Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role

“We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!” —from Elissa Field: comment on Read It and Weep (Not)June 21, 2012

“If you’re like most writers, no single thing will help your writing more than learning to use feedback well.” —Jack Rawlins, The Writer’s Way (emphasis mine)

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s Read It and Weep (Not) which addressed the role of the reader in sharing writing. We older or more experienced birds who have participated in workshops or swapped our work for a while may have the thicker skin Elissa Field refers to above. I say may have, because I still feel vulnerable when I put my work “out there.”

Journal with mark-up
http://www.microsoft.com

Let’s assume, though, that the readers of our stories have given their all, and now we, the writers—isn’t it fun to say that?—get to receive comments. Sometimes we receive them in a writers’ workshop where not only do we hear comments, but we may also hear a discussion of the work as though we’re invisible (because in many workshops, that’s our job as writers during the discussion of our work: to be all eyes and ears but remain silent). Most workshop leaders set the tone and establish guidelines for feedback, so generally, it’s a pretty safe place to be, or at least I’ve found it so. Not everyone is so lucky; see my story in the earlier Read It and Weep (Not) post about the poet who left the building.

Squirming in the Spotlight

These days, writers also participate in writing partnerships or groups online where it’s possible to gather in chat rooms, forums, or “Skype” and experience some of the same connections a “live” group has. Whether you’re in a real group or a virtual one, the first order of business for the writer receiving feedback is to be as focused as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Listen. Jot down key words or phrases, just enough to remind you later what was said. Why? Because if you’re absorbed in writing down every word, you’ll miss something important. A comment stings? Note it, move on. Don’t let it distract you. Your purpose is to learn as much as you can about what your trusted readers believe is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • Bite your tongue! Many workshop leaders will ask writers to be silent until the comments end. Then you can ask questions or re-visit comments if you need clarification. The writer’s instinct is to jump in: “But wait! That’s not what I meant!” Or “You’re completely missing the point. Didn’t you read . . .?” Bite your tongue!

Trendy, Timely Reads

Others exchange work by email, which takes away the face-to-face element but can still be productive. I swap work with a couple of writer-friends I met at workshops whose writing and work ethic I respect.

Let’s say I get a story back, marked up using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature (which I personally like; it allows the reader to mark passages and insert comments) and/or with a summary comment of her impressions of the story. I read through it and skim the comments. I try not to “talk back”! I read it again, making my own notes. If I have more than one reader (and I advise you to, if at all possible; it’s helpful), I look for trends. If different readers point out the same issues, then I’d better have a closer look.

Whether you’re working “live” or by email, avoid the pitfalls Jack Rawlins describes in his book, The Writer’s Way. 

Don’t be defensive about your work. Deep down, don’t we want to be told the story’s wonderful, don’t change a thing? We need to ask ourselves what we want: to get the pat on the back that’s almost a dismissal, or to make our work the best it can be. We have to be open to honest feedback, or we won’t learn a thing. If additional explanation seems necessary, the story may not be clear. Often, stories are much clearer in our heads than they are on the page. There may be holes we aren’t even aware of.

Come to the writing partnership with questions. What are your issues with the work? Where are you stuck? Where do you have a gut feeling something’s not working?  Each writer will have her own issues, and those issues will change from one project to another. Get them out front.

It isn’t the reader’s job to tell you what to do (although with specific problems, she might offer suggestions); the reader’s job is to ask questions of the text and to respond to it with honest insight and knowledge of craft.

Don’t be submissiveThe submissive writer wants her readers to “fix it,” or she thinks she has to take advice that goes against her better instincts. Before deciding to follow someone’s advice, put the story away for a while. Then pull it out and ask yourself, “Do I want to do this? Would the story be better for it?” Drop your defenses, but don’t roll over and play dead. Ultimately, the work belongs to you. After careful consideration, decide for yourself which advice to heed and which to ignore.

And finally, a note about your manuscript: make it as clean and error-free as possible. You want your readers to concentrate on substance. It’s not their job to do your proofreading, and a messy manuscript distracts from the main purpose.

Reading and sharing each other’s work is indeed a partnership. At its best, it’s a collaborative effort that makes the work stronger. So be brave. Be open to the possibility for change. Put your work out there!

What are your feelings about receiving feedback? What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to writers who may not have had as much experience as you? Please add your “feedback” in the comments. Let’s continue the conversation!

Nobody’s Perfect! Or, The Case of the Ugly Duckling

Perfection? Not even this.

Over at The Artist’s Road, Patrick Ross has a great post today (May 18) entitled “Does Insecurity Drive Creativity”? He started me thinking about perfectionism: a driving force? Or a recipe for failure?

