How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.

Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …

Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.

MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each

  • Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
  • Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
  • The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.

This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.

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Manet, The Railway: 1873

Flashbacks are different.

First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.

Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.

Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:

  • It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
  • The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
  2. Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.

Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:

  • Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
  • Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?

Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!

Happy writing.

 

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE – or how to keep your friends

You’ve revised your novel until your fingers are numb and you can’t wait to show it to a grateful world. Here is some advice, learned the hard way, about feedback.

There are three main kinds of feedback:

Proof-reading  

By this I mean the whole caboodle that includes spelling, grammar, plurals where they shouldn’t be, and muddled tenses. Re-arranging your story during edits inevitably brings the need for these and we weed them out the best we can before we show our work to anyone else. But they are tenacious. Don’t blame yourself, it’s normal.

Proof-reading is best handled separately from the larger story aspects as our brains can only do one or the other well at a time. Ask a trusted friend (or pay an expert) to proof-read for you. Check it yourself several times. Do this before it goes to your feedbackers as mistakes will deflect them from what you want them to do.

General feedback

Do people engage with your writing, your characters, your story? In other words, does your book work? If so, what works best about it? Which characters sing out most? If something feels not quite right, where does an off-kilter feeling start? Is your plot arc working? Where do readers feel able to leave your story down and perhaps forget to come back?

Experts

Have you written about jobs or conditions you have not experienced yourself? Research is great but now is the time to ask for a reading by people who have lived it, if you possibly can.

Does your story take place somewhere you have never been? If you cannot afford to go there, find somebody who knows the place.

Do you feel pretty confident with your early research or your experience in a job years ago?  It’s always worth bringing it up to date. Most people are more than happy to talk about their work.

Your book is set, say, in the 1960s and you’ve spent months researching – but have you spoken to people who lived then? You could find your whole perspective tilted and enriched.

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE

Courtesy to your reader:

It really is best not to part with your draft too soon. It’s a draft and your reader will know that but:

  • Have a final proof-read. It’s extraordinary how excited readers can be about mistakes in the draft, and how deeply it distracts them from the qualities in your story.
  • Is your reader ready for it? S/he has said yes in principle but please check before you send it that now is a good time. Otherwise days and weeks might pass before the reader gets around to it, you’ll be agonised waiting and it’ll get embarrassing.
  • Ask whether your reader would like a typescript (paper copy, at your expense, for the reader to keep) or a screen download. IMG_2456This is their choice: you want your reader to be as comfortable with the experience as possible.
  • If it’s paper, make sure it looks clean and smart. Something that has another reader’s coffee stains and scribblings will not get you the attention you need.
  • Do NOT pester your reader during the reading time. If you see her/him regularly, try really hard not to bring it up. Readers will do the job when they’re ready and badgering them will not help them do a better job.
  • Thank your reader afterwards: tea/drink/lunch/dinner, whatever you can afford, PLUS an invitation as an honoured guest to your launch when the time comes, an acknowledgment (properly spelt) in the published book and a free (at your expense) signed copy.
  • Don’t ask your reader to read a subsequent draft unless they offer. It’s time-consuming so once is enough – and you want fresh eyes to help you each time.
  • If your reader doesn’t finish your draft, don’t be upset. We can’t please everyone. Just thank them for their time and generosity and ask where s/he stopped reading. S/he may have stopped for many reasons which are nothing to do with your writing but finding out where a reader felt able to abandon the story can help you fix a weak spot.

Courtesy to your writer:

  • When a friend sends you a draft for your feedback, please do your utmost to read it as soon as you can. Every minute will be agony for the writer while s/he waits.
  • Useful feedback comes from reading the draft twice: once for the buzz (allowing yourself to be carried along by it) and secondly to make deeper observations, connections and suggestions.
  • Keep the writer posted of progress, saying for example that you’ve finished the first reading and will be starting the second the weekend after next. You do not have to make comments at this stage as you may revise your views.
  • When giving your feedback, the usual rules apply: praise first, then points of criticism and an overall view. You do not have to suggest improvements: it’s not your book.
  • Don’t expect lunch, dinner, acknowledgements etc., even though it’s in the advice to writers above.
  • If the book is not your sort of thing, don’t be afraid to say so. If you can’t stand elves and your best friend wants you to read their Middle Earth spin-off, it’s best by far just to hand it back and say you can’t wait for the launch and will read it then. There is no point in struggling with a book that doesn’t suit you and your feedback will not be as useful as you think.
  • Don’t forget that your carefully considered feedback is only advice. The writer may well ignore it. Try not to notice – and stay friends.
  • You can keep the typescript.

How to use feedback:

Feedback can feel like evisceration of you and your book. All too many feedbackers will give some brief, dilute praise followed by yards of detailed criticism. It is entirely normal for a writer to blink away the compliments and take each word of the criticism as a personal wound. So –

  • Always be grateful. Your reader has taken time and care and some of what they say might help you.
  • If the feedback is in writing, leave it for a while before you look. When you feel ready take your time going through it, marking what you think might be useful, what less so.
  • There is no need to comment on the feedback when you thank your reader.
  • If your feedback session is in person, resist the urge to argue the toss. IMG_2457Take full notes. A lot of what is said will whoosh past your ears, gone for ever, and some of it could be invaluable.
  • Look after yourself during this phase, it can be more wearying than you think.
  • Ask questions wherever you need more information, especially of your expert readers.
  • Say you are consulting a number of people and will think carefully about all views. Make no promises: it will be your decision where you choose to go with your feedback.
  • There is no need to rush into your response. You can put it all away for a while until your head clears.
  • Re-read the compliments often, you need them.

You might well find that your readers disagree: it’s not at all unusual to find that one feedbacker can’t stand a scene and another says that’s their favourite bit. You might also find that some critique produces a knot in your guts of protest or outrage. Maybe your book has been misunderstood. All this is useful to know. My practice is to pot-hole about it all – to chat with myself on the page or screen about what I want out of the book, out of a character or a chapter – until things settle into clarity.

It is your book and no-one else’s. Can you think of any classic novel that is universally loved? Exactly, and yours won’t please everybody either so let’s crack on.

My feedback practice is to gather up all the feedback of all kinds, making no comments at the time. I like hard copy for this stage so I print it all out with the names removed and put it into one of those cardboard A4 boxes. Then I have a great big session where I look at it all and mark up what I think works. I ditch the rest and get to work.

Here is the hard part: the most difficult criticism to hear may well be what you need to hear most. It can take time to sink in – there’s no rush.

There is absolutely no need to promise anyone that you are changing your book at their behest. In fact, a feedbacker who wants to railroad you is not your best help. They are often other writers or would-be writers who want you to write their book for them. Feel free to ignore. By the time your book is published, your feedbackers will probably have forgotten what they said.

You have the last word, enjoy it.*