Getting good feedback, part XIII, in which I finally stop yammering on the subject and move on

star-in-the-snow

Those of you who have been following the epic battle between our yard and the World’s Worst Landscaperâ„¢, a stirring saga of adventure, betrayal, and our quest to banish bizarre pseudo-artistic installations of landscape elements deeply reminiscent of the darker works of Sigmund Freud from our immediate environment, will no doubt be delighted to hear that after eleven months, we have finally discovered where the WWL’s true talent actually lies. No, it’s not in designing and installing innovative and aesthetically pleasing yards — we no longer harbor any illusions on that score — nor in administering staff that might conceivably do so.

He can, apparently, control the weather.

Or so I surmise. Today, we were supposed to have an — ahem — discussion with the WWL about the stack of irrigation hoses that has been lying on the ground so long that the neighborhood opossum has not only begun nesting in within its coils, but is active raising a family there. Yet in the wee morning hours, it began to snow, rendering congregating outside to consider opossum relocation difficult. (Yes, Seattleites are weather wimps.)

I would brush this off as just another delay amongst countless others, were it not the fact that it has begun snowing on all the last three occasions that we scheduled an outdoor ultimatum-fest with the WWL. Apparently, my putting my wee foot down about irrigation hoses triggers some sort of cloud-salting.

Either that, or the WWL has some connections Up There of which we were previously unaware. However he manages it, the power of his conversational inertia is formidable, something out of a Magical Realist novel. Even someone with as high a tolerance for surrealism as yours truly, a lass whose artistic tastes were shaped in part by a mother who insisted upon taking me to see Fellini’s 8 1/2 when I was 8 1/2, this has all been a tad disconcerting.

Enough about the Doors Mankind Was Not Meant To Open. Let’s move on to what I devoutly hope will be my last post on strategies writers can use to wrest good feedback from their first readers.

Last time — and probably a few times in the dim past, knowing me — I brought up the deer-in-the-headlights look that first readers often exhibit when asked post-read for commentary both more complex and more potentially usable than Oh, yeah, I liked it. One would think that a reasonable soul might have at least suspected that at least a few follow-up questions would be forthcoming, but I have it on good authority, through the excellent medium of listening to writers complain lustily about it for many years straight, that it isn’t always the case. (For a genuinely thought-provoking example, please see intrepid reader Nadine’s comment about this phenomenon.)

For the past few days, I’ve been talking about steps a writer can take to minimize the possibility of finding herself post-read without reader feedback that can be incorporated in the next draft. Today, I want to turn the question around, to discuss why intelligent, articulate first readers so often transform before our very eyes into vague, communication-phobic writer-avoiders.

Even when they loved the book. Strange but true.

In practice, first readers new to feedback-giving almost always experience some difficulty giving specific feedback. Oh, they may not say so point-blank, but you may notice them freaking out a little if they are asked pointed questions, as if the author had abruptly transmogrified into an IRS agent conducting a five-year audit.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of this reaction, you might want to spend a little more time watching interactions between writer and audience at author readings. Audience members frequently freeze up if the author of a published book responds to their praise (or, heaven forefend, to a simple request to autograph the book) with, “Thanks — what was your favorite part?”

Note to self: don’t do this at future readings. It ties even admirers’ tongues into sailors’ knots.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that this reaction is primarily due to a pervasive public perception that authors are godlike beings before whom the average reader should quail. (As much as some of us might like that to be the case.) No, ask for a detailed analysis of pretty much any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

Even people who habitually recommend books to their friends will often balk if put on the spot. I find this fascinating.

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test.

Poor souls, when an author asks their opinion of his book, they think they’re being asked WHETHER they liked it, not why. If they weren’t that they would be expected to cough up a more detailed response than By Jove, yes!, they tend to feel as defensive as if the author told them their opinion was wrong.

As if the author above had said to them, “You actually LIKED that trash? In heaven’s name, why?” rather than, “Please tell me what I did right in this book, so I may cater to that taste in my next, the one that my agent is breathing down my neck to produce while I’m on this book tour,” or even, “I am a seething mass of insecurities; please reassure me.”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate.

Now do you understand why I’ve been so insistent about giving your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test and can prepare accordingly? It’s the best way I know to bridge the communication gap and nip this common anxiety in the bud.

I’m not just saying this because I was the prof who habitually stopped mid-lecture to announce, “Gee, wouldn’t THAT make a fabulous final exam question? Let me repeat it a couple of times, so you can write it down.” (And yes, my department did hate that little habit; thanks for asking.) I am, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are no doubt already aware, no fan of concealing from people information they need in order to succeed.

I’m saying it because from the unprepared reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. They tense up because it’s not fair, strictly speaking.

