Feedback, But When?

Feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Well, at least mine! How else will you know if your intentions match up with the reception of your work? Today, I’ll talk about the different stages of a project where it might be appropriate to solicit feedback.
In-Progress Feedback
In one of my writing groups, the work I share is almost always a work-in-progress. It’s literate, but it’s usually a snippet from a novel or a short story that still needs some fleshing out. In this case, I’m actively looking to my other group members for assistance in how to flesh the story out, what I’ve overlooked, and ultimately whether I’m on the right track or not. Just realize not every writing group is geared to workshopping this kind of early stage writing. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Critical thinkers, other writers.
Developmental Feedback
I’d call this feedback on anything that’s been drafted and fleshed out, but hasn’t fully cured in a version you are confident in submitting somewhere. In other words, you’ve gotten to the end, but the ride is still a bit bumpy (not in a good way). Here, I’m looking for macro-level adjustments (micro is good too) that I can make so the story can gel into a finalized draft. At this stage, I want people who understand the big picture but also the aspects of craft that will help me realize it all on the page. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Other writers, particularly those writing in your genre.
Polished Feedback
This is feedback on a polished draft that you think is the best it can be. You know, all those checklists when you’re trying to decide if you’re ready to submit or not? If your answer is yes, it’s still a good idea to get another person (or persons!) to take a look. You might burn a few weeks only to get your readers’ blessing to send it out, but it’s better to know you are sending out your best work than being surprised by some issue that was overlooked at other stages. And when you only have one shot with agents, you want everything to be as good as it can be. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Readers of your genre, other writers.
Public Reception
So let’s say your story/novel/what-have-you got published. Yay! At this stage, there’s still a couple metrics you can use to see how your work is received and ways to use its reception and apply it to your next story. Obviously things like sales figures are important. But so are reviews. I’m not talking about the reviews your mom/critique partner/best friend wrote. I’m talking about the reviews written by strangers who have no personal investment in you or your story.
Seth Godin says the worst feedback is indifference. Some stories and novels get published, and just as quickly vanish into the ether. Now some of this can be attributed to poor marketing and positioning, and sometimes a story just doesn’t have the impact it should. And sometimes, you are lucky enough to get reviews that help you to understand what worked and what didn’t in your story. Elizabeth Spann Craig talks about this in Handling Reviews from Mystery Writing is Murder. Give yourself time for the sting to wear off, but even bad reviews can be instructive (so long as it’s not coming from someone with an ax to grind).
One of my published stories was not received in the manner I had hoped for, and I learned a lot from seeing those reviews of my work. It forced me to analyze my assumptions in writing that particular story as well as my assumptions in who the story’s audience was, and so on. Despite the short-term disappointment in that story’s reception, that was a hugely valuable experience, and one that will shape my work to come.
***
So obviously, you need feedback, and at what point you solicit it and from whom will be dependent on your writerly network and your own needs and comfort level with the critique process.
Personally, I try to get feedback at each stage of a project, if possible. In my goal to write faster, I’ve found that In-Progress Feedback is extremely helpful for heading off mistakes in a story that would need significant retooling if they were found much later in the process. However, for that to be successful, I think you need to be:
1)     very used to critique and,
2)     very clear in your own head with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.
Especially because rogue comments can easily affect the trajectory of a story and your confidence in it at the early stage of a project. It should also be said that if you’re sharing early work, you are sharing it with writers who:
1)     you trust
2)     understand that it’s an early draft, and
3)     can provide constructive criticism (not all critiquers are alike in this)
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I’ve found this work for me.

Happy writing (and critiquing)!var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Deliberate Choices — Guest Post with L. Blankenship

Today, I’m pleased to host fantasy author L. Blankenship on the blog today. You may recall in my interview with her last fall, that she has two (!) successful Kickstarters under her belt, and Part II of her hard fantasy romance Disciple is now available. If you love adventure and romance in a fully textured world with realistic characters, look no further. And be sure check out below for links to a Goodreads giveaway!

Deliberate Choices by L. Blankenship
I did make some deliberate choices, in writing Disciple, about the kind of story I wanted to write. I’m of the opinion that plot, character, and world-building are tightly linked and should be allowed to grow organically — but I did put a few restrictions on that growth.

Some look like simple things, like not wanting to use the tag “s/he thought” on a thought. Or “I thought,” in my first-person narrator’s case. It’s just so clunkily obvious, or ought to be, that I committed to not using it at all.

Which sounds simple, but I found myself rewriting a lot of sentences before the habit settled in.

