Writing Feedback

Right after I first dipped my toes into the world of fiction, I was lucky enough to find a good writers’ group.  I wasn’t all that serious back then, but a lot of writers who came to Scribes were.  They pushed and prodded me into writing more than I’d intended and into sending things out when I was happy to toss them in a drawer.  They forced me to grow.

They invited me to go to writers’ conferences with them, and that was a real eye-opener. Attending panels at a conference expanded my vision.  Writing was a career for the authors who lectured us.  They were professionals–writing was a business.  I’d never seen it as that.  They talked markets and publishers, bestsellers and mid-list fiction.  They discussed how publishing was changing.  Big publishers were gobbling up little publishers, and they warned that writers would feel the pinch.  I listened and soaked it all up, but I didn’t see the big picture.  I was too naive.

After I placed short stories in several anthologies and in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine and Ellery Queen, I was one of the writers on conference panels.  And I felt outclassed again. I could talk “how to” for writing, but I still didn’t know much about selling and publishing. Even when it came to writing, there’s nothing more humbling than to have people raise their hands and ask questions when the answers, for me, were nebulous, at best, and when the writers on either side of me could prattle off answers faster than my brain could process them.  At one mystery conference, I sat on a panel with Charlaine Harris and Carolyn Hart to discuss short story writing.  I mean, really.

At home, at Scribes, some of the writers were so far ahead of me, I dreaded it when it was my turn to read at our meetings.  We met, and still do, every second and fourth Wednesday from noon to two.  Two writers and an alternate (who sometimes we get to, and sometimes we don’t–depending on how wound up we get over critiques when we go around the table) share their work with us.  Each writer gets fifteen minutes to read. After the first reader finishes, we go around the table to discuss what we thought was really good about the piece and what might make it better.  We stay supportive and positive, but we still lose people.  And I understand that.  It’s hard to listen to critiques.

We finally had to make a rule that the reader can’t comment on what people say until we’ve circled the entire table, and then it’s his/her turn to talk.  We made that rule for a reason.  First, most writers feel the need to explain why they wrote a scene the way they chose to.  They can’t help it.  They’re attached to the pages they wrote.  They’re attached to the story, the characters, their baby.  Even when we have almost all good things to say about it, the things we pick at rankle.  It’s like having someone walk up to you and say, “Cute kid, except for that wart on his nose.”  The flaw stands out.  It makes writers defensive.

Even writers who SAY that they want lots of feedback, that they don’t want only praise, that they want us to FIND something that they can make better.. crumple for a bit.  I love criticism. I want my friends to find my screw-ups before I print them.  I’m fine when those comments are on paper, and I can read through the scribbles of red ink and consider them without pressure.  But my first reaction, almost always, when the critique is vocial, is to get defensive.  It feels more threatening somehow, major instead of minor. I’ve learned that about myself, but I’m not the only one.  I watch it over and over again at Scribes.  So now, I just listen and nod and thank people for their feedback, then go home and give myself a few days to filter it all.  Then, I can appreciate what my writer friends were telling me.  That doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but I’m glad they gave me something to consider.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot by listening to the critiques of my work and others’ at Scribes.  I’ve watched people who fold under the feedback and never come back.  And I’ve watched writers who listen to every single comment, then change their manuscript to try to please everyone. Some waffle so often, they never finish a book, or else they water it down so much, it’s a weak effort when it’s finished.  It’s impossible to please everyone.  If you do, something’s wrong.  I’ve also watched writers who nod and then never change anything. Those writers are interesting.  They dig in, tell us that they like their manuscript the way it is, and then write what they please.  And sometimes, that works.  Sometimes, it doesn’t. But it’s taught me that being defensive is all right, to a point.  A writer needs to find balance.  He needs to be flexible enough to listen to and consider criticism, but also to have the confidence to believe in himself.

Hope you’ve found your balance, and happy writing!






Writing: Word Choice, Brush Strokes, & Clarity

It was my turn to read at our writers’ group last Wednesday.  Sometimes, I polish and edit to take in something that’s in really good shape.  It’s fun to see everyone nod their heads and tell me I’ve written a good scene.  But sometimes, I take in something that I’ve worked on, but I know isn’t quite right, because Scribes is wonderful about picking out the flaws that I’m too close to see.  Last Wednesday, I took an opening that I’d been fighting with and rewriting until I knew I was close, but I also knew I wasn’t there.  And the truth is, I’d played with it so much, I couldn’t tell if I was making it worse or better.

