When Good News is No News

Posted: October 24, 2017 in Writing
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I started working on my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, PRINCESS MATERIAL, around four years ago (it was originally called The Last Princess).  We finished the first draft about two years ago.  Since then we have been deep in the trenches of querying, workshopping, and revising.  So much revising.

So, I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if you’re honest with yourself and are truly committed to improving your craft and your manuscript, you have to push through your resistance to radical or brutal advice.  In other words, you must learn to embrace bad news. Because that’s where improvement originates [insert allegory about omelets and broken eggs].

That being said, I don’t think writers ever outgrow their need to receive praise.  For writers with unfinished projects, the only real way to get that is through beta readers and chapter critiques.  And this can be the biggest source of angst, because unless you write flawless first drafts the purpose of beta readers and chapter critiques is to highlight what’s wrong* with your manuscript.  So when you’ve lovingly polished your manuscript, rolled it up, and put it in a bottle, your feeling as you watch it drift out to sea is that you hope people will like it, that they will tell you it was good, that they will justify all of your choices and the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.  Typically, the thought at the front of your mind when you hit “send” is not, “Oh, boy! I sure hope they rip it to shreds.”

The thing is, it probably should be.

I’m currently in the middle of some big revisions (read my last few posts to hear about my experience working with an editor), and while this is the blazillianth time I’ve revised chapter one, this is the first time I’ve been really excited about the outcome.  By this time, I’ve developed a kind of filter through which I view the advice I receive — especially the early advice because as good as it seemed at the time, much of it clearly didn’t resolve the issues at hand (or else it created new issues). This is part of developing that ear I mentioned up above.  But at the same time, I have recently received some stunningly good advice involving big changes (hence these major revisions), so I know the system works.  It’s still blindingly obvious that quality feedback is as essential to the writing process as knowing your alphabet.  So I ran my newly-revised chapter one through the critique mill at Critique Circle and waited eagerly for the responses.

It has been awhile since I ran earlier drafts of this particular manuscript through CC. So every one of the six readers who provided a critique were brand new to the story.  The responses were — almost universally — positive.  One or two very minor word-choice suggestions, and one paragraph where a reader misread a description.  That’s it.  Closing comments were all full of praise.  And utterly devoid of advice.

It was a bit of a let down.

I’m dead serious about this book, now. Driven. Devoted. Committed. I wanted to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what was wrong with this so-very-important first chapter so I could fix it. I didn’t get it. I took my book-baby out in public and all I got was this stupid praise.

Old me from two years ago would have been doing an embarrassing happy dance with a sloppy smile plastered on his face.  Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.”  Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response.  I’m still human, after all.  I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time).  Yay! People like what I wrote!  This is good!

I just don’t trust it.


*By “wrong” I mean missing, weak, confusing, or inconsistent. The stuff your readers judge need to be changed.

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Comments
  1. Rick Ellrod says:

    Of course, at some point it actually *is* “done.” You just might be at that point. –Or not. Which is why one calls for comments.

    I do think it’s the beta reader’s job to highlight what *does* work as well as what doesn’t. The former can be as important to the writer as the latter — and not just because, as you say, we never outgrow the need for praise. It’s also helpful feedback to hear, “This is good, keep doing it.” 🙂

    Rick

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Quote from post: “Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.” Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response. I’m still human, after all. I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time). Yay! People like what I wrote! This is good!

    I just don’t trust it.” End Quote.

    Ha! Well, you know you’re getting to be a writer when you’ve become paranoid enough to doubt people when they praise your writing…and instead hope someone will take your shiny new chapter out to the woodshed and give it a good old fashioned beating. Yeah, in the strange little life that is a writer’s, this is what we count as progress.

    Should also mention that I hopped onto CC and took a quick read through your chapter. It’s good, John.

    But don’t worry, I’m not the gushy type. I left plenty of wood chips and burned adverbs laying out there by that shed. Hope you find something useful in my ramblings.

    All the best,
    SSB

    Liked by 2 people

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