Helga’s Post #28 — Ah, sorry, this is not about 50 Shades, but the topic du jour: feedback on our writing.
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
I am lucky. Because in case I missed out on the gift Ernest Hemingway thought essential, my writing partners will put me straight. I know I can count on them. They are the toughest, kindest, most brutal, most loving, most caring people I’ve ever met.
So this post is all about Critiques. How to give them, how to receive them.
Our last few posts on this blog focused on that very issue. That’s because the 5 writers will soon be facing their biggest challenge yet.
No, not the challenge of finishing our novels by May 15th, though that’s formidable enough. As Joe mentioned in his last post, that date may seem far away, but this particular day lurks on the calendar. Unmovable. Irrevocable.
On May 16th, the real challenge begins. That’s when we start reading each others’ manuscripts. Four books for each of us to read, and to critique. One week for each full-fledged book to read and to critique.
And then, during the week starting June 15th, each of the 5 writers will take the floor as our motley group gathers and speak for two hours critiquing each book. If math is not your strong point (neither is it mine), it comes down to this (let’s pick on Joe as an example):
He is sitting somewhere comfy (a must for what’s about to happen to him), legs crossed, never-empty coffee mug resting nearby, pen in hand, writing pad on lap, beloved Vega at his feet. The clock strikes 9:00 AM. Throats get cleared. The first critic has the floor. For an entire two hours. Likely with intermittent and unsolicited comments from the rest of the motleys. Then the next speaker takes over. And the next, until at the end of the day, poor Joe will have received eight hours of critique of his novel, from four people, who, such as human nature goes, may have widely different views on the quality of his manuscript.
We haven’t yet decided on the lineup. The way it worked in the past was the host(ess) got critiqued first, clockwise in the way we were seated. (Do you sense some strategy, some tactic that may have been employed in the seating order? Such as, the last writer to be critiqued may get less time, as everyone’s energy and attention span wanes, and we all want to go home? Of course not. Writers wouldn’t do that.)
But this time around there won’t be a host, as the 5 writers will be ensconced somewhere at the Village in Whistler. Maybe we’ll draw names from a hat to keep it democratic. If you think all this procedural stuff is trivial, think again. There is politics involved.
Yes, politics. Anyone who has ever been part of a team or a group, which means most of us, knows how much strategy is involved in the actual ‘process’ of meetings. The seating order, the lineup of speakers, the strength of coffee served, all could influence a meeting’s outcome. Meetings can get derailed because of poor planning, which means everyone leaves with a knot in their stomach. Bad feelings can carry over and keep you miserable for days and sleepless at night. It’s counter-productive.
Granted, our critique group meetings are not quite in the same league as your routine corporate meetings with agendas and specific goals. Also, there’s no money involved. Our meetings have no written agendas (usually), but our goal is always the same: to provide each of the 5 writers objective feedback on their work. Feedback that points out strong points as well as flaws in our writing, which should result in a better novel in the end. To see each of our books published. Just as we pledged back on September 5th 2012, the start of our challenge.
And ‘Feedback’ is where the challenge lies. We want to give useful feedback on how to make the writing better, but in a manner that’s not a death blow. Somewhat gently, but not so gently that it’s take-it-or-leave-it for the writer. Of course, we all want to hear we’re wonderful and without flaws. Hearing that our writing is not always stings, even when we’re genuinely interested in improving it.
One really great aspect of the 5 writers group is that we all realize there’s lots of room to improve. We have learned since we established our group that getting one’s ego stroked does not necessarily make our writing better. That’s for needy writers. Mostly, getting ‘hit’ with a comment pointing out flaws is far more helpful. As long as the feedback is given sincerely and void of sarcasm, it will target, like a heat-seeking missile, what needs to change and what the writer needs to focus on.
We all have different personalities and patterns of communication. Our perspectives on what constitutes flaws and strong points can vary widely. That’s the human nature dilemma, or strength if you will. One critic thinks your main character is god’s gift to women, while another thinks he’s a perennial ninny. I like to think of it as our strength. Think about it: We get not only one, but four opinions on each aspect of our writing. If I’m receiving consistent feedback on my writing from every member of my group, I had better listen up and sharpen my pencil.
Because it will make me a better writer. Guaranteed.
Evidently, the critique process ahead of us in June will be far more complex and challenging. Because each of us will have written a complete novel without the usual feedback and handholding for the monthly thirty pages the way we have done critiques in the past. There is far more at stake now, because we’ve been flying solo during the entire process of writing four hundred or so pages. For all we know, our manuscripts could be headed for the NYT Bestseller list, or the dung heap. Or somewhere in between.
One thing we can count on, without reservation, is mutual trust. Yes, egos are involved, and yes, we all need positive stroking. But when we dish out the spanking, we do it with honesty and best intentions.
A gift, no less.
“Positive feedback is like the wind in your sails.Corrective feedback is like a rudder to keep us on course.” (Dr. Matthew White, Psychologist)