Please welcome guest Kristin Owens to Writer Unboxed today! Kristin grew up in Buffalo, NY and moved immediately after the Bill’s fourth Super Bowl loss for better odds. After a two-decade stint in higher education, she’s now a full-time writer in Colorado and a contributor for many magazines and blog posts. Topics range from wine to cruise ships to kvetching. She provides high-energy classes motivating new writers to stick with it. She’s represented by Madelyn Burt at Stonesong Literary. Check out her published articles, essays, and videos on her website, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!
You Asked for It
Ahhh… feedback. It’s inevitable.
After scribbling incoherent thoughts to paper, massaging into shape, and polishing for maximum gleam, my writing demands outside validation. My own self-critique is never enough. I need a small trophy. A little love. Or at least a kick in the shins. But asking for constructive criticism is fraught with multiple emotional layers, all anxiety-producing. And I need less rather than more to fret about. You too? So why do we ask outsiders to read our work? There must be good reasons.
Self-Sabotage or Self-Delusion
Basically, we either enjoy masochistic levels of apprehension or want to improve our writing craft. Possibly both. Personally, after completing a novel, I celebrate: Whoopee! Then after the last drop of prosecco is drunk, my ego immediately requires confirmation of one of the following:
- This book is terrible. I know something is wrong… or many somethings. Because, if I really nailed it, I’d sleep like a baby pumped full of Nyquil. But writers are an unconfident lot, myself included, and I need to know if it’s a pile of hyperbolic crap. Because if it is, then I can quit writing. Forever. Really.
- It’s okay. I’ve revised so many times, I can’t tell if the main theme resonates, let alone exists on the pages anymore. And I’m tired. Tired of the bitchy characters and the plot holes so large I fall face-first into their obscurity. My give-a-shit-factor left with my last reem of copy paper. Just get it off my desk.
- This is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever written. Or yet, after months of writing, redrafting, and finalizing, I deem it WONDERFUL just to stop reading it. With all this fussing, it must be good, right? RIGHT? I’ll just send it to my mom and wait for a hand-drawn smiley face to come back on it, validating my efforts.
Gird Your Loins
Recently, I developed a seven-step drafting process for my novels. It covers everything from inserting backstory appropriately to deleting crutch words. It takes about a year from beginning to end, yet it isn’t foolproof. So besides running chapters through my weekly critique group (who know all my quirks), I enlist the help of beta readers (who don’t spell my name correctly).
Beta readers. They should be spelled Betta after the Siamese Fighting Fish.
Let’s take a pause here. For as many reasons you send out work, a cataclysmic span of responses will be returned because beta readers can run the gamut from helpful to hurtful. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same.
For instance, betas can point out glaringly awful inconsistencies – which is terrific! After a long-term relationship with this book, I can’t remember if a minor character’s eyes are blue or brown and really don’t care anymore. Beta readers make me care.
Others take their work so seriously; I ponder if they’re really professional Big 5 editors undercover. Apparently, because it’s incredibly difficult to squeeze all the comments into the margins, they take it upon themselves to staple in additional pages. Yikes.
Some readers love it. Love everything I write. I want to send them an obscene amount of flowers.
And then, the haters. I’m not sure why they feel the need to torture us so. They volunteered to read but dislike everything: the plot, the setting… even my 1” margins. These heartbreakers force me to stay up all night sobbing into my pillow, rethinking the cost of newly hung wallpaper in my office, until a week later when I say screw it while ripping open another box of wine.
So, when asking for feedback, from either beta readers or a critique group, I advise being very specific: Did you enjoy the narrator’s voice? What about the character resonated with you? Who would enjoy this book? Because if I don’t, it can be a gluttony of ill-conceived commentary, which helps no one. Especially my husband.
Last month, I shipped out printed versions of my latest manuscript with spanky new red pens to five beta readers I’ve never met before. They don’t know about my big hair, winning personality, or staggering boxed-wine collection. Basically, I can’t sway them to like me or my work. Their feedback would be based on my writing alone. Which is exactly what I wanted: an honest opinion of my storytelling. As I lay prone underneath the dining room table, whining and waiting, I decided any outcome would make me a stronger writer. A tougher broad.
The moment I forgot about them and took up jigsaw puzzles, the manuscripts came rolling back. I got what I asked for: Feedback. Everything from, “I love it,” to, “I can’t stand the main character,” and worse, “I would’ve stopped reading except I promised you I would.” Ouch.
But. They are readers. Readers who read books. Like yours. If they don’t like it, an agent, or publisher probably won’t either. Who cares if they didn’t get the existential reference to Goethe on page 46? They liked the bit about the dog who farted and wanted more.
Sometimes I wish for the days when beta readers gave you lessons in grammar. I could always take it or leave it, chalking it up to having creative sentence structure. But now? Everyone has an opinion. Especially when you ask for it and provide pre-paid priority envelopes. But asking for critique and wading through feedback is an important step forward in your writing career. Even though it may feel like you’re wearing roller skates with a wad of gum on the wheel. You’re taking your work seriously. Bravo.
When It Gets Personal
I admit, I get weepy when betas don’t like my main character. Her whims, her attitude, her choice of shoes… they can’t get behind her. And that hurts, because more often than not the main character overwhelmingly shares characteristics with me. Yes, moi.
This particular manuscript I recently sent out was a memoir-turned-novel, because I needed more freedom to ignite plot points into raging infernos. But the main character is predominantly me. When a critique partner said early on, “I can’t stand her,” I kinda took it personally. Instead, I wrote bigger, and voicier. The result? Now the betas hate her. Despise her.
Yes, it may be fiction. But let’s face it, everything is personal. It’s you. Me. On the page. Where do readers think this stuff comes from? It doesn’t magically filter down from the cosmos and fall into our computer hard drives like fairy dust. We lean on events and incidents from our own lives to concoct stories. In the end it’s really about you and your ideas. But you are a sum of many parts, just like your complex characters. Maybe try bumping up some traits and ratcheting down others. Pivot a bit.
Collecting all this well-intended feedback is one thing, applying it is another. It’s a lot to wade through. In my case, three-hundred pages times five. But the more I write, the more seasoned I become in determining what comments ring true. How? You know. Like when you know a good melon (a gratuitous steal from When Harry Met Sally).
Also, reading and processing feedback gets easier. You stop crying when you see big envelopes in the mailbox, knowing what’s inside can influence the rest of your week. Just like the bathroom scale, criticism has tremendous power over your mental health and can take you down like that cheesecake last night. But over time you gain the ability to determine what’s constructive and what’s downright mean. Of the five betas who read my manuscript, two liked it, one loved it and one hated it. I know that adds up to only four.
This is where experience finally wins. The more you send out work to readers, contests, agents, editors, you’ll be able to sort through the constructiveness of it all. Maybe your subplots really do need some fine-tuning? And you’ll acknowledge it by digging deeper into the text. The farting dog? Of course, he stays. In the end, I always add beta readers to my acknowledgement list, without passive-aggressively spelling their names wrong.
But… it turns out I have more work to do. I keep thinking about my main character. Because in the end, my betas are right. She really is a bitch. I’ll revise to make her a little nicer. Engaging. Who returns Tupperware. And I’ll probably send the next draft to my mom. Because I prefer smiley faces.
When do you reach out for feedback? What do you guard against? What do you welcome? How do you respect that line? Have a critique story you’d like to share? The floor is yours.