Born a “Pleaser”

I’m not sure where the trait comes from, but I’ve always been a “pleaser.” When I was little, whenever I was disobedient, my mother wielded the switch (for those of you who aren’t Southern, that’s a small branch or twig, not an electrical device), but all my dad had to do was look at me—a look that conveyed his disappointment—and I would crumble in shame and remorse. I had failed to live up to expectations. My growing-up faith played a part in it, too; if I misbehaved, God wouldn’t be happy with me, either. The report card with straight A’s, the flawless piano performance, the honors and awards at school affirmed I was a person worthy of love and acceptance. It was never said; just understood. Later, it was marrying the “right” boy, having children who also measured up, being the “best” teacher. Affirmation was a deep need, and sometimes, it still is.

Recipe for Failure

Perfectionism’s twin is self-doubt. If I set impossible goals for myself—substitute “my writing” here—how will I ever measure up? I’ll never be good enough at what I do to risk putting it “out there,” which is absolutely necessary to succeed. Those countless times I read over a manuscript before I submit it—fiddling with it, putting a word in here, taking a word out there (sometimes the same word), even after major revision is done—are signs of self-doubt that must be overcome if I’m going to succeed on any level.

Granted, none of us should ever throw a story out there without careful thought and attention both to what’s working and to what’s flawed (and that includes a careful proofreading). But obsessing over it and trying to make a “perfect” product will most certainly undermine us. At some point, we have to let the work go. We have to take chances. Hopefully, the successes will come, and we’ll learn from the rejections.

Growing Pains

At some point, too, it’s necessary to give the work over to others whom we trust to bring to it a different context of knowledge of craft and insights. When we do that, we have to be prepared for criticism.

Having my work critiqued has generally been a positive experience, and I value it highly. I had a fine writer/workshop leader tell me once, though, in a private moment outside of the workshop, that I was a terrific writer, but I needed to be more confident. Duh, I thought. But she was right. I never want to be blindly confident in my work. That’s a recipe for disaster, too. But I want to strike a balance between knowing something is good and being open to criticism that might make it better.

Liken the process to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Ugly Duckling.” That hatchling was an odd bird indeed among the “normal” ducklings. The mother duck looked after him, she defended him, but the cruelty of others led him out into the world time and time again, where he continued to be rejected until he found his proper place: among beautiful swans. Lucky little guy; his growth process was genetically engineered. He wouldn’t stay ugly forever, but he had to get to the beauty not only through the process of growth but also through hardship.

None of us wants to be the brunt of cruel criticism. That has no place in a productive writing community. At its best, feedback nurtures us and nudges us toward better work.

Let’s let go of perfectionism. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s choose confidence  over destructive, bottom-skimming self-doubt. Let’s seek out and build a community of readers and writers who know how to be kind and supportive, yet can deliver the kind of insightful help we need.

Is perfectionism a hindrance to your growth as a writer? If so, what strategies do you use to overcome it? I welcome your comments!

The Rigors of Revision

Over the past month or so, I have revised my first novel Whatever House for the umpteenth time. Seriously, I’ve lost count. I had put it away nearly a year ago, having given up on the agent search (Who has time? Who wants to deal with the rejections?) to move on to other—I thought, I hoped—better work.

Back in the spring, my husband and I were at Hambidge (a wonderful artists’ retreat center in the mountains of north Georgia; if you don’t know about it, check it out) for a couple of weeks. One night after dinner with the other artists in residence, he called me out: “You talk about writing the second book and having ‘one in the drawer.’ Wouldn’t it feel a whole lot better to say that the first book is ‘out there’ instead?” He was right, of course. That first novel, like a Cinderella stepchild, was languishing, wanting attention.

So I got back to work on it. I cut some of my “beauties,” the words and paragraphs, even whole scenes sometimes, that it’s hardest to let go of, especially the metaphors that seemed brilliant when I first wrote them but make me cringe now.  I added: details, narrative, dialogue, scenes. I increased the emotional stakes for the main character. I tried to make the opening “sing” to draw the reader in. My husband read it. Again. For the umpteenth time. A writer-friend I met at Writers in Paradise is also reading it. We’re reading for each other, and that’s a very good thing. Other minds, other sets of eyes, are essential to this process. No holds barred. Tell it like it is. (I’m venting  my cliches here!)

Whatever House is now a svelte 91,000 words. It was a whopping 114,000 when I began this revision. We won’t talk about how long the original draft was. That’s a LOT of stuff on the cutting room floor. But the book is tighter and richer, the main character is stronger, and maybe, just maybe, it’s more appealing to readers.

Whatever happens, I learned much in the process. Thank you, my kind and diligent critique buddies. I owe you. Big time.