubble!) but in the end, it's a necessary part of a writer's growth.

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