Critique Feedback

Feedback loop
Feedback loop: notice, this loop NEVER ends! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Feedback
What an engineer means by feedback (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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6 thoughts on “Critique Feedback

  1. Critique it can be problematic. Here’s my experience with it. First I’d never have family do critique for me unless they were a professional editor. As for friends I only have one I have read my work and her input is more for punctuation and grammar as those are my weak areas. She is an avid reader so can comment on if the story is one that draws you in. She also helps me with research sometimes.

    It is my writing group that does the best critique foe me and I think the best way is let them read it. Then bring it back the author reads it out loud a page at a time and the group offers there comments. They don’t always agree and that’s okay because the author can decide what feels best to them. And of course we always say it is only the critquers opinion and the writer can take or leave any suggestion. When you talked backstory I wondered because sometimes backstory is important.

    I haven’t used any online critiquing but may someday but the live interaction is so important to me. If you haven’t found a local group start one there are always writer’s out there looking for help and inspiration.

    Thanks for following my blog.

    Chrishowardsgrouploup

    1. Thanks for dropping by!

      On the backstory, I think it needs to be sparing. It was possibly okay as it was but if less always seems best, as long as the job gets done 🙂

      My wife is also a writer (and really wants to see what I write); we critique each other’s work. On the friend front, we’re long time collaboraters on D&D campaigns and I feel he has a lot offer on the plotting in particular. I’m a bit leery of critique groups. They can work out but it seems like it would be very hard to find the right group- similar levels, similar genre. But I know a few people who love them, so I guess it works. I’ve had less luck with them, myself.

      Cheers!

  2. Good post, Marc. I see I got a mention. 🙂

    When I was in the video game industry, a bunch of us young guns were working on a particularly large project. Review group comments started coming back in. Many were contradictory and some the team just didn’t agree with. My mentor told me, “Hey, its only feedback. Take it or leave it. It’s up to you.” I’ve taken that to heart with my writing.

    Critters can certainly be a mix bag. A lot I toss, but I’m always on that look out for a nugget that will twist my work just a little bit to make it all the better.

    Backstory– I don’t think there is anything wrong with backstory and I think some critters harp on it too much. IMO, it just too often gets put in the wrong spot. My rules of thumb–if the story pace is quick, then the backstory needs to be quick. If the pace is slow, the backstory can be slow. I like to use backstory when my character has downtime (like traveling and there isn’t much going on) or when a story is doing a transition. Also, I try my best to make it relevant and if at all possible, interesting (a story within a story is always good).

    1. Hi Dan, I thought you might pick up on that 🙂 I had to chuckle- you were asking for something that *was* in the previous draft. But in the end, I tend more to cutting than adding so I decided to leave the telescope details out.

      You’re quite right on having to pick through the critique for the useful bits. Often I find on a re-read, there’s more useful than I first thought. Have to confess, though, that I’m considering going in-active there. The return on investment is declining for me 🙂 I might stick it out though. Critiquing a stsory a week isn’t too much and finding the occasional person to read a full book (after seeing how they critique on a chapter) is useful. I’ve definitely decided that I don’t like doing a full read myself. It doesn’t work for me.

      On the backstory, you and one other critiquer had suggested trimming more of it. I had already cut a ton and was prepared to ignore your feedback. But then I came across an interesting post of agent pet-peeves and too many of them listed backstory in chapter 1 as a ‘red flag.’ So I decided to revisit that and found that I really didn’t need as much as I thought I did. Still a little there, I have to set the stage, but not much.

      Cheers!

  3. (Thanks for the shout-out!) I think you’ve touched a nerve here with the backstory issue. Something I should more think about. I know what you mean about conflicting advice. If I remember correctly, Stephen King (whose critiquer, by the way, is his wife) recommends that when you find yourself responding to a critique with a sentence that starts, “But …” you need to slow down. (As in, “But the description in that paragraph …”; “But the character is supposed to be stupid …”) It’s not necessarily that your critiquer is right (let’s not go crazy), but that she/he is picking up on something you didn’t do as well as you thought. I tend to use critiques for diagnosis and less for solving the problem (though sometimes critiquers come up with great solutions). I do think being able to trust the critiquer’s judgment is crucial.

    1. I do try to give every bit of feedback full consideration. I’m way past the protecting-my-ego and into the maximizing-chance-of-success stage, although I certainly started there 🙂

      I’ve also been a long time believer in trimming and cutting. Every round of revision, I find more things not critical that I can drop. I need to apply that scrutiny to the backstory as well.

      Cheers!

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