Things I’ve learned about writing: how to receive feedback

Feedback. On your precious writing. Also known as critique, constructive criticism, edits, thoughts, comments, disemboweling, soul crushing … I’m talking here about those written reports, emails, notes, track changes etc, which might be given by relatives, friends, critique partners, tutors, mentors, competition readers, agents, and editors, to you, on your full or partial manuscript.

Never mind that you asked these lovely people to review your manuscript for free; or paid them for advice; or have a contract that shows they already love the story – giving your work to someone else to read can be heart-shakingly hard. You may have spent three years getting this story up to scratch, and then a person reads it in less than a day and tells you lots of things they think are wrong with it. HOW you respond to feedback may vary depending on the WHO, but trust me, it’s going to involve emotional turmoil of some kind.

You probably won’t like or agree with some of what they have to say when you first receive it. Any of these sound familiar?

  • The critic just doesn’t get what I’m trying to do.
  • What does she mean there’s too much description?
  • Why has he suggested cutting that entire chapter full of beautiful lyrical prose?
  • Get rid of my favourite character who may actually have no purpose?
  • What do they mean I used the word ‘just’ 70 million times? (okay, maybe that one’s valid.)

Ten Tips from someone who’s been there

Here are some tips from my own hard-earned experience of receiving (and giving) writing feedback:

1. All the feels: Accept that you might get emotional and allow yourself to feel all the feelings: anger; denial; irritation; utter, utter bleak despair, etc. But only for a bit. (It used to take me a full week, plus subsequent relapses. Now it’s down to about half a day and a large glass of wine.) I suggest giving yourself a one-week limit on the wallowing, otherwise you might talk yourself into giving up altogether, and not writing is a surefire way to never finish your manuscript, win a writing contest, get an agent, be published etc.

2. Let it out: During this period, vent if necessary to a friend, another writer, dog, cat, your pillow. I suggest doing this privately. It’s likely your critic moves in the same social media circles, and you may change your mind about their feedback after reviewing it. (see 3 and 4).

3. Share the feedback with a trusted (writer) friend who will helpfully point out all the positive things the feedback contains that you have failed to notice in your distress/panic/misery etc.

4. Re-read: When you’re feeling less fragile/ranty, go back to the feedback and re-read it. At this stage, I go through the notes and track changes replying to the critic’s comments and suggestions. I don’t share my responses, but I find it a useful way to blast away any residual indignation. And as I’m explaining my thinking, I start to see that some of the feedback I thought was ridiculous, is pretty helpful, and my responses might include: ‘hmmm’ and ‘good thought’, ‘will rethink this’ etc. For other points raised, I am very clear why they need to be there. But if the critic can’t see what I’m trying to do, maybe I need to add in a little more or make a change?

Quite often, what you think are going to be MAMMOTH plot-destroying edits, can be resolved by adding or removing a sentence or two.

5. Questions: On the next read-through, try to be objective. Ask yourself questions: What is the feedback really saying if you put your own emotions to one side? Why does the critic not get what you are trying to say? Why do they think you should cut a subplot, character or chapter? Think it through, pick it apart. Work out how it might work differently. Or if it’s better staying the same.

6. And more questions: The best feedback tends to involve the critic asking you things rather than ‘telling’ you what you should do. Some of their questions will be those you want your reader to ask – the things that will make them want to read on. (e.g., why did Jeremy hide that llama in the shed? I wonder if his mum will find out?) If the critic is picking these things up, then you’re doing well. Is the critic asking about something that will be explained later in the story? If so, do you need to seed it in earlier or does it work where it is? Is the critic’s question about clarifying some aspect of the story? If so – do you want your reader befuddled about it at this point (e.g., for a red herring or later plot twist) or does the reader need to be really clear about the issue at this point in the story?

7. Fresh eyes: However polished your manuscript is now, at some point it was a first draft; a vomit draft; a draft that had a 20,000-word subplot you’ve since dismembered; a draft with some chapters that were entirely constructed of: ‘and then this happened and then she did something really interesting and then…’  And when you’ve been working on a story for a long time, you can miss cling-ons from long-departed subplots or early unpolished writing. Think about how many times you use looking, shrugging, just. How a character who didn’t make it into draft two, randomly pops up in chapter 26. How often you spot typos in published books. Fresh eyes will pick these things up and that’s a real plus of feedback. Embrace the nit-picky editing comments.

8. Don’t bring me solutions … Feedback that points out big issues or inconsistencies is helpful, honestly. But critics sometimes offer solutions, and it can feel like they’re trying to run away with your story. I’ve been guilty of this myself when giving feedback. If you’re on the receiving end, it can make you feel defensive, but try to take it as a compliment: they’re so engaged with your characters they’re coming up with scenarios for them. Even if their suggestions don’t work for you, the process of looking at other options can sometimes lead you to a better idea than you had originally. 

