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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Feedback: Five Steps to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

Yesterday, Dianna wrote about the speed bumps that challenge us. Today, I’m focusing on the challenge of feedback. What advice should you listen to? What should you ignore? How do you even make those determinations?

Take a Little Time
First and foremost, you must distance yourself from the feedback. Don’t do anything to your manuscript until you feel you can read the feedback objectively. For some people, that’s a week, for others it’s twenty-four hours, for some it’s a whole month.

Easy Does It
Start with the easy stuff—grammar and mechanics or making your opening hook more powerful. If someone providing feedback about your work has marked errors or has made suggestions that make you nod your head in agreement, it would behoove you to fix them. Before doing so, however, make sure those mechanics corrections are in fact correct. Every writer should have a dictionary and handbook that provide basic instruction on grammar and mechanics. If you haven’t saved your handbook from Freshman English, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers are good choices. Get in the habit of checking for these sorts of mistakes prior to mailing out queries or contest entries. Make your own personal check list. For example, if you have a tendency to use fragments indiscriminately, you should review the section on writing complete sentences and check your sentences for subjects and verbs. If you have used a fragment for stylistic purposes, does it fulfill the guidelines for appropriate use? Have you used it to add emphasis, speed up the rhythm or create realistic dialogue? If your openings tend to be lukewarm, spend some time reading openings that are engaging, then try to apply what you’ve gleaned to your opening hook.

Ignore the Snide
Some people will tell you to sift through rude comments. I’m not one of those people. Maybe that comes from living in the south for much of my life, or maybe I’ve reached an age where I don’t want to waste my time on negativity. Besides striking a blow against your self-esteem, rude comments can sometimes steer you in the wrong direction. If someone cannot be professional while providing feedback, then he or she has a problem. That problem hinders his or her ability to see your work objectively. I’m not talking about a tough critique where someone explains why they weren’t able to connect to your heroine; I’m talking about a snarky one where the person critiquing your work tells you your heroine is stupid and implies that you are, too.

Isolate Patterns in the Comments and Focus on Them When Revising
If one person claims that you have a plotting problem, yet four others praise your plotting ability, you most likely do not have a problem with your plot. If half of all the people reading your romance novel tell you that they’re having difficulty sympathizing with your heroine, that’s a pattern you can and should address. If several people tell you your chapter hook needs a little more oomph, add some.

Weigh the Credentials of your Critiquers
Everyone who reads your work (other than the snide one) has the potential to provide valuable feedback. A reader who is not a writer or editor or agent can tell you whether your characters are likeable, whether the pace is too slow, and whether or not the story makes sense. This person, however, may not be as reliable when it comes to suggesting how to fix something that isn’t working. Experienced writers, agents, and editors have their pitfalls, too. Their comments are most likely valid, but these professionals may see your work through the filter of their own writing, what is currently selling, or what they tend to buy for their publishing house. So ask yourself, did you intend to create a story that would sell to this house or make this agent want to represent you? If the answer is yes, then you should listen. If the answer is no, then you need to ask yourself if the suggestions ring true to your voice and vision of the story. If yes, then fix. If no, then submit to other agents or houses or contests.

What are your thoughts about dealing with feedback? What are some other steps we can add to the list?

One of the most popular writing challenges writers get excited about is Book in a Week. Tomorrow April Kihlstrom will be joining us to blog about BIAW and the Power of Fun. Don’t miss it!

When Maureen Hardegree isn’t blogging for the WNP, you can usually find her working on her latest work-in-progress, sewing, or writing the occasional press release for the Northeast Atlanta Ballet. Her humorous stories with a southern accent are included in the BelleBooks’ Sweet Tea collections and Mossy Creek series.

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At 8:19 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Mo, this is such wise advice. I don't think I could put it better.

It is important to remember that your work is YOUR work and any changes you make have to make sense to you.

You don't have to change something the way a critiquer says to change it, even if you agree with the problem. One of my critique partners says that when I suggest a change, she just flags that item and looks at it to decide how SHE wants to change it, if she wants to change it. I like that!

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Mo - I agree with Diane. I don't think I've seen advice on how to use critique as well put before this.

I'm always about improving a story no matter if the majority loves it, but I've also reached a point where I know my story well enough to not change something I feel strong about. It's hard to figure that out as a new writer works their way through critiques.

And you're right, no critique should ever have a personal tone when pointing out a problem. Plus, a writer who critiques should be able to explain anything they mark and not just say "this didn't work for me" or "I didn't like your heroine" or "I had plot issues." They should be specific - "I was confused at X point in the story because of Y" or "I felt like your heroine was whiny in these spots and not standing on her own feet here" or "The plot sags in the middle when there is so much time spent at Y location and nothing seems to be happening."

