Episode 68: The Importance of Feedback

On November 9, Kasie and Rex broke down what it’s like to get and give feedback on your written work. A painful part of the process, yes, but an important one. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Feedback, Critique, and Taking it on the Chin for your Writing

Agenda

  • The value of feedback
  • How to give good critique — lessons from Slushfest
  • What makes writing so hard?
  • What everyone’s working on
abandoned antique architecture building
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Okay, so I could have SWORN we did a thing on taking and giving critique but I can’t find it anywhere. So let’s start with that. If you’re not testing your work on readers — actual real people who aren’t related to you — then you’re flying blind. You have GOT to get some folks to look over your work before you hit “publish” on Amazon. Please. For all of us.

Let’s start with the organized ones. The SCWA is our statewide provider of bi-weekly workshops and critique groups. I’ve written about them here. Basically, you’ve got a group of writers who are trained — or at least experienced — in reading your work for quality, consistency, fluidity, and mechanics like punctuation and grammar. And while taking critique can be tough, it’s far worse to proceed without it.

How do critique groups work?

Why do critique groups work?

Segment 2

How to give good critique. So how do you do it? Here’s one writer’s take on your job as a critique group member:

  • Focus your efforts on the writers who want critique. There will inevitably be some who do not, for whatever reason, want your opinion. Even if they are in a critique group. Maybe they just need to get used to it. Maybe they don’t respect you as a writer and therefore think you have nothing to offer. Who knows. In any case, don’t waste your time or energy on them.
  • Offer something of value. If you can’t offer criticism, then offer praise. But when someone makes themselves available, they’re asking for your help. Read every line. Listen, try to provide some response that could help them.
  • It’s about the work. Focus on the piece, not the writer himself or herself. When critiques transcend the page, they get ugly.
  • Try to have fun even if it’s not your scene. Poetry? Meh. But the writer still deserves your attention and focus.
  • Don’t just tear it down. Offer suggestions for how to fix it, too.

So last weekend in Beaufort we ran a Slushfest session to wrap up the retreat. Here’s how Slush works — first, it’s meant to model what happens if you send an unsolicited manuscript to an agent or a publisher. The manuscript ends up in the “slush” pile which typically gets dumped at the end of the year when agents’ interns are cleaning out their inboxes.

So Slushfest is a popular breakout session at conferences and the rules are 1) bring one page typed, double-spaced 12-point font, without you name on it, 2) submit your piece and sit quietly while the reader selects your page and reads it aloud, 3) the listeners / panel / readers will usually raise their hand to indicate at what point they would have stopped reading, 4) listen as they discuss your one page as if it were the entire damn book.

Okay, so Slushfest is usually really frustrating for writers. The readers are inevitably jerks. Sometimes the reader will stop reading once all hands are up so the page never gets a chance to recover from the first few shaky lines or paragraphs. Then the listeners / readers will blah blah blah about the piece as if they’re doing you a favor telling you how much you stink at this.

Last week, leading my first ever Slushfest, I took a different approach. First, I let the listeners raise their hands, but I read the entire page regardless of when they would have stopped. I felt like the people deserved the entire page when they’d demonstrated the bravery to submit. Second, I asked the listeners to provide 1 thing they liked — something that worked — and 1 thing they thought the writer could improve upon. This balanced feedback is encouraging and provides the writer with a direction for the revision.

I thought we could start doing some “slush” on this show if people want to submit. What do you think, Rex?

Segment 3

What makes writing so hard?

The reason I wanted a kinder, gentler Slushfest at the retreat is that writing is hard. Reading your work aloud is hard. Asking for feedback is hard. Taking feedback is hard. If we can make it easier, why wouldn’t we?

Why do we have to be dog-eat-dog about this? I mean, really, have you ever seen a dog eat another dog? No. They care for them unless they’re in a dog fight in which case, there must be something bigger at stake. So — stick with me through this metaphor — what’s at stake here?

When we share in group, when we share at Slushfest, when we read for one another and promote one another, what’s at stake? Does one person’s success take away from our own? Or could we be lifting all boats with a rising tide if we are to champion and support one another?

Jess Whittlestone says putting random words on paper — a la your tear-up-and-toss-up method — isn’t hard, it’s forming the words into coherent ideas and phrases that makes writing hard. It’s a skill. Duh.

She offers this: “A lot of the time, I think that when people say they find writing difficult, what they’re struggling with isn’t creating evocative and beautiful prose from simple language. What they’re struggling with is expressing their ideas in simple language in the first place.”

So is that true? We talked last week about NaNoWriMo and planning versus pantsing. How much writing is intuitive? Stream-of-consciousness? And how much of it is a planned exercise?

Bakari Chavanu, a writing coach and teacher, suggests writing requires practice. Daily practice. Habit. The more you do it, the better you get. Agree or disagree? He also says to be a good writer, you must read. Agree or disagree? The more language tips and twists and styles and habits you’re familiar with, the better your own will become.

Segment 4

We went out the Facebook to see what our writers are working on. Had some great responses.

Steve Gordy, SCWA Treasurer and attendee at last week’s Beaufort Retreat says he’s re-working a book that has been giving him some trouble. Says he’s thinking of turning it into a “story cycle” which I had to google. It’s a collection of short stories that share some common characters, theme, or setting, but don’t form a cohesive full-length work. Read about his decision on his blog, Steve the Writer.

Melissa Henderson is staying busy with writing her blog and three other monthly blogs as well as promoting her children’s book Licky the Lizard. Her website says she lives in Coastal SC with her husband and has a son, daughter-in-love, and grandson. Bet that grandson loves Grandma’s books. Good luck, Melissa, keep writing and let us know how we can support you.

Tim Bryant’s first book, Blue Rubber Pool, was published last summer. Tim says “it’s a quirky tale of mid-life crisis, marriage, relocation to rural South Carolina, and second thoughts about a shady line of business.”

The same publisher, Black Opal Books, will launch Tim’s next one late in 2020. That book will be called The Stained Glass Mustang and is about a down-on-his-luck Charleston ad man who must choose between good and evil. Sounds interesting, Tim. Keep writing and let us know how we can support you!

Hope Clark is working on the fifth Carolina Slade Mystery while having just released the sixth Edisto Island Mystery, Edisto Tidings. She’s published ten mysteries, all set in South Carolina. Says Hope, “While my mysteries are popular in pockets of the state, (I) would … love for 2020 to be the year I saturate South Carolina with mystery!” We’ve shared the link to the books here, Hope, and your website, and would love to know how else we can support you.

And BIG CONGRATULATIONS to our friend Raegan Teller whose Secrets Never Told, the third book in her Enid Blackwell series, received Honorable Mention in the Genre Fiction category for the 27th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. That’s two of the three books in the series that have won awards. Congratulations, Raegan! If you haven’t seen this series and you love mystery novels, this is a real treat.

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