How To Take Feedback Like A Champ

The hardest part of any creative endeavour, after finding the courage to show it to someone, is being brave enough to hear what they think of it. Not all readers are created equal, and sometimes their thoughts or “suggestions” can sting a little. With that in mind, here are my suggestions on how to take literary feedback like a champ.

NB: What follows is a mix of advice from other writers combined with what I’ve found works for me, and whilst I will be talking about the written word throughout, most of what I am about to say will apply to art, music, cooking, in fact anything where you have had to bare your soul even a little bit.

Lock Up Your Heart

If you’re anything like me you’re about to have a big emotional reaction, so prepare yourself. I find it best to detach myself from the whole process by remembering that everything that is about to happen does not require an immediate response. It’s perfectly fine to simply accept the notes as they are given and take them away for further study later on. In fact, where possible, this is the preferred choice. Every note needs time to be given its due consideration.

Don’t Take It Personally

It’s perfectly understandable, when faced with someone telling you in great detail how hideous your precious little book baby is, to want to rip their head off. Don’t. Believe it or not it’s not personal, even though it feels that way. And whilst it may seem like this “so-called friend” is taking the opportunity to give you and your work a merciless bashing, quite the opposite is true. The vast majority of notes come from a place of love. The person giving you feedback only wants what’s best for you. They want to help you improve your writing in hopes of one day getting it published. That’s worth bearing in mind.

Remember Who You’re Dealing With

Is the person giving you feedback a professional, or simply a friend or family member? Do they create, or are they a consumer? Can they tell you what doesn’t work overall, or just what doesn’t work for them? These are all important things to consider when trying to weigh up how much importance to give to someone’s feedback.

It’s also worth considering how well you know them, how well they know you, and how well they know the genre/market you are aiming for? Will they get your jokes? Will they get your references? Will they understand the memes and tropes synonymous with your specific genre? Do they know what the reader will expect, and can they convey that in a clear and concise manner? (NB: They don’t have to, it’s not their job to provide you with notes that are “correct” in some way, but it does colour how you will interpret said notes when they arrive.)

Let Us Begin

Assuming that your feedback comes in the form of physical notes that accompany your original document in some way, the first thing to do is just read them from beginning to end. Don’t attach your mind to any one note, don’t obsess over them, don’t get caught up in the emotional roller coaster that’s about to happen, simply read them from beginning to end, set them to one side, do a little dance, scream into a pillow, then go make yourself a cup of tea.

Give It Time For Things To Settle

Depending on how many and how critical your notes are, you may need to take some time for the dust to settle. That’s okay. You do what you gotta do before coming back to look at the notes a second time.

It’s important to note that in this gestation period some notes will linger in your mind. They will be either obviously brilliant or obviously awful, and both are worthy of careful attention when you come back for that all important second reading.

So What Are We Dealing With?

The notes that you receive come in many forms, but in general they will fit into one of the following six categories:

  1. Compliments – These are the easiest notes to deal with, for obvious reasons. They are also the ones you will see fewest of, simply because people think their job in providing feedback is to highlight what doesn’t work, not what does. A good professional reader will always remember to say nice things. Your average amateur reader won’t. They assume that not saying anything means you’ll understand that they think everything else is fine. That’s something worth bearing in mind.
  2. Simple Fixes – As the name suggests these will be things like a typo, a sudden name change, a switch in tense, that are easy enough to fix once someone else has pointed them out to you, but you do need someone to point them out to you. (These notes generally involve the physical text itself rather than the characters or story line.)
  3. Good Points – These will be logical inconsistencies regarding character and plot which, when considered, make perfect sense. They might involve someone suddenly wearing different clothes without having changed, a character travelling hundreds of miles in a few minutes, the family dog leaping about like a puppy when it is in fact over a hundred in human years, or any number of plot points that used to make sense but have since gotten lost in the murky mists of countless rewrites. Whilst these notes may be a little embarrassing they are very helpful indeed. Cherish them.
  4. Wrong Points – Not all notes are good. Some of them are just stupid and wrong, and that’s okay. Every note has value, and if someone has felt the need to bring up something you feel is wrong (and obviously so) you need to ask why? What did you do, or didn’t you do, to make that question come about, and do you need to do something about it? Quite often a bit of clarification elsewhere in your manuscript will make something somewhere else that much clearer. And as with all writing, clarity is key.
  5. Thinkers – Readers often see stuff in our work that we cannot. This leads to a certain class of note that bears some consideration. It might be regarding what someone says or does, what they could say or do, their motivations behind doing something, things not happening the way they expect them to, or it could even be the fact that two characters actually quite fancy each other and they, the reader, kinda ship that idea. Notes such as this may lead to big changes, or they may simply be amusing asides that ultimately lead nowhere, but either way they are worth giving your due consideration as they could easily lead to some properly satisfying story gold.
  6. The Annoying Ones – Annoying notes are Thinkers that involve a lot of work which simply won’t go away. They feel Wrong, you want them to be Wrong, but deep down in your heart of hearts you know that they’re not. You know they will take you somewhere special if you let them, elevating your story to the heights of greatness. All you’ve got to do is rewrite the entire last half of you manuscript to get there. Annoying notes are right no matter how much you wish they weren’t. They should be looked at in great detail, and they should definitely not be ignored.

