Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Danger of Positive Feedback

RockStories: September 2004

Several months ago, an acquaintance offered to do a "cold read" of the first five pages of my novel-in-progress. This came about because he'd critiqued some folks in a forum we both frequented and drawn some blood, and while everyone was up in arms about how mean he was, I found myself thinking that he'd be an ideal reader. I was always one of those annoying kids who liked the professors everyone warned you to avoid because I always learned something in their classes, and I figured the same might apply with critiques.

Thing was, he liked it. He had a few suggestions, but by his own admission they were minor ones. He said that if I'd been a paying client, he would have refunded my money. That was nice, but it wasn't what I'd come looking for. As I recently told a new writer in another forum, pats on the back are nice, but they're not constructive.

So the other day, when I was accused of writing "mindless mental floss," my feelings were mixed. That doesn't make anyone feel good, of course, especially not when it comes from someone whose posts indicate that he's pretty thoughtful and well-read. On the other hand, there was a little surge of "now we're getting somewhere." I'm a pretty good writer, but we can all get better, all the time, right? This was a pretty high-end forum I'd been posting in, and maybe the "big boys" were going to tell me why I wasn't in their league. Yet.

Well, overnight my initial critic reversed himself. Said he'd missed the point, and that I shouldn't change a thing about the story but should edit it and try to sell it forthwith.

And it was nice to hear. It really was. Anyone who writes (compulsively, not just because he's been hired to write) knows that our words are near to our hearts, and we like for people to like them. But...um...HOW IS THIS GOING TO MAKE ME A BETTER WRITER?

It's almost funny. Message boards, writers' groups, forums, etc., are full of writers defending themselves, asking for feedback and then fighting back when they get it. Still, I think there must be others like me, who aren't saying "What do you think of my story?" but "How can I make my story better?"

If the answer is, "You can't" then I'm in no position to complain...but where else do you go? Thoughts on that would be greatly appreciated, as it's my next mission (once I meet the four deadlines I have this week and finish moving): to find ways in which already-pretty-good writers can keep improving their craft and getting useful feedback.

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