Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part III: on beyond merely maintaining a pleasant face

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For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about that most trying of recurring writerly obligations, dealing gracefully with face-to-face feedback sessions. Whether it’s in a critique group where writers are sharing their suggestions about how to improve one another’s chapters or the more one-sided phone call from one’s agent or editor asking for a change in a manuscript before it makes the rounds of editors or goes to press, many, if not most, writers find it a bit hard to bear with a smile.

A real smile, that is, not the plastered-on grimace of those who are counting to ten before reaching for any weaponry that happens to be handy.

To that end, let’s recap the face-to-face critique-handling strategies we’ve covered so far:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

4. Be an active listener.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

6. Re-read the critiqued pages before responding.

Any questions, comments, cries of “Oh, my God, you can’t be serious?” about those? Good. Let’s move on.

7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.

As I mentioned yesterday, not all feedback is equally applicable to one’s work — yes, even if it comes from a well-respected agent, editor at a major publishing house, or even yours truly. This is not, contrary to popular opinion, an industry of generalists, but of specialists.

Just as it really doesn’t make sense to pitch or query a novel to an agent who represents exclusively nonfiction, ideally, a writer would approach only those who are intimately familiar with her chosen book category for feedback. If she has written a memoir, for instance, her dream team of first readers might include a bevy of inveterate autobiography fans, a writers’ group made up exclusively of memoirists, and perhaps a conference critique from an agent, editor, or author whose interests lie in that direction.

But that’s not how the cookie tends to crumble in real life, is it? Most of the time, we writers don’t have the luxury of showing our work to specialists.

Time and again, writers approach me for editing, bemoaning the quality of the feedback they’ve been getting. “Well,” I say in the sympathetic tones of my trade, “who has been reading your work?”

The litany is almost always the same: my spouse, my best friend, and my writing teacher; the one romance writer, two mystery writers, and one science fiction writer in my critique group; the agent to whom I was randomly assigned at that conference, the guy who represents nothing but books about horses and Civil War widows; the editor who walked into a group pitch meeting announcing that he wasn’t empowered to take on any unagented work…

“Wow,” I usually say, after the list has petered out. “Has anyone who habitually reads your kind of book for pleasure or business read it yet?”

A quick caveat: please don’t take this observation as an excuse to tell members of your critique group that they wouldn’t know the specialized requirements of your chosen genre if they sat up and barked. It’s the writer’s responsibility to recruit qualified first readers, just as in her best interests to query and pitch to only agents and editors with a demonstrable interest, if not track record, in her chosen book category. (For tips on how to figure out whom to ask to fill this much-valued function, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.)

However, being cognizant in advance of whether the kind soul offering you feedback on your writing is hip to what is currently being published in your selected line can certainly help you keep his suggestions in perspective. After all, what could be gained by debating the merits of whether your hard-boiled detective narrator (the one who has a fatal attraction to dames with great gams; you know the guy) is too tough to be likeable with someone who has never read a hard-boiled detective novel?

Or — and this criterion often comes as a surprise to frustrated feedback givers — with someone who thinks, bless his heart, that THE MALTESE FALCON still represents the cutting edge of the genre?

Or with an agent who has represented only literary fiction and self-help books for the past 15 years?

Again, I’m not bringing this up to give you an argumentative tool, but to help you pick your battles. Naturally, any good reader can give useful feedback on non-genre-specific issues, such as clarity, pacing, and plausibility.

But to be blunt about it, it’s not going to help improve your mystery if you’re only receiving feedback from people unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions. Selecting your feedback-givers with care will go a long way toward avoiding unproductive quibbling.

8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive

This one can have a practically magical effect on a group critique session on the verge of becoming nasty: when you are listening to feedback (ideally, as I suggested yesterday, with busily-scratching pen applied to ample paper supply), make it your mission to find one — JUST one — piece of advice that makes sense to you out of the whole critique.

Then make it the topic for further discussion, leaving everything else that’s been said for consideration in private.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should ignore the rest of what’s said; write it all down, and if you find multitasking difficult, go ahead and ask another member of your critique group to take notes as well. (Not a bad idea in any case, actually.)

But keeping your tender ears out for the one piece of feedback that you are certain is worth a try serves a couple of purposes. First, it gives you an upbeat topic for further discussion. Second — and more conducive to your general happiness — it helps shift the focus of the exchange from a list of what your manuscript does wrong to how clever the critiquer has been to figure out a way to improve what is already good.

