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You Can’t Give it Away

Here’s the thing about feedback on your writing. Lots of what you get from others is wolf stuff in sheep’s clothing.

It can be bogus, hinky and deceptive. My contention is that you’ve got to develop the fictional muscle to do the heavy lifting yourself. And since this is tough to do, we often mistakenly  delegate the responsibility to others. “My writers’ group loved it.” “My husband thinks it’s my best yet.” Really? And how many books has your husband sold? Or those in your writers’ group. Zero is my bet.

Why oh why do we go to seminars and writers groups hoping to get the straight scoop on our writing project? The answer is that all too often we go to them for validation. We want to hear the story works well, maybe even that it’s brilliant. We want to hear that we have talent.

The Validation Game

See, this is the wolf part. We are wolves hiding out in the circle of writers, hoping to have our talent confirmed. We’re not really open to hearing how the story needs improving. (For one thing, we’ve already got the book scoped out, so it’s too late for the group to help us with structural problems, even if they understood structure.) So, get rid of the sheepskin and get real: really listen to criticism; adopt the mindset that you hope to hear about the story’s weaknesses and are ready to roll up your sleeves to improve the writing.

If you really love your writer’s group, or are committed to that upcoming seminar, go for it. Just don’t be needy. (Because what you really need is fresh insight, not praise.)

And even then, I’m telling you, you’re not going to get a bunch of help. They’ll tell you they got confused as to what was happening on page 73, that they’re having trouble warming up to character X, and that “Grappa” can’t be the name of character because it’s the name of an Italian vodka drink. (Feedback I’ve actually gotten.) Also, beware of people who criticize your work out of ego games and jealousy. This is particularly a danger in seminars where newcomers criticize each other’s work. Insecure writers may put you down in order to strike an intelligent pose.

The Near-Sighted Review

But the main danger is that your readers may take the short view, pouncing on details as though they mattered, or, worse, getting points with you by praising moderately good material. And your story, to be published, needs to be better than moderately good.

Now, if your feedback group is laced with fearless (and cranky) published writers who genuinely wish you well, that is perfect. Those people will give you the truth. Perhaps one of those people is your agent. Some opinions carry more weight than others.

Still–it’s the truth as they see it.

And suppose it’s not your truth. Suppose they’re put off by the harsh language, an un-PC scene, a character who you meant to strip of appeal? Suppose they just plain don’t like the damn thing, but they are far off the mark. Think of the editors who turned down Catch-22. And you’re looking for consensus among 4-5 readers?

There is no consensus. Once it’s published, the story will bring out rabid detractors and passionate fans. Four out of five raves from your draft readers doesn’t mean much. Sorry to say.

And of course the worst danger is that after you’ve “workshopped” your novel, you think you’re done. So there is that false sense of well-being.

But the good news is that you can learn to critique your own work. This works well because you know what you’re trying to achieve. You’re not trying to kid yourself. Because you’re determined to make the story as strong as it can be before it’s reviewed in Publishers Weekly. You are highly motivated toward truth.

I wish it were different. I truly do. It would be so much simpler if I could just count on my favorite readers to part the curtain and tell me how it really is. But, for better or worse:

The Verdict is Yours

The simple, hard truth is that we as writers have to be able to analyze our own stories. Preferably we do this by planning them out in the first place with an eye to dramatic concept, driven characters, and classic story structure. If you don’t know what these things are, go back into this blog and study up. Follow the links I provide to bloggers and writers who know more than I do. Seek out teachers and listen to their approaches with an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism. Learn to step back from stories and take the larger view. Become familiar with diagnostic questions that can steer you out of dead end writing.

Fiction is not fuzzy, improvisational and random. It is craft joined with understanding and talent. The craft and understanding part can be learned.

So, keep writing, by all means, but also study your craft.

When taking feedback, listen carefully to your inner critic. When you feel an “aha moment,” that is feedback that may be worth something!

Steel yourself to letting your work sit unread for a few weeks so that you can come to it with a fresh perspective.

Learn to put failed novels aside. Do not self-publish or e-publish new material, unless you are already a brand-name author. There is a reason no one bought that novel, and that is that no one wanted it. Try to learn from the experience, and move on.

Note on book doctors

  1. Remember the principal that money flows to the writer. If you are paying for direct advice on your manuscript, you are either being taken advantage of or you are, once again, hoping to escape learning how to do it yourself. (If you’ve done all that you can do and are still at war with your novel, there are some decent book doctors. Last resort. Get references!)

You can’t give away the responsibility to critique your novel. You can get help–carefully selected and judiciously filtered–but it’s mostly on your shoulders. It’s just part of the job.


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