Getting into the feedback groove…

Yesterday, as some of you may be aware, I became a published author for the very first time, when my story The Wages of Sin was printed in the third issue of the online magazine Dark Valentine (which can be found here – and it’s on page 96). And, just like any author putting their material out there for public scrutiny, I’d like to get some feedback on it. And, of course, the more positive the feedback is, the better for me…

However, what IS positive feedback? Yes, it would be nice to get praise all across the board for the quality of the story, the way it’s been written, its originality, its use of language and its description and depiction of atmosphere, of the kind of pithy exclamatory approval that says “Bloody brilliant, mate!” and what have you. If nothing else, I’d be walking around with a glow and a bounce in my step all day – BUT, ultimately, does such unadorned positivity help me in my quest to become an acknowledged author?

On one level, yes, and on another, no. It’s nice to receive unabashed praise, and to know that you’ve affected someone with your tale, but, if an author wants to improve and get even better then they need feedback of the constructive variety. Feedback of the sort that, in the spirit of offering help, takes the story you’ve written, deconstructs and analyses it, and then carefully points out where it could have been improved or done differently. Or points out where there are inconsistencies, in narrative viewpoint or temporal consistency, for instance.

Barbara Roden, World Fantasy Award-winning and editor at/co-owner of Ash-Tree Press, sent me a good example of what such constructive criticism should be after she’d read my story. It went into some depth, taking it apart and telling me where I could have done things differently, or where I could have thought a bit more about what I was doing. Believe me, when you’re as close to a story as any writer gets to something they’ve written, it’s often very difficult to actually see anything wrong until someone points it out to them. Even when I read it again yesterday, I could see where I could have rewritten it to make it flow better and close one or two inconsistencies. Barbara, having had way more experience that I have in the field, could see a few more areas where the story could have been improved. I won’t go into specific details here, but suffice to say what she told me is extremely invaluable to any aspiring writer.

This is what all writers want, need, in fact. As well as people encouraging them to carry on and keep writing, they need that constructive feedback so that they learn the craft and keep perfecting and honing it. As long as the feedback is couched in the right way, ie, in the spirit of trying to help a writer reach their potential, then even the faults in the story can be pointed out and explained. Destructive feedback has the same effect as everyone telling you that your story’s fantastic and marvellous all the time – it actually doesn’t teach you anything. I’m not saying that people can’t tell you they loved the story if that’s what they felt. What I am saying is that it’s often just as useful if someone tells you why they didn’t like a story than it is if they tell you why they liked it.

Even the best of authors sometimes need to have someone else’s perspective – authors live their stories and, just like in real life, there are things happening in them that they miss. The job of constructive criticism is to help shape the story into something that is as close to perfection as it’s ever possible to reach. It also behooves the writer to receive such criticism in the spirit in which it was given – no one’s perfect, which inevitably means that the story isn’t always perfect. Some people object to having their work criticised in any way – if you’re one of those then, quite frankly, you shouldn’t be putting your work out there in the first place. If you put it in the public arena, then you’re automatically going to get people who like it and others who don’t. And you just have to learn how to take the good with the bad, because that’s just the way it is.

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3 Responses to “Getting into the feedback groove…”

  1. Good piece, Simon. It’s true, we writers cannot distance ourselves from our work enough to be truly objective, and so the outside voice is invaluable.

    The best, most helpful criticism is that given by people who want us to do better. My mum is my fiercest critic; as I introduced her to the works of Graham Masterton and F Paul Wilson she uses those writers as benchmarks for my writing. Scary, but very helpful!

    • I always look for objective criticism of my work, and already Barbara’s critique has set me thinking about my next story and how to tell it…. it’s good to have someone else look at what you do and give you something substantial to work on, but also that they took the time to actually write to you with their thoughts – I didn’t ask Barbara to do this, but I’m glad she did… onwards and upwards, as they say…

  2. Riju Ganguly Says:

    Creation is a painful process (ask that to any mother for affirmation!), and after one has gone through that process, it becomes pretty difficult to keep an “open mind” about it (the product or the process). However, a written work, especially which has been created to satisfy not only one’s own creative urge but also (if not only) for the “market”, HAS to be able to stand up to scrutiny & criticism. When we attend the “Parent-Teacher” meetings sheepishly, we realise very well that the criticisms that might accompany the grim expressions are meant more for US and not for the child. Similarly, any criticism of a literary work is meant for the author (we KNOW it), and hence if the author takes things rather “personally” he can’t be blamed. Nevertheless, any recommendation/suggestion/direction received from Barbara Roden or Ellen Datlow SHOULD be taken to the heart, because they are the best in the business of editing things. So,….

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