Friday, April 21, 2017

How NOT to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript

A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter.  She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand.  She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there.  She came home excited, shared the news with me.  "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said.  Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.
Weeks passed.  I emailed her to find out how the revision was going.  She'd gotten sick, the kids had gotten sick, politics were making her crazy, in-laws had visited, spring vacation arrived.  No time for writing, she said, knowing I'd understand.
I did.  Life comes up, gets in the way, changes our plans.  That's normal.  But I also heard something else in her voice:  overwhelm about the feedback she'd received.  It was extensive, it came from someone who really knew what he was doing, and although it excited her, it also got her inner critic up in arms.  She needed time to process the feedback and that's also normal, but she'd waited so long to take even a small step towards implementing it, she'd become strangers with her story.
That was a shame.  Because it's a good, even great, story, and she's an excellent writer who could easily take it to the finish line.
I see this all the time.  It's happened to me--often. 
My friend is a first-time author, though, so she doesn't realize the danger she's in right now.  We've discussed, she's avowed it wasn't the feedback at all (recall the illnesses, holidays, visitors).  She's good with that, she's happy with the suggestions. 
But, I thought, why isn't she writing?  That's the real proof of it:  if we write or if we don't. 
Feedback is useless unless you do something with it.  So how does a writer not give up when she gets feedback--even expert, excellent feedback? 
Feedback creates questions.  It's supposed to.  It's designed to put cracks in the structure you've so carefully built to house your story.  It's supposed to show where that structure has weaknesses or could be stronger.  It's supposed to raise questions about the characters' motivations or the use of setting details or time markers or plot logic.  One of my most troubling pieces of feedback, recently received from a beloved editor, was "I'm troubled by the logic here."  Another way of saying, "As a reader, I stopped believing the story just here." 
Super valuable to know about.  But what do you do with such a comment?  How do you keep writing?
Below is my step-by-step method for making good use of feedback.  It requires two lists, but they have saved me many times.  And I have finished and published books to prove it works.  Try it, if you wish, and see if it works for you!
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Feedback List and To-Do List for Revision
When you get feedback from readers, writers group, classmates, or editors, set aside an hour or two where you have quiet to think.  You're going to make two lists:  a feedback list and a to-do list.  Start with the feedback list.
1.  Make a list of ALL the feedback, even small changes suggested, even stuff you don't agree with.  (I usually put the questionable comments at the end of the list.)  Don't worry about making the list in any order--it doesn't matter.  Mix large and small changes.  This can take time.  Its purpose is to help your brain absorb each item individually, reducing the sheer overwhelm.  As you write the list, you may get ideas or solutions to the concerns of your reader/editor.  See below.
2.  I like to put the ideas/solutions on a separate piece of paper or document.  This becomes my to-do list.  It's much more proactive and inspiring than the feedback, which is all stuff that doesn't quite work.  The ideas/solutions are the stuff that could work, if I try it.
3.  If you don't get ideas when you're writing the first list, don't sweat it.  It can take time for the inner critic's reaction (oh no! might as well give up!) to settle down. 
4.  Once you have the list as complete as possible, choose the EASIEST item to work on first.  Make that change in your draft.  Cross it off your feedback list.
5.  Find the next easiest item; work on that.  Cross it off.  Keep going.  Save the huge global changes for last unless you get an equally huge brainstorm and want to dive in.
6.  Some changes, even small ones, have a ripple effect.  Rather than pausing to address another idea while you're changing the first one, write the new idea on your to-do list.  It'll keep.  It makes most writers crazy (at least, it does me) to multi-task too much at revision.  We tend to lose threads that way.  Stay with what you're working on, finish it, cross it off, then go to the next item.