9. Everyone’s a critic: Take into account WHO is giving you feedback. Of course, an industry professional’s editorial notes will be at the highest level, and they’ll be taking into consideration other issues like the gatekeepers and the market. And if they’ve bought your book, then you are most likely going to go along with their suggestions. Non-writers giving you feedback don’t necessarily understand the implications of cutting or changing something that seems relatively small to them – how snipping at a subplot or a minor character, can unravel the thousand threads you’ve painstakingly woven together to make a story. What I usually do in this situation is to get more feedback from other people and see if anyone else brings the issue up. If they do, it needs looking at. If not, keep calm and carry on. 

10. Tough love: Feedback is helpful even if it crushes your soul, sends you in a spiral, or you simply don’t agree with it. Feedback makes you think about your craft. It makes you examine your story. It helps you to be a better writer. Look on it at as necessary experience in toughening yourself up – you do need to be brave to put your words out there. Publishing is a weird and wonderful world, ruled by luck and serendipity. As you progress through the industry you will need to be open to constructive criticism and willing to make changes. Not everyone will love or like your story, but some people will. And writing a story is in itself an achievement.

Coming soon(ish): Things I’ve Learned About Writing: How to Give Feedback  

Mentoring, Editing and Reading Services

I’m now offering mentoring, editing and reading services for writers of Middle Grade, Teen and YA fiction, and short stories of all kinds.

I believe in giving kind and constructive feedback, and my aim is to help writers on to the next step of their journey.  If you’d like to know about my qualifications and experience please take a look here.

Services include a Submission Package, Full Report, Procrastinator’s Package, Beta Reading, and the Teen Reader Report. Further details can be found here.

Please take a look and get in touch if you’d like any further information.

Endurance Writing

This is not a humble brag, or any other kind of brag for that matter, (and if you ever saw me running, you’d know that is the truth), but I’m in training for a half-marathon. I’m the sort of runner whose main aim is to make it to the start line, never mind the finish. Personal bests, credible times and podiums (ha ha), be damned.

Anyway, I’m in the endurance phase of my training programme. These are the weeks when you turn up, day after day, and put in the miles. Good days, bad days, fast or slow, sun or rain, flowing or stuttering. (Yes, it is a writing metaphor.) Often, I feel like I’m getting slower, less fit, more achy. Too old, my body protests. But I keep on. Because I’ve been here before. In a few weeks time, some magic will happen, and I will run a longer distance than I ever felt was possible. (Yes, that is also a writing metaphor.)

Writing fills my mind while I run. I ponder specifics, like what one character will say to another, and how the hell I’m going to fill that quarry-sized plot hole. (Water? A lot of gravel?) I wonder if I’m any good, and will I ever be published, and will it matter either way, and should I just give up?

I’m not good at running. I’m not fast. I’m definitely not graceful. It doesn’t necessarily make me happier. But I have a need to do it.  And writing is the same. Something I need to do, deep down in the blood and bones and heart of me.

But still, some days I think of stopping. Sometimes, it’s too hard. In fact, I did give up once, for over a decade actually. It did me no good at all.

Today it occurred that the endurance phase of my writing life is now nudging twelve years. But then I realised that it’s not a phase at all, that this is writing. How it’s going to be. Whether you are published or not, if you have to write, the endurance phase lasts forever.

This, strangely, did not lead to despair. It made me relax. I accepted it. Being published, self-published, unpublished – all of that is very separate to what it means to be a writer.

These thoughts may have been set in motion by a writing group I went to for the first time this week. I walked into a pub and sat with a group of people, none of whom I’d met before. Some were published or self-published, some had no interest in publication, all had writing projects on the go – travel journals, graphic novels, therapeutic writing, screen plays, autobiographies, novels.  We spent time talking about our writing. We wrote for twenty minutes. We read out what we’d written – always a bit terrifying. We gave feedback to each other.

At the end, one of the writers said, ‘We’ve all done something special, something a bit weird, this evening. We’ve come here to sit and write.’

I left feeling both special and weird (which is, frankly, the best way to feel about yourself), and knowing that there are other people who feel like that too. In fact, some of the best people in the world are like that (they know who they are), and they have kept me going when I thought I might give up. People who are tied to writing too, who love it, and will keep on doing it for love alone.

So, if you are one of us, and you hit a bump/hill/mountain in your writing road, stand back a moment, and remember why you do it, remember why you write.

And then take out your notebook and your pen and …

 

More about #WriteMentor and me

I’m sure there are a few writers lurking around the WriteMentor hashtag not asking questions even though they might want to, and wondering if they have the nerve to apply to the programme. It’s scary to share your writing, and I avoided doing it myself for a really long time. But it is so worth being brave, being bold, and doing it.

