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

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!

Futile Seeds

The seed stealer

My husband and I are novice gardeners. Last year, he built raised beds and put in tomato plants, peppers, squash, eggplant, and sugar snap peas, and I planted herbs and a single heirloom tomato in a smaller patch behind the arbor in the back yard. For our efforts we harvested two or three small bell peppers that we figured cost us about $40 each.

This year, we were less ambitious. We planted basil and artisanal lettuce seeds. We’d read some good gardening books, and we scattered the seeds generously, thinking we would cull the weaklings and save the stronger seedlings and transplant them. No cold frame starts for us! We waited until there was no danger of a freeze and put those seeds right into the ground. In about eight weeks, we figured, we would start to have homegrown salads, no more of that store-bought “spring mix” that’s already going bad by the time you bring it home. That was six weeks ago.

At this point we can’t tell the tiny lettuces from the clover that threatens to take over. If we were into clover salads, we would be all set. Something has been enjoying them; there are holes all over the little plot where some little critters—maybe the one at left, or one of her many offspring, or maybe the birds—have dug up the seeds and wrought havoc of my neat little rows.

Futile seeds, I call them. Poor babies . . .

My backlog of story ideas and drafts seems something like those seeds. For whatever reason, some stories don’t flourish. What seemed like a good idea falls on infertile ground. It goes nowhere, or sometimes, it goes on for pages and pages. Maybe it even gets finished. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t work.

So what to do? Consign it to the story compost heap? Move on to new ideas?

Well, new ideas are always good, but never underestimate the power of a failed story! I used to advise my writing students when they were “workshopping” each other’s pieces to look for positives before they raised any questions or negatives. That’s not a bad idea for most of us. I look for what’s working in a piece. Maybe it’s a scene; maybe it’s a paragraph or a sentence or an image. I think about other stories that have succeeded. By succeeded, I don’t necessarily mean they’ve been published, although some of them have been. They feel complete; they’re satisfying; there are no “holes.” They’re tightly woven, without excess. They move along. I still get emotionally involved with the characters when I read the story, even though it’s mine, and I’ve read it a hundred times. They surprise me. They make me cry or laugh, or they make me ashamed or angry. I can read them without getting that feeling in my gut, however vague, that something’s wrong. That gnawing feeling always, always tells me I need to go back and have another close look.

So what nurtures a “good” story into print?

Ah. Luck, you say! There’s some of that, certainly—the trick of finding just the right niche for a story. But mostly, it takes perseverance and the courage to keep trying, to keep getting better. It requires openness to doing things differently and learning the craft. It requires picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It takes the willingness to swallow hard and turn a rejection, sometimes multiple rejections, into possibility.

When I revise, I ask myself two very simple but crucial questions:

1)   What doesn’t belong? I prune unmercifully; after all, nothing, absolutely nothing, belongs in a short story that doesn’t advance it in some way.

2)   What’s missing? I try to read like a stranger to the work. Will it make sense, will it resonate for another reader? A story can be much clearer in my head than it is on the page.

I also get somebody else to read it–two or three people, if I’m lucky. It’s always interesting what someone else sees, or doesn’t see, in a story. That’s crucial, too.

And I read. I read short fiction by writers I admire. I analyze what they do and how they do it.

So, poor seeds of stories, poor wilted ones—maybe you have a chance after all. I’m writing this post mainly to me, of course, to remind me to get back in there and get my hands dirty. That’s what it takes.

What are your favorite revision strategies? How do you bounce back from rejection? Please share; I’d love to know!