Friday, June 19, 2009

Handling Feedback--Try It; You'll Like It

The hardest suggestions to take on my writing are the ones that call for major rewrites. Often they mean abandoning favorite passages or whole themes. They take lots of time and may reshape the story in ways I'm not sure I want to go. My first reaction may well be "No way, Jose." Those are the times when I put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer (these days that's a computer file) and sit on it. I come back to it when my emotions are not so raw.

Years ago there was an Alka-seltzer commercial that started out with someone being encouraged to try some new food. "Try it; you'll like it!" Of course, the result was a need for Alka-seltzer. But that isn't always the case. When I first began showing The Wooden Ox to readers, one woman suggested I start on page 9. I had already cut two chapters of "essential" background information about the war, and I was sure I needed all that was left. I tried a rewrite starting on page 7, but the woman was right. When I started on page 9, it wasn't hard to work in the little from the earlier pages that was really essential to the story.

This is when I love the computer most. I don't have to abandon my original material. If the change affects the whole manuscript, I save the draft and make changes in a new one. If it only affects one scene, I take out the scene and save it as "unused [keyword]." Then it is always there to come back to. Starting a new draft on the computer gives me the freedom to experiment, knowing the original is still there if I decide I really do like it better. Most often, I don't. As in starting on page 9, the change really does make a better story.

More often than I like to think, I write excitedly but then stop believing in the story. Readers know it isn't working. I know it isn't working. It sits in my computer file as it sits in the back of my mind. One day I may pull it out and rework it. Or it may just be a bad idea, not strong enough to sustain interest.

So Kersten, this is how I handle my struggles with feedback. I sit on them for a while. Then I save my original and try the changes, taking into account how much the source knows about the industry. The stories we believe in are worth making better. May you grow in your writing and keep faith in your story.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Handling Feedback--Note the Source

"What do you do when you start struggling with feedback you've received?" my friend asked. If I believe in my story, I will use suggestions to make it better.

There are some reader suggestions that I reject outright. I am good at grammar, thanks to my eighth-grade English teacher. When a reader puts in commas that don't need to be there or changes all the condition-contrary-to-fact subjunctives to indicatives, I ignore it. (Although sometimes I am driven to my Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference to be sure.)

When it comes to suggestions of word choice or sentence structure that I'm not sure I like, I usually make the changes. I figure I am going to be back over this manuscript so many times that if the suggestion doesn't feel natural to me, I can always change it later to something that does, but I'll give it a try.

Then there are what my husband would call No-way,-Jose! suggestions--the ones that make your eyes pop and leave you speechless. You can't react if you ever want honest feedback in the future. I make a mental note even if I don't actually write the change into the manuscript. If another reader comments on that same passage, obviously something has to be done even if not exactly what the reader suggested.

The comments of an editor of the publishing house that has given me a contract on the book carry more weight than those of my neighbor. But even the neighbor's feedback matters because he represents readers. If one reader says the manuscript got slow around chapter 5, others might put the book down at that point and never come back to it (and never tell their friends what a good book it is, never give it as a gift, and never recommend that anyone buy it....) And just because the editor makes a suggestion doesn't mean you are stuck with it. Someone at the publishing house wanted to begin So That's What God is Like with "Once there was a little boy named Temba who lived in South Africa." I called them up and said, "NO WAY, JOSE!" (politely, of course.)

Feedback from a prospective publisher is especially valuable. First, it is seldom given since they are so busy. Second, following their suggestions may make a difference in the response of the next publisher you approach--or even gain you a second look with the first.

Next week we'll look at the major changes I DON'T want to make.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Handling Feedback--Believe in Your Story

A friend taking a writing class recently asked, "What do you do when you start struggling with feedback you've received?" As I get used to a new critique group--people I'm just getting to know, whose writing I am not yet familiar with--it is a question I am looking at as well.

A writer has to balance two concepts: the need to believe in herself and her story, and the fact that if she doesn’t listen, she won’t grow as a writer.

I do my best writing when I feel passionate about something—like the novel my agent is currently trying to place about an African figure skater whose parents have HIV/AIDS. It’s a good book. HIV doesn’t happen in isolation. It interrupts lives with dreams and goals that have nothing to do with this insipid disease. It drags down those who aren’t even infected, and sometimes infects them too. And it can happen to anyone.

“American’s won’t buy a sad book about a girl in Africa,” says one publisher.

“It’s a hopeful book!” I say in return. “It’s really happening. Americans need to know before it is too late.”

The publisher worries that he won’t sell enough books to cover the cost of production, but I believe in my story so I don’t give up. I have never been one to look at current trends and come up with a gimmick that will sell. My agent and I try another publisher. At the same time, I ask myself, “What can I do to make the book so good, they CAN’T say no?”

It is a good book, but I know it could be better. That’s why I ask readers to give me feedback. “I loved it! I think it’s so wonderful you're doing this!” may be encouraging, but it’s not helpful. “It gets kind of slow about chapter 5. I didn’t understand what you meant in this paragraph. What if you made one of the skating coaches American?” Those comments may be less encouraging, but they are more useful.

It’s easy to handle feedback when my response is, “Oh, yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s a bit harder when I like what I wrote and I don’t want to change it. But then if I refuse to change, why did I show it to the reader in the first place? Was I just hoping for positive strokes--someone to praise my writing and make me feel good about a book the publishers aren’t jumping to invest in? If I believe in myself and my story, I want to make it as good as it can be.

Next week we'll look at the specific ways this writer handles suggestions.