There was something deeper I wanted to do, in Disciple: I wanted a good, solid fight. It seems to me that many fantasy stories go to great lengths to stack the deck against the protagonists. They’re poor, they’re helpless, they’re emotionally damaged, they’re completely unprepared for the challenges they face. It’s Bambi vs. Godzilla.

It’s meant to ramp up the tension. It’s meant to make the eventual success — and whatever losses along the way — all the more savory.

I wanted to see competent, well prepared protagonists go into a tough fight, take hard losses, get their asses kicked a couple times, and claw their way to winning. There seem to be plenty of stories about finding that Magic Thingy or tapping the Cosmic Can of Whup-ass to help Bambi beat Godzilla. Why write another one?

I wanted this to be a fair fight because evenly matched opponents make for an interesting game. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I know the Superbowl isn’t much fun when one team dominates the other from the first kickoff. The games you stick around for are the ones that teeter back and forth to the final minutes.

So both sides of the war, in Disciple, came in with stacked decks. They’d made strategic choices, ahead of time, because war was inevitable and they’d be idiots to not prepare to the hilt. Both sides take risks. Both sides take losses. When I sat down to write Disciple, Part VI and finish the story, I wasn’t sure exactly how the last few minutes of the Superbowl would play out. 

Which sure held my interest.


Back cover of Disciple, Part II

The prince first kissed Kate Carpenter for fear of missing the chance if they didn’t survive the journey home through the monster-prowled mountains.

Now that kiss seems like a fever dream. It’s back to work for her, back to the fellow physicians jealous of her talents and the sneers of an infirmary director who wants her shipped off to some tiny village. Kate means to be on the front lines to save lives. She’s worked too hard to overcome her past to let them deny her the chance to serve her homeland when the enemy’s army reaches their kingdom.

The grand jousting tournament is a chance to prove she can manage combat wounded, and at the royal Solstice banquet Kate means to prove she isn’t an ignorant peasant girl anymore.

But the prince’s kiss still haunts her. Their paths keep crossing, and the easy familiarity they earned on the journey home is a welcome escape from their duties. It’s a small slip from chatting to kisses.

This is no time to be distracted by romance — a vast and powerful empire is coming to slaughter anyone standing between them and the kingdom’s magical fount.

Kate ought to break both their hearts, for duty’s sake.

Disciple, Part II on sale now
along with Disciple, Part I

Disciple, Part IIIcoming in late 2013
Disciple is complete in six parts and will make a lovely doorstop
when all 400k words have been published.

Goodreads links:

 

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The Pros of Professional Development

While the blogosphere is a fantastic resource—rife with informative posts on craft, publishing, and other aspects of the writing life—it can get overwhelming and, at times, repetitive. Not that repetition can’t be helpful in crystallizing some aspects of craft. But too much, and my brain starts saying I’ve heard this before and I tune out.
When that happens, the act of learning, of actively improving, becomes passive. For this writer, that means I start to feel complacent. Not a good place to be.
I had been feeling this way recently—after all it’s been just under a year since I attended Taos Toolbox—so when I saw my local SCBWI chapter was hosting a NY agent for an all-day workshop, I signed up, hoping to be reinvigorated.
I was nervous as I always am when owning my writer persona in an unfamiliar environment with (gasp!) strangers. For the morning session, the agent presented an overview of essential craft elements for children’s books. Then the afternoon was all about the business side of things. It was a very informative session, and unfortunately I signed a waiver that doesn’t let me get any more specific than that.
The workshop would haven been tremendously helpful for me a year or three ago. As it was, I’d say didn’t learn anything “new.” Instead, I learned the relative importance this agent placed on different aspects of craft and business. Much of the content I had been exposed to before, though not as systematically all at once. Hand in hand with the workshop, I paid for an optional critique that didn’t uncover any fatal deficiencies in my writing. So at this point you may be wondering what I actually got out of a wasted Saturday and a c-note.

1. It’s Worth Checking In Sometimes

It is entirely possible to reach a point with your craft where you simply don’t need all the handholding you once did to stay productive. The writing is going well, you’re in the zone, this one’s going to sell, and so on. And that’s all great. But when you’re holed up in your cave, sometimes you can lose sight of what your writing really needs.
By attending a workshop like I did or engaging in some form of professional development to put you and your work out there, you have the opportunity to evaluate your writing through someone else’s eyes. On the business side of things, the publishing world is changing so rapidly every day, you can’t afford to not pay attention to opportunities to help put all the changes into perspective.

2. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Knowing You’re On the Right Track

You remember that critique I got? It let me know my opening for a new project was on the right track. That is invaluable. Looking back at where I was with past projects and knowing they wouldn’t have received this kind of feedback at this stage, shows just how much I’ve improved. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect, doesn’t mean there aren’t things I can do to strengthen my story. But it’s now a question of calibration, not wholesale revision. And that’s a huge difference (and a huge confidence boost).

3. Professional Organizations Provide Superior Opportunities

Now, this assertion is grounded in my personal experience. I’ve tried a lot of different things, including:
Local, grassroots style writing groups like those you find through Meetup.com or your local alt-weekly. You can find some good individuals, but too often the group includes people who don’t know what they’re doing or have a different focus (say self-publishing when you have your eye on the Big 6).
Classes at the local community college or university. Again, you might find some serious individuals, but many of these people are just testing the waters and haven’t screwed up the courage to take the plunge. The teachers at this level can also be suspect in their ability to teach or inspire. Note, I am not talking about MFA programs and the like.
Regionally-focused writing organizations. The ones near you may be different, but the one closest to me serves as a catch-all for writers not represented by other organizations. Mine has a lot of writers writing memoir and literary fiction, and their classes and workshops cater to hobbyists and beginners.
Residential workshops like Taos Toolbox. Expensive, but being surrounded by a dedicated group of peers, and being instructed by individuals who have lived through publishing’s ups and downs is priceless.
Local chapters of national writers groups like RWA or SCBWI. These organizations are far more likely to have classes and workshops for the intermediate and seasoned writer.
I can say with absolute certainty that you get folks who are a lot more serious about learning their craft at organizations and workshops with a targeted focus like genre. Not one of the thirty people in the workshop I attended had stars in their eyes that they’d be the next JK Rowling. Everyone was aware of the years of hard work and the smart choices it takes to succeed in publishing.
Now, I’ve held off joining any of the membership organizations. Partly because it’s another cost in a field with too little money for writers as it is. Partly because I was a little too in love with the idea of the “lone writer” for a long time. And partly because I felt I had to “prove” myself in a genre before I could presume to join an organization dedicated to it. Imposter syndrome, much?
But now? I’m in a place where I’m reasonably confident in my abilities as a writer. I’m also very cognizant of what I don’t know as I contemplate what’s next for me. That’s where the support of a national organization becomes invaluable. I’m still debating which one is best for my career long term, but I can no longer ignore the benefits they can provide.

What about you? Have you had a recent professional development experience? How did it go?

Happy writing!
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Collaborative Writing

Over the last few months, I’ve participated in a collaborative writing project with two of my writing friends.

It’s something I was initially hesitant doing. For one, the project is in a genre I don’t normally write in. For another, I wasn’t confident our writing styles would mesh. Plus, the time I spent on the project would inevitably take time away from my own work.

But I did it anyway, and as we’re polishing the initial draft, I can say it was largely a success. How did we keep it from devolving into a game of tug-of war?

Well, for starters, my emotional investment in this project was much lower to begin with. After all, I had to share this story with two other people. So my level of engagement was more in line with the collaborative writing I did in academia—I had a professional desire to get things done and do them well, but I was more than happy to put it aside at the end of the day. In other words, I viewed this as a job or an assignment, not my “art” (whatever that means).

That also meant I was accountable to the other writers I was working with. Excuses that I sometimes use to get out of working on my own projects didn’t fly in this case because I had two other people counting on me to write my portions of the story.

That level of detachment did make it harder to engage with the material initially, but as we got further along into the story, that became less of an issue. The detachment also meant I was also more open to compromise as we discussed the overall story arc and decided on character traits and plot points.

We also stuck to a schedule. We met every two weeks while drafting the story. We started with an initial brainstorming session where we roughed out the plot. Then we would assign each other scenes to write. We would exchange those scenes before the next session, review them, and make big-picture adjustments at the next meeting. Then the process would start all over again. The result was a full draft in less than four months.

It also helped that each writer was assigned a specific POV character, so we didn’t have to worry about handing off that character to someone else and the continuity issues that would stem from that.

Would I do it again? It depends. I learned a lot about my writing through this process and exposed myself to the drafting techniques of other writhers. And it’s encouraging to know that such collaborations can be successful—provided there’s a good mesh of working styles. Plus it was a lot of fun too.

Doing it again would necessitate a time commitment I’m not eager to make at this stage right now. That doesn’t mean some future project won’t be worth the effort.

