Jilly: Learning to Listen

Learning to ListenDo you get good, actionable feedback, on your writing or your career or any other aspect of your life? Do you make the best possible use of it?

I’m writing this post a little ahead of time; by the time you read it I should be comfortably settled at Justine’s house with all the 8 Ladies except Michaeline, who’ll be joining us from Japan via Skype. We’ll be congratulating, commiserating, planning, critiquing, brainstorming, writing, talking about writing, and generally having a fabulous time.

Some of the Ladies will have concrete goals for our writing retreat. I’m taking a looser approach. I’m sure I’m going to get a lot out of my trip to Arizona, and I think I’ll get the most by casting my net as widely as possible. Jeanne and Michaeline have already given me some fantastic feedback on Dealing With McKenzie, and I’ll be squirreling away any other comments, good and bad. I’ll be asking questions and brainstorming Cam and Mary’s story, but I suspect I’ll get my best ideas from talking about the other Ladies’ books. I’m also going on a side trip with Kay and Kat, and who knows what that will bring?

One of the big lessons I learned last year is that there are many kinds of feedback, and the way to end up with the best book you can write is to gather it all, and then decide which mixture to use.

Here’s the blend that worked for me in 2014:

Friends and family
These people are invested. Chances are they’re not your reader, but they’ll want to get involved because they care. Even if they are your reader, their feedback will be colored by their love for you. This is great. Lean on them for encouragement, support and morale-boosting when you need it most. Celebrate with them when the good stuff happens.

Fellow writers
These people are also invested. It may take a while to find the ones that are right for you, but when you meet them, grab them with both hands. They’re invaluable. They’ll provide a much-needed support network and will give you feedback about your craft, as well as your story. They’ll tell you if your pacing is off, or there’s too much description, or your story starts in the wrong place. The downside is that they get to know you as a writer, so when they read your story they’ll already understand what you’re trying to achieve. Chances are they’ll also know a lot about your story before they read it, so they’ll miss stuff – but they’ll be brilliant at helping you to figure out how to fix problems you learn about from other sources.

Contest judges
RWA contests were one of my big discoveries in 2014. The judges are usually members of the local chapter sponsoring the contest, which means they’re romance writers, published or unpublished, and almost certainly romance readers. They judge and score entries purely for the love of it, and the whole process is anonymous. They know nothing about you and care less, but they’ll tell you exactly what they think of your story and they won’t pull their punches. Some of them will squee all over it and some will hate it. Some of what they say will make perfect sense and some will make no sense at all. Just like the real world. It’s incredibly useful, and unlike reviews on the interwebs, totally private.

Agents & editors
These incredibly busy people make their living from selling books. They’ll be interested in your book (and you) if they think you’ll sell. Otherwise – moving on. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you why they think your book is sellable, or not. If you’re even luckier, you’ll get some feedback on your writing. A little over a year ago, an agent kindly sent me a one-page email explaining what he thought about my story in particular and my writing in general. It was an eye-opener. I’m so grateful he took the trouble. And then last year I dipped my toe in the Brenda Novak auction and won a critique of my partial from a well-known editor. She was generous enough to mark up my manuscript and to spend an hour with me at RWA in San Antonio explaining everything that was wrong with it. I got about four months’ work out of that hour’s meeting, and it confirmed everything I’d been told about the value of a good editor: a pearl beyond price.

The hardest thing of all is to use the information you’ve gathered wisely and well, and only you can decide what that is. Use the support of your friends and family as a morale-booster; don’t let it delude you into thinking you’re the next Nora Roberts. Take the feedback of your fellow writers, but remember that at the end of the day it’s your voice and your story, and you have to tell it your way (Jeanne and I discussed this recently in the context of some comments I gave her on Demons Don’t.) Decide which parts of your contest judge scoring sheets are actionable, and which aren’t. If something weird comes out of left field, you’re probably safe to ignore it. If something crops up repeatedly then that’s a pretty good sign that it’s tripping readers up and you need to fix it. And take the same approach to agent and editor queries. Stories are subjective, so give yours a chance and use the responses to build up a pattern before you do anything drastic. I’m still working on that 🙂 .

So – that’s what works for me. How about you? I’d love to know.

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Learning to Listen

  1. The world has turned upside down – Jilly, this is not your normal day to post!

    This is a great post – I think feedback is one of the most difficult things to get right. I read an interesting e-book recently, the Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It’s well worth a read – all about how critique groups can lead to failure, because they are reading looking for problems, rather than reading as a reader does (her point is that the reader, having paid for the book, is invested in it being good, whereas the beta reader is looking for problems and so will find them). I think good beta readers are invaluable but found this really interesting food for thought.

    She also talks about the endless cycle of redrafting and redoing a book over and over, responding to feedback, rather than just finishing the thing (it’s as good as it’s going to be at this stage) and moving onto the next one.

  2. You caught us, Rachel! I’m still on the road with Kat and Kay – yesterday we were in Monument Valley, now we’re at a fantastic hotel called La Posada in Winslow. We had a long day ahead of us yesterday, Kat was the driver, and she hadn’t finished working on her Friday post, so we decided to shake things up 🙂 . My post was set up and waiting, so I took Kat’s Friday slot and she’ll be posting on Sunday. We’ve had a wonderful side trip, Kat got lots of great material, and now we’re getting ready to head back to Justine’s place to meet the other Ladies.

    The book you describe sounds interesting, and I think it’s a valid argument – that’s why I think it’s important to get feedback from a variety of sources and to be mindful about how you use it.

  3. One thing I always have to remember before I read a critique is to STOP AND THINK. It’s so easy to just react — yippees when someone praises, and low growling funks when someone criticizes. After I sleep on it, I usually recognize the wisdom, or at least the point of view of the critiquer. Only then can I really decide: change? Or keep?

    I’m pretty sure taking criticism is like so much in life — the more we do it, the more we are able to handle it in a productive way. (-: I need to invite more criticism in my life.

    Oh, and always thank the critiquer. The lessons we learn may not be the lessons they intended us to learn, but I’m sure we learn something!

  4. This is all excellent advice. I’ll have to check out the book Rachel mentioned. I have a critique partner I work with on a regular basis and I love her feedback; however, I want to make sure I’m not giving her the wrong feedback (or that she’s getting the right feedback from me). So far, we’ve been pretty good about communicating that sort of thing, and of telling each other the things we DO like, but as with anything, you can go overboard.

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