How to give amazing feedback

the-first-five-pagesThis is partly in response to this recent comment, but it’s good information for anyone visiting the site (hence deserves a full post). Contrary to what you may believe, it is not necessary to be a literary giant to give good feedback. Quite the contrary.

Orson Scott Card writes, “For this job, it’s better if your Wise Reader is not trained in literature — he’ll be less like to try to give you diagnoses (“The characterization was thin”) or, heaven help us, prescriptions (“You need to cut out all this description”). The Wise Reader doesn’t imagine for a moment that he can tell you how to fix your story. All he can tell you is what it feels like to read it.”

Obviously, I need to know if there are spelling, grammar, or continuity errors. The more I can iron out, the better, but this is less urgent than you might think. I’ve found typos and grammar errors in many NYTimes bestsellers, even 2nd and 3rd editions. (Grammatical error isn’t necessarily a mistake, either. In dialog, for example, people rarely speak with grammatical acuity. So unless you wish to make every character sound like a pompous ass, it’s necessary to relax a bit for dialog. This is why Naomi tells her husband, “Jessie is acting strange,” even though it would be correct to write, “Jessie is acting strangely.”)

What interests me more:

Does the story drive you, without interruption or distraction, to its conclusion?

I don’t mean external distractions, like a dog starts humping your leg, or the school across the street explodes. I mean internal distractions; anything which detracts from the cohesion of a believable story. For example:

1. Were you ever bored? Did your mind wander? Where did this happen? This tells me whether a story (or part of it) ultimately just isn’t that interesting.

2. Did you like/dislike each character? Why? This helps me understand if sympathy is being generated for protagonists, if villains or anti-heroes are properly disturbing, and so forth.

3. Was there anything confusing, or any passage you had to read twice? This is key. While there’s a lot of feedback I mull over awhile before making any changes, this one usually results in immediate revision for the passage in question.

4. Was there anything you didn’t believe? This one is simple. If you ever thought, “Yeah, right!” or “How unrealistic,” it falls into this category. However, for any non-geeks in my audience, this doesn’t mean tell me, “I don’t believe in ghosts” if there’s a ghost in the story, etc. Primarily, this should assess two things:

4A. Did the characters behave believably? Unless you’re writing a comedy, a frightened soccer mom being chased by a psychopath shouldn’t suddenly know ninjutsu when faced with hand-to-hand combat. A genius shouldn’t suddenly become unable to make basic judgments, just to advance a plot. No character should behave contrary to his/her known motives and values unless the story addresses such a change. In The Matrix, there is an explanation for characters who know nothing about martial arts suddenly become experts in all forms. In Good Will Hunting, the story is about Will’s transformation from an arrogant and detached teenager to someone who wants to be involved and make a difference.

4B. Did the story follow its own rules? This refers to physics, magic, science and pseudo-science. Carlos Mencia once joked that complaints about ‘realism’ don’t apply to stories like Star Wars. This is incorrect. Speculative fiction doesn’t assert that physics and chemistry and biology suddenly have no rules, they just propose changes or alterations to the rules we already know. Everything that happens within a story needs to FIT those rules, even though they can violate the rules of the known world. Otherwise the story becomes unbelievable. In Star Wars, if Han Solo (a self-proclaimed skeptic of The Force) suddenly started using telekinesis, that would violate the story’s rules. A superhero not using established superpowers to escape a tricky situation falls into this category (like when Peter Petrelli neglects his powers of flight when he is trying to prevent himself from going nuclear at the end of Heroes: Season 1).

In an amateur writer’s vampire story, her female protagonist was beaten and tortured by the order of the Pope, actual bishops and cardinals doing the dirty work. I told her this was unbelievable. She might have sold it if her story took place in some future or past time frame, but the pope at the time was Pope John Paul II, and she never specified it was anyone different. I just couldn’t picture John Paul II being so deliberately cruel on a physical level. However one of my favorite science fiction series ends with a pope thousands of years in the future similarly torturing a messianic young lady. But his actions were established as believable by the rules of the story long before the event occurred.

In an early Batman movie, a thug punches Batman in the chest and knocks him down. The audience has now been shown that Batman is vulnerable to physical force. A few minutes later, the Joker punches Batman in the chest and succeeds only in hurting his hand against a metal plate. Which is it? The audience now doesn’t know what to believe about the suit. Suddenly ALL ‘dangers’ to Batman have lost their potency because it seems like the rules can change at any moment: he’ll be invulnerable sometimes and extremely vulnerable at others. It has less to do with whether reality can support what’s presented, and more to do with whether a story remains true to itself.

5. What do you think will happen next? This is more important for novel segments. But for short stories, you can try to explain whether it fulfilled your expectations or surprised them. (And both can be good in different circumstances. Expecting and then seeing the good guys win can be extremely satisfying, in spite of the fact it was predictable.)

Like most writers, I despise books on “how to write”, and like most writers, I still own a few, a couple of which have ultimately shaped my thoughts on writing in spite of my skepticism.

The most impressive of these is literary agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. If I were teaching a course on writing, it would be required reading. It won’t tell you anything about devising a great plot or premise, but it chisels away mercilessly at common mistakes of amateurs, and then even more subtle mistakes made by professionals.

Here are just two of the problems he addresses:

1. Presentation. Just tell me if anything about an attached manuscript is distracting.

2. Adjectives and Adverbs. Overuse of these is the hallmark of an amateur. Example:

The squad car went fast down the bumpy, rocky road, quickly swerving to avoid the large, fat bugs smashing squarely against the silmy windshield. The hot, humid, stifling day poured in waves through the open windows, making the men wipe their sweaty, clammy brows with their dirty, greasy rags and leaving marks on their dirty foreheads. The convict was escaping quickly and it was getting hard to see in the blinding haze.

You can easily see how over over-describing drowns a piece. If it’s a problem, it will be obvious.

There are hundreds of other things I could ask you to look for, because there are (literally) hundreds of things I look for as I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. But the essence of what matters is:

Does the story keep you interested?

All of the examples above are just specific ways of asking that same question.

A note to other writers who may frequent this blog:

The audience is never wrong.

Playwrites have an advantage over novelists: They can attend a play and SEE whether the audience is laughing and crying; interested or bored. That type of audience never lies.

Novelists have to learn these things by asking the questions above. When the criticism comes back (and it WILL), resist the urge to defend your work. All the justification in the world won’t change the fact that someone was bored or annoyed or put off by something in the story. In the face of multiple reviews with different opinions, you can determine which way to go, but if any one reader was annoyed, confused, bored, or disbelieving, you can bet dollars to donuts future readers will feel the same…including editors.

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  • Mr. Snuggles

    Should have known you’d answer my question with an essay. (smiley face)

  • Jason R. Peters

    Considering I summarized whole books on the subject, I’m hardly offended.

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