Could You be Addicted to Feedback?

criticism
criticism

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What are the signs?

I have this mentor/friend who thinks I have a problem. She’s traditionally published over a dozen novels and teaches a wildly successful fiction workshop in a major city.

Twice, she has told me to just finish my current draft without getting more feedback.

What kind of feedback am I talking about? Not just your garden variety writing or critique group comments that take place in a workshop setting. (But I partake in that, too!)

After my second full draft, I realized my beginning needed work. I rewrote the first forty pages then got an assessment from a professional editor.

I rewrote those pages again incorporating the changes suggested by the editor (also a well-known novelist).

Next, I took part in a story workshop with an award-winning playwright and realized I hadn’t quite nailed my “what’s this about.”

Most authors, whether they’re screenwriters or novelists, eventually have to distill their project to the infamous log-line.

So, I spent some time on that. Then rewrote my outline making sure I was faithful to the gist of my story.

Then I rewrote the first few chapters to more faithfully follow the outline, and—yep, you guessed it—submitted those for feedback.

All of the feedback I received was spot-on and useful.

So, what makes me think I might need a 12-step program for writers seeking feedback?

Last week, the first mentor I mentioned above asked how my project was going. I was all positive: “Great, still working on it. Incorporating feedback on a new beginning, etc.”

And she asked: “Haven’t you already done that?”

Yes. Three times.

She was confused. She told me to knock it off. That it was just procrastination masquerading as “improving my craft.” She told me to just finish the draft using everything I know how to do. On my own. Like, without a guide. Alone. Solo.

start-and-finish

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I know, pushy, right? So, I said I ok. I committed. No more feedback.

Then I texted her and asked if going cold turkey included getting comments from my writing group.

Her exact response: “OMG. Yes, that counts.”

I’ve had limited time to work on my draft over the last two weeks. I have a post-op son at home that requires twice-daily “wound-care.” And, yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds.

A dear relative is in the ICU.

I have a day job. I have laundry and meals to prepare and groceries to procure.

(Einstein ought to have tackled that job. The most inefficient system in the modern age: take item off shelf, put item in cart, take item out of cart, place item on conveyor, place item into bag, place bag into cart, take bag out of cart, place bag into car, take bag out of car, take bag into house, take item out of bag, place item onto shelf. Seriously—473 steps for groceries. Aaaaaaggggghhhhhh!)

I’m supposed to find time to exfoliate and floss and meditate and correspond with family. And when do I squeeze in watching VEEP or Silicon Valley on TV?

On my lunch hour today, I sat in my car and read my first two chapters out loud. I listened for the cadence of my sentences. I made notes about two pages of dialogue with almost no exposition or setting. I made notes on two page of exposition and setting with no action or dialogue.

Such is the life of a writer on her first book. I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one who has attempted this while also having to figure out how to pick a ripe, juicy cantaloupe from the produce section.

Sometimes knowing you’re not alone helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

To further suck time from editing my novel, I signed up months ago for an online workshop. Our current module is “Unhooking from Praise and Criticism.”

This dovetails with my feedback obsession for my work in progress.

One of the common pitfalls of first-time novelists is starting over, never getting to the end of the first draft.

But I avoided that trap! I outwitted my newbie-ness and made sure I got to The End on that first draft. And on the second.

The remaining drafts? You guessed it. I keep going back and working on the beginning. Sometimes, this is important if you still don’t know what your story is. And, yes, there’s no right way and blah, blah, blah.

But by sending out the first twenty pages, or the first five chapters or  just this one section for editorial assessments and feedback, I’m avoiding the inevitable.

I have to finish the f$#king draft I’m working on. Not the next one. This one.

Epiphany-ish, no?

And I know how to make it better. I don’t know if anyone will want to publish it, but I do know how to make it better.

There should be a drive-thru service where workers (trained editors of course) scan your latest output of words and hand you a printout that declares Congratulations, these four pages are working. Carry on!

Feedback

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I just don’t know if I’m doing it right. Four nights ago, I was sure it sucked. I decided to just race through the draft maniacally so I could put it in a trunk under my bed and get on with the next, better book.

Several months ago, I was trying to decide if I should send a current draft out for feedback and I asked my wise mentor person if she thought it was a good idea.

She replied, “Have you already done everything to it that you know how to do?”

The answer was an easy No.

What a question! What’s she hinting at?

You guessed it—she suspected my feedback addiction back then. But I had to be ready to quit.

So, I’m taking it one day at a time. Not sharing pages with anyone. Just working away. In my writing room. At my writing desk. In my car. In the coffee shop.

Alone.

In one of my favorite books about the experience of writing a book (Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s fabulous. How’s that for book-y geekdom?), many pitfalls and stages are explained. Writing a book is a journey.

It’s possible I’m making it harder than it has to be. It’s possible I’m doing it all wrong. It’s possible that I’ll relapse. But for now. I’m just writing. And most days, I don’t want to stop.

