Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feedback: Friend or Foe?

I've been getting so much fantastic feedback on my last two posts (which can be found here and here.) I now know I have a ton of rewriting ahead of me on Chapter 1, but this is not a bad thing. I actually find it quite inspiring when people tell me I need to rework my writing (am I crazy?! Maybe ... ) I generally take it to mean that my beta readers are engaged in what I've shown them, and that they think I have it in me to do better. However, I don't respond positively to all feedback, which leads us to the subject of today's post ...

If you're like me, you're careful to show your writing only to people whom you trust, i.e., people who you believe will give you strong, constructive feedback. But sometimes one can get blindsided. I want to tell you a little story about something that happened to me when I sent my first unpublished novel around for informal review.

I sent a copy to an individual (let's call the person Sam) who runs an independent publishing company. Sam is a very nice, helpful person in general, and a friend of one of my good friends/BEs. I had met Sam before and found them to be warm and intelligent. (All the markings of an excellent beta reader, right?)

That's why it shocked the socks off me when Sam ripped my manuscript apart (not literally, although they might as well have.) Now here's where I want to pause and deconstruct exactly why this person's critiques were so jarring, and in my opinion, detrimental. My novel was a faintly auto-biographical coming-of-age tale with a criminal trial in the background (that part was pure fiction!) The nut
s and bolts of the trial were not so important as how it affected the family. Sam's comments were along the lines of, "I wasn't at all interested in the family's dramas; why didn't you make the trial the center of the book?; I think you should have gone into detail about the politics behind the case," etc.

My first reaction: "Sounds like a fascinating book, but it's not the one I'm writing." I think I actually told Sam that, along with thanking them for taking the time to read my manuscript and to give me feedback. But in all honesty, I wished I'd never given my writing to this person. I felt numb, and in shock. And most
of all, my instincts told me that something wasn't right about what I'd just been told.

I shared the
experience with my friend who knows Sam, and she was immediately sympathetic. She pointed out that Sam publishes mostly politically-oriented non-fiction, and it did not surprise her, in restrospect, that they would be so focused on the criminal trial aspect. But my friend, who used to work in publishing, also acknowledged that Sam's critiques were just plain out of line. She validated my hunch that a good beta reader/editor should respect the genre and goals of the author, and not try to impose their own literary vision of the world on the writer. (I later met a professional copy editor who said the same thing.)

So what can we take away from all this? See below ...

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Does the feedback you're getting pass the "smell test," i.e., are your insti
ncts telling you there's something foul about it? I'm not talking about getting all touchy when someone tells you something you don't want to hear about your writing (fyi, one of the best critiques I ever received was from a BE who said, "Your protagonist is completely mechanical, you can do better than this, Cammie!") It's key to remember that your reader/editors' role is simply to bring out the best in YOUR writing, not to try and turn you into a ghost writer for their own ideas.


  1. The thing that I've learned about feedback is that you have to filter and in the end trust your own instincts.

  2. I think it's definitely important to find beta readers who are familiar with your genre (and enjoy reading in that genre). If I send a dude a copy of my romance, most likely they won't love it.

    However, I have also found that there is almost always a grain of truth in every crit even when the person may be way off base, so that's what I look for.

  3. Yep, I'm with you Patti. And you're right Roni ... the thing is, I thought this person, who publishes books on topics associated with the criminal trial in my book, WOULD be appropriate! Oh well, live and learn ...

  4. Hi Cammie, thanks for joining my blog.

    This is a really interesting post and it raises lots of great questions about who we show our work to and why. I personally think that when you send your work out there into the world you have to expect that what is feed back to you is at best someone else's opinion. Though you didn't agree with Sam I don't know that I necessarily think she was trying to cut you down. I think the comments that are useless are the ones that attack you as a person. Saying things like, your writing sucks etc would be useless feedback, not to mention hurtful. I have sent my memoir out there for feedback and some of it has been brutal. BUT I asked for people's honest opinion and I was ready to hear it. After all there is always something to be taken away from a really negative feedback. something made them respond like that. Maybe the part doesn't need to be rewritten, but maybe it can be shorter, longer, more intense, less intense etc. I also send my work to writers of all different genres. I think the feedback is far more varied and when my work gets out there in the real world I want people of all walks to read it. At the end of the day we have to be sure we are ready for truth as others see it. That does not mean they are right, and in Sam;s case she could well be wrong, but at least she feedback to you what she really thought. I'd ask her why she wanted the focus on the trial. What was it about the work that made her believe this was the real story. Maybe it will point to something in your writing that you could make stronger. I am not suggesting you write a book that is not yours, only that you see if there is anything at all that you can learn about your writing through her eyes. I guess my point is I don't think all is lost with negative feedback, even feedback like Sam's can be useful if you turn it to your advantage and dig. Of course you know your own writing too and maybe she is just not a good fit for you as a beta reader. Good luck editing. Don't give up. :)

  5. Well, that novel is history for a number of reasons! But I think you do have a point ... Sam (who I'll out as a "he") was certainly correct in insinuating that my writing had major flaws, and that perhaps I gave short shrift to the crim trial section from a literary standpoint. I suppose I was just used to the Gotham method of critiquing, which really focuses on bringing out the best in each writer's work, as opposed to what we might call the "real world" method of trying to mould writers to meet the market!

  6. I was once a member of a critique group with my first novel, which I haven't finished yet. I'll get back to that after I finish my current one.

    My point is, at first it was disturbing, yet the people in the group were generally helpful and I learned so, so much. But after awhile, I noticed the whole purpose of my novel had changed and I no longer recognized it.

    I tried other groups before I realized I was done. I'd gotten all I could from critique groups and no matter how I changed something, someone found something they didn't like in it. By then I realized it was no longer critiquing I was getting, but criticism. I finally had to trust in myself.

    I'll always be grateful to those few who hung in there with me because I took away a lot of skills that have become second nature to me, and I made a few friends, ones I still stay in contact with.

    So you have to make up your own mind. You are right about your instincts. You should have tossed that one crit and been done with it. Keep up the good work.

  7. Thank you Elizabeth! You're so on the money re the never-ending cycle of critiques (which, like you said, sometimes turn out to be no more than criticism). At the end of the day, we as writers need to hone our skills as critique FILTERERS as much as anything else!