John from Fairy Spell got me thinking about feedback with his excellent post on waiting for an answer (Writing is the Easy Part). As he points, once you send something in to an agent or editor, you have the seemingly interminable wait, followed by the usually terribly terse “not right for us”. And I’ve also seen the “and please don’t ask me why it isn’t right, I won’t answer.” I’m sure I’d do and feel the same way if I was an agent or editor, the slush pile is immense, but it’s no fun being on the receiving end of that, no matter how politely phrased it is.
A similar experience is when you send something out for critique, to your friends & family, a critiquing partner or group, or to a critiquing site like critters.org. In this case, you usually get a lot more than “not right for me”, although on the critters site I’ve occasionally seen the equivalent, which per the site guidelines is a no-no. But in many ways the process is similar: you polish something until you think it glows, perhaps admitting a few flaws but expecting it to be reasonably well received, because, after-all, it is good, you spent so much time it. Then the feedback comes in and there’s always more to work on than you hoped or expected.
Some of that is critiquitis, “inflammation or over-excitation of the critiquing gland,” something I’m as guilty of as anyone else: asked to critique something, you sharpen your pencil and you let the comments fly! With those not used to critiquing (generally the friends and family side of the aisle), things are usually quite murky. There you have people who like you (I hope) so they are trying to be kind. Plus, generally, they aren’t writers so while they can tell you if they liked it or not, they often cannot help you diagnose the problem.
For instance, you may get “I didn’t really like the character.” This is often a sign that you didn’t show why the character made certain decisions, typically due to missing or weak sequels, but your grandmother isn’t going to tell you that. She may actually suggest doing something that is actually not right for the novel: “Can’t you make him a little nicer?” Stories need conflict and nicer may not be the right approach: better revelation of the character’s motivation might be the right approach.
Where criticism really gets fun is when you get conflicting feedback. My recent round of critiques through critters.org had a bit of that: “you should describe the telescope in more detail, I really wanted to understand what it was about.” This was after I cut a detailed description of the telescope in a previous draft because “it seemed to be too much attention to something that didn’t really matter.” (And if either of you who gave this feedback read this, I’m not knocking the feedback. It’s just a great example of conflicting feedback.) What do you do with that? Well, on the one hand, being an engineer, I can say I’m experiencing undamped oscillations which are bracketing the desired point, i.e., either is fine. Unfortunately, it probably actually means neither approach is right, I might need something in the middle. In any case, it is funny when you get the “do this”/”don’t do this,” from people you respect. Funny in a what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this way. At this point, there’s no option but to call it as you see it. It’s your story after all.
I’ve sent chapter 1 of my current project through the critter queue 3 times now. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. First time was mostly great feedback (i.e., useful things to work on) although there was one that offered little “actionable.” Second time I had added too much backstory and while that was useful feedback, it felt like a wasted round to me. Third time was a bit all over. There were several with some great feedback including some I resisted at first: cut even more backstory out (in the end I saw the light and moved it or cut almost all of it.) But some of the third round feedback seemed off base (even checked it with some other writers). Not sure what that really was. Maybe I’m not at the right writing maturity to appreciate it but perhaps it was the critiquers maturity level (my ego likes the latter but beware of the ego!)
One thing that has helped in the last round of critiques where there didn’t really seem to be a consensus about what to change (other than the backstory bit) is that I did pay for a few rounds of professional critiques which helped provide a baseline. Otherwise, it’s hard to figure out how much to value any particular bit of feedback. While, in the end, the professional is also offering just a personal opinion, I’ve used her enough to respect her advice and she is multi-published. She’s at least been through the process a lot. I’ve got her looking over an outline now for a contest.
In the meantime, I’m already up to chapter 6 on draft 2.1. This is the first draft I’m going to ask others to look at. I’ve got a critter lined up to read the whole thing (one of the ones who seemed to have some great feedback last round) plus some friends & family. After that round, I’ll make another revision and send it by the professional critique service I use. Then… we’ll see how the feedback looks. Ideally, another minor edit and I’ll start shopping it but more realistically, maybe some more major revisions. Hard to say. But while it’s out for review, I’ll pick my next project and start story development on it.
- Does Your Group Critique (chrishowardsgrouploup.wordpress.com)
- Finding Feedback: Constructive Critique DOES Exist! (kiralynblue.com)
- Proofing for Pleasure (magnificentnose.com)
- Don’t Hide From Critique Groups (whatifyoucouldnotfail.typepad.com)