Posts Tagged how to get feedback
I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.
A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.
I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.
I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?
I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.
With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.
First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.
Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.
Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?
Writing is rewriting
Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.
Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.
Writing is many skills
Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.
But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.
Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.
Her book is not rubbish
Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.
Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.
We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.
Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.
I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:
- some parts will be overcooked
- some will be undercooked
- and hopefully some are just right.
After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?
I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.
Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.
‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’
Find Carol here.
Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.
‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!
Find Peter here.
Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.) Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.
‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.
‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.
‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)
Find Marcia here.
Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.
‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.
Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.
Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.
Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.
‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.
‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.
Find Claire here.
As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think. And her point leads me to a final tip.
To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.
I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.