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Thu 25
Nov
2004

Get feedback

Writing Now a community service announcement. If you’re a Struggling Writer (TM) looking for ways to improve, head straight for the recently-revamped Internet Writing Workshop. Or, possibly, read the rest of this blog, then head on over. That might make more sense.

The toughest thing about writing a novel is the loss of perspective. For me, the process usually goes like this:

  1. Hey, what a great idea for a book! This will rock!
  2. This story is going gangbusters. Look at all these plot threads unfolding!
  3. I should really start to tie some of these plot threads together.
  4. Okay, now which threads are important and which aren’t? What is this book really about?
  5. What makes a good story? Why do human beings read books?
  6. What is the meaning of life?
  7. Boo boo boo boo boo boo.

The best antidote to this is feedback. Or maybe therapy, but I’ve never tried that. Feedback allows you to view your story through the eyes of someone reading it for the first time, something you the author can never do. When I get good feedback, I weep with joy, and the realization that I need to do three months of rewrites.

But there are two big problems with feedback:

  1. Some people are insane. They tell you to change all the good parts of your book, and set it in space. Since you have no perspective, it’s difficult to tell these people are insane; you can think they’re really insightful.
  2. It’s embarrassing, at least for people who haven’t done it very much. Writers are often touchy about receiving feedback, and readers know this so they’re careful about giving it. The result is feedback like: “I liked everything.” Which is nice to hear, but completely useless. Or even harmful, if it prevents you from seeing problems that need fixing.

The Internet Writing Workshop solves both of these problems. First, you get lots of feedback, possibly a dozen or so quick critiques, and this makes insane opinions stand out. When ten people tell you they love your main character and one person says you should rewrite him as a woman, you know you can safely ignore that person, and everything he ever says.

Second, everything is via e-mail, so you don’t have to look any weepy-eyed writers in the face as you critically dissect their masterpieces. And they don’t have to look at you, so the feedback you get is honest and free of any reflex need to soothe your feelings. This doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, but it will give you that invaluable glimpse of your own book through someone else’s eyes.

The IWW is completely free, being run by hard-working and soft-hearted volunteers. I used it all the time when I was starting out, and it made me a better writer.