Monday, March 12, 2018

What It’s Like Getting Feedback

(An honest reflection written November 2015 about the struggles of understanding constructive criticism.)
The last round of feedback my manuscript received was months ago, but I periodically go through the comments to see if I understand more with fresh eyes. Every once in a while, by dissecting, rethinking, and just chilling out, I’ll find a treasure hidden in the muck, disguised by clever wordplay, oversimplification, or a specificity that was misleading.

People will give feedback by issuing direction: Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Use adverbs. Delete this word. Say this instead. Cut this. Change that. They offer up solutions and if you don’t truly see the problem even good advice can become useless. More to the point, it’s harder to tell if it is good advice or if there’s a very rational reason you don’t see the problem.

In fact, every time I have ever been told I had an issue that I didn’t think I had, it was because I didn’t have it. It’s often a miscommunication, in which my critic suggests something and I interpret it differently than how he intended. For example, one man once told me that I “needed to set up the scene more.” I looked that first chapter and thought, “My hut is vivid and grounded and detailed. I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I told him so with more diplomacy, to which he responded, “Oh yes, the hut is perfect. I’m talking about the world. Like, are we in outer space?”

Now, that I could see.

When it’s not miscommunication, it can be an issue of priorities. In college, I had a professor say I needed to clarify that my characters were not lesbians. While I could see why he felt like they were on a date, I didn’t believe that his reasoning was congruent or strong enough to matter; I had two female characters who talked to each other about something other than a guy and didn’t discuss who they were dating or had them end up with anyone by the time the play was over. Outside of their bickering, however, they didn’t behave like they were in a relationship at all, so it was only his expectation for women to be paired off that led him to that thinking. Then there was the factor that I simply didn’t care if people decided Molly and Becca were on a date. Being a theatrical script, it was probably going to have someone speculate someone was gay anyway. You can’t go to the theatre without a director thinking it’s genius to make Mercutio in love with Romeo. I didn’t see any audience member saying, “Clearly she wanted to tell us these characters were dating and failed to do so. What a hack!” It didn’t bother me if my characters were gay, but it did irritate me that he felt I was required to discuss the love life of my females when it had nothing to do with the plot. I told him all of this flatly, to which he, being anti-confrontational, dropped it. Or seemingly so. Later on he told me that I needed to “add in another character.” Considering he hadn’t brought up my character’s orientation since that one time many weeks prior, I did not initially make the connection between the two, and when asking him what adding another character would do, he told me it would fix the dynamic.

I saw nothing wrong with their dynamic, and actually believed it was the best part of the play. I had no idea what he was talking about until sometime afterwards I realized he was still fixating on a priority I had already said I didn’t care about, which is why the solution didn’t make sense to me.

The best advice I receive usually comes out of the following discussion. Many people attempt to be succinct and efficient when stating their opinions, not wanting to waste anyone’s time or be interrupted, yet this precision can actually overly simplify their ideas until they are no longer true. It’s important to get people on the same page before telling them where to go from there, otherwise your directions are obviously going to mislead them. A different perspective that puts a reader on a different page from a writer is the primary reason you get feedback. Everyone makes assumptions that we don’t ever think to question until we meet someone who forces us to rethink our sense of reality. The reason the best advice is usually the kind that I don’t initially understand has to do with that assumption. I didn’t realize what I thought was a matter of perspective until after I got someone else’s.

Of course, trying to get someone on the same page when they already are on the same page can be insulting, so we have to be careful about over explaining things. Plus in most cases the “same page” is the hardest revelation to go through. Telling someone that their scene is terribly set up will hurt their feelings, so many of us will go directly to how they can fix it and not actually confront the problem.

Saying, “Add stakes to Susie’s goals,” is kinder than, “I don’t care if Susie succeeds or not,” hence our draw to speaking that way. But the real problem is that the audience doesn’t care, and if the writer doesn’t see that, he will not understand what adding them in will do and thus why he should do it. Especially if he’s sitting there thinking, “I have stakes.” Once he realizes that the audience isn’t rooting for anyone, not is he more likely to be convinced that the solution is necessary, he also can incorporate other options than just doing what he was told and can be better at deciding if the stakes he chose are actually effective. Instead of just adding action sequences and threatening the life of a character we know will never die (not making us care anymore than before), he decides to add in a dog and threaten her instead.

There are ways to tell someone the problem without it being offensive, but it’s more difficult. It also requires more thought—instead of just stating a gut feeling, (I didn’t like it!) the speaker has to analyze that feeling and accurately describe it.