So if you are contemplating a collaborative writing project, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Find writers you trust.

This means you trust their creative instincts, you trust their ability to do the work, and (it has to be said) you trust they won’t dick you over in the end. It helps that I’ve known the two women I worked with for over a year through our local writing group. Not everyone starting a collaboration will have this option, but the point is to vet the other writers the best you can and go with your gut.

Treat it as a professional obligation.

This means you (and the other writers) need to be accountable to one another. Make goals, stick to a production schedule, brainstorm together—but remember to build in enough leeway so that you can help each other if the going gets tough. Respect each other’s work and each other’s time. Couch story development negotiations in terms of craft and structure, not you own selfish desires for how the story should turn out. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and all that.

Remember that this is a learning opportunity.

Collaboration is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It’s also a rare one, because of the difficulties inherent in any collaboration. Use this time as chance to look under the hood at someone else’s writing process—you may glean a few nuggets of wisdom for your own writing. You may also surprise yourself at what you are capable of in the right set of circumstances.

Check out On the Art of Collaboration in Writing from Magical Words and Amie Kaufman’s Three Rules You Can’t Break for more insights into collaborative writing. var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

You Know What Happens When You Assume Things…

Assumptions sometimes get a bad rap. A lot of times they make an ass out of you and me, but that’s often only in hindsight. In fact, I’d posit assumptions are essential to living, and, along with that, writing.
After all, an assumption is made based on the information you have on hand or experiences you’ve acquired and can extrapolate from. For example, deciding what to wear based on a glance out the window—I assume I won’t need a rain jacket because the sun is out. Or I assume I can make cream of cauliflower soup because I’ve made cream of broccoli soup in the past.
The assumptions we make are based on our accrued knowledge. So we accrue knowledge to survive, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is always enough to navigate our world. Mistakes do happen, and that’s actually a good thing for writers.
As people read our stories and novels, they are interpreting our words and trying to make sense of the world we’ve presented them with. To do this, they must make assumptions. For example, if I don’t point out that the sky is green in my story and people get around by walking on their hands, my readers will assume the sky is blue and people walk like normal.
So if on page 30 I suddenly point out that the sky in my world is actually green, that forces the reader to stop and reevaluate what I’ve told them. This can be a bad thing when it throws the reader out of the story. But for some story elements, particularly reveals, this can be a neat trick and make your reader even more invested in figuring out your story as they try to fit the pieces together into a cohesive whole.
“But what does it all mean?”
I like to do this particularly at the opening of a story, where I’m trying to hook a reader’s interest by slowly dealing out world details. Readers will make assumptions based on what is mentioned and/or described, along with what isn’t. And depending on how those details complement one another or how they disrupt one another, my reader will make assumptions about the larger story world that can potentially make the worldbuilding easier on me.
As writers, we should all be relying on a reader’s assumption about genre conventions when crafting our stories except when those conventions interfere with the story we’re writing. In other words, we should be using these assumptions as world building shorthand except when they get in the way. Big deviations, ones that will just cause more confusion than not, however, should probably be addressed as soon as possible so you don’t disorient the reader.
But for me, I like to use reader assumptions and turn them on their head sometimes. As James Killick discusses in Reveals and Revelations,
If you break it down, there are only really two types of revelation that can be made within a story – revelations about the story and revelations about character. The differences should be fairly self-explanatory – a revelation about the story is when something is revealed outside of character – who the murderer is, who is sleeping with the heroine’s husband. Character revelation is when something is revealed about character – a hidden trait, an unrealised dream, a hitherto misinterpreted desire.
And both of these (when successful) work because the author has leveraged the reader’s assumptions about the story. The trick is setting them up (which is another post entirely :P).
As readers, we make all kinds of assumptions based on what’s presented to us by the author, as well as unconsciously, based on our own personal and cultural biases. Remember the social media explosion when peoplewere surprised that Rue was black in the movie version of The Hunger Games? That was attributed to a tendency of assumed whiteness where readers assume literary characters are white unless told otherwise. In fact, as The Hunger Games demonstrated, those details stating otherwise can be easily overlooked in a culture of assumed whiteness (and it must be said, poor literacy skills).
So what does that mean for the writer? Well, I think in some ways it’s our duty to engage with these assumptions and draw attention to them by disrupting them in unique ways without sacrificing story. Particularly the more insidious ones related to gender and race and power (and Juliette Wade has a great post on this subject).
But ultimately playing with readers’ assumptions is just another tool in your toolbox. So use it wisely.

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