This has been a tough little series, hasn’t it? Rarely have punches been pulled less here at Author! Author!, or truths more frugally varnished. A little over a week into this, I can see why so few writing sites tackle to this particular issue in a systematic way: we’re talking about learning to quiet the good old hard-wired human flight-or-fight response here, after all.
This will be my last post — phew! — on what is potentially the most confrontational of feedback-receiving situations, the face-to-face meeting. Before I wrap up the list, tie it with a bow, and tuck a chocolate bunny into the basket, let’s revisit the goodies already nestling in that absurd plastic grass:
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.
7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.
8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive.
9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative.
10. Don’t ask for feedback from someone whose honest opinion you are not prepared to hear.
After my last post, I could feel in my very bones that not all of you were satisfied with this array of coping mechanisms. “But Anne,” I heard some of you professional feedback veterans plaintively pointing out, “I WAS open to the feedback experience when I walked, and I DID want to hear an honest opinion of my work. But the critique I’ve been getting has been so overwhelming — where do I even begin?”
I’m glad that you brought this up, battle-scarred feedback-receivers. You’ll be delighted to hear that I’ll be dealing with this issue at some length in my next set of posts, which will concentrate on the art of accepting written feedback. But I do have a couple of tips that apply beautifully to this dilemma vis-à-vis verbal feedback.
11. Don’t penalize yourself by expecting perfection.
To put it in a slightly less judgmental manner — because, hey, some of us are sensitive to criticism — if you’re submitting a manuscript for critique, it is by definition a DRAFT, right, not a finished book, and thus a work-in-progress? Heck, from the industry’s point of view, a book is still potentially changeable until it is actually sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.
Sometimes, it’s not beyond further meddling even then.
Revision is just a fact of the business. A writer who expects not to have to alter his or her manuscript at SOMEONE’s request at SOME point in the publication process might have some bad news coming about the Easter Bunny, if you catch my drift.
Avert your eyes, children. Truth isn’t always pretty.
A misunderstanding of this fact of publishing, I suspect, is often lurking under the skin of the writer who over-reacts to substantive critique. Because he has put so much work into the book, he is stunned to hear that the manuscript he thought was ready to send out to agents and editors — or might win a literary contest — might require MORE of his time and attention.
Completely understandable, of course — but not at all reasonable, from the industry’s point of view. Or from the feedback-giver’s, usually.
Again, this is a matter of expectation. No matter how talented a writer is, pretty much every book that ends up published goes through a multitude of drafts. Believing otherwise almost always ends in tears.
As in the kind that come out of one’s eyes, not what happens when a distraught person takes sheets of manuscript between his hands and rips. Although the latter is not an uncommon first response to feedback from a writer who had expected to hear nothing but praise for his work.
Which leads me to one of the best pieces of feedback-reception advice you will ever hear, even if I do say so myself:
12. Don’t apply what you’ve learned from feedback right away. Give it some time to sink in first.
Oh, how I wish that every agent, editor, and hard-line critique group member would have this tattooed on her forehead! I can’t even begin to describe the amount of human misery it might prevent.
Look: hearing the hard truth about a manuscript, even a brilliant one, is not the most pleasant process for even the best-adjusted writer’s psyche. In the heat of the moment — to be precise, the first moment a writer finds herself alone with her computer after receiving a whole heap o’critique — we’ve all been known to overreact a trifle, haven’t we?
In little ways, like deleting the computer file containing the manuscript. Or deciding that a quip about one scene’s momentary implausibility means that the entire subplot relating it should be cut.
Train yourself NOT to give in to these urges. Bite on the nearest sofa cushion, howl into the night, eat two gallons of chocolate chip ice cream at a sitting — but do NOT, I implore you, go anywhere near your manuscript when you’re still in what people like me tellingly call critique shock.
I’m quite serious about this: you may feel perfectly fine, but a hefty portion of the creative part of your brain is in shock. No matter how much sense cutting half of Chapter Two and placing it at the end of Chapter Seven seems to make at the time, just make a note of the idea AND WALK AWAY.
Trust me on this one. No matter how well you took feedback in the moment, your judgment WILL be impaired at first. You’ll be much, much happier — and end up with a substantially better revision — if you wait a few days before you begin leading those darlings of yours to the sacrificial altar.
“But Anne,” I hear some of you huffing incredulously, “what if I got that feedback at a conference, and one of the agents and editors there asked me to send chapters? I need to put that critique to work right away, don’t I?”
Let me answer that question in three parts: no, no, and NO.
The average requesting agent or editor would not be AS surprised to see a mail carrier flop your manuscript on his desk within the week as to see the Easter Bunny hop in with it, but he certainly doesn’t expect it. Heck, he probably would not lift an eyebrow if he didn’t see the 50 pages he asked for last week before the Fourth of July.
Although you might not want to push it so far as having it delivered with by the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver in December.
As those of you whose long-term memory happens to include last year’s Book Marketing 101 series (in particular, the posts in the HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? section) are already aware, a request for materials does NOT need to be fulfilled within the week.
Or even the month. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what matters is how GOOD the submission is, not when it gets there. (Within reason, that is.)
Take the time to make sure that your submission is in tip-top shape before you send it out. If that means you want to incorporate substantive feedback first, great — but there’s no earthly reason to tackle that arduous task the nanosecond the conference is over, when you will be positively vibrating with “a real, live agent asked to see MY work!” adrenaline.
Take a few days to calm down first; your logical faculties will be working better then, I assure you. And it’s not as though the request for materials is going to expire by next Tuesday.
Above all, be kind to yourself in the wake of feedback. Exposing your work to hardcore scrutiny takes quite a bit of bravery — allow some time for the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response to stress to stop rushing through your system before you apply your racing brain to the daunting task of tearing your pages down to rebuild them with a stronger foundation.
On to responding to written feedback! Keep up the good work!