A problem is a reaction a reader didn’t think he was supposed to have. Identifying that reaction—the effect of a decision—rather than just criticizing the decision itself takes some self-analysis. It’s not that your writing is purple, it’s that I felt you were talking down to me. (Or, in many cases, the words didn’t make me imagine the scene, but made me stop and think about why you chose them.) It’s the difference between saying I don’t like the way you write and why I don’t like the way you write. (You’ll note that the variance between being arrogant and being jarring alters how the writer will be able to detect and fix any other “purple” writing in the future.)

But it’s difficult to state how you felt sometimes. Not only is it personal, but because it is extra blunt by nature, it is more important to consider your words carefully or it will be taken as an attack. The best feedback excites and encourages the author to get back to work, not just informs them and expects them to overcome hurt and conflict. Yet any attempts for diplomacy might clutter meaning.

So what do you do when you know, for whatever reason, you’re not on the same page? It doesn’t always work to just ask someone straight out what they mean. On occasions when I don’t get what I’m being told, I ask, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?” But it often garners the response of, “There’s no problem…”

Then why do I care?

People will often shut down and sometimes even take offense when you ask questions, especially direct ones. And, if you don’t think to ask, not realizing that you don’t really get it, or even just don’t understand enough to know what you don’t understand, you’ll often be sitting at home later, bewildered, unable to ask anyone at all.

While examining the feedback I’ve gotten, I noticed a repeated response from a few people that I never really was able to grasp. I ignored them originally, partially because my method of editing involves “chilling out” and not worrying too much about it, in which I often have a shower epiphany later. Instead of trying to take criticism all at once, I’m more likely to comprehend it via long-term reflection.

But this criticism was a little weird. First, when I say that a couple of people said the same thing, I mean a couple. Many, many readers have gone through the manuscript and there are probably only four that have discussed the issue in a similar enough manner for me to know it’s the same opinion. This actually isn’t that bad of a statistic, however—I’ve come to find that I’m lucky if three people agree on anything. Yet, it should be noted that each of the people saying it aren’t individuals that I respect as much as I normally do. It should also be noted that it’s been often proven that commenters will have more of a consistency in their opinions once you analyze where they are actually coming from—as in, they’re not actually saying the same thing, but what caused them to say it was the same problem.

“I just haven’t seen it done that way before,” they say.

I’ve realized that a few feedbackers suggested that my science-fiction wasn’t like the science-fiction they expected, and while there are many reasons I didn’t pay them too much heed, the comment has stuck with me… mostly because I don’t fully understand what they meant, and yet there is more than one person who mentioned it.

I see that my manuscript doesn’t meet the most superficial assumptions of what a non-reader thinks of when they hear “sci-fi.” While, over time, I introduced more elements typical to the genre—changing the setting of the first scene from a hut in a barren wasteland to an old and defunct terraformer in a barren wasteland and developed a history that explained it was another planet—the story does not fit the spaceships and aliens view that people who don’t read the genre expect. I don’t, however, believe that it should be so unexpected for anyone in my audience.

In the original vision and early drafts the setting was just a backdrop. I wrote it with the assumption that readers were like me—avid speculative fiction lovers who had already seen the same sorts of stories I read. I didn’t think, and still don’t to a certain extent, the world needed to be excitingly new because it was about a different kind of plot, a different kind of exploration of that sort of world. I had unique rules, but it wasn’t supposed to be about the world, just the people in it. The setting was just a nice decoration, an interesting visual for the plot to play against. I have never been interested in big, epic political events, and just wanted it to be a love story with a novel perspective. While the characters fight for their lives and freedom, it’s an intrapersonal look. I wanted it to emulate the idea of how people are just people, even in horrific realities. When you talk to someone in real life who has gone through war and starvation and trauma, during that trauma, they focused on the little things right in front of them, like where their family’s next meal is coming from, immediate safety, shelter, money. And then, even in the aftermath when they have found security physically and financially, they still care about the things we of the luxury life do, like love, money, and self-oriented dreams. Political vigilantism and determination is the story of heroes, and yes, there really are many heroes in reality, but sometimes I want to hear the story of the person surviving.

Over the drafts, however, I started to realize that this was the story’s biggest obstacle. I accepted that—while I truly didn’t feel like the world’s history mattered to the characters, their goals, or their conflicts—it was very apparent in the writing that I just didn’t know and was deliberately glossing over details because I hadn’t come up with answers. I was also avoiding making big decisions, especially when there was an easy answer to that I didn’t like. People wanted to know if it was Earth, if it was the apocalypse, how the apocalypse had happened. (Those who were concerned with this were also the ones who had only read the first three chapters, making it feel more like they were impatient rather than it was important.) I saw it as an entirely alternate reality; the world had always been like that, Earth doesn’t exist, nothing went wrong. But how do you explain that something doesn’t exist in a world it’s never been in before? I could just make it Earth, but I didn’t want to do that.

