Friday, June 18, 2021

Honing Your Process of Receiving Feedback and the Revision It May Require

I've only slowly gotten used to my own stages of writerly reaction when I receive feedback. Positive feedback generates a warm satisfaction, almost glee, inside. A victorious feeling. Something worked, especially satisfying if I put in a huge amount of effort. Sometimes, I'm amazed--I don't quite believe it--but I'm basically over the moon.

Harder, though, is feedback that suggests the need for revision. What I do with that kind of feedback often determines whether the piece progresses or not.

I think of all the years I flailed over feedback. I didn't yet trust my own sense of what was correct and useful to my writing and what was just the reader's opinion and had nothing to do with the story I wanted to tell. It was all murky. Either I accepted everything, because who was I to know better. Or I got mad and hurt and stomped away, vowing never to share again.

Both responses were pretty useless.

Even after over two decades as a published writer, working with professional editors, I still have a reaction when I get feedback. The difference is this: I know it, I allow it, and I give myself a time limit to react (reject or accept). Then I get to work.

How long a time limit?

Depends on the level of feedback, who is reading. This is another thing I've honed over the years. I don't treat all feedback the same. Peer review is not necessarily the cleanest, with the least personal opinions. A peer reader (as in a writer's group) might say something like, "I really don't like this character at all." I hear that, I file the comment away, but I no longer automatically think I need to get rid of the character. Instead, I ask questions. Why don't you like this character? The reader might say, "Because their action in this scene seems disingenuous." Ah, that is a useful bit of feedback! The other, not liking, is more of an opinion.

So I know now that peer feedback often has to include questions, so I can get to the more useful feedback beneath the likes and dislikes.

If I haven't done my job well enough, the questions will help me get to the real issue and rework. Rather than 86 the character.

Professional feedback comes on several levels. One level is paid editors. They, ideally, should know enough to temper their opinions before sharing comments, so the comments are useful to the writer. When I hire editors, I also ask questions, but I usually have less. I often have more of an initial reaction, though, because their feedback shoots very straight. They want me to get what I pay for. I have an "ouch" reaction most times to professional feedback.

What helps here: making a list.

I write the feedback into a list, not ordered in any way at first. Small suggestions, huge ones, all get gathered. For a book-length manuscript, the list might end up being huge. I don't include line edits (sentence rewrites, typo corrections, etc.) but everything else goes on the list.

Then I triage. This process helps me move past my reaction and start to see the comments objectively. I sort the list from easiest task to hardest task. Easy might mean less time, less effort to do. A hard task might be one that requires research, rewriting a section, reworking or developing a character.

A strange and good thing happens as I make the list. I start to get excited about ideas. I start to see what the editor is seeing, not just my own view.

Next, I group the tasks into type. There might be a few tasks that are going to be research tasks. For my current novel, my agent wanted more scenes about one aspect of the storyline, which meant I needed to go online and get more history and facts. That was one kind of task which would happen most easily when I was in my linear, research-happy brain, or waiting somewhere with my phone to keep my company. I'd do the research instead of playing with Facebook, for instance. Another group might be character-related. If feedback says I need to rethink how a minor character is presented, so they are more real to the reader, I triage that kind of task for when I've got solitary writing time to do a search for any scene where that character shows up, then brainstorm ways to make them more vivid. Maybe I'd add appearance or gesture or other cues. Or I'd freewrite on their backstory and see where I could slip in some.

A triaged list makes it easier to manage the revision process, at least for me. With the new puppy and garden season in full action, I'm already juggling to get free time to work on the book. I can scan my list and find a task that fits the time I have, get something done without making myself nuts. For instance, this weekend we took the puppy in our camper to the beach in Maine (his first time seeing waves--way too cute!). I had only small breaks, when he napped or slept at night, and I was still able to make good headway on the character that needed more vividness. Felt great to get something done and still enjoy.

Here's an example of part of my revision list, based on agent feedback:

Line edits from text (go through and input the small corrections)
Include more details of game--how it's actually played (requires research)
Trevor needs more development (requires freewriting backstory and appearance details, then combing text to insert)
Rosie's reconciliation at end needs reworking--not yet earned (requires planting and returning to make change believable)
Fix timeline (requires a chart marking time of day, day of week, weather, etc. for each chapter or scene and planting time markers where needed)

I did the line edits first--they were easy, not many of them, and it felt great to knock something off fast. The research on the game was fast too--I found great info online and a scene or two to place it. I rewrote and read and rewrote again until it felt complete. Now I'm working through the manuscript, searching for all scenes that include Trevor. As I do this, I can really see how sketched out he is, how right my agent is that he needs to be more vivid. So I'm adding small details and backstory as I go. I'm up to page 61 so far (of 350 pages), not bad. And it's very enjoyable.

You probably have your own way to make the revision process less scary, help the initial reactions subside. This is mine.

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