Writers giving feedback to other writers are far less likely to have this response, for obvious reasons: usually, we were the folks who ruined the grade curve in English class. Hand us an essay question about a book we like (or hate), and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we? Ask us what we thought of the latest bestseller, and we might still be delivering nuanced critique next Wednesday. So asking some terrified soul to perform an in-depth textual analysis of the various possibilities for revising a manuscript doesn’t strike us as a stress-inducing exercise; it sounds like fun.

But just for a moment, let’s try to identify with the vast majority of the population that does not instinctively respond with joy to being asked to produce a book report on the spot, shall we?

To help you wriggle into the right mindset, let me ask: do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages, with examples, for instance, or Was the League of Nations a good idea? or The Emancipation Proclamation: what were the arguments on both sides?

Or how about the teacher who resorted to the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading? Perhaps you fell under the sway of something along the lines of this little gem:

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE

Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Make your answer text-based, and use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that bolts of lightning would strike them on the spot. Which, intellectually, is precisely what has happened.

“What the heck does relate mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem. “What if I accidentally cite a DC Comic instead of Marvel? Will I lose points?”

I like to call this the what color am I thinking? school of test-construction, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay. Short of employing sophisticated telepathy, how on earth is the student supposed to know what criteria will be used to judge her response?

We’ve all had teachers who placed us in this uncomfortable position, right? My high school biology teacher simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.”

Half of my classmates instinctively clutched their chests, anticipating a heart attack. Did Mr. Young intend this as an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, an instruction to reproduce the entirety of The Origin of Species, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

The color he was thinking of was green, evidently.

In grad school, I once had the misfortune to enroll in an extremely poorly-designed class on Eastern European politics. For our first paper, the professor asked each of us the daunting question, At what point could an outside force have intervened to prevent the Russian Revolution from occurring? Or could it have been prevented at all? “Give me your opinion,” he told those of us who asked him for some much-needed clarification, or at least narrowing, of the topic. “I want to know what you all think.”

When he returned the graded papers, it was quite apparent that the answer he had been seeking was some version of, “Track down Karl Marx at his elementary school and smother him.” How do I know that the color he was thinking was not red? Because no one who had argued that changing something after Marx was in long pants or anything within the geographical boundaries of the soon-to-be Soviet Union got above a B-.

My dissertation advisor used to favor assigning paper topics by distributing rambling half-page ruminations on the nature of life, without out ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. Because I value your time and my page space, I shall not reproduce one of her opus here, but trust me, those questions were epic.

“Don’t tell me what I think you should know,” she was prone to urge during endless and frustrating meetings to try to nail down a term paper topic. “Tell me what you think I should want to know about what you have learned.”

Are these examples dredging up your long-buried responses to the kinds of exams that drove you nuts in school? Got that I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening feeling firmly in mind?

Good. First readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions.

Especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. As I hope all of you are well aware, the format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s news to you, I would implore you to visit the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right with all possible speed), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

Unless, of course, you have an ego the size of New Zealand, are being paid to do it, or both. Even then, it’s intimidating at first, but hey, both narcissism and nice big checks have their benefits.

So does reading manuscripts for a living at a publishing house or agency. If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, editors at publishing houses took those essay tests, too, and aced ‘em. And now, bless their hearts, they have transformed those bsing compare-and-contrast skills into a life’s work.

If you are using folks without either of those advantages as first readers, providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work.

For the sake of your ego, it’s also a dandy idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well. Even if you are not prey to nagging doubts about the quality of your writing in the dead of night — if you are, trust me, you are far from alone — I can virtually guarantee that at some point along even the most bump-free road to publication, you will appreciate having a list of some concrete reasons to feel good about your book.

In case any of you had heard otherwise, very little about the publication process is designed to reduce a writer’s insecurities — and if you doubt that, I can only suggest that you have a conversation with any author whose first book will be released by a major publishing house within the next year. Yet another reason that a good fit with one’s agent is a positive boon to an author: who better to reassure you about your inherent talent, worth as a human being, and general fabulousness while your book is making the rounds of editors?

But I digress, don’t I? We were talking about that written set of questions you were going to hand to your next first reader.

In your list of feedback criteria, be as specific as you can — questions along the lines of What did you think of my protagonist? tend to elicit less helpful responses than Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? If you would appreciate references to specific page numbers (trust me: you do), either ask your reader to keep a list of ‘em or provide some sort of easily-attached tape flags.

I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader. Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?, What in the plot surprised you most?, and if you were going to fix up my protagonist’s love interest with your best friend, how would you describe him before the date? can provoke some revealing responses.

If those of you who haunt critique groups have started to wonder if coming up with such a list for fellow members wouldn’t be such a terrible idea prior to exchanging manuscripts, give yourself a gold star for the day.

It’s a good idea to tell your reader up front HOW you would like to receive feedback, too. It honestly isn’t self-evident. In the margins? On a separate piece of paper? As a bullet list to accompany verbal communication? Remember, the more writing you ask to receive, the more of a time commitment you are requesting, but unless you take shorthand or have a tape recorder always handy (which not all first readers will appreciate; ask in advance for permission to record), it’s hard to keep in mind everything said within a context of a conversation.

