Pillar 3: The Short Feedback Loop

January 25, 2018

By Art Holcomb

Many of you have heard about the scene I caused at a Starbucks some time ago when I confronted about a dozen writers, working away on their screenplays and novels at the coffee house.

In short, I was very interested in hearing the premises of their stories, but I completely lost it when they told me that, on average, they were on the 11th or 12th draft and had been working of their stories for more than three years.

What I didn’t go into – because of space and time – was that many of these people had never shown their work to anyone in all that time. 

Never submitted.

Never been to a critique group.

Never, in fact, saw the need to show their work to anyone else – that was, until they could be sure that it was PERFECT.

I think, upon reflection, that this was the only real reason I lost in all over these writers.

The idea that they had spent the past couple of years so lost in their own thoughts, never considering for even a moment whether their work had a chance of entertaining or even interesting an audience, made me realize that these writers – no matter how hard they worked or how long that wrote – were ever going to find any real success.

The Pillars of Writing – the topic of the past couple of posts I’ve done here – is predicated on the thought that you – at some point – are interested in becoming a professional writer and regularly connecting with a paying audience  That you’re writing stories, movies and novels with an eye toward finding people willing to actually pay you for your work.

Successful storytellers do not function in a vacuum. 

We live for that moment that we can enthrall an audience, when our words and images can so captivate another person that they are transported and transformed by the experience. Writing is ultimately, after all, a communication between two people – one giver and one receiver – and if your story is only interesting to you, part of a world only of your own imagination, then there really is little reason to put it down on paper in the first place.

For the rest of us who seek out a paying and appreciative audience, the short feedback loop is the Mother’s Milk.

We know that we need to make sure that we’re making that connection, that the tales and stories that we weave can be imagined and seen in the mind of a reader.  Nothing makes me happier than watching someone listening to my words in a play or film or watching with delight as they approach a great part of a short story I’ve written and I can see the reaction on their face.  It tells me that I have what it takes to affect another human being with the power of my imagination…

… and the feeling is indescribable.

So it’s clear that we all need regular feedback. But what does that really mean?

Well . . .

The Feedback must be TIMELY.  Waiting until the novel is finished to make sure you’re on the right track means that this information comes much too late.  I personally need to know if my story is working at several points during the process:

At the PREMISE STAGE: When I can go to someone I trust and say,  “Let me tell you a story,”  and then ask at the end, “Did you find this interesting and compelling?” and, “Would you like to hear more?”

At the ROUGH DRAFT STAGE: When I have put the story down on paper and taking my first shot at structuring it in such a way that makes it relatable and interesting to a reader.

At the FINAL DRAFT STAGE: When I am ready to submit and I need to know that it is ready for the outside world to finally see it.

The Feedback must be HONEST:  Flattery is more destructive to the creative process than feedback could ever be.  And it is a mistake to ask just anyone for feedback because sometimes their comments have nothing to do with the quality of your work.  I, for example, do not show my work to family members or non-writing friends, simply because they have to maintain a relationship with me.  My wife, children, and relatives might do anything to avoid hurting my feelings and so they might tell me that my work is good when it isn’t.  That is just destructive to my cause and can set my efforts back severely.

The Feedback must be ACCEPTED. Feedback is only useful if you are ready to hear it. Taking notes into consideration and having your work professionally criticized is a natural and necessary part of the professional’s writing process.  Yet so many writers I come across are terrified of the prospect of honesty about their work.  I wish there was a better way of stating this but – if you cannot accept an honest critique about your writing, if you would be destroyed by a negative criticism about your work – you cannot  and WILL NOT ever succeed as a writer.  Best to know this now.

So, what should you do?

CREATE YOUR OWN GROUP OF FIRST READERS: People that you can count on to give you the feedback you need. This can be the most valuable weapon in a writer’s arsenal. And this may take a while to achieve – you may have to go through a number of candidates before you find some people that you can rely upon. Do not be discouraged – and always treat these people as the assets that they are.

GET USED TO CRITIQUE: Steel yourself against taking these comments personally.  Understand the difference between criticism of the WRITING and criticism of the WRITER.  Seek out comments about your work at critical stages in the development of your story.

LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GOOD NOTE AND A POOR ONE: Not all comments mean something. You have to learn the vital skill of deciding whether a note demands a change in the story. This really comes from experience, so be patient and listen critically to what’s being said. It’s not a matter of whether you AGREE with the note – it whether a change based on that note will make the story better FOR THE READER.

CONSIDER GETTING A PROFESSIONAL’S OPINION: The best notes comes from experienced writers and readers and they are very often well worth the money.  Seek out experienced writers in for your form and learn from their comments. It can make all the difference in the world.