 

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Could You be Addicted to Feedback?

  1. Tracey Curzon-Manners on June 7, 2016 at 3:39 am said:

    Suzanne! Your words come alive and I relate to every single sentence… and I agree with your mentor. Trust yourself and silence the inner critic. I understand the need to feedback, I’ve even been tempted myself but deep down I also know what I really want is approval and only I can give me that.

    Leave the feedback to your readers – they’re going to love you as much as I loved reading this.

  2. Tracey Curzon-Manners on June 7, 2016 at 3:40 am said:

    ‘ the need to seek feedback’ Tch

The Forrest Gump Effect: Is Your Stubbornness Making You Miss Good Stuff?

Ignoring Advice

The Forrest Gump Effect

“OMG, OMG, you have to see this movie.” Friends, family, the media . . . everyone wanted me to go see Tom Hanks in THE BEST MOVIE EVER!

Of course, when I finally bought my ticket and popcorn, I was disappointed. With all the hype there was no way the film could have lived up to the push. It had been oversold.

This happens with motivational sayings and life hacks, too. When someone oversells the latest self-help book or when a piece of advice is repeated ad nauseam, it becomes background noise. We resist.

I made this mistake recently trying to get my son to read a book that I’d found beneficial. I tried giving him a synopsis. I quoted from it every other day. I shared examples of how it had helped me overcome a bad habit.

As he resisted, I started leaving it “accidentally” where he might stumble on it, as if finding it in his car would make him more likely to give it a try.

Stubborn Kid Won't Read Book

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He is now convinced it is THE WORST BOOK OF ALL TIME. I blew it, and he’s missing out on some good stuff because of his stubborn refusal to give in to his mom.

Anytime we dismiss the too-often quoted or ignore advice with a “yeah, yeah, yeah,” we could be missing a life-altering nugget of truth.

There’s no shortage of advice out there for writers, either. We’re faced with never ending truisms about craft or the creative process and we often become conditioned to ignore the most common.

After this post about learning in layers, I had an epiphany on the idea behind “truth is stranger than fiction.”

In the popular book Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver reminds his students that fiction is heightened, concentrated reality.

. . . you think there’s nothing to it, that writing a story is just like life. Like life, yes. But not life itself. Creating stories is a special craft—a special way of capturing reality on the page. It feels real, but it isn’t. You can’t just break off a piece of reality and stick it on the page. It won’t work. It won’t work because fiction is concentrated, heightened, intensified reality. It’s the essence of reality. All reality doesn’t contain such essence or truth, but all fiction must. You, the author, must create it.”

That’s a gold standard of writing advice but no less true for being familiar.

I’d read this excerpt at least five times and highlighted almost every other section of the book except this one.

It wasn’t until several drafts into my current project that a light bulb went off. Readers don’t care how long it took your main character to get to the bank, or the route he followed. They care that he was robbed at the ATM. Eventually, I was able to use this in my manuscript, cutting extraneous conversations and flabby descriptions.

Look around your shelves, you probably have how-to writing books galore. Try looking at an old one a new way. As your skills improve and experience grows, an old has-been could become the new go-to.

As for the book my son steadfastly refuses to read, I’m ordering the audio version for him. I’m hoping that in a weakened state he’ll accidentally hit play and absorb the information via osmosis.

Ignoring Advice

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Don’t dismiss an overused motivational quote or the latest popular self-help trend just because they’ve been done to death. Practice looking at things in the revised context of your most up-to-date self.

Give resources another read. Reconsider tips or advice based on your new level of experience or different life circumstances. You may absorb useful information and find yourself able to apply it in meaningful ways.

As for “Gumping” something myself, I learned my lesson with my son. There’s this book I think would be great for my daughter who is just starting out in her career. But this time, I controlled myself and only mentioned it once about a month ago.

To paraphrase Forrest, Christmas is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. The CD version arrived yesterday and is already wrapped and under the tree with my daughter’s name on it. She can listen to it passively on her way to work. Something’s bound to rub off.

 

 

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Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

uncle-franks-chevy-2
uncle-franks-chevy-2

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Growing up, I was a curious kid. I wondered about things to a sometimes annoying degree. If we’d had the internet back then—the age of brontosaurus burgers and dodo birds, according to my kids—I would have fallen down the Google wormhole and never emerged.

Alas, having to travel to the library to look things up in an encyclopedia limited my research. One thing I didn’t understand until my late teen years was the process of invention.

If man could build an airplane or rocket, if the human brain could figure that out, why did we bother with the Model-T Ford or the Wright Brothers? Why not skip right to the harder stuff?

The concept of building on a body of knowledge was a hard one to grasp.

When I spun my first complete rough draft of a novel, I wondered the same thing. Why didn’t it feel the same to read as books I picked up at the bookstore or library?

I wanted to be able to write the perfect novel on my first try. I wanted to go straight from horse and buggy to Apollo 13.