You Have To Choose

You don’t have to take all, or indeed any, of the notes that are given to you. Each set of notes, no matter where they’re coming from, represents one person’s opinion. Whether you listen to that person or not is up to you. As a rule though you’re likely to accept some, discard others, and struggle with the rest. That’s just the way it goes.

You can also play about with an idea before getting rid of it. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that. The important thing is to give each note its due consideration before letting it go. Sift that sand with a fine-toothed comb. You don’t want to miss out on any gold nuggets lurking at the bottom of the pan.

Say Thank You

No matter who is giving you notes, no matter how numerous or detailed they are, always, always, ALWAYS smile and say thank you afterwards. This person has taken time out of their busy schedule to trawl through what may very well be a dumpster fire of a manuscript in order to to provide you with their thoughts and opinions, all so that you can make your story that little bit better. It’s a very kind and generous thing that they have done, and they deserve our admiration and respect. Say thank you, buy them dinner, and for God’s sake remember to put their name in the acknowledgements when its publication time. It’s the least you can do.

Final Thoughts On The Whole Process

There are a few things to bear in mind when going through this whole process.

First, you need feedback from multiple sources. You need to compare and contrast different notes so that you can look for the consistent inconsistencies. If one person loves something and another hates it that’s a wash, and you can probably leave it be. But if everyone tells you there’s a problem then there probably is.

Second, if someone tells you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they’re probably wrong. If they have a vague idea that something isn’t right but they don’t know what to do about it, they’re probably right. It’s the difference between someone helping you write your story and someone trying to get you to write their story for them. One is good for you and one isn’t. I received so many notes on a short story once I ended up disregarding them all, because it was obvious they weren’t commenting on the story I had written but the story they thought I should have written, and that wasn’t a story I was interested in telling.

And third, writers, perversely enough, do not always give the best feedback. They quite often slip into “this is how I would have done it” mode (I myself am guilty of this). The best notes, the notes that are most helpful, the notes you get from professional readers, ask questions. Why did so-and-so do that? Where did he get that from? Are these two in love? These are the notes that can take your story from good to great, and from great to special. They are the gold among the sand, and they should be treated as such. A handful of good questions from the right person at the right time and your story will really start going places.

In Conclusion

Don’t fear the feedback process. It may involve more blood, sweat, and tears than you were expecting after writing the words, The End, but it’s all about making your manuscript the best it can be, and anything that does that can only be a good thing.

Acknowledgments

With thanks to Stephen King, William Goldman, Neil Gaiman, and that geordie art teacher I had at college whose name escapes me right now. Without your sage advice I wouldn’t know any of this.

My Top Writing Tips

I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.

I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.

It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.

I Am What I Am

You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.

NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.

But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…

When Is It?

I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.

Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.

Which bring me to my next point…

Make A Timeline

I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.

A tantalising photo of the many sheets of my timeline, all partially obscured, noted as Day One to Four, with the times down the side, and some bits of events next to them.

If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them

For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.

Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).

I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.

I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).

It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…

Compression

I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.

I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.

And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?

Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…

Too Much Description

*sigh*

One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.

(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)

My lovely head wearing a black newsboy's cap, like in Peaky Blinders and a pair of brass coloured goggles with black lenses that completely obscure my eyes.

What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.

Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?

Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.

NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.

As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.

But of course, just to contradict myself…

Go Nuts!

I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.

When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.

Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.

I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.

I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.

Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…

Purpose

This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.

In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.

Watch this scene from Apollo 13.

In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)

We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.

I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.

Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.

With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…

Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’

First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.

The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.

I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.

And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.

Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.

In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”

Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)

I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.

Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.

In Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.

If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.