Aaaah, feedback. A word that evokes giddy excitement and vomity dread. It’s the equivalent to the moment in The Lion King when Mufasa is explaining the Circle of Life and casually mentions eating the antelope, and kid version of you is like, “Wait, you’re gonna eat those cute animals that were just bowing to you five seconds ago? The Cirle of Life sucks!”
Feedback for a writer is that moment in the Circle of Life. Both harsh and fulfilling, and inevitable.
Writers need feedback to grow and improve. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll repeat it: first drafts suck. They are 300+ pages of awful. Nothing comes out perfect the first time, and you shouldn’t expect it to.
And sometimes you can spot your own issues and correct them. But, mostly, you can’t and need someone else to bring your flaws to your attention. As a metaphor: you know how in makeover shows like What Not To Wear they ambush the person? They reveal they’ve been secretly filming her and make her stand in the 360° mirror to see how awful her outfit is, and the whole time the makeover recipient is angry and keeps saying that her clothes aren’t that bad? And then, once the makeover is done, it’s whoosh “I was wrong, my clothes were crazy, I look so good now”?
Your manuscript is now that ambushed makeover recipient. And your CPs, beta readers, and editors are Stacy and Clinton.
Which is why feedback is such an emotionally conflicted, confusing thing. As a writer who worked really hard on their manuscript, you want the praise. You want someone to say, “I love it! It’s perfect! I want to ride off into the sunset with your book and have little book-human mutant babies with it!” But as a writer who worked really hard on their manuscript and want it to be the best it can possibly be, you want feedback that hits your prose like several bricks of C4, that decimates your writing and leaves your characters broken and bloody. And then you want to go all Six Million Dollar Man and say “We can rebuild it. We can make it better.”
And then you cue the montage.
So yes, you want that tell it to me straight, doc feedback. But how do you cope with it? With a lot of cliches!
- Keep Calm and Carry On: The natural response is to fight back, to defend your book baby like a mad mama grizzly. DON’T. Massive mistake. If there’s anything I learned in college, it’s to STFU during feedback and only respond with “Thank you.” No one is trying to attack you. They are trying to help you. Be grateful. Take some time to process the notes, they’re usually right. And, if you still don’t agree, just ignore them and move on.
- The Customer is Always Right: If you get feedback that says, “I didn’t understand/follow…” that’s not the reader’s fault. It’s yours. As a writer, you need to make sure the reader understands your plot. Your job is to make sure your story is universal. You can’t just shrug off readers and say they just don’t “get” you.
- Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide: Granted, not all feedback will point you in the direction you want to go. You might get vague comments like “I didn’t like this character” or “I didn’t believe your ending”. Solid, valid notes. And the obvious answer would be get rid of the character, or change the ending. But what if you want that character to be unlikable, or if you weren’t going for a typical happy ending? Then you have to go back and justify it. You want your character to be awful? Then go back and justify that awful. Make sure there’s a clear reason why that flesh-lump of awful exists (case in point: Draco Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge). You want your ending to turn out a certain way? Make sure the plot of your entire book leads to that one, INEVITABLE ending. Take these notes and then go back and do the edits to prove them wrong, if you want. Hey, it’s your book, do whatever you want with it.
Granted, this is just what to do when you get good, valid feedback. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get a word-vomit of crazypants. For example: one time I workshopped a story, and one of the writers in the group stated that they interpreted the main characters as birds. Which everyone else silently agreed made zero sense. And the crazy bird theory sank to the bottom of the pile as the more valid notes, the ones identified by multiple readers, rose to the top of the discussion.
Which is what will generally happen: the valid prose problems will move to the forefront, and the crazy will sink away into a dark abyss that’s filled with other lost things like earring backs, single socks, and receipts for things you don’t want to keep.
I assume. I’ve never been there.