When friends or family ask me about “my book,” I try to find the right words to convey a complicated, mysterious process that I’m only beginning to comprehend myself. Today, I spent an hour geeking-out with a fellow writer on the magic of figuring out this writing a novel thing.

Because the cool thing is . . . I am figuring it out. Draft five (yes, you read that correctly, I’m in my fifth rewrite of a 260-page novel) is a billion times better than that first rough draft. And yet, it’s still so far from ready. According to an interview I heard, Station Eleven, a popular novel by Emily St. John Mandel released earlier this year, took over 20 drafts to complete!

Writers are taught to avoid clichés like the plague (see what I did there?) yet the study of the craft of writing follows many. One of the standards is “writing is rewriting.” It wasn’t until this fifth draft that I was able to use some of the tools I learned about in my first class on writing fiction.

Like the internal combustion engine, there are specific working parts to a story that runs. Reading a zillion books over the last 42 years did not make me capable of writing one. Just as driving a car for the last 34 years has not given me the ability to build one from scratch.

Studying fiction, learning to read like a writer, finding out what the parts of a novel are and how to put them together is a work in progress. I needed to learn to build on the body of knowledge I was accumulating.

There’s a survey floating around on the internet that shows over 81 percent of Americans want to write a book. Many do and they’re horrible. Most never even try, some try and never finish a draft.

Many more write wonderful stories that never make it to publication. A few are both publicly and critically acclaimed. With modern technology, many publish their own books without ever learning what makes a novel work.

I didn’t want to do that. My goal is to learn to write stories like those I like to read, books that you get lost in and never want to leave.

So the latest update on my book is I’m working on it! And, it’s starting to take shape. I described it this way to my fellow writing geek friend just today:

It’s like I’ve been hiding in my garage using odds and ends to build a car from the ground up. And it runs! There are creaky parts, parts that fail to spark, parts that clunk where they should click, occasionally a foul cloud of smoke puffs out of nowhere, but it’s drivable.

Writers often refer to first novels as “under the bed” books, books that will never see the light of day because they’re not good enough. The rare whiz-kid turns out a masterpiece on her first try. That has not been my experience. I couldn’t have gotten to this draft, to this level of improvement without writing that first awful draft.

For any beginners out there working on their first draft, or for any of the 200 million out there that think they have a book in them, you learn how to write a book by writing a book. Study craft, technique, read, practice, write, screw up, delete, add, write some more, then do it all again.

The jury is out on whether or not this particular book will be hidden under my bed, or left to rust in the garage. Either way, I can tell you this, the process of getting it running has been one of the most challenging and exhilarating of my life.

 

8 Thoughts on “Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

  1. Great article.
    I do believe many feel/know they have a book in them. Some of us persist. That “eternal itch”.

    20% talent, 80% dog with a bone. Always in my head, even if it’s background.
    Accumulating ‘material’. Working the puzzle of plot.

    Knew it at 9, still persists into my 50. The scenes, dialogue, settings in mind’s eye.

    Inspite of parenting, FT work and caregiving, lurking there more than often.
    Yourself and two writing friends have trod thru this mind jungle.
    It’s true then, I guess.
    As Cheri Adair says, ‘just write the damn thing’.

    • Great way to put it – “dog with a bone.” I guess that’s why everyone says persistence is the key. Thanks so much for reading. It helps to know we’re not alone! I’m workin’ on it, Cheri Adair!

  2. Nice article Suzanne. You are right on all counts. I published my first novel, The Mystery At Sag Bridge, in April, and I lost track of the number of drafts. Somewhere mid-process I kept patching the same one for a while. The final count probably came to eight, not counting the proofing process, which involved another three or four read-throughs.

    A writer starts with so much enthusiasm, but it’s not easy to critique your own work. Critique groups, beta readers, and editors are so important to the process. I was fortunate enough to have an editor who “suggested” instead of “demanded”, but after thinking things over I usually realized he was right. At that point the fear comes out of the process and enthusiasm returns – along with the final draft.

    • Thank you for reading! It’s good to know that you found the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had great and helpful and difficult to hear but ultimately useful feedback. You’re right, it makes all the difference. Congrats also on your beautiful book! Loved your website.

  3. Loved it. Great article. You are only in your “fifth” rewrite. That’s okay. My first “under the bed” novel took me twenty-seven rewrites until I published it. From first draft to last, completely different stories. I guess I can say I’ve written twenty-six books that will remain “under the bed” and am now a published author with one book 🙂 My second novel is on its eighth rewrite going into ninth after my editor returns it to me. So, it really doesn’t matter the rewrites, the main thing here is perseverance of finishing the book, and giving yourself the forgiveness to write it. Keep doing what you are doing.

  4. Definitely dog with a bone…and just write the damn thing. Great post and the only answer I have for patient supporters who live vicariously through someone in the writing process is, “Do you have a book in you?…How about a blog?” Memories, history, different brains, create magical stories for our tribal collection, Getting it from brain to book to readable takes time 🙂