I’ve come up with several solutions now, but it was very difficult at the time, especially when I was so attached to my original vision. I finally decided to write out a history until I made one I liked, find the answers I was avoiding, and then do the proceeding drafts accordingly, inserting and changing details as the newfound knowledge merited. This worked out very well, and led me to some new scenes and did flush out the world like I actually knew what I was talking about. The history forced me to rethink my entire assumption, but once I had committed to doing so, it wasn’t so hard to let go. The setting seems more real now, even though I still only hint at the history.

Science-fiction and fantasy is about “exploring a new world,” some say, and many books are. I think that it’s an excellent part of fantasy, and there are a good number of stories that I find the unique and thorough world-building to be the prime reason they broke the wall of “good” to “great.” But there’s a reason that Tolkien-esque kingdoms and Star Trek planets still survive today and that’s because many speculative fiction readers, like myself, don’t always want brand new worlds with brand new rules, but new plots and exciting characters in an interesting setting we like.

Even things like Harry Potter—a series that created an entirely new and developed universe—played off of basic ideas and rules and tropes and fashion that we already used. It took pre-existing images in our mind and pushed them to a higher evolution. People like Harry Potter not because it started from scratch, but because it gave more details, reality, and humanity to an already existing world.

Which is to say while I highly respect and enjoy speculative fiction with in-depth world building, I also enjoy works that focus predominantly on characters, their politics and history only coming up as it affects the individuals. I want to still read about Road Warrior open highways, elven countries, and vampire underworlds along with the new realities of an especially unique book.

Because my predominant criticism was always about the world building, really the only consistent feedback I was getting, I somewhat attributed the whole, “I haven’t seen this done this way before,” issue to me just not explaining myself well enough, not setting up the rules first. There was also the issue that out of the four people I remember saying anything, three of them really hadn’t read my sort of genre before, and I could only assume that the expectations of a non-reader were wildly different from an actual fan.

But two parts have confounded me about this. One is that I received a criticism after the introduction of the terraformer which had, for the most part, calmed most people’s confusion about what kind of world it was and tapered off a lot of the world-building complaints. The other is that it hasn’t always been targeted towards the setting at all.

In one circumstance, it was the issue of the prologue. As I said, the gentlemen speaking was not an individual I had high faith in. He wasn’t reader of anything, just an older soul who wanted to write his memoir on running marathons. By the time he’d stop going to the writers’ group, he had written six pages and edited them once with our criticisms to disastrous results. Despite all that, he was arrogant, although not competitive and not self-assured (or strangely even attempting to look self-assured). He never put anyone down directly, but he was certain of his opinion, even in the case of the detective novelist who he told, “I don’t like detective stories,” and then spent twenty minutes telling her how to write one. He believed everyone should take all criticism, especially his, and would instruct writers to pander to people outside of their audience (to the detriment of those already in their audience). When any speaker attempted to be diplomatic with their feedback—plying it with compliments or giving credit to where he was coming from—he would have this contorted and mocking face until the critic came outright and said exactly what they were thinking. “You have a natural knack for clarity, so now I wouldn’t focus so much on if you’re explaining yourself well enough and risk some confusion,” to “You’re writing a boring subject in boring way. Spice it up.” Once he heard a writing rule—luckily he was not experienced enough to know many—he latched onto it.

I’ve talked about my struggle with the prologue. When I chose to add it in in the middle of the first draft, I had already known it was going to be controversial. Many professionals don’t like prologues. I had heard of this since I first started writing, I had seen all of the complaints, and for all of the prior manuscripts I’d written, I’d never used one before, simply because it never came up. But I have never personally had a problem with a prologue in a story before, and I believe it is just a way to pass expedited judgment on a book. I have seen prologues done badly, but that was because they were done badly. I didn’t think too hard about adding it when I did because I didn’t realize just how much balking there was going to be. The scene became integral to the most interesting parts of the plot. It became a point of contention for many, but the arguments never proved true enough. It seemed that when people complained it was simply because it was a prologue, not because of what I had done: “I just heard you weren’t supposed to have them.” My brother gave me an in-depth criticism, telling me I should use George R. R. Martin as an example how to do a good prologue, except that the issues in mine he listed were all found in A Game of Thrones first book. I have long since stopped asking my brother for advice because of this formula: he would always name drop someone, and yet when I read them found that my brother wasn’t entirely aware of what the authors were actually doing.

