Saturday, April 11, 2009

THE BEST AND THE WORST FEEDBACK

The best feedback propels you and your story forward in positive ways. The worst feedback is like pulling on the emergency break while racing down the freeway.


The Worst Feedback

1. No Feedback

Honestly, the worst feedback is no feedback at all. I’d rather a friend just said I did not like this or I did not like that than make excuses about time. That’s just plain depressing.


2. Imbalanced Feedback Exchange

I meet a talented writer at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference. We agreed to exchange feedback, which we did. Problem was that the guy was much more interested in getting feedback from me than taking the time to give feedback. Now, I must say that he did give some feedback, but the whole exchange didn’t really work out because it was an imbalanced feedback exchange. This ranks at the top of my most disappointing feedback exchanges because I liked the guy quite a bit and I could see how he was using my feedback to improve his writing, which was exciting.

My response to this experience is not what you might have guessed. I was angry and frustrated for quite awhile, but now I am much more open to the idea of just giving someone feedback and not expecting something back. Sounds strange, but reality is that most people don’t have enough time to make their own projects work. If I like someone’s work and I like them, I would actually consider providing feedback and expecting nothing back.

With that said, a part of me still hopes that karma might kick in and someone, possibly someone else, might do me a favor sometime in the future. Believe it or not that kind of thing does happen. There are good people in the world and I’ve been lucky enough to have benefited from their generosity.


The Best Feedback

People have given me feedback via email and in person. I’ve even been lucky enough to have a handful of published authors give me feedback. I am tempted to search through the records to bring forth the actual words they used that were so wonderful and helpful. But, memory is a natural filter. We remember what is important. So, I will paraphrase some of the helpful words. I think that I will also insert some of my responses because what makes feedback useful is that you can use it. Sounds obvious, but not all feedback results in actual change.

There are two kinds of changes that I’ve noticed feedback can result in: Change in details (small stuff) and change in plot or the direction a scene goes (big stuff). So, I will break it down by small stuff and big stuff.



Best Feedback on the Small Stuff (Details)

1. Where did the glasses come from?

There is a scene in my story where a character lands on the edge of a cliff and his glasses slip off and fall down into the abyss. I just laughed my head off when my reader asked where the glasses came from. I knew then that I had to go back to the opening scene and include the glasses in the early descriptions.

That was a quick and easy change.


2. The raccoons aren’t all called Raccoon are they? Sounds too much like a fable.


Here again, I had to laugh. The reader made me see what was obvious. I have one Fate Changer raccoon who is active in the story, but he is, or was, a member of a brotherhood of raccoons. It simply did not make sense that they would all go around calling each other Raccoon. They must each have a distinct name.

Now, I am sure many of you are thinking no duh, but I like myths and fairy tales where characters are simply called by their animal name: Raven, Eagle, Turtle, … So, it seemed just fine to do the same.

Well, my fantasy novel is not a fairy tale and readers don’t approach it that way. So, once I found a name for the character it made him feel much more human, which is a good thing for an animal character.


Best Feedback on the Big Stuff (Plot/Scene Direction)

1. I don’t believe they would do that. It’s just too dangerous, given their culture.

In my novel, two women need to help a foreigner save a girl who may soon be killed or transformed into something not at all human. Problem is that these too women will be punished severely if they are caught.

My reader’s comment about the danger and the culture they are a part of sparked a change in my perception. I immediately saw that one of the characters, who highly values tradition, would not risk everything to save the girl. I really did need to make a change when it came to her. But, the other woman, who has long suppressed her rebellious side, would risk everything. This “I don’t buy it” feedback was great because these two women, who took the same name because they mated with the same man, needed something to help distinguish their characters. The reader’s comment helped me create a turning point; it helped me create a new conflict within a scene that more clearly defined the characters and upped the stakes. Also, rewriting the scene allowed me to help the reader understand why one of the women felt absolutely compelled to risk everything.

The new conflict created a new direction and a new momentum that carried through the rest of the story, all the way to the end.


2. Like the intro, but it needs more urgency.

The very start, the first words of a story, are the most challenging. So many things need to happen: setting, character development, imagery, conflict, tension, urgency.

This simple comment helped me to revise with a purpose. I didn’t want to eliminate too much of the imagery, but I could cut to the chase and get to the points of urgency (which I had already created) sooner.

By the way, this insightful reader had pointed out where I had created urgency. She just wanted that kind of thing sooner. It’s nice to have feedback that both points out things that work and things that need to be worked on.

This last point (urgency) is still on my mind and I am actually considering putting what is now chapter one second because that may make it so that the reader has even more of a sense of urgency. It would be built in big time before they even read word one of what would become the second chapter. I ran this by my latest reader and will find out what he thinks today.

I’d love to put more examples in, especially the flattering stuff, but it’s time to wrap things up.


Final Thought

The bottom line is that bad feedback puts on the emotional and creative breaks, but good feedback propels you forward with a purpose.

There are so many more good and bad examples that I could have included, but I bet everybody else has great examples too. What’s the best and/or worst feedback you have received?

10 comments:

  1. Well said. If you need more feedback, consider critters@critique.org. They also have a page with additional resources for finding feedback.
    Nice to hear from you again,
    :) Sheri

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. As you said feedback can change the way you think about your work dramatically. My only comment is that you make sure that the people who are doing the critiquing like your genre.

