Under Siege #16: Feedback

For the last few days, I have been obsessively checking my email.  I check it when I get up.  I check it during breakfast.  I check it again when I arrive at the coffee shop where I work.  After that, I check it every five to ten minutes during the day.  Why?  What is driving this compulsion?  I am waiting for a particular email: from my editor, Kate.

A week and a half ago, I sent a draft of my novel Eagle to Kate, and like any author, I crave feedback.  I want to know what she thought worked and what she thinks needs fixing.  More than anything, I want to how much she liked the book.  I want validation.  And I do not think I am alone here.  Every writer that I have met shares my desire for positive feedback.  Especially unpublished authors—who don’t have sales to bolster their self-confidence—long to have people tell them that their work is worthwhile.  When I first finished SIEGE, I wanted to show it to everybody I knew, so that they would tell me that I was not wasting my time, that I was talented, that it was only a matter of time before my book became a bestseller.

This sort of feedback is not only gratifying; it is vital in reinforcing our identity as writers.  What’s more, critical comments are important in helping us improve our work.  However, not all feedback is equally useful.  There is a time and place for it.  If you get feedback at the wrong time, from the wrong person, it can be confusing or even harmful.  And the people who give feedback are not inexhaustible resources.  You don’t want to use them up before you really need them.  So let’s talk about when to get feedback, and who to get it from.

I’ll start with “who.”  The short answer is: not everybody!  You may really want to show your manuscript to every member of your family (I actually did), but be prepared for vague, useless, or even dispiriting feedback (i.e. don’t quit your day job).  Your family and friends will be more impressed when you hand them an actual book.  So I recommend only showing your manuscript to people who will give you quality comments that will improve your novel.  They need to be people whose insights you trust.  I showed Siege to maybe ten people.  Half gave me only vague feedback.  Sometimes vague feedback can be good.  More than one person told me the beginning of the early drafts was slow.  That was something I needed to know.  But in general, it wasn’t very useful.  As a writer, you need to identify a good support group: which means finding people whose input you value and trust.

Now for the “when.”  I never ask more than two people for comments on any given draft of a novel.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the more people I ask, the more varied the responses I receive.  Why waste time sorting through contradictory advice?  Second, different people give different types of feedback.  Some are good with plot, others with characters, others with writing.  And if I’m still hammering out the plot, it will do me no good to send my manuscript to a friend whose strength is commenting on my prose.

My wife is always the first person I ask for feedback.  She is the only person I ask to read my first draft.  She is great at telling me what storylines I need to expand on and which ones need to be condensed.  She always spots good characters.  In short, she can tell me what is good and ask for more of it.  This is hugely important when writing a first draft!

Other readers are better at helping me with the mechanics of writing.  My friend Lane, who is a screenwriter, is wonderful at zeroing in on problems with plot or characters.  My agent, Ian, is also good at telling me where the plot doesn’t work and at getting me to think about the larger picture: how my novel might fit into a series, for instance.  I get Lane and Ian’s feedback on my second draft.

I don’t show my third draft to anybody.  By the end of the third draft, I have figured out my character and plot, and in the fourth draft I focus on my writing.  I prefer to polish my prose myself.  Others may work differently, but I have a hunch that too much feedback on one’s prose at too early a date can kill one’s unique authorial voice.

My fourth draft goes to my editor, Kate.  And yes, that means that I’ve written four drafts before my actual editor even sees the book!  Why?  Precisely because Kate gives such good feedback.  She is great at providing holistic advice covering plot issues, logical inconsistencies, slow points, and style.  But nobody can give their best feedback the third or fourth time they have read something.  So I save Kate for the fourth draft, when the sort of all-encompassing overview she provides is exactly what I need.

Do you hear that, Kate?  (Ahem.)  Your feedback is exactly the kind I need.  (Hint, hint.)  So anytime you want to get back to me on Eagle…

Next time: Me and Dostoevsky



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