Here’s a question I’ve been getting from my fiction newsletter readers, and since it’s awhile before the newsletter goes out again, I thought I’d take a swipe at the question here.
How does a writer get good feedback on a work in progress?
Bear in mind that these suggestions reflect my particular biases. Here goes:
1. Writers’ groups can be helpful at the very beginning. They provide psychological support and motivation. They may also give usable feedback on your fiction.
2. Do not go to writers’ groups hungry for validation or fearful of criticism. Repeat this ten times before every meeting. You are there to find out what the piece needs in order to be better, period.
3. Validation comes only from publication, sales, awards and reviews. Praise from family, friends, and writing groups is not “at arm’s length.” It might feel good, but may be self indulgent on your part. Stop, stop, stop giving your ms. to people hoping for praise. Many of us had to live without validation at the beginning. (And even now, sad to say!)
4.Find a writers’ group that is practicing at your level or above. Sometimes a group will be stuffed with excellent readers who don’t write very well. That’s great. It’s readers you want feedback from, not necessarily writers. Writers’ groups with less experience than you may waste your time. (Except, see #1.)
5. Do not let a writers’ group tell you how to fix a problem. Their job is to identify issues. Getting them involved with creative decisions fosters dependency. (See #9.)
6. Getting feedback from writers’ groups is fine before you are published. When you’re on contract, there simply isn’t time to get feedback if you’re writing at a good pace. (And you should be!) (Except, see #1.)
7. Write fast. In commercial fiction, one book a year is expected, if you are selling reasonably well. So then, think again how dependent you are on groups that read two of your chapters a month.
8. If you are publishing already, find a group of excellent readers. I have about four. Give them your second draft of the first three-quarters of the book. While you are writing the last section of the novel, they are reading. One month before your deadline, the critiques come in, and you revise.
9. Accept that your exquisite and excruciating task is to decide what to write and how to do it. (Paraphrasing Henry James.) Other people’s guidance will reflect their fractured personalities and defining weaknesses. Getting such feedback may feel smart and comforting but it is false security. Read tons of books, and learn to judge how your story compares. Get tough, be diagnostic in your approach to evaluating your stories. Then send them out and see if they connect with others.
10. It is a good idea to take very seriously the feedback you might get from agents and editors who take time to read your material.