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 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.
SPECIAL OFFER FOR STORYFIX READER: You can get a FREE copy of my instructional eBook, THE ART OF PREPARATION by sending an email to me at – firstname.lastname@example.org – and telling me the one topic you would most like me to cover in an upcoming StoryFix post.