Wonderful post. We should have you do a post on writing short stories some time, too, since you've been so successful with the Mossy Creek series.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Christine said...

I am a "new" writer... only been at it for 4 years. At first I just had two valued readers/friends read my original MS. Then I found a critique group, joined RWA and the chapters within it. More feedback. Then I entered contests--lots of feedback... some negative, most positive or helpful.

One thing that happened to me with the third MS is that I was just discovering my voice, and I lost it to the suggestions of a critique partner--she only meant well, and most of her help was gratefully received re: grammar, hooks, mechanics, and GMC--but I lost sight of my original reason for writing the book. My fun story became dark. I have spent the better part of a year rediscovering my original voice while keeping the valuable advice about the characters in check and making the appropriate changes. As an unpublished writer, entering the contests with editors and published writers have been very valuable to me as an author. But again, it is hard to know what is subjective and what is good. I kept all my critiques, especially the judged ones, moved forwad in the book (this is one that I've entered into a lot of contests), and then after I finished my first revision, I went back into the critiques (after much time) and followed pretty much the advice in this post. First grammar, second mechanics, editing word echoes etc., and then the story/characters. At times I agree. At times I don't. I hope to be better at discerning the wheat from the chaff as I mature as a writer.

Now, back to my dreaded GH entry which needs work.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Excellent information, Mo! It's great for a writer to get feedback from others, and most of us do want to know what others think of our work. It's the sifting and gleaning that's the hard and confusing part.

You reminded me of an idea I've had recently. I think I'm going to write an article on advice writers refuse to listen to-- except that it would probably be too long.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

What your critique partner does is spot on--flagging the problem. I do that as well, but sometimes I do what my critique partners suggest--if it works with my voice!:)

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Thanks for the suggestion about a blog on short stories. I may do it one day.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Losing your voice as you revise is a huge problem. It doesn't hurt to go back as you revise your novel and remind yourself of your original vision of your story. Glad your in the process of reclaiming your voice and that you're making progress on that GH manuscript!

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

That article idea sounds interesting. Are you going to send it in to RWR or are you going to blog about it?

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm a great believer in contests. I sold because of the Golden Heart contest and I was very big on entering chapter contests as well.

Don't ever change something in your ms because of contest (or any) feedback unless YOU have that aha moment, "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?"

That ms of mine that sold? It had been rejected everywhere I could think of to send it, by every agent and editor I knew. They all said, "Readers will never accept your heroine." (she started the book as a prostitute, or, as I learned to call her, the "prize in a disreputable gaming hell." Then I entered the Golden Heart and it was judged by Mills & Boon, the British branch of Harlequin. They bought it and in 2006 it won the National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency. So much for readers not accepting it!!!!

Be true to yourself and your vision of the book.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Christine said...

Thanks for all the encouraging words! I need them today.

I like entering the contests... they give me a deadline and force my behind in the chair. And most of the feedback is very positive.

And now... back to work for me...

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Christine, you probably haven't lost as much as it feels like you've lost. I'm a firm believer that as writers, nothing we learn or try is wasted.

You've actually learned that you have more than one voice, more than one mood. And this can be valuable, especially later on as you pursue and experiment with other ideas. As a writer, you'll continue to grow and explore.

You also have to learn as a writer how to evaluate the advice of others. You can't do this without having had the experience. The advice of other writers is their viewpoint, to put it simply. It's very subjective, and it may be useful or not, or may be useful only in part, or even because it inspires some new thought in you that has not much to do at all with what they say. But it's part of the writing process.

Critique work is all subjective, just as creative writing itself is. You could get a critique from the same author at a different time, and it would be different. Writing is infinite in its creative possibilities, and that is why, when we share, we often tell the author to take everything we say with a grain of salt-- not the whole shaker.

So you haven't lost anything, In fact, you have a whole array of new experiences under your belt, and can build on both the positive and the less useful as well.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

It's still in the thinking stage, Mo, but I'm leaning toward an RWR article. I think. Maybe.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Christine said...

Delle, thank you for clarifying my total experience this past year. I believe I've taken so much more positive away and, yes, I have gained valuable inspirations from my various critiques. I think that when someone suggests something, it does spark a creative insight--often later--it forces me to think things through more critically myself.

And I definitely have more one than one voice and more than one mood... that's why I want to get this book "finished" well enough to move on to the next idea and work it out.

Thanks! I feel enervated for tomorrow's writing session.


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