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Sarah Gerdes

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Giving (and receiving) Critical Feedback
by Sarah Gerdes   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, January 18, 2008
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008

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What your editor/reader/agent/publisher is really trying to tell you, and what you should tell others

In other words, what the reviewer wants to tell you, but doesn’t have the nerve to hurt your feelings.


The Backstory

One day a bookstore owner called me up and asked me to do her a favor. A good client had given her a manuscript and asked her to read it for “an opinion.” How many stories had I read about this type of request and the usual answer? The owner, a very nice woman with zero time to read the book, told me about it and asked if I’d do her a favor. Of course, my duty as a writer is to keep my relationships with bookstore owners strong so I said sure. The manuscript was huge for a middle-grade book, about 450 pages. But I took it out on the lawn with me, and being pregnant at the time, I turned over from side to side every time I got bored.


It rambled. It wandered, yet it was an incredible concept. In fact, it had the idea and plot that made me think “I wish I had written that.” That said, the execution was pretty bad. It had a lot of personal issues thrown into plots lines (2nd wives came up a lot, not quite a subject for 10 year olds). Evenso, those are technical writing details that could be worked out in future versions. Bottom line was the first time author completed the book, had a viable product and I guessed she had the commitment to make writing a profession.


I have my comments back to the bookstore owner who was shocked that I read the entire thing, and wrote editorial feedback up for the author. She then asked if I’d speak with the woman myself, and I said sure.


Now that’s all background for the important part of this article. I found it very difficult, even impossible, to distill 4 years of advice from my agent, prospective publishers, my editor, my copy editor, review readers, bookstore owners, school teachers, librarians, and syndicated columnists and industry book reviewers into a 10 minute “feedback session”.


I found myself wanting to ‘save her’ the four years of grueling pain, the endless re-writes and the extended learning that I had to experience in order to become a better writer. And if you’ve read my work, you can tell I’m still at the beginning stages of my career, eventhough I’ve now completed 4 fiction novels (non-fiction doesn’t count).


As I debated what I was going to say, my agents’ oft-repeated words came to  mind. “You don’t become a musician by playing once or twice a week. It takes hours every day for years. And even then, only a few are ever invited to play at Carnegie.” In other words, the casual tennis player ain’t showing up to Wimbeldon. You get the picture.


So what did I say?


I followed the lead of my first reviewer, a good business associate that reads professionally as a hobby when he’s not at his full-time job as a software executive at a F50 firm. I did this then, and I’ve since provided my commentary to a variety of would-be writers—from a seventy year-old man to a thirteen year-old teenager.


Suggestion One: Separate the comments

Break the advice cookie into chunks that can be digested. Good stuff first. Everyone needs affirmation of their strengths. This gives hope, something everyone needs. Even if you hated the book/story/poem, you can find some element of goodness.


Suggestion Two: Give examples

And while your at it, be specific. Focus on the strengths first, such as pacing is good”, “the idea is completely original,” “you are a natural comedic writer,” etc.


Suggestion Three: Provide plot, character and pacing feedback first

In seems that my agent and publishers have all said the same thing to me. Here goes. I’m exposing all my secrets now. My plot, pacing and characters have never been “the problem.” My issues are around the ‘technicalities of writing.” It took me FOREVER to figure out what this meant, until my agent took pity and suggested several books. Of course, I’m sure anyone reading this article will shake their head in pity at my denseness, but in my defense, I’d spent the last two decades in business world, not in the literary world.


Suggestion Four: Technical writing. The key here is to keep it simple

- Number of characters-8 primary characters max (names, details, etc.)

- Number of plot lines (first time authors should have one primary plot line, no more than three sub-plots)

- Other techniques first timers should avoid. This is interesting. What captures my attention are the techniques of flashbacks, simultaneous storylines, multiple points of view etc. And what I’ve learned is that great writer’s make all of these techniques look so simple. Yet, as I discovered (through critical feedback) is that it’s really really hard to pull off, particularly the first time out of the gate. The advice to me was to add complexity after I mastered the basics. Made sense, but it killed me. When this message is delivered to a first time author, it’s deflating. Yet it does make sense. I learned how to snowplow down the hill first before I graduated to parallel skiing. All the while, I hated snowplowing, fell on my face, got wet and cold and went up the lift again.


Caveat here: I just KNOW you are questioning me here, but don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only telling you what I’ve been told directly from publishers (seven of the top twelve largest in the fiction world in the US, agents and movie products/directors). IT all gets down to a word I detest—“convention”. So while the “breakout” books may be longer, have more characters and plot lines that one can count, the majority of first time authors must abide by the conventions. And for the record, yes, I hate them.


Suggestion Five: Read it outloud.

How many times have I said this to others and have to repeat it to myself? It’s hard. It’s boring. But oh, how it makes a world of difference. If a writer would simply read the story outloud, the words on the page would undoubtedly change.

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Reviewed by Gwen Madoc
I found this article gives excellent advice, particularly about the difficult to accept concept of 'convention'. When I give advice to new writers I tell them that there are no rules in writing, but there are accepted conventions which they had better demonstrate to agents, editors and publishers that they understand.
The subject is vast and as you say, would take years to explain to the uninitiated.
Thank you.
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