Fiction know how – getting feedback

simon-morden-the-lost-artIn this first of a series of guest blogs by other writers, the Crafty Writer is delighted to have Science Fiction author Simon Morden share his views on how to deal with feedback. Simon is the author of the recently released The Lost Art and has also had a number of novellas and short story collections published. Simon says:

When you start writing, just showing your work – especially fiction – to anyone else is a nerve-wracking experience: assuming, of course, you don’t have such a gargantuan ego that you believe everything you do is wonderful. To those people, you may move along, nothing to see here, for you will learn nothing and never become a better writer. To the rest of us mortals who are prepared to have our hopes, dreams and very sense of self crushed beneath the withering sarcasm of others, good. There may be hope.

Step One: Friends and family

We’ve all seen them. They appear weekly on our television screens, parading their talents before the judges, begging and pleading for the chance to be famous. They’ve been egged on by their mum and dads, their best friends and their work colleagues, and perhaps they genuinely believe they’re in with a good shot at being selected. Yes, X-factor time is with us again, proving beyond all doubt that wishing we could do something well is a world away from actually doing it well.

Writing is a lot like singing. Most people can sing, and most people can write: but in the same way that belting out Billy Bragg’s New England in the shower doesn’t make me a singer, scribbling a stream of consciousness onto a pad of A4 doesn’t make me a writer. Are you serious about writing? Then you’ll practice. You’ll dedicate time, effort, and perhaps money to your training. How much? Daniel Levitin writes in This is Your Brain on Music:

… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

If you’re willing to invest such a large part of your life in one thing, doesn’t it follow that at some point you’re going to have to take the risk and show someone else what you’ve written? And yes, when you start out, it’s not going to be Martin Amis or Ray Bradbury or Michael Ondaajte. But they had to begin somewhere, and they were once beginners just like you.

So what kind of feedback can you expect from people you know and who don’t want to upset you? Partly, any feedback is good feedback. “I smiled when I read that.” “He made me laugh.” “I was scared when this happened.” All signs of good feedback, because you’ve engaged the readers’ emotions. Ask people to check for grammar, for spelling, for sense. If your readers don’t understand something, it’s because you the writer haven’t been clear enough.

When you’ve got constructive comments, re-edit your work. Make it better. Pass it around again. If you find someone in particular whose criticism you especially value, buy them presents, cook them meals and generally be lovely to them. They are worth their weight in gold.

Step Two: Editors

At some point, you’re going to realise that you’re ready to send your babies out into the big bad world of publishing. Shortly after, you discover whether the nice things your mates have been saying about your writing is either true or a massive pack of lies, for it is time for the Rite of Passage known as The Rejection Slip.

I’ve a drawer full of them. So has most every other writer I know, if they haven’t already taken them outside and ritually burnt them. I still get them, just less often now. They range from the simple “thanks, but no thanks”, through to “close, but no cigar” and “nearly, but I’ve just taken something very similar from someone much more famous than you”. I’ve even got a “what were you thinking?”

What do you learn from them, except that there are an awful lot of writers out there and most of them seem to be better than you? You learn nothing from the simple rejection slip, but sometimes you’ll get a note with it. Editors like writers who show promise. They want to help you, and if they have time, they’ll say what they liked and what they disliked about your story.

Pay special notice to these. If you read “your plot, whilst exciting was full of logical holes”, don’t think that the editor was an idiot. Go back. Re-read your manuscript. Try and find out what they meant and why. “Your characters were two dimensional” does not mean you need to do less work on your characters: it means you need to do more. Whether you like it or not, editors are editors for a reason, and they’re paid to get the best work they can from writers. What you have to work towards is making certain they’re taking that best work from you and not someone else.

When The Lost Art was being edited, I had several intense discussions with both my editor and the big boss, David Fickling. We talked a lot about structure, and how the book was paced. We talked about passages which they were unclear as to the meaning. We talked about characters, their over- and under-use. I didn’t stamp my feet and cry out that they were fools and dullards. I worked through their points and either argued my case or incorporated their suggestions into the finished book. The first draft was pretty good. The final draft was better – and better because I worked with my editors to improve it, not because I worked against them.

Step Three: the Public

So your story has reached the shelves. What happens next? For the greatest part, nothing. If you’re lucky, though, you’ll get a few reviews and some readers seeking you out to comment on your work. Meeting these readers is a good thing: some will be incensed about your murdering the English language, but most will want to say nice things to you, which is always welcome.

Reviews are a little more problematic. It’s still one person’s opinion, but it assumes an importance directly in proportion to the readership of that review. A bad notice in Obscure Genre Monthly can be dismissed with a shrug: a hatchet job in the Independent is harder to ignore. Good reviews from whichever source are always well-received by both author and publisher, but should you actually pay any attention to what the reviewer says?

The answer is yes and no, but mainly no. The reviewer is saying what they liked and disliked about your story. This in no way trumps the editor who accepted your work. Certainly, if every review says the same thing, it might be time to sit up and take notice, but I’ve found that that’s not the case. My novella Another War has been both praised and condemned for its characters and its plot – and it was definitely the same book the reviewers read. You can’t please everyone, and neither should you try. Some people will like your style, some won’t. Some people will engage with your characters, some won’t. The maths of the situation bear this out: if just one percent of the population of the UK like your book enough to buy it, you’ve made 600,000 sales. No matter that the rest hate it with a passion, anyone is going to laugh all the way to the bank with those sorts of figures.

Apart from never, ever making the mistake of replying to a review, good or bad, writers should realise that reviews aren’t there for them. The proof of a decent piece of work is in the sales and whether your editor wants to work with you again. So much of this is a learning process: finding out who to trust, who to ignore. While you can’t afford to be blown around by the vagaries of a dozen conflicting points of view, you should find those opinions you can trust, listen to them, and act on their advice. No-one is above a good editor.

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One comment on “Fiction know how – getting feedback

  1. JEAN LOCKHEAD on said:

    Thank you fow Fiction Know-how: Getting feedback. I found this part of the course reassuring as it has made me realise that I’m not the only person who gets rejection slips. The course has handled writers block because I found that one of the lessons on writing a short story enabled me to write by stimulating constructive analysis of each subject. This lesson has reinforced the earlie topic.

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