Last night I invited a group of friends, fellow writers and people whose opinion I value to critique and feedback on the first three chapters of my novel. I’d never done something like this before but I knew that the only way I was ever going to improve and have a chance at getting this book published was to open it, and by extension myself, to criticism. I’ve waged an internal battle with feedback forums since I began writing seriously a few years ago. I had all the usual complaints about the quality of the feedback, the credentials of the people giving it to me and of course how completely deflated I would feel afterwards. I’d tried writing groups but I hadn’t found one that I felt comfortable with or other writers who were writing similar material to me. People rarely made consistent appearance and as a result it was very difficult to build the trust you need to really workshop a piece of writing.
It didn’t help that my work was terrible. I can honestly say that I’ve come a long way since those early attempts but the fact was that when I first started writing, my writing read very much like someone who had just started writing. As a result of this it took me a long time to build confidence in myself as a writer. Well, enough confidence to survive someone telling me work wasn’t good.
Fortunately or unfortunately, no-one was brutally honest with me. Perhaps they should have been because the first book I wrote was genuinely awful. I managed to see that for myself in the end and even though I didn’t get from that point to this by the quickest route, it feels like it was a very worthwhile and rewarding route none the less.
Which brings me to book number three. It’s my second attempt at a novel (my first publication being a book of short stories entitled Outliers) and I have to admit I’m rather proud of it. I felt confident that at the very least it wasn’t complete shit but was still afraid of hearing that what I thought of as my first credible work might be eviscerated.
In the lead up, the feedback session was out of sight and out of mind. I spent the day working on a play I’d been commissioned to write (more on this another day) but at the appointed hour the nerves came thick and fast. They were quickly dispelled.
There were compliments yes, but the best thing that came out of it was quality feedback that I can take away and use to improve the story’s opening. The difference in both quality and mode of delivery of the feedback compared with previous forums I’ve experienced was astonishing. I didn’t feel attacked or disemboweled, I felt supported and keen to probe the critiques, offer alternatives and take on board everything that was offered.
Like so many significant moments for me recently, this one was almost anti-climactic in how easy and natural it felt. I’ve found that fear grows the longer it is left unfaced and peaks at the moment before it is. After that its like taking the blind fold off and realising that you were never in any danger.
If you are keen to have a feedback session of your own I offer these pieces of advice
- Pick your participants wisely – This doesn’t mean just inviting your friends. Think carefully about both your social circle and wider network in choosing who to invite. You should pick people from diverse backgrounds and demographics (age and gender particularly). If your work is aimed at a very specific demographic, still try to have a diverse group but make sure your target market is well represented. Make sure they are people that you trust and who will come with the intent to help improve your work rather than just give their ten cents. Participants don’t need to be literary savants but it helps if they read and know a thing or two about writing.
- Start with Clarifications and Questions – You know the book back to front but you feedback group won’t so start by answering questions about plot, characters or anything that was unclear in what they read. This will also help you to tighten up any ambiguities that might be pivotal plot/character points.
- Question Questions – When someone gives feedback, try to get as much detail from them as possible. Ask if they would suggest an alternative, have a solution or offer one of your own.
- Be Patient – There will be lulls in conversation, don’t get impatient. Use the time to take notes and let people review their notes. If you’re really stuck have a few questions of your own to stimulate conversation.
- Be Honest and Open – These people are not going to steal your ideas and cluing them in plot, twists and even the ending is not going to make or break your sales figures or chances of publication. It’s really helpful to know where certain elements of the book are going in formulating feedback.
- Take Notes - This might be self evident but I’m saying it anyway. The sessions aren’t very helpful if you cant remember what is said. Even think about recording it if you like.
Finally, remember that no creative endevour can be achieved single-handedly so use your support network, get people involved and take a few risks. The more people you bring in the more your work and your process will be enriched because writing can be a very lonely pursuit and it feels fantastic to bring people into my crazy little world.