Feedback On Your Novel.Nov 15, 2020
First drafts are precious. They are tender, private, and for your eyes only. A first draft is a chance to tell yourself the story; to figure out the hopes and dreams of your characters (and, crucially, their flaws); to discover the world on the page. You might not have it all at the beginning, but you’ll certainly be one step closer by the end. A first draft needs to be coaxed, which is why we suggest you keep it to yourself – and why, when you work with your author tutor, we won't ask to see your prose too early in the process and suggest holding back on feedback until later.
Other writing courses may differ – I know this because I’d taken a few over the years. I have sat in classrooms workshopping 5,000 words of my classmates’ first drafts each week, during which I barely wrote a word of my own novel. I have read my early work aloud in the upstairs room of pubs across London and posted my burgeoning prose on blogs. And the feedback I received on my own writing… well. It was an experience, let’s say that.
Getting criticism early on in your novel's development can be quite the trip, particularly if you’re trying something considered a little unusual with your work in progress – like, say, writing about a couple falling in space with only 90 minutes of air remaining, intercut with their love story on a frankly batshit utopian version of Earth. (‘I would never buy it, Katie, and I don’t read this genre, but here are my thoughts…’ so began some of the first feedback I received on my novel Hold Back the Stars in a writing course workshop.)
The problem is this: when we ask for feedback, we are often looking for praise. When I show my early writing to anyone – Louise, Emylia, or my agent – I am secretly hoping for one response: their shock and awe that I am one hundred per cent a stone-cold genius. ‘No amends!’ my agent will cry to the sound of popping corks, sending a magnum of champagne to my home address. What writer hasn’t dreamed of this? Or at least a response that indicates you’re somewhere close?
But wait. Please trust me on this. Pause on asking your friends, family or fellow writers for feedback on your early first chapters. Don’t post it on a forum just yet. Because this is the truth: one ill-turned phrase in a throwaway response from a person whose opinion you’ve sought can upend your own sense of the novel. It can shake your belief in the project entirely. If we receive external input at a crucial stage of creation, it can shift us onto a different course – perhaps a genre swap to something far removed from the original gem of an idea, or worse, the abandoning of the project altogether. Worryingly, we’re often moving huge pieces to fit with the feedback giver's own taste. So why do we trust that person’s taste more than our own? Why are you listening to that person?
“The idea of asking people what they think is so bizarre as to be inconceivable to me […] I am a strong believer in the tyranny, the dictatorship, the absolute authority of the writer. On the other hand, when it comes to reading, the only thing that works is democracy.”
When to ask for feedback
If we presume, then, that the reason for wanting feedback is often a lack of confidence, we know why we’re sharing our early work too soon. Our belief in what we’re doing is wobbling, and we want someone else to tell us it’s worthy of our time or that it could even, perhaps, be great. It’s human. Because who wants to write 90,000 words only to find out they’re pish?
Here is what I’ve learned the hard way. Brilliant novels aren’t written in one stone-cold genius draft, hurled out into the world from the tips of the author’s fingers. Novels are built from layers and layers, broken apart and remade, then cut, incised, and improved at every slice.
When you sign a book deal with a publisher, almost every publishing house in the world follows the same editing process:
- Structural edit – an in-depth rewrite and restructure of the story (often more than one);
- Line edit – when the story structure is working, attention moves down to chapter and scene level;
- Copy edit – once the chapters are flowing, a brutal edit occurs on the sentence-level prose;
- Proof read – when the novel is laid out like a book, the author spots all the mistakes that slipped through the three (or more) previous rounds and sends their publisher into a spin by crossing out words as the print deadline looms.
Sounds intense, doesn’t it? And it is, like excavating a sculpture from a big old rock. Every publisher in the country knows it takes at least four intensive edits of a novel to crack it – and remember, the publisher’s structural edit isn’t on a first draft, because you’ll do three or four drafts on your own before sending it to an agent, who in turn might do a couple of drafts with you before sending the novel out to publishers. (Whew!)
So why would you show anyone your work at first draft stage, knowing, as we do, that it’s so far from being formed? Take heart that, at first draft stage, you cannot presume to have it all right there, yet. But if you carry on, you will.
And when you’re ready, when you’ve written and rewritten the novel a couple of times… then it’s time to share your work.
How to sift through feedback
You’re on your second draft or, even better, third draft, and so you might – after all this time – be wanting a bit of feedback. A toe-dip. A temperature check. A smidge of friendly critique.