NEXT TIME: We’ll discuss the fourth Pillar of Writing – the need for accountability.

Until then – just keep writing.

*****

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to Pillar 3: The Short Feedback Loop

  1. Totally agree, Art. On the flipside, critiquing another writer’s work isn’t easy, either. No one likes to deliver the news that the story isn’t working. I feel horrible each time I do it, even though most are receptive and appreciative. I think. I hope.

    • Sue – I feel your pain. I do this for a living, which means, I have faced with the prospect of telling writers that their story “isn’t working” or – hopefully more often – “it’d work better if…” type of feedback.

      Here’s what happens. Because I work from a questionnaire, rather than a costly full manuscript read/review (which I also offer and actually do on occasion), all I have is what the author says, rather than writes in the mss. So when I give feedback, I’d say over 90 percent of the time (this is a conservative estimate) the writer fires back, saying, “Oh, well, I guess I didn’t explain it very well,” and thus begins a back and forth that never quite gets to the point of explaining why the writer couldn’t describe it very well. Bottom line: if the writer can’t explain a story point, it’s mission and strategy for execution, how can they then actually write it well enough? If this was film I could see it that way – hard to explain, easier to understand when visualized – but it’s words describing words, and there should be no interpretation-gap in that case.

      Bottom line: even when a professional tells someone about a weak link, a flaw or an opportunity for improvement within a story, too often the writer resists, telling themselves that “well, this story coach just doesn’t get it,” when it fact, it’s a case of someone falling in love with their original plan and then combining it with the human tendency of “I can’t be wrong, especially about my own story.”

      This explains why, out of 1000 submitted manuscripts, 990 are rejected. Self-publishing doesn’t change that percentage, it just allows those 990 “could be better” manuscripts to be put into the market. We live in an ironic age of publishing, with the built-in vetting of quality control having been almost totally engineered out of the process.

  2. There’s everything else, and then there’s feedback. 🙂

    Especially, I like your rule that feedback doesn’t need us to agree with it, it’s about what works for the reader. I’ve always thought of each suggestion as one piece of a poll I’m slowly taking of all my readers– no one person is simply right or wrong, but each speaks for what one segment of readers might see, so the question is if I can satisfy them without damaging the rest of the story. And of course, the more people have the same concern, the more I should think about deeper changes.

  3. Well-stated, Art. I’m sure this post will prompt some reflections.

    A year ago I abandoned a critique group because the members in it could not commit to reading and commenting on each other’s work. Several were happy to have their work critiqued; they just couldn’t agree to reciprocate. Fortunately, I found a better group whose members do as you advocate. With the benefit of their timely and honest feedback, I realized even more how much of a handicap it was to not have that input before.

  4. Constructive feedback is invaluable and necessary. I can’t imagine working on something for two or three years and never getting feedback. Wow!

  5. Robert Jones

    Great points, Art!

    Some of this is recap/extension of what I sent to Art already in an email with some thoughts for future posts. BTW, I appreciate Both Art and Larry asking for specific problems they would like to see addressed.

    What I continue to see a lot of when it comes to writers and creative people in general—much like those writers in Starbuck’s Art talked about—is the degree of work in isolation. Novice and younger creators, who, in spite of the internet often have zero affiliation with other creators outside of their little sphere. Many still have the stigma of parents and peers hanging around who discouraged them early on. Some still being discouraged. Familial expectations are the hardest to deal with, but there’s also quite often the expectations of the significant other pulling them in a direction other than their own.

    I suppose we can consider a good deal of this a rite of passage. We all have to face these things and it becomes a bit of a contest to achieve our goals. Much the same as our characters in fiction encounter obstacles and conflict along the way. We either rise above it and grow into who we want to become in life, or we allow ourselves to be molded by the way others see us. Which is fine if you’re happy carrying on the torch of tradition because people become set in their ways and that is all they know. They pass on what works for them based on their own experiences, their fear of change, failure, angst, all thrown into that mix.

    Most of the United States is a land of small towns who many never leave. Exposure is limited. New York, for example, is thought of in terms of Manhattan, skyscrapers, business, and opportunity. Yet, drive across a bridge from that small island for an hour in any direction and you’ll see none of those things. There are trees, mountains, farms, small towns. And more people come out of the city to relocate to the country than those who migrate from the country toward the city. Even if it’s just to get those critiques and exposure.

    Writing groups? Or creative types hanging out in packs of any kind outside of those who manage to go to college are very difficult to find. I’ve talked with such folks pretty regularly in the various towns I’ve lived in on the east coast. Their answers are frequently discouraging. But it’s their choice to embrace the critique, or any other advice we may offer. As frustrating as that sounds.