I wanted to open the novella with a bang–a surprise attack by a friend who apologizes before he tries to kill Ally and Dante.  They don’t know why he’s attacking them, and he can’t tell them.  They don’t want to hurt him, but they don’t know what’s going on.  When I finished reading, three-fourths of my writing buddies didn’t know what was going on either.  Bless Neil, he said, “I was listening and enjoying every bit of it, but when you got done, I realized I didn’t really know exactly what was happening.”  He wasn’t the only one.  Once I listened to their comments, though, I realized that the fixes I needed weren’t big.  I’d been working so hard on big things–creating characters, the dialogue, and action–that I didn’t fine tune the small stuff.  Some of it simply came down to word choice.  And as my friend, Paula, said, “It doesn’t need an overhaul, just brush strokes.”

I can give you an example.  Dante’s friend who attacks them is a werewolf.  When I wanted to show that he was losing control, I said Foam bubbled from his mouth.  “Too nice,” Sia said.  “Use something moodier like Foam slathered from his mouth.”  A “nice” word in a frenetic scene throws off the feel.  Word choice is important.  So is upping the ante, to make each action more vivid.  Instead of having him break his nose when he hits Ally’s shield, “have his skull split,” Sia said.  “It’s more vivid.  This is a roller coaster opening.  Make it feel like one.”

Maybe my best advice?  Paula said, “Each person’s motivation is in your head, but it’s not always on the paper.  Hint at it or put it there.”  All it took was a sentence here, a few words there.   The characters and scene worked.  They just needed tweaked.  And sometimes, I need “outside” opinions to know what to focus on.

So, I hope each one of you has at least two readers you can trust to critique your writing or a writers’ group like mine.  Someone who can tell you if your writing has clarity.  Can a reader follow it, or is it confusing?  Are the characters’ motivations clear for each and every thing they say or do?  What did you do right?  And what can you make better?

And remember that sometimes, it’s the small things that need fine-tuned.

P.S.  My fourth Emerald Hills novella went online last week.  No werewolves in this one.  Only shoes and magic.  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/


Writers, readers, & reviews

It’s taken me a long time, but I finally got up to 44 reviews on one of my  novels.  When I offered Fallen Angels for free for 4 days on amazon, I got over 18,000 downloads (big for me, not so impressive for best selling authors).

I’m not sure, but it might be possible it takes 18,000 downloads to get 33 reviews–I had 11 to start with.  That, in itself, was an eye opener.  I’ve read that a lot of people download free books and then never get around to reading them.  *Sigh.  I’m guilty of that myself.  Out of the ones who actually read it, only some write reviews.  But thank you, thank you, thank you to the ones who do!  Because readers didn’t react to my book the way writers do.

I have three friends who I trade manuscripts with.  They mark up my stuff.  I mark up theirs.  We look for everything–word choice, pacing, conflict, tension, plot holes, characterization…you name it.   If we find anything that we think could be better, stronger–we mark it.  Not to be critical.  But because each one of us wants to write the best book we possibly can.

Before I offered Fallen Angels for free on amazon, I offered free copies for read-to-review on Goodreads.  I love Goodreads.  It’s becoming sort of saturated with writers right now, but the readers and bloggers on the sites I joined are some of the most supportive people a writer could have the joy to meet.  These are serious readers.  They’re voracious and they know their stuff.  Their reviews are honest and insightful, and they’re almost always harder to impress than most people who walk into a bookstore or open a book on their e-readers.  They compare you to other big name authors and know the markets, every major series in the genres they like, and what’s current.  But they’re generous.  When they see potential, they say so.

The reviews I got from the free days on Kindle were different.  Every bit as intelligent and insightful, but in a different way.   These people read for fun.  They download a book and want to be entertained for a few hours.  If you accomplish that, they’re happy with you, and they give interesting feedback.  Their reactions weren’t always what I expected.  More than a few had trouble with Voronika.  I love Voronika.  I know why she’s built a wall around herself and is aloof and prickly.  Enoch loves and understands her, too.  But I still haven’t made her into as sympathetic a character as I’d like her to be.  Maybe I’ll get her right in book 3…let’s hope:)

Even most of the negative feedback was interesting, if for no other reason than to remind me that I’m never going to please everyone.  But these people read for fun.  They didn’t analyze plot or structure.  They just asked if the book WORKED for them.  Did they like it or not?  Were they glad they’d spent a few hours with my characters?  What made them keep turning pages, and what made them get up to trim their toenails?  Yes, a book CAN be that boring.  And when it gets right down to it, that’s what we need to think about.  We want people to pick up our book, turn a page, and get hooked in our story.  And we do all that we know how to do to keep them engaged from the first page to the last.

