Tag Archives: Feedback

A Second Look (Friday Fiction)

A few people who submit to the Friday Fictioneers (and other prompts) don’t like feedback. Well that’s fair enough for them, but I believe feedback is what makes my writing better. First, because good writers and real readers point out things I am too close to see, and second because my critics never let me rest on my laurels. You challenge me to write better, to question everything and I’m truly grateful.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted “Tea Party” and a bunch of you were kind enough to be honest and say you didn’t get it or got something I hadn’t intended from it. I had been, perhaps, a little too obtuse. That’s my word, not yours, you are all far kinder in your words. Then this last week, out came “Extraordinary“. Laying it on thick, you said, Obvious. (Though again, your wording was gentler).

I didn’t post either story as a rush job. In neither case did I sling out my first draft or something I wasn’t happy with, but you were there anyway, my faithful critics, to push me to on to another step, another improvement.

I want you to know I’m listening. I want you to know that I’m grateful. I may not always agree with your comments, but I always appreciate them.

This rewrite of Extraordinary is for you. For everyone who gives feedback, good and bad, and takes the time to help and encourage other writers. As ever, you are welcome to leave your thoughts, whether good or bad.

Extraordinary

When Libby watched Footloose with her sisters, they mocked the Eighties hairstyles and fashions, but she absorbed the lessons of the story itself: Confidence, individuality, strength.

At school, she tried to carry her hips with a bit of a sway, like Ariel. She was strong, unique, confident: unbeatable. The feeling outlasted even her teacher’s jibe.

“Sit down, Elizabeth,” shot Mr Caber. “You’re not on the catwalk now.”

“Meow,” Iain’s voice snarled behind her. It crowded over her like a stormcloud, building into something dark and powerful. Sliding down in her chair, Libby thought about how one boy can change everything.

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The Alpha in Betas

Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.

Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.

Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.

By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.

Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!

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For Feedback Part 2

For Feedback Part 2

It’s Christmas (or Thanksgiving if you prefer).The family’s come round. You’ve cooked a turkey and all the trimmings. It’s all come together beautifully and everyone’s sitting round the table tucking in.

Thanksgiving_Dinner_(3065145964)

Auntie Mabel pipes up. “Shame about these potatoes. I always think roasts should be soft on the outside.” You smile sweetly.

“I don’t know,” Uncle Peter replies, “They aren’t well done enough for me. And the bird is greasy. Could someone pass the gravy?”

“Well I think it’s all perfect.” That’s your brother, ever the peacemaker, although you notice he’s avoiding the potatoes too. “Thanks for doing the cooking, sis.”

There’s a general nod of agreement and then someone changes the subject.

Later, over the washing up, your little sister brings up the subject of the dinner again. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it,” she says, “But I read somewhere if you put two halves of a lemon inside the bird, it cuts through the grease – makes the meat a bit easier to digest.”

The last comment of the day comes from your husband, as he’s climbing into bed. “Triumphant dinner, darling. The gravy was particularly delicious. We should look for another recipe for roast potatoes though, they were the only weak point in what was otherwise a masterpiece.”

***

When I posted about feedback last week, I said I was in favour of any feedback. Some of you disagreed, and I can see why. The Mabels and Peters of this world are tactless and ungrateful. Some might say they should have followed the maxim “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” and in the context of a family dinner, that’s probably true. But on the other hand, feedback is useful. If you can get past way it’s given, they have a valuable contribution to make, which might improve next year’s dinner – the potatoes were disappointing and the meat was OK, but greasy.

The brother’s feedback is nice, because it makes you feel appreciated, and more likely to persevere (host again next year), but it’s not actually very honest. Or very useful if you’re trying to improve.

Your sister is tactful and useful – she makes a concrete suggestion in a way which invites you to take feedback as it should always be taken and given: as feedback on the product not the producer.

And the husband, of course, is the best of all. He sticks to specifics (gravy, potatoes), gives a feedback sandwich (good, bad, good) and he makes it completely non-personal (we not you).

But if you can train yourself to receive feedback constructively, all feedback has its value, even at its most tactless.

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For Feedback

I used to work as a sound technician in my university theatre company, and back then, feedback was something to be avoided at (almost) any cost. But since I left the theatre, I’m a convert. Feedback is a wonderful thing and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise!

In the theatre, feedback was the effect of a microphone being able to pick up the speakers it fed to. If I point a microphone at the lead and ask him to sing, the microphone picks up the sound and send it [via various amplifiers etc] to one or more speakers. If one of those speakers is standing behind the lead, he will be able to hear himself (that’s a good thing!) but there’s also a chance that his microphone will be able to hear the noise coming out of the speaker. Because the lead-mic-speaker process is all-but instantaneous, you end up with a feedback loop, which means the mic is picking up infinite copies of the same sound, amplifying them and pumping them out of the speaker, only for the mic to pick them up again. The result: an ear-splitting squeak that everyone in your audience will recognise as a bad thing.

However, outside the world of microphones and speakers, feedback has the opposite effect.