    I did come up with a solid answer for all those people who say, “I wish someone came along when I was younger and told me these things,” as if it would’ve made a difference in their acceptance of change in their lives. No it wouldn’t. You have to make that difference yourself.

    No one has a magic pill that can turn people into good writers over night. The cultural mentality of needing everything fast, resistance to change, all that is an illusion. Writers are artists. You either enjoy the process, or it doesn’t get nurtured enough to grow. You care for it because it’s a part of you. And you can do anything you put your mind to. But the cultural, familial, and sociological programming is not set up to breed creators. It flies in the face of how most people live. These same people who discourage you, probably race to their television the next minute because they can’t miss their favorite show—that happens to be created by dozens of creative people of all types, who according to their like should have gotten real jobs. Of course, TV is a magic box where these things just appear, right? No one actually sweat to get those jobs or worked hard to finish them on time.

    Oh, the irony!

    There are many places to find help these days. Seek it. Embrace it. Few of us make it alone. And those who say they did are often full of themselves, selling you an idealized image. You don’t have to agree with everything a teacher tells you. But you do have a responsibility to pick their brains for the things that will help. If they are working professionally, they know something you don’t. Angst and hate do not breed good communication skills—and writers are communicators.

    ‘Nuff said.

  6. MikeR

    In my opinion, too many “writer’s groups” are sitting around waiting for lightning to strike. All of them love to READ books, and they invariably read a lot of them. But they somehow expect and believe that they stories which they love were inevitable: the product of genius, not process.

  7. Robert Jones

    @MikeR

    Yes, there’s that. I decided a while ago that I’m not really a writer’s group kind of person for that reason…as well as some others. Not that this negates what Art is saying. Because we all need to reach out at some point. Learning doesn’t often happen in a bubble. And the internet makes that easier than it ever has been. Although the internet can be problematic for some people as well because they fear it.

    Not finding a writing group at one point, I tried to start one using a “Meet Up” site. I corralled four members, including myself, but everyone was afraid to actually “meet up!” The results—and corruspondace could be written up as a comedy about would-be writers, I suppose. I haven’t totally negated that possibility. Meantime, I was getting little messages from other people on the site starting up writing groups that had a taunting tone. One especially, would write me and say things like, “Oh, you’re starting a writing group. Me too!” How many members do you have BTW…I have two dozen already. Meeting is next week. When’s yours? Maybe you should just come to mine. Have you had your meet up yet? Mine was soooo amazing.”

    My group wanted to email a while to be sure no one wanted to harvest their organs before we all met. They were demanding though. Demanding answers and fixes for problems almost on a daily basis to the point where I wasn’t sure I would have time for much of anything else. I tried to be helpful at first and it quickly started becoming a full time job. This from a handful of people. I could only imagine at the time what a larger group might’ve been like. They certainly weren’t shy about that part. Suddenly one guy announced he was from Africa and wanted the group to get him a visa to come to America. Everyone scattered, saying, “I knew this internet thing was going to get weird.” And that was that. But after 4-6 weeks of that, I was not sorry.

    This was probably twelve years ago now. But it taught me a few things. Also, very much the opposite of Art’s tale. But people are often at one end of the extreme or the other. Those who need everything a week ago, or those who never get moving outside their box. Neither are useful in terms of learning or making useful progress. Often the result is the same…a pile of pages that doesn’t work and/or burn out from inadequate skills.

  8. MikeR

    @Robert, the most important thing that @Larry teaches – and although what he’s saying is not original to him, he says it very, very well – is that “there IS a Process.” Follow that process, and you can complete “a major writing project” … whether it be a work of fiction or something else … without grotesquely wasting(!) your own time. Pretend that it doesn’t apply to you, and: “well … you did it to yourself, I suppose.”

    “Professional” writers have a “professional” process that most-especially is conservative of time, because they have deadlines to meet. Creative decisions are constantly being made, but they are being made =efficiently= and =early.= (They’re also very-often being made by committee.) The process WORKS.

    I seriously think that many folks imagine that creative writing is “deterministic,” because the ordering of the scenes in all of the books that they’ve ever read =is= pre-determined. And, as you flip from one page to the next, in a good book it’s always “a voyage of discovery.” How easy it is to imagine that it was an identical voyage for the author, also. But, most assuredly, it was not. The good-book in your hand is, in fact, a contrivance. (And if none of that “hard work” is apparent to “You, Gentle Reader™,” there are many behind-the-scenes people who would take that as a compliment to another Job Well Done.™)

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