Warning: here be bad metaphors and analogies. I haven’t written a blog post in years.
But I woke with the urge to talk feelings and critical feedback. How I cannot write alone. How I get lost. How even the dead-ends are paths to the heart of the story.
Most of my manuscripts, apart from the first and the most recent, have been written to “The End” before I let another pair of eyes look at them. Once a coherent (loosely) draft is completed, I seek critical feedback from a small group of trusted beta readers I’ve gravitated to over the years. One local to me, most interstate and, in the past, overseas.
They are trusted, not because I think they won’t rubbish it, but because I can read what they really think when they say things like “I am not sure if…” I also know the tone and volume of feedback I will receive from each beta reader, and sometimes I will not send it to one or other of them if I want to be given a harder lashing than they may be prepared to give. (!)
All feedback is valued, even if I don’t see it at first. It’ll be the stuff that wakes me up a year later (ahem) thinking, ‘ohhhhhhhhhhhhh’. If only I had been told to my face, rather than have it couched in nicey nicey, then I would have arrived at this point sooner. Would I have listened then? Would I have understood?
Most of the time, yes. When I send my manuscripts off to my beta readers I’ll always say, “please don’t mark up the bits you like, only the bits you don’t”. The feedback I am most interested in is how they feel, even if it is just “this doesn’t feel like it works”. A question I always ask is to comment on the parts they skim-read. I don’t think any of them have been harsh enough in this aspect, despite my urging. But these parts are where I need to be most ruthless in cutting. My worst fear is to bore the reader. Better to bore the beta. (Say that ten times.)
I thrive on harsh critical feedback. Works-in-progress, I mean, for there’s nothing I can do to pull the flesh from the story and rearrange the bones once it’s in a bookshop. (The fact I thrive on harsh critical feedback of my book on GoodReads is something I need to take to a therapist.)
The feedback that doesn’t work for me is the “shit sandwich”: nicey nicey about my writing style, etc., then the stuff that doesn’t work, bookended with more white bread. My eyes go straight to the filling — that’s where the nourishment is. (!)
So why am I having these feelings today? — so much so that I had to conduct a circuitous search of the backend of this website to even find where I’d secreted my blog. Well, I wasn’t just randomly struck by anxious thoughts of what I failed to do a year ago — my most recent manuscript “Kismet” has been out on submission to publishers. I guess I can still call it a work-in-progress, though there are several of these in various disassembled parts across my desk and brain.
“Kismet” has been my “current WIP” for over two years, and I have been receiving critical feedback on it for nearly a year now. A scene map of the manuscript today would in no way resemble the one I made back then — it has been licked into shape (a phrase my 11-y.o. recently told me sounded wrong). At home, I am guaranteed criticism of my words! The shape of “Kismet” is the result of adding, cutting, and reordering the settings, the timeframe, the direction of narration. It went forwards, backwards, back-and-forth (which will make most sense to my early beta readers). The mystery at the core has jumped from scenes of murder-suicide (cut), to supernatural beliefs (cut), to something altogether more human and relatable.
Many of these changes have been precipitated by calls from my agent, well after my beta readers gently hacked their way through. Maybe too reluctant to tell a friend to lose half to two-thirds of a story. Maybe to do with the difference in motivations embedded in the “commerce vs art” debate. Though my agent’s feedback, too, is often couched within a framework of love.
You know who doesn’t have to love my manuscript? Strangers! At GenreCon late last year, the opening page of “Kismet” was read out in front of the assembled crowd and passed through the “Shreader” of three professionals’ opinions. Within 12 hours, that first page was gone, as were the first two chapters. When I mentioned my reaction on social media, I was met with comments about my bravery, which felt odd. (Again, must delve into why I love my words being torn apart — feel free to flense this post in the comments below.) (Attribution of “flense” to the marvellous Angela Slatter, whose critical feedback style best aligns with the way I work.)
You know who else doesn’t have to love my manuscript? Publishers! 😀
So, “Kismet” minus the first two chapters went out on submission. Generally this kind of feedback is not meant to be constructive, and can often feel like rejection. And this is the crux, I think, of why I don’t feel bummed out by harsh constructive criticism — there are many other spokes of the writing world that do that to me. Even a “not for us” email tells me something about the way my book might come across. And this is almost always in the first fifty pages, if not the first fifty words.
Interestingly, editors and publishers will also use the “shit sandwich” approach, which is well-meaning. But, yep, I go straight to the stuff that is not working and which I must fix. Then there has been recent publisher feedback almost like a reader’s report: offering reasons why the story is not working at present, and perhaps they would like to see it again after I make the changes.
Oh the joy! The upswell of emotion that had me skipping about the room and clapping my hands with glee. Quite, I think, to my agent’s bemusement. “Sorry, it’s another no, but…”
Can writing ever be solitary? Some writers may be able to make the treacherous journey alone, but most cannot. Writing groups, critique partners, beta readers, are all essential partners — sounding boards, to throw my words against and listen for the spark or ping within the thuds and splats. Within every marked-up comment, “feel like she wouldn’t really do this”, “don’t understand”, “a bit too much info”, is a sign that the story may have wandered too far into a maze of dead-ends.
That is a path I can backtrack down, or close off on my map. Every criticism, every confusion, every implausibility, brings me closer to the centre, to the heart of the story I am trying to tell but just could not see over the height of the hedge.
This morning, 15,000 more words have been lopped off the beginning of “Kismet”: the prologue and six chapters. Creeping closer to the original start of the story; I wrote the second half first — and wouldn’t it be strange if I’ve been wandering off track ever since.
That’s why I need to listen for others’ voices. The maze is not an ornamental conifer one for kids and retirees. It’s a Triwizard Cup. If I am not eaten by the vegetation, the rewards will be… Bad analogy. That’s why I don’t write blog posts anymore!