The following tweet was in my timeline yesterday, and I clicked into the article expecting a mildly useful but vague listicle. Instead, I found a wealth of useful information, that helped me feel better about how solitary my writing process is and justified my reasoning behind making it so.
I write alone not because I want to but because it is incredibly difficult to find the level of constructive criticism I'm looking for without paying heftily for it. I'm not in any writing groups, and I don't post to fanfiction or other sites for feedback. This is not because I'm afraid of tough criticism; it is because that is what I'm looking for.
I also write for the screen (still looking for that first sale!), and the rapid improvement in my writing I saw after receiving cogent script notes with actionable suggestions from professionals is why I avoid "supportive" spaces. It is honestly a relief to deal with people who have only so much time and are used to being direct. That isn't to say every piece of professional criticism I've received has been useful. Some have been condescending and bordering on mean-spirited, and others have clearly just been other writers telling me how they would have written the story. A good critique judges writing for what it is and what it is striving to be - it doesn't try to turn an ensemble comedy of manners into a character study. This is one major pitfall of writers' groups I wished the article had stressed more. "I would have written it this way" isn't helping anyone. But that is often the only advice other struggling writers can give.
Dealing with conflicting notes ("This is great! Here are some minor tweaks." vs. "Here is an exhaustive list of all the problems with this terrible piece of writing.") can be paralysing. It is easy to choose to stand in the warmth of the praise and ignore the "haters". Tone and spirit obviously make tough criticism easier to take, but many writers just want to be wanked off and told how amazing their prose is. I know that everything I've written can be improved. I'll probably look back at this blog post in a few months and cringe at some minor error in style or grammar that will bother me immensely. That feeling of have not quite met the mark is constant. If I didn't have it, I don't think I would keep improving.
How to Recognise Good Feeback
The article references the book, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney animation for advice on how to give good feedback.
Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:
The "does this make sense?" kinds of questions can be thrown out to almost anyone, I think. But giving advice on fixing those issues structurally or through character development takes more experience.
I'd add "What needs to be cut" to the list. That old adage "murder your darlings" is perhaps the most difficult piece of writing advice to follow. Most of us can tell when a book or film is too long; almost none of us can tell where to cut to fix that problem. I think it is even more difficult when the story is your own. This is another place where screenwriting has helped me. Endeavouring to keep my feature-length scripts under 125 pages has made me a bit ruthless. The problem of meandering is also why I serialize my fiction writing only after it's completed. There's always some bulk to cut away, and what happens on the back end always changes the front end for me. My heaviest revisions tend to be on my openings.
"Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing."
This point is so important, the article made it twice under separate headings. What I have learned from my screenwriting adventures is that the people whose advice can push me to where I want to be give that advice for a living. It doesn't take that much time to read a 120-page script and give helpful notes. Wrestling with a novel is an entirely different beast, though. I realised that if I wanted the same level of feedback I'd gotten on my scripts, I should be willing to pay for it.
And it is not cheap (well outside of my price range).
Having a reputable editor or book coach help you work out the kinks in your story over multiple revisions can be incredibly expensive. In hindsight, I probably should have tried to find a few hundred dollars for a manuscript consultation, but I knew that I could turn the excuse of not having an editor or book coach to lean on during revision into the ultimate tool of procrastination and talk myself out of publishing. So, I decided to jump in feet first and get myself as far as I could by myself. I figure failure to act is what leads to most regrets.
My novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Paper Journal, isn't perfect, but I tried to be my own toughest critic while employing Catmull's advice. "Does this make sense?" is something I'm constantly asking myself as I write. Does this sentence make sense? Does this character's actions make sense? Does this sequence of events make sense? Does this timeline make sense? It is difficult to judge your own work, and I'm sure I have blind spots. In addition, Sherlock Holmes is such a beloved character that many readers will have strong opinions about his personality and behaviour that may clash with mine. I'm curious to see how the book is received, and I am actually looking forward to any negative feedback, so long as it attempts to seriously interrogate the manuscript.