Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to Give Someone Feedback on their Story

That’s right. Because most likely, you gave mean-spirited feedback. I initially thought I’d write a list of things that would be helpful for a writer to hear after giving you her manuscript to read, but most people don’t know what to look for in a good book, and this is not their fault. People only know if something is good or bad. Anyway, here is a list of things NOT to do when asked to read someone’s novel, especially if the novel sucks*:

*Note that the novels I have read for people lately do not belong in this category lest you read this and go “OH GOD OH GOD IT’S ME SHE’S TALKING ABOUT, GOD, GOD.” This is actually about ME and feedback that *I* have gotten on MY story.

Never tell the writer that they should look into self-publishing. We can see right though you. We know that what you are really saying is, “You’ll never make it. You’d better PRETEND you’re publishing.” And don’t bother trying to argue that self-publishing is on the rise, because we all know it doesn't count.

Do not couch your comments in suggestions for story improvement. No one – NO ONE—wants to be told how his or her story should go. We already KNOW how the story should go. Executing it is the hard part. Don’t suggest that maybe the main character could say something along the lines of anything. Don’t say that perhaps the antagonist could do something here or there. Don’t say it. You’re not the writer, no matter how crappy you think we are.

Don’t tell other people in passing that the writer is “trying to get her book published but keeps getting rejected.” This is singularly unhelpful. You’d get rejected, too, if you tried. Fact. Everyone does. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed. My dad initially thought I failed because I didn’t get an agent after my first query letter. He didn’t SAY he thought I failed, but he said something along the lines of “I don’t want to bring up a sore subject with you.” It’s not sore. I’m just normal. That first query sucked, and so did the novel. But I’m still at it, and the next one isn’t going to suck. (If it still does, you can say "I admire your fortitude" and leave it at that. And do not add "Although it is clear in my opinion and everyone else's that this endeavor is clearly never going to get you anywhere.")

If you don’t like the style or genre of the book, don’t tear the story apart on the basis that you don't like that genre. I can imagine that if I were asked to read a pithy sci-fi full of unpronounceable names with vampires/shapeshifters/people with secret powers who must save kingdoms, I would not really be inclined to like it. But still I would try to look at the overall story structure and see if it was decent.

Don’t say you’ll read it, then crack it open, read the first page in horror, and put it aside and never get back to the writer. That’s not nice. If you really can’t stomach the writing or the story, just say that it didn’t resonate with you, and/or that you won’t be able to finish it as you said you would. The writer needs to know you’re out of the reading pool because we only trust a few people to read it initially. You might also consider saying, if the writing is truly abominable, “Oh hey, have you read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves? Great book! Check it out.”

Don’t copyedit the story unless you are extremely sure that your grammar is up to snuff, and the writer asked you to. This goes for documents you’re asked to review in a professional setting, too. Hey, guess what? “That” and “which” aren’t used the way you think they are. Likewise, don’t rearrange the structure of a sentence “so it reads better” because that is really effing irritating.

Above all, do not cover up your revulsion to the story with statements like, "Everyone has to start somewhere," "Not everyone gets published," "A for effort," "All writers go through years of drafts before getting published," or "Maybe you should take a writing class." We know exactly what you're saying. Don't think for a minute we don't. Do not, under any circumstance, try to gently direct us towards realization that we suck. We probably disagree with you that we suck and we do not need the discouragement.

Now, since I was such a negative beast there, here are some positive things to do:

Focus on what you, as the reader, reacted to. If you had a hard time getting into the story, then maybe the beginning didn’t pull you in. We will know why. Just say that. This is a true, honest, and nice thing to say. If you can’t put your finger on what it was that didn’t work for you, say “The story didn’t move fast enough for me.” (Or likewise, too slow.) This is honest, and we probably will know exactly what to fix when you say this. The writer will not hate you for these statements. On the contrary, these are helpful statements. If the characters were pish, then say “I couldn’t empathize with the characters.” My mother couldn’t tell me for a solid year that she didn’t care for the characters in my first inept novel. We do need to hear that a reader can’t relate to any part, because chances are, it was something we forgot to pay attention to, and we can fix that. (Or scrap it.)

Do point out what parts you reacted to strongly. This makes us happy, and less likely to cut a scene that we know invokes reaction.

Try the sandwich approach. Say something you liked, then something you think could be improved or didn't resonate with you, and then something nice.


coffeelvnmom said...

Okay I am sitting here LMAO because I read "Anyway, here is a list of things NOT to do when asked to read someone’s novel, especially if the novel sucks*" and was about to have a heart attack...then read the next paragraph and my heart rate is slowly going back to normal. HA ha!! Alright now I'm going to go back to reading the rest... ;)

coffeelvnmom said...

Finished....loved this's so true! I just might refer people to this when I begin to get more opinions!!! Kinda like a longer version of saying "Stick it to me softly." ;)

Sierra Godfrey said...

You've pretty much summed it up in much fewer words Jessica!

coffeelvnmom said...

lol as Elvis says, "Thank you, thank you very much." =D

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