I was going to title this installment, “Feedback Sucks.” I mean, I want to be honest with you, and, for at least the first few books, feedback really, really sucks.
But it’s also kind of awesome (once you get used to it) and it’s completely indispensable, so it’s time to talk about feedback: soliciting it, accepting it, and putting it to work.
The fact is, we all have a massive blind spot when it comes to our writing. It’s ours, and because it’s ours, we love some parts beyond all sense, and we hate other parts with a blinding passion, but can’t quite figure out how to do without them. This is probably true of most things we have immense emotional attachment to.
Like: you love your horse to bits, and your horse has the best gaits you’ve ever ridden, but you could really do without the cribbing thing. If your horse were a book, you’d lend him out to five other riders. Some of them would come back to let you know you’re right about his trot, you’re dead wrong about his canter but here’s how to fix it, and oh by the way–the cribbing isn’t so bad, just put a collar on him and forget about it. Plus, bonus, you really need to teach him to ground-tie, even though you ride dressage and that’s literally never come up before… for you.
That’s what feedback on your book is like. Some things you thought were perfect aren’t, some things you thought were awful are just fine, some things are lovely, and some things you never even considered.
Who should you ask for feedback?
This is different for everyone. You might find it easier to ask people you’ve never met IRL, like an online writer’s group. That way, you don’t have to cringe while they’re in the other room reading it. Or you might give it to your best friend, and just deal with the cringing.
No matter who you choose, I think it’s best if that person shares some of your sensibilities about reading and writing. If you’ve written a torrid romance, don’t hand it off to a friend who rereads The Saddle Club over and over. If you’ve written a contemporary fiction, your friend with the vampire obsession might find your prose lacks teeth. (HAH DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE– you saw, I’ll stop.)
I say this because I’ve made the mistake of giving a manuscript to someone who had completely different sensibilities than me. This person gave me back thorough and well-meaning feedback which simply tore my novel to shreds. I didn’t agree with any of it. And there were pages of recommendations. I was beside myself, because they didn’t make any sense to me, but I respected the reader and wanted to take their advice.
Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t work with their suggestions and released the novel anyway, only taking two or three of the suggestions. As it turns out, the book was incredibly well-received by my readers. The disconnect had been between myself and the beta-reader, who didn’t typically read my style of writing. The feedback, generously given, worked for their genre, but not for mine.
My beta-reading group includes authors who write similarly to me, readers of my previous books, and my husband. Now, a lot of people will say that loved ones make for bad editors, but my husband and I share both a similar taste in books and viciously judgmental attitudes. It makes for a good team. He removes some of my favorite sentences and tells me to fill plot holes, and I scowl at him for weeks. It’s how our marriage works. Your results may vary.
Once you’ve asked, be two things. Be patient, and be grateful. It’s not easy to read critically, especially if you’re not a professional, especially if you’re someone’s friend. And chances are decent that at some point you’ll be asking a friend. It can take some time, and it can make people nervous to decide what to point out. Let them know how much you appreciate their time and their feedback.
What should you do with feedback?
When you get back the email that says, “I really liked it, but I think…” you should pause, pour yourself something soothing, and make sure you have time to read carefully and think about what’s being said. Remember that this is not an attack on your writing–unless you chose a beta-reader who is secretly your nemesis–but an honest assessment of how your writing works for someone else.
Nothing works for everybody. There are books out there you despise that other people adore. That the majority of people adore. They re-read them over and over, rather than read other books. And you can’t get through two pages. Reading fiction is never objective.
But if you want your novel to work for more than just you, beta reader feedback can be a clue as to how the wider world will receive your novel. Does the storyline work? Do your readers care about your characters? Do you close up your plot neatly by the end? Are there confusing sentences? Contradictions?
Chances are, you’ll hit the scoreboard on each of those questions. No book is ready for publication as soon as you’ve finished writing it–I don’t care if you’re on your third draft. You’re too close to it. You need someone removed. You need fresh eyes. Ever work in retail? Ever count a register three or four times and it just won’t come out even, so you ask a coworker to count it, and they have no problems? It’s the same thing. Whatever mistake you were making, you were destined to just keep making it until someone else stepped in and took a look.
It’s okay to set your book aside for a while after you’ve received feedback. You might not want to look at any of it for a little bit. That’s okay. Get removed from it. Start to miss your characters a little bit. Get yourself revved up again to power through the next round of edits. Then read the feedback and decide your next course of action. Are you going to make changes? Go for it. Do you need clarification? Email or set up a meeting to discuss the feedback in more depth.
Once you’ve put your book out there for feedback, take heart. Someone else has read it. Things are getting very real! You’re getting closer to a finished novel. And thanks to your beta readers’ feedback, it’s going to be even better than you thought.