[Published on Christian Writers Downunder blog, February 2017]
I sat back from the laptop with a satisfied sigh. Zipping dialogue that revealed a dishonest character’s unexpected intentions and tight action that left the reader hanging from the cliff with my main character.
The chapter I’d just finished was golden. Or was it?
Writers live in a bubble. We disappear into a world of our own creation all times of the day or night at our characters’ beck-and-call. We pull the strings in that world, making characters’ lives easier or harder with a keystroke or wish scenery into existence with the stroke of a pen.
We live it. We breathe it.
Allowing someone else into that world can sometimes be difficult, but it’s very, very necessary. It can be hard to disassociate yourself from the work you’ve put together – particularly if you’ve poured your heart into it – and it can be very hard to be objective about it. In fact, it’s impossible.
Getting feedback on what we write is important. It helps us to bask in reflected glory of the soaring highs and points out those flat spots or plot points that need work.
But getting the right feedback is even more important. I’ve spoken to writers for whom this is the struggle – to find the right person who can provide feedback to improve the work, not just stroke the ego of the writer or destroy their fragile confidence.
I have a number of people who I have drafted into my writing process to ensure that my writing gets the best feedback it can. While they are chosen because they reflect the reader I’m ultimately trying to reach, there is one key thing I ask of them so that the feedback they provide gives me the one thing I value the most.
Honest feedback is a gift. As I tell my reading group, if the writing doesn’t work, I’d much prefer to hear it from you than a publisher or an agent.
But honesty can be hard – for both giver and receiver.
I’ve been on the other side of the fence, providing feedback to other writers and hoping not to crush their hopes and dreams when I tell them their work didn’t grip me or lost me at times. But at this point I’ve realised that if I’m not up front with the writer, then the feedback isn’t that valuable. (I’m quite sensitive in how I deliver my thoughts. It’s not feedback all guns blazing off the hip …)
It can be harder to hear that what you’ve just poured onto the page needs some work. But, with the right feedback, it can fill holes, bring out underplayed story elements and take the writing to the next level.
And dealing with honesty also can drive a temptation to change everything to suit everyone. I’m still learning the fine art of balancing feedback, and to recognise that gnawing feeling in your gut that the reader might be right. And to follow up all honest feedback with a ‘why?’ to ensure I can see why something may not work.
There is one story about taking honest feedback that truly inspires me. When James Rubart received his Carol Award at this year’s ACFW Conference for The Five Times I Met Myself, his acceptance speech covered the fact that when he completed his first draft, the publisher told him it wasn’t working and he needed to start again. An author with a host of novels under his belt needed to start again. So he did. And his improved version was voted as novel of the year.
So honesty is what I value.
Oh, and was my chapter golden? Partially. It was less of the huge gold nugget I imagined it was and more of a prospector’s pan with gold flecks at the bottom. But at least now I know which parts are valuable as I polish up the rest.