Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Writing with Your 5 Senses This week, we’re discussing feedback.
Writing is a lonely business. We joke about our “co-workers” being animals and cups of coffee, and for the majority of the work, such as drafting and querying, that is true. But there comes a time when we need to get out of our pajamas and reach out to others. Critique partners and feedback are necessary parts of the writing life. Let’s face it, writing is hard, revising is hard, and rejections are heartbreaking. We can’t, and shouldn’t, bear those alone. Today three Pennies, Richelle, Halli, and Gita, are here to help.
Where Can We Find Critique Partners?
Richelle: A good CP who gets your work makes a huge difference. Conferences, online contests, and message boards are all great places to find them.
Halli: I found my first CP’s at an SCBWI conference and others through the SCBWI discussion groups. (See a pattern?) Some work, some don’t, but CP’s should offer the right amount of support and honesty for you and your writing.
Gita: Conferences are a good place to look—that’s where I found my first two, who have stuck with me through all sorts of stormy weather. Contests, too. In terms of qualities to look for, you need to have readers who will both call you out and cheer you on.
When Should We Seek Feedback?
Richelle: I usually get one or two people to read my first coherent draft. I may send a couple of chapters out for spot checks at any point during writing. I do another round once I’ve got it basically “done”. And I usually ask for a few volunteers to look at the first 3 chapters right before I query.
Halli: I wait until I have a pretty decent revised draft. When I have a good hold on where the characters are going and what they want to see out of their story. That way when feedback comes, I know if my vision is clear.
Gita: I’ll ask for readers on a pre-draft query or synopsis, then a long synopsis outlining my story (15,000 words), followed by a few readers reading the first draft and, then, finally, I’ll ask for feedback on what I think of as the second-to-last draft. Phew! I’m lucky to have CPs who are willing to read twice. They are GOLD.
How Much Feedback Should We Get?
Richelle and Halli: For us, 3-5 trusted readers are the sweet spot for the whole manuscript. The list gets longer when you figure in those who might help with the first couple of chapters, a query, a tricky spot, or a specific issue about which they have expertise. We find too much feedback overwhelming, but we need enough to get a sense of what’s generally working and what’s not.
Gita: I like to do a few rounds of feedback at different stages of the drafting process. The number of people reading in each round may vary—sometimes it’s just one person, sometimes a few at once. Getting several responses at once can feel overwhelming, but it’s also useful, because if a few people say a certain character isn’t working, I’ll know I’ll have to deal with that!
When is it Okay to Ignore Feedback?
Richelle: I usually ignore comments that either really didn’t get what I was trying to do or that are the opposite of what other readers are saying. But even then, I mull them over. Sometimes they’ll spark something later on.
Halli: I group my critiques together and see what the majority says about a certain issue. If the majority understands (or doesn’t), I will put aside the random comment. But only after I make sure to look at the CP’s life experiences that may have influenced their comment.
Gita: I never ignore feedback. My reader took time to respond to my work and I will always ponder what they have to say. Sometimes a comment—especially one that’s proscriptive, telling me to do x—may not at first seem to be useful, but if I dig down to the “deep” comment below the “surface” comment, there’s often something there.
How Can You Survive Feedback?
Richelle: When I started out as a copywriter, I had a boss who marked up my work with red pen and labeled it “AWFUL!” or “BORING!!!” (with triple underlines and big, fat red circles). So I am pretty Teflon when it comes to criticism. That said, I prefer working with people who critique in a positive and cheerleading manner. If you struggle, try to remember that when people critique your work, they’re not saying you are bad, they’re saying that you have the power to make your work better.
Halli: This is one of the places you need thick skin. It’s hard not to take critiques personally because we’ve put so much energy into our stories and I have been known to scream, cry, and sulk after reading them. I do try to read the comments and take a step back. A day, two days, a week while I let my brain process the meaning. Then I dive back in.
Gita: Unless I know what to do right away, I print out the notes, write my responses in the margins, and then let the feedback sit for a week, or more if I have time. Everything looks more doable after a little time has passed.
What was the Best Feedback You Received?
Richelle: My two best moments of feedback came at at a workshop. An agent rebuked me for being too prescriptive in some feedback I was giving in a small group, which was a lightbulb moment for my own writing. Now I ask myself questions instead of dictating ideas, and it makes a huge difference in how I develop characters and plots. And another agent gave me the feedback gift of completely understanding and articulating what I was trying to do with my novel.
Halli: The best feedback came just recently from an agent’s first reader. It was glowing. All of it. She got me, my characters, and our story. It was a dream come true review.
Gita: This wasn’t feedback per se, but more of a meta-comment from my agent about dealing with her feedback. In a preface to her notes, she told me that her edits were not instructions, but suggestions—even if they didn’t sound that way. This is really important to remember.
What was the Worst Feedback You Received?
Richelle: I received some editor feedback last year on a pitch that was complimentary, but very vague. I had no idea what she wanted to see, and I’m not sure I succeeded in implementing it at all!
Halli: The hardest feedback I received was also one of the best writing lessons. “Your book starts in chapter three. Toss the rest.” I didn’t understand at first because it was the backstory that set up my character’s personality. You see where I’m going right? First chapter and backstory should not be in the same sentence.
Gita: I find structural changes—hey, move this chapter closer to the beginning—the hardest to implement, because even a “small” structural change like that can affect so much of the manuscript.
We hope this post helps you understand the good and bad of feedback. It’s a necessary evil, but one that will allow you to continue growing as a writer. For more information on finding critique partners, being one, and dealing with feedback, check out these Winged Pen posts: Finding Critique Partners, More on Finding Critique Partners, The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief, and How to Give a Good Critique.
See you next week for our Master Your Craft post on Editing.