Especially — and we writers don’t often admit this, even amongst ourselves — if that conversation contains critique that hits close to home. While the stress of sitting down and listening to a litany of criticisms aimed at the nearest and dearest work of our hearts can be pretty overwhelming regardless of the quality of the feedback, the breathtaking was I just punched in the gut? sensation of realizing that you’ve just heard precisely the insight that your book needed can also mess with your ability to process further input. Both the emotional and creative wheels are spinning too quickly.

Which is one reason that I would urge you to think VERY carefully whether you really do prefer verbal feedback to written. Receiving critique face-to-face can be a pretty intense emotional experience; if you don’t think you can keep saying, “Rework the running order completely? Thank you for suggesting that,” for half an hour straight, asking for written feedback may well be a better choice.

As a fringe benefit, it’s also more likely to be detailed — and, in many cases, more honest. Many a trenchant suggestion has died upon the lips of a feedback-giver who just didn’t have the heart to say it to the writer’s face.

If you’re not comfortable discussing all of this with the sweet soul you have selected to give you feedback on your manuscript, consider the possibility that you’re telling yourself that s/he may not be the right choice. If you stop to think about it, you might realize that you two are too close emotionally to render frank professional discussion of your writing feasible, for instance, or that you harbor qualms about someone you see every day at work reading that one particular love scene in Chapter 8. You may suddenly recall that time when your potential first reader flew off the handle at her brother’s 17th birthday party, unleashing a string of epithets that would have made a longshoreman blush, and fear a similar loss of control if you disagree with her radical opinions on comma use.

Or — and please don’t be too hard on yourself if this turns out to be the case — you might just not be ready to expose yourself and your book to the stress of critique. Only you can make that call.

If you find that you’ve made a mistake, whether in timing or in first reader selection — there’s no shame in calling it off. In fact, it will be far, far better for writer and reader both if the decision comes before the latter starts reading; s/he will not, after all, be able to un-read your text if s/he has already launched into it, and you don’t want to be left torn about whether you should ask about those two chapters s/he got to before you telephoned to tell her to stop.

Fortunately, the vagaries of the creative process provide a writer a stupendously non-confrontational excuse for rescheduling feedback: all one really has to say is, “Oh, I was visited by a flash of inspiration in the dead of night about how to improve my book, and I want to revise it before I show it to another mortal soul. You would prefer to read it in its best form, right?”

Easy as pie. It even works if the first reader has already had the manuscript for a few weeks.

Oh, and do remember to mention up front whether you would like the manuscript back after the reader finishes with it. Unless you ask for marginalia specifically, most readers will assume that it is theirs to keep — or recycle, as they see fit. If you expect its return and your first reader lives far away, it’s courteous to send along a SASE.

This is especially true if your manuscript is longer than the reader may have expected — just as agents and editors grow a trifle pale when a 600-page manuscript shows up in the mail, amateur readers tend to balk a little when handed a tome heavier than a lhasa apso. More pages equal more time commitment, inevitably. If yours tops the infamous 400-page mark — where most pros would start to get nervous about marketability for a first novel, incidentally — do tell your first reader that up front.

And finally, at every step throughout the process, observe my final tip: be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help — and express that gratitude early and often.

Yes, even if the feedback turns out not to be very helpful. As I keep mentioning, reading a manuscript with an eye to feedback is a far, far different thing than dipping into a book for sheer pleasure, no matter how polished the writing is. It’s hard; it’s merely polite to treat it as the favor it is.

The same holds true when you are the feedback-giver, to a certain extent: the more polite, specific, and clear you can be, the better the experience for everyone concerned.

Which means, of course, that if you find yourself on the receiving end of a manuscript, or in a critique group that does not already have guidelines for feedback established (fie!), it’s perfectly legitimate to ask for guidance BEFORE you begin reading. I’m quite serious about this: both you and the writer will be happier in the long run if you do.

Why? Well, do you want to guess how someone you just met on an online forum or at a writers’ conference prefers to receive feedback? That’s the kind of challenge that can make even the best of readers freeze up. You don’t want to trigger bad exam flashbacks, do you?

Of course not. Not in yourself, and not in your first readers.

Be specific — and for your own sake, be honest with yourself. If you want your critique to be aqua, don’t just murmur something vague about how it would be nice if your first reader could give you something on the blue side of the color wheel. By taking the precaution of explaining precisely what you want from feedback to the person who is going to give it to you, you minimize the probability of ending up staring tearfully at bright orange critique.

I’m proud of all of us for having the bravery to take a long, hard look at this seldom-discussed issue crucial to the happiness of writers. As a reward for our collective virtue, I have a special treat in store for you tomorrow.

So do be sure to tune in — and as always, keep up the good work!

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