Again, the people who were focused on my prologues had usually only read the first couple of chapters, or even just that prologue itself. The ones who read it all of the way through often didn’t comment on it. Some liked it a lot, saying they were hooked into wanting to know how it ties back in. That annoyed others when the connection wasn’t made immediately apparent for the first forty pages (though the main character is featured from the get-go). People I respected said they liked it or didn’t have any criticisms themselves. I did get the sense that no one was as excited about it as I was which led me to do a lot of research and consideration. I read a lot of unpolished prologues, agents’ blogs about why they don’t like them, and even took it out for some new readers. I attempted to reposition the scene because I couldn’t just cut it. Due to the timeframe, I also couldn’t just refer to it as chapter one either. But moving it seemed to screw up the pacing until way too far in in which it really did feel out of place to me.

After all of this, after wanting to get rid of that prologue, I have, as of yet, to understand the problem. Out of the people I respect, the two who said anything negative about it only pointed out, “Agents do say they don’t like them,” and “I didn’t think that was the best way to start,” but couldn’t tell me why exactly. For a long time I was still conflicted because it comes down to the scene not being able to be removed, me struggling with where else I would put it, and my growing understanding that I like it very much and I don’t feel that whatever problems people have with my beginning is about its existence. It seems to me it’s either the label or has to do with the transition from the prologue to chapter one. The reactions from the copies without the prologue are weird—less abrasive, and yet clearly missing information and a sense of world. The things that the prologue is supposed to do, it does.

But while people have muttered a reference to it, no one really went into detail unless specifically asked.

The man from my writers’ group was the only one to really fixate on it, and his arguments were more misleading than anyone’s.

“Do science-fiction books usually have prologues?”


“Well, I’ve looked at a few and I didn’t see any.”

“They’re not like a staple or anything.”

“What does that mean?”

“You don’t have to have one…”

“That’s what I meant.”

“No, you don’t have to have one then.”

“You should read other science-fiction books to see how they do it.”


“I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

As it should be?

We discussed it for some time, and yet while he kept repeating that I should read other books, he would not tell me what was wrong with the one I had. I told him I didn’t have a prologue because I wanted a prologue, I had a prologue because I believed it was the best way to start.

The next week, he approached me and say, “So, did you get rid of your prologue?”

I grinned. “Because you haven’t seen it done that way before? No.”

Not only was I irritated that he refused to try and explain to me why he didn’t like it, but his arguments made it worse. His inability to flat out say, “It was boring,” or anything like that either meant that his issue was complicated (which suggests that it’s not going to just be solved by simply cutting the whole thing), or a distinct possibility that he was just doing what he was supposed to do rather than actually reacting to the writing itself. Because I liked the prologue, because I hated when people wrote off an entire writing tactic without context, because I had the tendency to think he was an idiot, I knew that I was biased. I struggled to really understand him and be sure that I wasn’t just being stubborn, that I wasn’t shooting myself in the foot, but his inability to argue and be honest actually convinced me he probably had bad priorities in telling me that. I wish, however, that I understood, partially because I would feel more secure in knowing why he was wrong, but also because it would help me know why the “not the way it’s done,” criticism has come up for some others.

The woman who liked science fiction, the only one who I believe should be taken seriously, still had some bizarre reactions to the piece that made me not fully understand where she was coming from.

I know that people see prologues and automatically hate it.

I know that people are annoyed when I discuss the leader of their outpost—a simple a figurehead, a representation for their kind of life, but not a character—and yet the rebellion and attack on his authority never comes into play because it’s not about that. I don’t know how much it actually needs to be addressed, and if it does, what subtle ways I can shift that assumption.

Some want me to outright sum up the world. No, they never say editorialize or info dump—but sometimes that’s what I feel they are implying. I’ve heard this criticism on other books, like The Hunger Games, and I consider it a matter of preference. Not only do I not want to go into detail about aspects of my world that are… well, common, those that aren’t are very complex. I can’t explain one thing without getting into another, which it is learned over the course of the story. No, you don’t need to know where they’re getting their fuel from yet. Just relax.

The worst part of receiving criticism isn’t the rejection or the embarrassment. It’s not even the demand to sit somewhere quietly as someone tells you how you messed up. It is far more about the struggle to decipher people’s opinions, to overcome your own biases along with theirs, and to determine what is best for your work. It’s not trying to accept what people say, but figuring out what they’re not saying.

Note: After rewriting the beginning of the story for the fifth time and speaking to an author who I highly trusted, he suggested that he didn’t understand people’s problems with the prologue, but did know how agents felt about them, and if it were him, he’d find a way to change it, I eventually came up with a means to put it as a flashback a little later in the story.

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