Wednesday, August 5, 2015

No Fear in Feedback

Call me crazy, but I loved receiving feedback from my advisors when I was in graduate school. I would send off a packet of writing once a month and while I relished taking time off the day or so between sending the packet and getting feedback, I checked my email constantly to see if they had written back. It was the first time I had a captive audience for my work and I loved it. It felt like a dialogue between me and a much smarter writer who wanted me to become a better writer. Some people get anxiety over reading what others think about their work, but I never did. I always wanted to know.

Part of the reason I loved it was because I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to become a better writer, and I got to do so via some amazing, award-winning writers who were part of the faculty at my school. They were my rock stars and I was definitely a star-struck groupie. Aside from that, the insight they shared was brilliant. It taught me how to think differently about writing, and how to read more critically. I learned how to ask provoking questions of my writing that helped develop characters, move the plot along, uncover unnecessary scenes and details, and create a cohesive story. In learning how to take criticism, I learned how to critique myself. 

As a Type-A personality and a Latina, I know all about self-critique. I call it doubt and guilt, but perhaps that's a post for another time. Knowing how to trim the fat from my own writing it immensely liberating. It taught me that not every line I write is imperative, no matter how much the words flow off the tongue. I learned that I can cut characters I love, and create complex ones out of those that weren't fully formed when inserted. Cutting out whole scenes was a shot to the gut and a take-off point all at once. It set my writing off in directions I would otherwise never consider and it strengthened my story-telling. 

When school was over, I missed getting feedback on my writing. I lost the sounding board and had to rely on what I learned. While I'm grateful that I learned all that I did about self-editing, I would much rather have another set of eyes and questioning brain looking at my work as I go along. The reactions amaze me. I don't want to hear words like, "good job," or "I like your story." I want to hear, "What do you mean by this? Why is she doing this? Where is the rest of this storyline? Did you mean for your character to come off as clueless about this?"

These are the kinds of questions that make me take a step back and think about the story from a reader's perspective. When you get so close to a character or a plot, you may overlook some details that a reader needs in order to follow along, or buy into what you're saying. I don't see these questions as a mark of my failure, but as an opportunity to improve the narrative. Often, in answering one question, another comes forward, or I make a decision that alters the direction of the book for the better. Sometimes the opposite happens. That's OK. Each scenario helps me grow and teaches me something about myself as a writer.

Since graduating I've tried joining writing groups and something that surprised me and caught me off guard was how many people say they want help with a story, but what they really want is someone to tell them how great it is. They aren't open to questions or ideas. They do not welcome a dialogue that doesn't involve accolades for their work. Not to sound greater-than-thou, but I feel sorry for these writers. They are missing an opportunity to make their work better by seeing it from the reader's perspective. Perhaps they've worked on it for years, editing as they go, selecting the words they think make it as strong as possible. That's great, but that's just one opinion of the work. It excludes the experience that another person brings when they read it through the lens of their life. That leads to one-dimensional writing. I don't want to be a one-dimensional writer. I want readers of all different backgrounds and experiences to bring their world view to my writing and take something meaningful from it. I want to be challenged by questions as to why I did, or didn't do something. It's invigorating to know that someone cared enough to ask. 

As my writing career develops, I expect a lot of red pen action, questions and challenges. That's what editors do, and I hope to one day work with an editor who wants me to write the best book I can write, and won't let me settle for less. My agent is this way and while it's exhausting, it's also pushing me to go places in my work that I would otherwise not. It's what is shaping me. As a writer, I hope to be like silly putty - shapable for years to come - sometimes resulting in a bounce, other times being the smoothness someone needs to get through their day.

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