MaxBarry.com
writes things for cash

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

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.

Comments

This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Machine Man subscriber Ness (#244)

Location: Lorne, Vic
Posted: 5286 days ago

Thankyou very much for this post. I've been trying to write a book for around a year now, and people have no idea how to be helpful when you put a ream of paper in their hands and ask for comments. This will no doubt prove much more productive.

Jim Carson (#231)

Location: Seattle
Quote: "Coca Cola announced a mid-calorie cola named C2, ostensibly to compete with Pepsi "Edge." It's billed as a solution to the low-carb dieters who have been marooned on the distant asteroid where Diet Coke is unavailable."
Posted: 5286 days ago

Having been on IWW for a few months (found it here, actually), I'd recommend not submitting a ream of text. 2k words in softcopy is about the limit before I need to print it out.

It also helps IWW reviewers if you provide some context (especially for the shorter, non-fiction pieces) like who your intended audience is, whether your piece is an excerpt and what kind of feedback are you looking for.

Jim Carson
http://www.jimcarson.com

Machine Man subscriber Ness (#244)

Location: Lorne, Vic
Posted: 5285 days ago

Thanks Jim, I'll keep that in mind. The 'ream' was more refering to what I hand over to my teachers, family, friends, etc. for comments, not what I actually submit.

Scott (#354)

Location: Grand Rapids, MI
Quote: "Max Barry tastes like awesome"
Posted: 5282 days ago

Thanks for the heads up Max(x) and Jim. I think you mentioned IWW elsewhere on your site as well. Now if only I could get over my 'fear' and write something I feel is worth submitting at all. Think I'll make that my new years resolution.. or my post-December 7th resolution. You can take the Scott out of procrastination...

Dan (#1004)

Location: Seattle, WA
Quote: ""Another day in paradise. Wish I were there...""
Posted: 5232 days ago

Writing is funny. It's also rooted in Physics!

Given: A picture is worth a thousand words.
Given: The camera adds ten pounds.

Do the math... three words comes out to around 13.7 grams. Doesn't matter the length of the word.

So why then, (Max, (Maxx, if you prefer) maybe you can help me here) given that all words weigh the same, they can impact so much more or less than others. It's because they have different mass.

Any three words, 13.7 grams. Telling someone, "Eat more fish" weighs less than a small caliber bullet. But saying "I love you" or I hate you" ...weighs the same. Meaning it, however... can do more damage than an exploding hydrogen bomb.

Because the mass of the words is different.

My gripe about writers is that they put too much credence in the weight of their words, but pay no attention to the mass.

Max, as for you... You've done well by me. You give a good read, but if the person wants to get more out of a story than just that, they can. Almost like Heinlein. He never wrote anything without actually saying something else, underneath all the storytelling.

He also won more Hugo awards than anyone else to date.

So keep it up!

P.S. ...Max: regarding Heinlein... I never wrote him a letter, he died in 1988. Even so, glad my letters didn't kill you (yeah, I'm that guy) although I'm not quite ready to write someone else for fear that you were just a fluke. Talk about words with critical mass... Hmm, Adams, Asimov...maybe it's just authors whose last name begins with "A". ...hmm

Brandon R. Holgersen (#1043)

Location: Okinawa
Posted: 5221 days ago

Hey I just stumbled on this website after my friend introduced me to nation states. I think it's damn funny and I'm going to make a habit of coming online every day. The sad part is I don't have any of the books yet but the good news is I will shortly. One question I have is how can you write a book. My attention span is never that long. My limit has been around 40 pages and then I just kind of lose interest. Any tips?

Comments are now closed for this post.

Built on Blosxom