Tuesday, 4 July 2017

How do you react to feedback on your writing? – by David Thorpe

How do you take feedback on your writing? Are you the kind of person who thinks everything you write is brilliant and readers who disagree just don't get it? Or do you never think what you write is good enough and fear even showing it to anyone?

I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle. I go out of my way to solicit feedback, and quite often pay for it. When I get it I take it very seriously.

Sometimes feedback comes in the form of a rejection letter. Unless it is a standard, unhelpful rejection letter, this is always valuable.

I received one last week, which said, amongst other things: "We would have liked to see more depth in the characters and character relationships".

This is both incredibly useful and problematic. Useful, because often rejection letters are standard and contain nothing that is helpful. Problematic, because it raises more questions than it answers.

On the face of it, what could be the harm in including more depth in character? But if this need has to be balanced by the need for brevity in what is essentially a children's adventure story of limited length, it will mean somehow both condensing the action and combining the character relationships and psychology with action, in a highly economical way.

This requires great skill. I have already spent more hours than I care to count, over two years, on this, plus I have paid for other mentoring on the way here.

I could be downhearted – as I initially was upon receiving the email, to which I had optimistically been looking forward.

But in today's highly competitive market, a work has to be perfect before it can have a hope of being accepted. The only proper response to this kindly offered advice is to buckle down again.

I see my task now is to tease out the depth I have obviously not yet made sufficiently apparent. I did put it in there but I then sacrificed it on the assumption that keeping the action moving was of a higher priority than emotional engagement. Yet editors seem to want emotional engagement above everything these days.

Some of you may know that I also teach creative writing and mentor some writers. I notice a range of reactions to feedback particularly from novice writers.

I have had from one person, who had written 300,000 words of slow-moving fantasy set in her own back garden (laboriously typed up by her husband), "My friend says it is fantastic and I really can't change a word".

By contrast, I was terribly flattered to get this the other day from someone for whom I had critiqued the first 10,000 words of their middle grade novel: "I'm not proud of the fact that I did an M.A. in creative writing, but I want to say I have learned more from you than I ever learned from a year with those self serving people".

Well that was nice, but all I give to students and clients is the kind of feedback I wish I were given myself. In every manuscript is a wonderful story wanting to get out. The job of giving feedback is to find it and to respect both the story and the story-teller.

The job of the story-teller is to accept all feedback without defensiveness, if they really want to get the best out of their work.

I no longer feel that story-telling in any medium is a lone job. Although you, the writer, are the ultimate arbiter of the final draft's contents, if it is published it is as a result of a team effort. The team will include the publisher's editor, your agent if you have one, and anyone you show the manuscript to.

Given that your book's ultimate success once published in this incredibly competitive market depends upon the reactions of a wide range of readers, don't you think it behoves you to test your drafts out on a range of readers first, and to listen carefully to everything they say – and do not say?

David's  writing course can be found here. He is the author of Hybrids, Stormteller and Marvel's Captain Britain amongst others. His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell.  Hybrids and Stormteller can be found and bought here.


Dawn Finch said...

Thanks David, this is really useful. I'm in the feedback stage of a manuscript at the moment and your advice is very timely. I've listened carefully to the tips I've had back and am currently back to the manuscript with an open mind taking on the changes. Good reminder to not take it personally!

Penny Dolan said...

Lots of interesting thoughts here, David. Thanks - and it's good that you're able to help people with your online course.

Even when you're excited about your work, I feel it's important to pause and to choose the right reader and the right moment for any feedback and criticism. Asking someone to read and respond to your work a second time, especially as a friend, always feels to me to be a more complicated situation.

DavidKThorpe said...

@Dawn. No, it's not personal at all, although it can feel that way. Distancing yourself from your creation helps with the objectivity.

@Penny. The right reader is crucial, yes. Not necessarily someone who knows you, because that leads to bias. Reading a second time is difficult - requiring close reading, a fresh eye and the ability to forget the first time! Better to find someone else.

Rowena House said...

Great post, David. I agree completely that it's vital to find a way to get feedback from people who know what they're talking about, and be able to retrofit elements that are highlighted as missing. Sorry that this is going to sound like blowing my own trumpet, but I had an epiphany about epiphanies and how to align character arcs & plot, and was so enthused by it (basically, it got my m/s accepted by Walker)that I've blogged about the process in some detail for ABBA. It's the 15 Feb 2017 one called Eureka! Nailing epiphanies. I hope it might be of some value to anyone facing the same predicament as both you & I have done, i.e. re-integrating deep character into a plot.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I teach Year 7 English. One of my students wrote about 350 words on the topic "What a mess!" In those few words, she told a funny story and established two characters I felt I knew - a pompous older brother who was school captain and his sloppy sister. I suspect she could teach all of us a lot about depth of character in a short space. It can be done - and this twelve year old girl showed that! :-)

Just Finished Reading Ballad For A Mad Girl