Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Feedback Isn’t Always About Looking for “Mistakes”

"Looks like crap to me."
If beta-readers could be replaced by computers, they would be: much faster and they don’t give you as much lip. But, unfortunately, we still need to beg and prod our friends for their feedback because until A.I. creates the ability for human perspective, there’s only one place to get it.

Many beginning authors talk about feedback, referencing it as “people looking for errors.” Most recently, I read a post that asked, “If you could only pick one, would you rather have someone tell you what’s good about your book or just what’s wrong with it?”

Well, obviously everyone chose the latter because that’s the entire point of getting feedback before the “real” people are going to see it—readers, agents, publishers. You want warning of issues before someone else sees them and writes the whole book off, otherwise, you’d just send the book off without having to get on your knees first.

I do, however, take issue with the way this question was phrased mostly because the conflict in receiving feedback comes not from when people point out errors, but when they point out what didn’t work for them. Which, while still problematic, is not the same as, “doing something wrong.”

In editing, you have two types of problems: errors and the ineffective.

Errors are mistakes, issues that exist no matter the context. They are (for the most part) always wrong. They are things the author did not intend to do that either prove that it is fiction (re: made up), or commons rules of the core, rarely changing basics, like grammar, punctuation, and spelling. If the author is aware of them, he would not (unless he’s being a stubborn butt-face, which admittedly we often are) want them to remain.

The ineffective aspects, however, are much more complicated because they can change (and often do) based on the situation. Who the reader is, what the reader is comparing it to, what the reader wants to think, and mainly want the reader thinks he’s supposed to feel/think. There are many circumstances in which the ineffective aspects, while important to the current reader, may not be important where and with whom the writer cares about in the grand scheme.

For example, an “error” would be something like a gun that disappears mid-scene. One minute someone’s holding it, next minute he’s not.

Something ineffective would be that the character isn’t likeable. This made the reader not care about the character at all, but it might be that the reader doesn’t like sarcasm (and those who do would like the character) or that the character isn’t supposed to be likeable in the first place.

Both are problems, but the gun disappearing is a problem for anyone, whereas likability isn’t as simple.

Errors are easy and don’t require a lot of argument. You’ll find so much focus orients on typos and grammar because it doesn’t take any proof that it is, in fact, a problem. More abstract comments like, “I find the whole thing promotes sexism, and it turns me off,” is a much more difficult discussion to have because you can’t just pull out a dictionary and prove it. But, it’s often the more important one.

To clarify, I love when people point out typos as they see them. On page. In very specific places. But whenever anyone tries to “discuss” it, I get a little irritated. A reader who actually reads is very valuable, and while having them correct grammar errors is fantastic, it shouldn’t be the only thing they’re doing, or even their main priority, especially in an earlier draft. While I am one of the worst people about catching typos, if I really needed to, it’s possible for me to find them for myself. There are some exceptions, like phrases that I think are said one way which really, really aren’t, but I can, if necessary, sit down and read, word for word, and find “errors.” What I cannot do is find an outside, fresh perspective of someone with different priorities, moods, opinions, and experiences.

If something is truly a mistake, it’s something the writer will be able to solve for himself. While a reader pointing out errors as she finds them makes everything easier, the important thing is to keep an eye out for things that the writer wouldn’t be able to see, even if he was staring right at it. This is about personal perspective, what influences the reader, and interpretation. Which, unfortunately, are all arguable.

Now we all know how douchey authors can be, even when we’ve been a little bit douchey ourselves. Trying to point out that, “I don’t care about your book because I don’t care about your characters because they’re all a bunch of bastards,” is a difficult thing to say if you don’t want to cause conflict, primarily if the author never wanted them to be likable in the first place. There’s a good chance he’s going to have a hissy fit. But it’s something that, even if the writer chooses not to change, he should still be aware of. He might have other solutions (adding in a character that is likable, punishing the unlikable character more, adding in more epic moments, etc.), or maybe will decide later, when everyone can’t get into his book, it is a goal he does want to change, at least partially tweak.

The best criticisms are the ones that are honest, even when the reader knows what she’s saying is closed-minded and personal, ones that may not be true for anyone else. The writer is more able to decide what opinions are valuable to him than the critic, and has an easier time doing so when he has several people upfront about how they really feel instead of focusing on what they think they’re supposed to be saying.

More importantly, by acknowledging that expressing her personal opinion is exactly what she’s doing, it’s more likely that the writer will accept it and be less offended than if she were to act like she was trying to fix a grievous error.

When something doesn’t work for a reader and she explains it in that way, “After Sheila let that cat die, I just could not like her and didn’t really care about anything that happened to her. When I can’t empathize with someone, I just have a hard time being invested in the events,” rather than as a mistake that the author made, “You need to make your main character more likable,” he’s more able to compartmentalize it. There is no argument against how the reader felt, but there are thousands of arguments whether or not a character “needs” to be appealing.

The other side of it is that not all readers agree with each other. What’s important to one may not be important to another. Most criticisms come back lacking consistency with each other, especially those that tell the author what to “fix,” rather than explained a reaction.

The writer often has to go through the feedback and look for a common denominator. He is much more likely to find it within the “why” of the criticism than the “do.” There are thousands of solutions to any sort of problem, so two people solving the exact same problem might have two totally different and even contradictory options. Combine that with some problems only exist in certain contexts, and the author has a very difficult time figuring out what he actually should change.

On one manuscript of mine some time ago, I got extremely varying advice, all told in “shoulds.” Add more description. Simplify your prose. Talk more about that character over there. One person would talk about one problem and say nothing about what the others had suggested, sometimes even arguing with the other feedback when asked. What I came to find, however, was when I really examined why they were telling me I should change things, there was a common thread. They were trying to make it less confusing for them. In the end, I took just a little bit advice from each place with the one goal in mind, and the comments started to get narrowed down and minimalized all together, even though I had not fully implemented any one person’s opinion.

While a beta-reader should always point out errors if she sees them, it is important to focus not on telling the author what he did wrong, but rather how what he did affected her. Rather than fixing his issues for him, she reveals what issues may exist and he proceeds to figure out what ones are really things he cares about, and how best to solve them. Those issues that are most influential tend to be a lot less cut and dried than “right and wrong.”