Friday, August 19, 2022

The Pros and Cons of Workshopping Your Writing--How to Find the Best Feedback to Suit Your Writing Needs and Temperament

Learning the craft of writing is obviously essential in the long journey to get a book published. But learning the art of receiving feedback is also essential. When is the best timing for your draft? Who do you ask? And most importantly, what do you do with the feedback once you get it?

Most of us have war stories. When the feedback experience is bad, it can destroy the spirit of a piece and your courage and confidence too. I've suffered from many bad readers--comments that range from off the wall to outright destructive. I've also learned that bad readers are my own responsibility, in a large part. My naivete in how and when I choose to share, whether I structure the feedback or not, and what I allow myself in terms of post-feedback reaction determine the value, 100 percent. This was learned over many years and much heartache.

Most readers mean well. They are trying to do right by you. They are not out to get you. (Some are, and once I discover that streak, I acknowledge it to myself and vow never again.) They just need your help and involvement to give you the best response, one that will really help your writing.

So first let's look at timing. When is the best time to ask for feedback on a scene, chapter, manuscript draft? To answer that, we need to talk about the stages of writing a book and what each requires.

The initial stage, when we are riding a flurry of ideas and there's great forward momentum, is not a great time to ask for feedback. New writers do. They don't realize that "talking" their book idea means draining it of energy to get on the page. The way I see it, you have a choice. You can either talk about your book or write your book. Not many new writers have energy for both. I usually employ accountability feedback for this stage.

Accountability partners are a wonderful gift to writers. It just means finding someone who is also in the early stages of writing a book and committing to checking in each week, maybe on Friday, by text or email. Nothing elaborate, just a report on what you've done that week. Some people do this every day--there are actually accountability groups online who met briefly over coffee. The purpose is to keep going, to know you have a community at your back, to not feel isolated. It makes a world of difference.

Writing is not shared during this checkin. No need. It's too early.

When you've worked and reworked a draft (scene, chapter, outline, storyboard, character sketch, manuscript), and you feel you're ready for other eyes on it, the next stage of feedback starts. I like classes and writing groups for this stage. It takes a lot of research, trial and error, and time to find the right mix of readers. I usually start with an online class, where I can watch how other writers give feedback and get a sense of their kindness and accuracy. I test out a few pieces in the class, if I can. Then I message the person and ask if they'd like to exchange work outside of class.

Here it helps to pick someone at the same level as you, same experience if possible, and definitely similar place in the journey. If your writing partner is just beginning their book and you are on revision #10, you need different things and the feedback may not jive. I also try to pick same genre, although for me this is not a hard-and-fast rule. I've gotten good feedback on fiction from memoir writers.

The final stage, when the manuscript has been workshopped (received feedback multiple times), is for professional feedback. Writer's choice, of course, but I usually hire someone. My agent is a good reader; she is paid when my book sells to a publisher. I have also spent money on editors and coaches; most of it has been very worthwhile. Try a sample chapter to test out the relationship. I often find these folks by taking classes. My current editor for short stories is an online teacher I took a class from and loved her comments, so I emailed her after class and asked if we could work together.

In all three cases, it's helpful to know what you need. To be aware of where you are, in the journey. To choose well (test first!). To structure the feedback to be most helpful to your book. Not "tell me what you like or don't like" but specific questions like "Is Kate a believable narrator in this scene" or "does the ominous setting come across." I make a list. I give it to the person reading my work.

Finally, what to do with the feedback when it comes?

This is a make-or-break skill, in my view. You want to use what is useful, you want to discard what is not. How do you tell?

First, let it sit. Overnight at minimum. Read then set aside, distract yourself. Especially true with radical ideas. I often let a week go by before I read the feedback again and consider what to do with it.

Second, realize it may cause you grief. You are grieving what you thought was in good shape, you are letting go of what you know, and you are accepting what's possible. This is a loss. No way around it. It gets easier with time and writing maturity, as the book gains its own sense of self. If you have a flash reaction of defense, know that this comes (often) from this process of grieving. That's why letting it sit is so important. You don't want to make editing decisions from a place of grief, rather one of possibility and openness.

When you feel neutral, ready to proceed, set aside a good chunk of time--this takes concentration and sincerity. I use a highlighter and a separate pad and pen or document. I highlight first the suggestions that resonate immediately. (They may not have when I first received the feedback but time has passed and the grief has subsided and they do now.) I make a list of these. It's usually easier to create tasks from my own list than the track changes on the document or the list my reader has made.

I might let myself mull over possible steps, next. If an idea is lighting up for me, how will I implement it? If someone I trust has suggested rearranging huge chunks of the manuscript and I (after my week of grieving) agree, how exactly will I test this out? Lots of time, I get excited as I ponder this. The book takes on a new sparkle for me. It's opened a window that was stuck fast, and I am jazzed about the new direction. I take this time to map it out, try a few small steps.

One of my teachers, echoed by writer Robert Boswell, suggested starting with the smallest step first. That works well--avoids overwhelm and more grieving. So my list of tasks gets triaged. What's huge, time-consuming, challenging? Do that one last. Try the small things to start.

There's usually a moment when I feel new momentum from the feedback and subsequent revision. That's when I look at the other, less resonant, suggestions from my reader. Maybe, now, some of them make sense. They get added to my "yes" list. Others, I know are still not right. At least now. I keep them in a file, and I will revisit them down the road. Sometimes, they become very useful.

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