The #WriteMentors are a genuine bunch who want to help their fellow writers. I haven’t met any of them in real life but we are connected by our passion for writing, and there is a wonderful supportive feel about the whole group.

This week has been frenetic on twitter. I’ve had my first Q and A sessions. It’s been fun, but I do find it pretty hard coming up with answers on the spot. We introverts need time to think before we respond! Also, I like to redraft fifteen times before I show anyone my words, even tweets … and I’ve just noticed a typo in one of them.

Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to have some more considered information about my writing and my critiquing experience.

Here’s a bit about what I write:

I write about the things that scare me. I am fascinated by voice – that’s the character’s voice (narrative voice) rather than authorial voice, and so I sometimes have multiple narrators. I also write speculative fiction – basically sci-fi that’s closer to real world than fantasy.

I write stories for younger teenagers and children, too, usually contemporary realism with a bit of humour, and the odd fantastical element.

I write in first person, third person and sometimes (probably more than I should) in second person. I usually write in present tense, but not always.

You can read an extract from my YA MS and a humorous teen short story on the ‘read’ menu to give you an idea of some of my writing.

What have I beta read, critiqued and edited?

Here are some examples of the types of manuscripts I have been privileged to read and give feedback on:

Middle Grade: fantasy adventure, third person, past tense; magical middle grade third person, past tense; magical middle grade, first person, past tense; contemporary issue-led middle, first person, present; historical detective; dual contemporary/historical narrative; adventure; funny 7-9, first person; fairy, third person; funny, first person, past tense.

Teen: funny detective, first person, present; LGBTQIA romance/humour, first person; adventure, third person.

YA: Historical UK set; Historical Europe set; contemporary detective, first person, present; Sci-Fi, first person; contemporary with magical elements; dark contemporary with multiple narrators; fantasy with dual narrator; LGBTQIA contemporary.

A bit about genre

Genre was coming up a lot in the Q and A. I read and love all sorts of books with the possible exception of horror, but I do understand that some readers and writers have a real passion for a particular genre (usually fantasy and/or sci-fi). I know that these superfans read fantasy in a different way to me – some of them are my closest friends! So if you want that kind of intense, genre-specific reader, one of the other mentors who specifically state that preference might be better for you. BUT, whatever the genre, your story still needs a plot, characters, voice, pace and so on and these are all things I am used to working with.

There are 27 mentors now on #WriteMentor! So, take a look and see if any of them sound like writers who could help with your work. You can choose three to apply to. The closing date for applications is 11th may 2018.

#WriteMentor – why I mentor

So, I’m a mentor for #WriteMentor and I wanted to explain why I signed up, my approach and the sort of ‘mentee’ I hope to support.

See that kitten? That’s me, hiding in a book. Although I’m not as furry, or as cute. But I did hide in books as a child. Painfully shy, an ‘extreme introvert’, books were a way to escape myself. And even now as an adult, when the world gets too much, or even when everything is just fine, reading is where I go. I love to read, and that is one of the reasons I like being a mentor. I want to read your words.

When I started writing seriously over a decade ago, I had this image in my head of the writer as a tortured soul alone in their garret. And I went with that for a few years, writing in isolation, afraid to show my words to anyone.

You can read about my journey out of the garret here if you like. But to cut a very long story short, which is kind of what this is all about, I discovered the wonder of working with other writers – sharing stories, giving and receiving feedback, and positive, constructive criticism.

I found my writing family while studying for an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. But I appreciate that such an opportunity is not available to everyone. So, I would like to support a writer who may be nervous about sending their story out into the world, or who hasn’t yet found their writing community, or someone who struggles with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ part of the journey to becoming a published author.

While I always try to offer critique in a kind, constructive manner, I will be honest with you if I think something isn’t working or needs improving. I’m also a detail person, and have a bit of a reputation for spotting typos and continuity issues.

An empathetic character and a strong narrative voice are far more important to me than genre. I like books that make me think and have some beauty in them. I read all sorts of stories but in particular I like:

In YA: Contemporary realism, the grittier the better; feminist speculative fiction; issue-led books, particularly mental health; historical. In MG: contemporary; magical; adventure; historical.

If this sounds like the kind of mentoring you’d like, please put me down as one of your choices on the mentee application. If not, take a look at all the other wonderful mentors available.

Mentoring news

I’m very excited to be involved with a wonderful mentoring project for young writers. Manuscription Magazine aims to ‘provide a place for young writers to submit their work and receive good, solid feedback, and experience professional publishing for themselves.’ The project is for creative people aged eighteen and under who can submit ‘stories, plays, poems, non-fiction, book reviews, videos, pictures … in all genres.’

The first round of submissions has just closed but there will be more opportunities to submit work going forward. Follow @_Manuscription for further news.