Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who Should Review Your Work?

There are writers who write strictly for themselves, who are too shy or nervous ever to show their work to anyone. Then there are writers like myself, who will sit atop perfect strangers and read our work aloud to them if we can get away with it. But when your looking for valuable feedback, to whom should you turn?

My short answer is: anyone and everyone.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that you should avoid family and friends. After all, these people know you. Some of them may even like you. Either way, their perspective is presumably too biased to offer honest feedback, or even to evaluate your writing objectively.

This same conventional wisdom encourages a writer to turn only to experienced professionals. Editors, literary agents, publishers, and the like. After all, these people work in the field, and surely their opinion will be far more expert, right?

As with a great deal of conventional wisdom, I disagree with adhering too strictly to this approach. The logic employed is solid as far as it goes, but it only covers a tiny part of the whole. Is it necessarily true that none of your family or friends can offer an unbiased, objective opinion regarding the quality of your work? If you have the talent and skill to become a competent, capable writer, there's an excellent chance that you have among your circle some intelligent people who love to read, some of whom even prefer to read really good writing. These people represent the audience you're really trying to reach: the discriminating reading public. If a friend of yours has read top-of-the-line, classic works in the genre you're writing, and they're sincerely impressed with your efforts, are their opinions automatically of lesser value because they know you personally? To a lesser extent, people who don't read a lot of what you're working on can also offer valuable feedback. If they generally don't like a certain genre but loved your story, kept turning the pages because they had to know what happened next, you've done your job as a storyteller.

The problem I've encountered with many professionals is that few of them seem to be looking for good writing and good stories. They tend to lean more to the marketing side of things. While reading your work, rarely are they exclusively focused on asking themselves “Do I like this?” “Is it well written?” “Is it holding my interest?” More often, they're scanning your pages and asking themselves “Can I sell this?” “Can I get a publisher interested?” “Is there are market for this right now?” These are legitimate business questions, of course, especially if one is looking to follow a trend as opposed to breaking or creating one.

You as a professional writer should be able to evaluate the various sources of the feedback you receive. How well-read is this person generally? How experienced is this person with the kind of stuff you're writing? Did they offer anything specific or just a general (and possibly insincere) “It was really good!” How much did they really get into the story? Did they specify any favorite parts or aspects?

Now I'm certainly not suggesting you seek out or only listen to exclusively positive feedback. Not my point at all. While writing my first novel, I received a number of comments from people about what was confusing, what seemed unrealistic, what seemed over-written, etc. I listened to all these comments and ended up incorporating a great many of them (because they made sense to me). I've always been a believer that highly specific criticisms reflect well on your work as a whole. After all, how could someone clearly and easily pinpoint what's not working unless it's standing out like a sore thumb amid a background of quality writing?

My point here is: get feedback from anyone and everyone you can, and pay more attention to the quality of that feedback than to the source. Like anything else, if you know what you're doing, you'll be able to know when positive or negative feedback has merit. If you don't, well, it's not going to matter what kind of feedback you get, let alone from where.

Grab Them Right Away?

You hear this often enough about any kind of writing: you have to grab your audience right away. For certain types of writing, I agree. Advertising copy, for example. You may have only a few short sentences in a magazine layout to get your message across. Screenwriting is another case where you can't afford to waste time. Screenplays are expensive to film, and every minute of screen time needs to mean something, to say nothing of the fact that your script will be read by someone who reads dozens of scripts per day, and you need to get that person's attention quickly.

But how necessary is it to grab your audience by the throat with the first page of your novel? I know there are many who will say it's absolutely vital, that you can't afford not to. Advertising types, mostly. I disagree. Not every type of writing requires the carnival barker approach, least of all a novel.

Novels are meant to be roomy compared to, well, just about every other kind of writing. In fact, one of the things a writer hears frequently when working on shorter projects is “Save it for your novel.” Good advice, but now you're telling me I can't even take my time with my novel? Establish a setting, generate mood and tone, create a few characters, maybe? Racing through all this (or worse yet, ignoring it entirely) for the sake of forced brevity is a good way to reduce your writing to little more than a string of hackneyed cliches (like that one).

And novel readers are a different kind of audience. They tend to make more informed choices because they usually know what they like. Very few people pick up a random book, no idea what it's about, and start reading on page one. That's what inside jacket flaps are for. If a reader is looking for a romance and the book is described as a darkly repellent horror story, there's not likely to be even a glance at the fist page. And here's another little secret: audiences want to be pleased. While there are certain critics who only seek opportunities to tear something down, most audiences are looking for a reason to like your work. They want to be entertained, to enjoy themselves. So long as you don't jar them out of the story with bad writing, flat characters, dull plots, tedious over-description, improbable events, etc., they'll keep going. Also, remember that, as a storyteller, you're a kind of performer, and performers should exude confidence. I'm in no hurry, you tell them. Are you? You're already intrigued, I can tell. Trust me. Stick with it, it's only going to get better. Few things attract like well-placed confidence. Conversely, few things repel like the stink of desperation. You must read this! Read this now! I beg you! It's terribly important!

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a novel that grabs you in the first sentence. Nothing at all. And I am by no means suggesting that a novel should be lazy, sloppy, or otherwise disorganized. Every word in it should be there for a reason, should help tell the story by advancing the plot, developing the characters, fleshing out the setting, etc. But if every novelist tries to make the writing jump off the page starting with page one, we'll end up with the inevitable lowest common denominator effect – a deluge of novels that read like advertising copy. Not all good writing jumps off the page at you. To me, some of the best writing draws you in, subtly at first perhaps, slowly but inexorably. Okay, this isn't bad. Haven't made up my mind yet. Maybe just a few more paragraphs, a few more pages, and suddenly you find you've crossed that invisible line where you're unwilling to put it down. Don't feel compelled to abandon the powerful nuance of this art merely to satisfy the bean counters of the world.