So…happy writing to you.  And may you hook readers from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end of your latest novel/novella/or short story.


Writing–gird your loins

Writing’s a funny business.  The very act itself is a love/hate relationship.  When I start a book, I have new ideas swirling in my head, new villains, new worlds to conquer, and I can’t wait to dive in.  Somewhere after the first fourth of the book, when the set-up’s done and the middle is setting in, I doubt myself.  Do I have a strong enough conflict to push to the finish?  Are my characters interacting enough to create emotional tension as well as drive plot points?  I stagger through to the novel’s halfway point, and then I’m always sure that I’ve run out of steam.  My subplots now look like hideous diversions that will sag under the gravity of too many words.  That’s when I play the game of “what if?”  What if something comes at my protagonist that I, as his creator, never saw coming?  What if he takes a wrong turn, hits a wall, wants to give up?  Just like I do about now.  I don’t like this book anymore.  What started out as fun has become an impossible feat that I’m pretty much sick of.  And then I struggle to the last fourth of the book–the wrap-ups of my subplots, the final, big battle, and the short denouement–and all is well.  I love this book again.  Until I start rewrites.

But that’s just the writing of the book.  Now, it’s time to get beat-up, in the nicest possible way.  I hold my breath after I’ve made the story as good as I know how to, and then I give it to my critique buddies.  Believe me when I tell you, no one catches all of their own mistakes.  There are plot holes, that were perfectly there–in my head–but never made it to paper.  There’s repetition that drags entire chapters down.  There’s awkward wording, “duh” moments, and more.  When I get their feedback, it’s time to go through the manuscript again.  (I want to stress here, that I’ve had my writing friends for years now–I know when they mark something, I’ve screwed up.  But it takes a while to find critique partners who are right for you.  A friend wrote in circles for a while, because her partners didn’t know her genre and wanted to change her writing so that it mimicked theirs–not what a critique is for).  When I finish fixing that draft, I give the manuscript to my grammar guru who copy edits the whole thing.  Then I fix those mistakes  (hyphens don’t like me).   And finally, I give it to my agent.  And there are always more things to fix.

Finally, it’s time to put the novel or novella online.  And every writer wants readers to buy it, love it, and review it, right?  In our fantasies, every reader writes a glowing review of how much they loved the story and our writing.  And that is a fantasy.  Because it’s never going to happen.  People don’t like or look for the same things.  Hopefully, more people will like your story than not.  But you can’t please everyone.  Someone’s going to want more of this, less of that.  I’m not a famous writer.  I rejoice when I just get a review.  I read them, think them over, try to decide if I should change something in the next book.  The most helpful reviews, for me, tell me what they liked and what they didn’t.  The only reviews that bug me are the ones who give my work one star with no name and no comment.  What am I supposed to learn from them?  Come to think of it, though, that’s not as bad as my friend–who sells LOTS of books, who got a one-star review with a comment that said, “What a waste of time and money.”  That still doesn’t tell a writer what the reader didn’t like.  So maybe no comment is better:)  (My friend, by the way, had so many five-star reviews, she just shrugged and said, “Can’t win ’em all.”  And she’s right.  You can’t.)

The thing is, a writer needs to find her balance on a tight rope of listening to people enough to grow and improve and not listening enough to stay true to her own voice/style.  I belong to an awesome writers’ group, and new writers come and go.  They usually do fine when one of us is reading.  They listen to the comments and join in when we go around the table.  We often lose them after the first time they read, though.  And I understand.  Writing is a private endeavor.  And as much as all of us want feedback, it’s not always easy to take.  Most of us, even the members who’ve been writing for a long time, can get defensive.  When it happens to me, the trick is to keep my  mouth shut, give myself a few days to digest what failed on a colossal level, and then figure out how to fix it.  But my first instinct–and theirs, too–is to defend our work.  But if a person doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like it.  That doesn’t mean we have to change it.  I’d say that if four out of five people tell you something doesn’t work, though…well, you’d better fix it.  Reviews are pretty much the same.  They can be helpful, but at the end of the day, your writing is yours.  And you can’t please everyone.

My final point–as much as feedback can make us doubt ourselves, thank the heavens if you get some good, honest comments.  They’re not easy to come by.  I am grateful to every reader who goes to the bother to share his/her thoughts about my stories and writing.  THANK YOU!