As a lawyer, one of my biggest challenges was the lack of feedback. It’s something we are usually good at providing in the education system, but the big wide world gives up. Many bosses only do any kind of evaluation during the Annual Review and even that can often be more of a formality than a useful exercise; Clients and customers who pay for a service usually take for granted whatever they get, and vote with their feet next time if they don’t like it.

When I became a waitress, things improved somewhat – I think the tipping culture makes customers in a restaurant more inclined to voice their opinions, and also as a waitress, one is expected to request feedback: “How is everything?”

But it is as a writer that I have really found the world of feedback again. Whether through this blog, or my offline writing groups, I have found people who are willing to share their opinions, good and bad, about the stories I write.

With a microphone, it doesn’t matter whether the lead is singing in perfect pitch or horribly off-key, the feedback loop will sound terrible either way. With human feedback, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad: if it is honestly and freely given, the recipient can use it to improve themselves if they choose to. Certainly there are more and less useful ways to give feedback, but frankly, giving it at all would be a good start.

I’m trying these days to give feedback in my daily life whenever I can. It matters to me if people notice whether I’ve gone the extra mile (or slacked off!) today, so I figure maybe it matters to everyone. How do you feel about feedback, both given and received?

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Writing Without Teachers

Last week, I read Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.

writingwithoutteachersThe book contains two distinct parts – so distinct in fact, that I’m not persuaded they belong in the same book, but there we go. First, Elbow gives us his theory for how to write more (and ultimately better) through what he calls “freewriting”; then he sets out a model for teacherless writing classes.

Freewriting

The main point of this section is that many people don’t write at all, or don’t write enough, because they get too hung up on writing well. They are frightened to start and if they do start, they spend too long polishing as they go. The result is very little work, and all of it filtered through the unreliable editor of the writer’s instant reactions.

Elbow suggests that writers (and by writers, he is talking about anyone who writes for whatever purpose; his focus is actually business- and essay-writing, rather than fiction) should let the words just flow, keep writing even if they have nothing to write except “I don’t know what to write”. He points out that editing should come much later, and that by starting at all, we often reach a much more honest and smooth voice than if we had tried to plan everything before putting pen to paper.

It fits nicely with how I write as a fiction writer. I find that the writing I do when I just start is often the smoothest, whereas when I make a detailed plan there are jagged edges as I try to make what is coming out of my head fit into it. my Friday Fiction stories are usually like that – I see the picture and it prompts a first line in my head, I start writing that and see where it takes me. I genuinely do find that characters and scenes are sufficiently developed in my head that I only have to transcribe what I witness to have at least the bare bones of a story.

Even in a pre-planned piece, the nicest bits are often the tangents, and in editing Phoenix Fire, I’m definitely redefining many of my ideas about what the story is really about, based on the ways the writing developed from the original plan.

There’s always editing to do afterwards, of course, but Elbow and I agree that this should be a different stage.

Teacherless Writing Classes

His theory here is that a teacher can only tell you one person’s reaction to your writing and presents his opinions as indisputable facts, thereby doing you a disservice twice over. Whereas in his “teacherless writing classes” (most people would call this a “Writing Group”, I’m a member of two in person and two online, none of which follows the Elbow method), you get feedback from a variety of readers. Moreover, he suggests that such feedback be strictly limited to facts (more on that momentarily), presented as mere individual opinions, thereby giving them more value but less power.

How does this work?

Well, a teacher has a degree of authority. If a teacher tells us something is good or bad, we tend to believe them, although with writing, like any art form, so much is subjective that this teacher’s opinion is just that. By contrast, if we receive the opinions of a dozen other writers, we get a more diverse spread and a better idea of how the wider readership might react. So far, I agree.

But in addition, he says, this wider readership should not attempt to give value judgements or to suggest changes. It is the writer’s job, and his alone, to rewrite the piece. The readers should only present facts about the way they perceived a piece of writing. So, for example “This paragraph felt boring to me” rather than “You used too many adverbs here” or even “This paragraph felt boring to me, I suggest you look at removing some of the adverbs.” Elbow is of the opinions that we cannot, as readers, know why a piece effected us in a particular way and therefore shouldn’t muddy the waters by trying to guess.

To an extent, he’s right. We can’t know for certain why a piece bored us, but as a recipient of feedback, I ALWAYS appreciate the reader’s attempt to share not just his experience but what he thinks caused that experience. Of course, it must always be the writer’s prerogative to disagree with or ignore the feedback he receives, but I still think it’s valuable to get the most specific and constructive feedback possible.

If I am having a piece reviewed, it’s the third kind of feedback above that I find most useful. It gives me a sense of how my words affected the reader (felt boring) AND why they think that was (too many adverbs). If just one reader out of 12 says this, I might be inclined to think that individual was just having a bad day, has a bugbear about adverbs or just isn’t my target readership, but if more than a couple of others agree, I’m going to take it seriously, and consider whether the adverbs, AND anything else about that paragraph, could be improved.

I’d love to hear whether anyone has tried Elbow’s methods, and what you think about feedback in general. And, if I know you in person and you want to borrow the book, just let me know.

 

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