To understand how profound this mental shift can be, picture the exemplar I mentioned yesterday, the all-too-common hyper-defensive critique group member who sits on the edge of his seat while others are discussing his writing, jaw set and pulse racing, just waiting for an excuse to jump in and justify what he’s written. Can you even imagine that guy being able to say at the end of the meeting, “Wow, Natalie, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to go back to Chapter 2 and try that”?

There’s a reason he couldn’t do it: every fiber of his being is devoted to ego defense, rather than gleaning something constructive from the critique session. Although he probably doesn’t think of it this way, he’s poised to protect his feelings at the expense of his writing project.

9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative

Okay, all of you pessimists out there — Part II of the Rule of One is for you: it’s a strategy for coping with a critique in which, even with the best intentions, the writer is hard-put to find anything useful, or which is so general (“Does your true-crime book really need to be so graphic?”) that at first blush, it doesn’t seem remotely applicable to the manuscript at hand.

Instead of saying something confrontational like, “Hey, Bozo, are you sure that it was MY chapter you read?” find one — JUST one — of the speaker’s points to focus upon, rather than the whole morass. And instead of picking the most outrageously wrong part of the critique, why not select something in the mid-range of egregious?

Then ask follow-up questions on that PARTICULAR point and no other. The more specific (and text-based) you can be, the better.

Do I hear the cynics out there getting ready to riot? “But Anne,” they protest, “why bother? If the critiquer is an idiot who obviously doesn’t know the first thing about my book category, or doesn’t seem to understand what she’s read, why not just dismiss her and be done with it?”

For several good reasons, oh ye of little faith. First, giving oneself permission to dismiss an entire set of feedback at one fell swoop sets a dangerous precedent — once the habit is established, it can become pretty tempting to dismiss the next critiquer who says something similar about a work, and then the one after that. After a while, rejection can become second nature.

And we all know where that can lead, can’t we? That’s right: to Kimberley, our hypersensitive writing group member from a few days back. Look upon her works, ye mighty, and despair.

Second, even a poor critiquer can occasionally make a good point. Sometimes, good readers are not very articulate about what they would like to see changed in a manuscript — particularly if they are new to giving feedback. Asking very specific follow-up questions can be very helpful in eliciting what they actually mean.

Although in defense of such roundabout reasoners, I do wish that more writers’ groups told new members up front that “I liked this” and “I didn’t like that” are not very useful ways to express feedback. Diagnosing manuscript problems is hard; even very careful readers could often use some guidance at first.

Third — and I hesitate to bring this up, but it may save you some grief down the line — seemingly inapplicable critique occasionally comes from unlikely sources. Like, for instance, the hapless agent who, due to a colleague’s cancellation, abruptly finds himself expected to read thirty 10-page novel excerpts in preparation for conference critique meetings that begin two hours hence.

Hey, it happens.

Rather than retail any of the truly spectacular (and, from a writer’s point of view, quite depressing) anecdotes I’ve heard over the years from agents and editors who have found themselves in this position, let me share an awkward moment from my own past.

Years ago, I entered a writing competition where the prize included a month-long residency in an artists’ colony and face-to-face manuscript critique by two quite well-known authors. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the author whose work I admired liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable. Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well.

But now that we’re all familiar with Tactic #7, that doesn’t particularly stun us, right?

When Important Author #2 appeared on the scene — three days late for her week-in-residence and planning to leave two days early, which automatically made me a bit wary — I was very diplomatic about the fact that I didn’t find her work very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: how many of you had thought by the end of the previous paragraph that, in accordance with Tactic #7, I should have bowed out of my scheduled critique meeting with her? Take a gold star out of petty cash if you did.

Alas, at the time, I was young, innocent, and entirely too prone to confuse slightly inconveniencing someone with being impolite. I walked into the meeting prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with my dignity intact.

You can feel this coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s far worse than you’re imagining.

She not only didn’t care for my work — she mixed it up with another competition winner’s. (She didn’t like hers, either, apparently.) Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

So I pulled the pin on the truth grenade. And she ARGUED with me about whether I’d read the chapter she’d been lambasting. Pop quiz: what should I have done at this point?

A bronze star with walnut clusters if you shouted, “Run! Murmur some polite thanks and flee for your life, praying that she will forget your name the next time she’s sitting on an award board!”

Actually, I did try to escape, but by then, she was grumpy. Ordering me not to move, she dug through the sheaves of paper in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel until she found my chapter — and proceeded to read it in front of me.

Or rather, she read the first two pages, gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet. Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

So what did I do? I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would occur to her later.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.”

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be. More tips on increasing your ability to twist yourself into a genial pretzel follow next time. Keep up the good work!

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