This is an exciting moment! Your secret project is in front of other people’s eyeballs! Our members share work with their tutors - who know how to get the best from their story - and with each other after second draft at The Novelry Lodge. We ask two things: that our writers are kind and constructive, and to be generous with feedback, offering three other writers feedback for everyone that you ask for yourself. (Which is another reason, if you’re on first draft, why it’s better to keep chiselling away at that rock rather than using your precious writing time.)
But – huh? It appears some readers are saying one thing about your writing, while other readers are saying another. How do you know which advice is worth its salt, and which you can say ‘thank you very much’ and quietly ignore?
The most useful criticism you will be given often feels like that person is poking a bruise. It’s tender because those are your soft places, the parts of the novel you secretly knew weren’t working, but which you hoped nobody else would notice. It hurts, perhaps even stings, because they did notice. They saw your flaws and prodded them. And that’s a great thing.
If feedback feels ‘close to the bone’ it’s because you already knew it was your weakness. Come on! You did know, if you’re being honest with yourself. The plot point that felt too coincidental; the character who disappears halfway through and never comes back; that awkward scene which had some nice sentences, so you kept it, despite it slowing down the pace… Secretly, you knew. And now you’re left with no choice but to patch the flaw. Fabulous. The novel is going to be so much better for it.
Read your work aloud. This is one of the most valuable ways to assess your work, either solo or in a group. (Best to start with solo!) You will feel the exact moment your story dies on its arse. You will feel your chest flutter and wobble at the parts which are too overwrought. Your body will diagnose your prose. When reading aloud to a group, as our authors did during our Live Author Sessions at our Home Retreat Week last week, you will hear your audience will laugh at lines you didn’t know were funny, or notice their attention flagging and realise a scene is going on too long.
Look for consensus. If five people say they couldn’t gauge the intentions of the main character, but one person says it’s great, we might be inclined to listen to our lone cheerleader whose opinion, funnily enough, matches our own. But are there ways you could strengthen the characterisation without compromising the vision you have for the protagonist? Great! Do that. Pleasing everyone is a fool’s errand, and you’re under no pressure to address every concern raised with your work, but it’s no bad thing to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
While it’s plausible you might agree with a positive comment about your work, it’s far more likely you’ll be knocked off-kilter by one negative in a sea of positives. Have you ever found yourself dwelling on a mistake or insult? Perhaps your boss at work gave you a pile of compliments during your annual appraisal, but also gave you one criticism – one thing they wanted you to work on? Negative events have a greater impact on our brain than positive ones, which psychologists refer to as the ‘negativity bias’. This is something to watch out for – if you’re starting to obsess over a negative comment, at the expense of hearing the positives, imagine a siren wailing ‘Negativity bias! Negativity bias!’ in your brain as paramedics rush at your emotions with heart paddles.
I’m afraid, as a writer, negative bias will feel amplified. We’re not sharing office-based work that we undertake for an employer; we’re sharing the most private part of our creative lives with – we hope – like-minded souls. Writing is personal. It’s revealing.
Choose your critiquing partners wisely.
Whose opinion do you value, and why? Who do you trust is rooting for you to write the best novel you can?
Don’t look for people with the same background as you. If only people who grew up in the same town will ‘get’ your novel, then its appeal is likely too limited to be published. It’s also brilliant and useful to receive input from people writing in different genres, so never rule out the opinions of a crime writer even though you’re writing science fiction, unless they’re telling you it’s unlikely a story about the arrival of aliens could ever be popular.
There is some feedback you can dismiss out of hand. A hallmark of this sort is when it feels like it might not even be about your writing at all, the critique is so vague; or it homes in on a random element like your use of the word ‘nevertheless’. That person will never ‘get’ your work or what you’re trying to do. Personal taste is also personal bias, and you can’t write a novel that everyone will love. Sadly. One man’s Hemingway is another man’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s fine. Take criticism from people whose advice you would also seek.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Brene Brown, who was greatly inspired by President Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech (above), puts it like this:
“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
This is why I joined The Novelry as a member long before I became a tutor. I want to be in the arena with other writers, in a safe space where we lift each other up.
In the past two years of writing my third book, I have been lucky to receive gold-standard feedback that has changed, honed and shaped where I’m going with the novel. It’s pushed me in the direction I was dithering over going alone. Good feedback feels like a supportive hand on the shoulder providing a steer in the right direction. If feedback feels like a shove towards the train tracks, you can say, thank you, but I’ll take it from here.
Find the people you trust to steer you right.
From the Desk of Katie Khan.
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