It’s no news to any writer that seeking feedback on your work is one of the hardest things about this writing business. Yet, if we want to be published, at some stage we must put our words, stories and characters out there to be scrutinised by others. It’s as frightening as letting your child out of your sight for the first time. That story we’ve nurtured as carefully as a mother-to-be protects an early pregnancy must be shared with others who don’t always appreciate how much of ourselves is on every one of those pages.
The good news is, the more you go through it, the more you get used to it—believe me—although there’s always a little bit of anxiety involved. I tell myself that despite my story being such an intimate and private part of me, I’m not it and it’s not me. Any criticism about my writing is not about me personally. But it’s one thing knowing this intellectually, and quite different believing it emotionally.
It’s never easy to hear feedback, but it’s beneficial beyond measure. I look back now and can’t believe I thought my shoddy early drafts might have been publishable, but at that time, with my limited knowledge, I knew no better. Thank god someone saved me from myself! It was only by showing my writing to others that my own ability to recognise what was working and what wasn’t improved.
Just for something different, and because I like to write stories, I thought I’d tell this post in the form of a tale. I hope you enjoy:
The Tale of a Writer Who Sought Feedback On Their Work
There was once a not-so-young writer who’d been sequestered away in an attic for over a year, head down and bum up while she wrote her first novel. She’d written it mostly by herself, and edited it, but she’d reached the stage where, while she knew there were still things wrong with it, she didn’t know how to fix them. So, she decided to hand her book over to another writer, one much more experienced than her, for feedback. Before she sent off her novel, she printed it out and read it through one last time. As she read it, she thought:
‘Oh dear, my story doesn’t really flow like the ones I read in books. There are a few gaps but I don’t know how to fill them—I hope I’ve skimmed over them enough so my reader won’t notice. And I know I haven’t made it clear why she chooses to marry him, but I don’t know why myself. Hopefully my reader won’t care about that minor detail. I’m wondering, too, about that fishing scene that goes on for seven pages. It might be a bit long but, oh, I don’t want to delete anything from it because it’s some of my favourite writing. And the old grandpa, I know he doesn’t add to the story, but he makes me laugh and I couldn’t possibly part with him because he’s the only humorous thing in the whole book.’
So the writer told herself that it was good enough, and the next day, hands trembling, she clicked Send. ‘Please tell me all the things wrong with my book that I need to work on,’ she wrote gaily in the accompanying email. But what she really meant was, ‘This book is as precious as my newborn child, and every, single one of those pages contains the intimate workings of my mind and heart. All my thoughts, desires, fears, worries, cares, they’re all there on those pages, and I’m stripped naked before you. If you dare criticise what I’ve written, I don’t know that I’ll ever recover. So, what I really need you to say is, ‘This is beautiful writing and a beautiful book and nothing more needs to be done with it.’
A week or two later, the writer and the reader met up to discuss the book. The writer was very nervous, sitting on the edge of the brocade chair. They chatted small-talk for a while, and the writer half-wanted to keep chatting like that for the whole time because she feared what she was about to hear. Eventually, the reader said, ‘Thank you for letting me read your book and I enjoyed it very much.’
Which the writer knew was basically code for, ‘I thought your book was shit.’
The reader then listed all the things wrong with the writer’s book, in as kind a way as it is possible to gouge out someone’s insides and grind them through the mincer.
There were little things, like that the writer had used favourite words like ‘gullet’ and ‘roiled’ repeatedly, and that she had an infatuation with ellipses, using them 14 times on one of the pages alone. The reader also let her know that her favourite sections in the book were horribly overwritten and so abstract she had no idea what the writer was talking about. The reader also felt that, while the fishing scene was nice, seven pages were about five pages too many.
Then she said, ‘I don’t understand why she married him?’, and the writer started to respond, ‘Well, it was because …’. But she didn’t know herself, so she couldn’t go any further.
Lastly, the reader said, ‘It’s a bit black. And unrelenting. One bad thing after another. I got it the first time and didn’t need it repeated over and over. And over.’
As the reader was talking, the writer kept smiling and nodding, hiding the fact that her insides were churning and she wanted to run away and hide and never come out again. It was hard to hear these words attacking her beautiful, yet flawed, child. It crossed her mind, albeit briefly, that maybe the reader was too obtuse to really understand her story. She did concede that would be implausible as the reader was a deeply intelligent person and a much better writer than her.
Then the thought occurred to the writer: ‘The reader thinks I’m an idiot now she’s seen the level of my incompetence. She’s wondering how I could ever be crazy enough to think I could write a book. I was stupid to show it to her.’ And the writer felt embarrassed.
When the reader had finished talking, the writer took her precious book and her sinking heart home, all the while berating her silly, stupid self. ‘Why didn’t you spot those glaring errors and fix them?’ she asked herself. ‘You’re a stupid, stupid fool. How could you ever think you could be a writer or that your book could be worth publishing?’
She then sat with her book and re-read a few of her heartfelt sentences, and realised how simple and clunky they were. That’s when it crossed her mind that she should give up. That she should stop before she embarrassed herself any more. She’d hoped her book was finished, that it was ready to send out to publishers and that people would love it. Yet really, it was just a worthless stack of pages. She allowed herself one tiny cry while she wondered if she had enough left inside her to keep going.
Late that night she finally fell asleep, and the next day when she awoke, the sun was out and the world was looking a little brighter. She sat at her desk and read through the reader’s notes, and she noticed for the first time that the reader did actually say some nice things about her book. In fact, there were quite a few of them. The reader might have even liked some of the scenes.
She noticed, too, that the reader had pointed out spots the writer needed to work on and she’d also given her helpful tips on what she needed to do. As the writer read, ideas began to form, of how she could bridge that gap or smooth that hump in her narrative. She was still feeling rather daunted because it would require a lot of work and she didn’t have all the solutions just yet, nor all the skills, but she was beginning to feel ready to tackle it.
She knew she’d be blindly groping her way through because this was her first book and it was a new and unchartered adventure, but she also knew that there was no other way it could be done. She just had to put her fingers on the keyboard and start tapping, one word at a time, filling in the gaps, smoothing the humps and tackling each problem as she reached it. She had to start and one day she would get to the end, and if she kept going, one day that end would be her final, final, final, final, final draft, and her book would really be finished.
By the way, I’ve written about seeking feedback in a couple of other blog posts, too:
And here’s a Writers in the Attic post about when to listen to, and when to ignore, feedback:
For anyone who missed it, I sent my October Newsletter during the week.