    For instance I would be the wrong person to critique your work. I am not much of a fantasy fan, so it would be hard to get me to read it in the first place. Secondly, even if I did read it, my comments wouldn't be very good for things like style, language, or setting.

    That said, I am sure I could point out plot holes, and confusing characters like the other reviewers. What I am trying to say is don't jeopardize the quality of the feedback by picking the wrong reviewers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post, I can agree on everything. Getting feedback is my biggest concern at the moment. I've gotten an endless stream of "We were enthralled, but it's not for us" "Very intriguing idea but I'll have to pass" "While my interest was piqued I'm going to have to say no thank you" all in response to queries relating to my novel or short stories. All I really wanted to know was why pass? Why not for you?. Of course, since these responses were given by agents, I got no feedback. But even those close to me are horrible at feedback. I get "I liked it, I'd read a second book." and that's it. I need to know WHY they liked it, or didn't like parts. Something, anything, good or bad, just articulate a thorough response people!

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is an excellent post. Thank you so much for sharing!

    I agree with all of the points you make. No feedback is terrible. Imbalanced feedback hurts, but I certainly LEARN a lot just giving feedback to writers, so not getting anything in return in not that big of a deal. And as far as the best feedback goes, I've received my fair share!

    Right now I am truly blessed to have so many people willing to read my novel - and a second draft at that. I have received some excellent advice and direction. Probably one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received on a critique was to be more active and to cut out repetition. That helped tighten up my writing a lot.

    I think the BEST feedback, though, is the feedback given from a reader who truly cared about what they were doing when they took time to respond. That always makes a huge difference.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Sheri: Thanks for posting the resource. You must have had a good experience with it. Good to hear back from you too. I hope you keep visiting the blog and posting comments.

    @Douglas: I thought quite a bit about your comments today, especially the part about seeking out the people who share a similar genre interest.

    Last year I did exactly that at the PNWA conference. And it worked out pretty well.

    However, I've also had some really good feedback from people who do not claim fantasy as their area of writing or reading interest, at least not their main area.

    What's the practical application of this? Well, you might run into someone some day who could give you good feedback, but they don't seem to be someone that loves your genre. What do you do?

    I took a writing workshop with a very successfully published author who writes historical fiction and romance. I went in a bit skeptical, because she was not a fantasy person. But, I finished the workshop as happy as can be. Why? Because she understands craft and is an excellent communicator who cared enough to take the time to give very specific feedback on my first two chapters.

    Her name is Meagan Chance and I would highly recommend a workshop with her if you ever get the chance.


    @A.Grey: I feel for you. Sounds very frustrating.

    A few things stood out.

    First the response from industry people. All I can say is that I have had much more personal responses from industry people that I have meet in person at conferences.

    Second, you mentioned people that are close to you. The close part is what stood out. I know that some people are hesitant to give critical feedback to people they have a relationship with. Perhaps that's for a good reason. I knew a woman who decided to end a friendship with a woman because of the advice that was given. By the way, the advice made perfect sense to me and I think that she should have seriosly considered taking it.

    So, what can you do? I've had good luck meeting people at conferences that want to exchange feedback. Those types of people should be good at communicating about craft.

    What genre do you write in? I might consider reading two or three pages and giving you some feedback, but I couldn't do more than that right now because I've commited to reading another novel right now.

    @Lady Glamis: Great comments. I don't think enough people appreciate how much you can learn from reading the work of other aspiring writers. I'm so glad you mentioned that. It makes all the writing theories make so much more sense because you can see what happens when people don't stick to some of the most common craft guidelines: motivation, conflict, ...

    The other comment that stood out is the thing about readers caring. That's what makes the biggest difference, and to some degree it is the most challenging. Writers are busy with their own projects, so it can be easy for them to care more about their own stuff. However, that obviously does not have to be true. I know their are times when I would much rather read someone elses work than mine.

    Keep on rocking on!!! I really respect the way you have thrown your novel Monarch out there for people to read. I've enjoyed chapter one and would look forward to hearing what some of the best or most useful feedback on it has been. Say, the top three things, something like that anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, Dave. Like you said, the best feedback I've gotten are from people I've met face-to-face, including industry folk and other friends. Of course, those two agents I met years back cost me a total of 600 dollars to make the trip, and then, three months later, get a rejection, but, as we all know here, you got to be a little insane to make it to the big show.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dave, I may do a post on the feedback. Thank you for the idea. :D

    ReplyDelete
  8. A.Grey,

    Lady Glamis just started up a new online writing community where it sounds like you can get the kind of feedback you are looking for. Check out her blog.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Regarding the importance of a caring reader, you are so right on.

    I have to say, Dave, that your feedback has been the best feedback I've ever received on a piece of writing. You are truly attuned to the story & all of the implications wrapped up in plot, character development, setting, etc.

    Not only does your feedback show that you care about the characters, but you provide such detailed notes that it's obvious you've taken time to think about the story on many levels. That caring piece is vital, as far as I'm concerned :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Alex: Thanks so much for the comments about caring. It reminded me how important caring is. And, truth be told, taking the time and energy to be passionate in the classroom or with feedback can be a challenge when time is short and life gets hard. But, it is the deciding factor.

    Your comment reminded me to focus on caring these last few days and the results were more wonderful than I could have imagined. It's a circular thing. When you care for people they care back. And that makes the difference between going to a job and going to a place you love.

    ReplyDelete

Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.