Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Handling Feedback

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So this topic has been on my mind for a few reasons. First, I just went through my last round of beta-line edits with MIRRORPASS (first query letters sent yesterday!) and most of my normal readers were so busy with their own novels that they weren’t available. So that meant soliciting some new help. Second, my siblings I have started a monthly prompt-based short story club, and one of our rules is we all have to comment positively on each other’s short stories.  Since none of us are very good at short fiction—that’s why we started the club—they’ve been struggling with the whole “positive” feedback thing.

And basically I just want to talk about it.

Here’s one of the truest things I know about handling feedback: it requires balance. 

Ideally, your beta readers are writers like you, professionals like you, who will honestly evaluate your work for errors. They’ll identify problems and suggest realistic solutions. At the same time, they’ll make a point of encouraging you on what did work, and they’ll round out their feedback with an honest but encouraging summary—something like “While your character development needs work and I’d like to see more descriptions, I think this has a lot of potential. I really enjoyed reading it and I can’t wait to see what you do with this.” That’s what balanced criticism looks like. 

But if the reader doesn’t balance their criticism, you’ll have to do it yourself.

This can be hard. Because unbalanced criticism comes in a lot of forms.  When I was a newbie writer on a fan-fic forum, tons of people told me I had amazing talent and I should get published. Newbie me was very suspicious of this. I thought I was good, but not that good. And besides, they said the same things about everyone’s stories. Something was up. Their excessive praise confused young, newbie me, and it took me a long time to learn how to evaluate my own work critically. 

One of the ways I learned that was through AW—the Absolute Write forums, especially their “Share Your Work” subforums. Those people don’t go easy on you. Two of the most commonly used phrases are “rip it to shreds” and “tough skin.” But again, I found this kamikaze editing attitude to be somewhat unbalanced. If all people ever did was rip my writing to shreds, how did I know what was working? It was discouraging and demoralizing. 

Again, I had to evaluate my own work critically. I learned to trust my instincts about what was good or what wasn’t, and then I let everyone else’s criticism inform my editing decisions. 

There’s a third kind of unbalanced criticism you have to watch out for—namely, the lack of criticism. This is when someone reads your work and can’t find much to say about it. It can be just as confusing as too much praise or too much negative criticism. A professional reader should always, always find something to say about your work—even if it’s, “I don’t feel like I’m connecting to your story; I can’t seem to find anything good or bad about it.” Because then you know this story isn’t causing people to react. But otherwise, you have to guess at what‘s wrong and what works. 

And that requires a lot of trust in yourself. 

The key to balancing feedback is knowing yourself, knowing your own writing, and having a balanced view on your own faults and strengths.

Withstanding criticism isn’t about having blind faith in yourself. Learning how to deal with praise without becoming egotistical or vulnerable isn’t about thinking your work sucks. The very best way to balance feedback is to already have honestly evaluated your skills—which is an ongoing process anyway. When you receive unbalanced criticism, you measure it against your own self-evaluation, your own instincts and hunches. 

This guy said the mystery plotline is boring and unnecessary. I know it sags in a few areas, but it creates heightened tension and stakes in a lot of other places. And I know I can make mystery work because other betas have liked my mysteries in the past—I know that’s something I’m good at. So what’s making this mystery feel unnecessary? How could I make the search even more vital? What do my other betas think?

And that’s what it comes down to. Although you want to have a rock-solid sense for your own writing skills, and while you may need to fall back on that someday, you still want to seek feedback and let it shape your decisions. No single beta or reader or slough of feedback should be able to shift that rock-solid sense so badly that you decide to give up on a story you believed in. But they should be able to convince you of mistakes when they actually exist, of good spots when those are good, of a bad writing habit that you do in fact have.

The more balanced you become as a writer, and the more professional readers you bring into your own personal circle, the more they’ll confirm your own hunches in their feedback. They more attuned you’ll all become with each other. The better you’ll be. 

One of the final most important things I can say about handling feedback?

Find yourself some teammates you can trust./

Truly and always,
-Creative A

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