coffee

Feedback and identity and all that

This began life as a comment on this post by the esteemed Dr penwiper26, but it grew too large to be contained by the margin. Alas, I ramble and repeat myself.


Hmm. Conflicted reactions. Let's see if I can figure out what I think.

- It doesn't bug me if people want to huddle in squeegroups where they only pat each other. It neither breaks my nose nor picks my pocket. If that's what they came to fandom to get, hey, okay. Please be happy. The world needs more happy people. Don't get the urge to rant about this phenomenon.

- Publishing one's writing to strangers is indeed terrifying, and doing so an act of courage. Strangers will have all sorts of opinions about your story, and some of them will even tell you about 'em and you have to be ready to cope.

- In order to get better at anything, you must be open to the possibility that you could do better. If you want to improve as a writer, be ready to consider the specifics. Even when it hurts.

- People always always do better with encouragement and positive feedback. Smacking them, being harsh, indulging the urge to hurt, works as well with people as with dogs.

- Many writers are neurotic about feedback and stay neurotic about feedback through their entire careers. General solution is to find a few trusted sympathetic readers for early drafts. (Sympathetic as in string vibration, not tea &. Though that never hurts.)

I dunno about you, but I find the degree of self-revelation in a single short story much harder to cope with than a month of daily-life public journaling revelation. I couldn't cope for a decade, so I didn't write. My problem 100%, and I found a solution for myself.

Consider how I deal with bugs in my software. There's a QA team out there whose entire job is to break what I've written and file triumphant little bug reports detailing how it broke. Being insecure about this is silly. I need to fix them and figure out how to avoid that category of bug next time. If I could translate this attitude to my fiction, holy crap I'd be cruising.

One way to think about it, I guess, uses Bateson's logical levels:
identity / belief / capability / behavior / environment

Stuff at the top of that chain is hard to cope with. To make change easier, push the issue down the chain:

I suck! I'm not a writer!
I need to get an MFA before I can write well.
I can't write well.
This story didn't work so well.
It's impressive this story works as well as it does given that I wrote it while hanging upside down from a trapeze.

If I'm giving somebody feedback that's more than a "thank you":
- It's in response to a specific invitation.
- I'm on their side. I don't workshop stories for people I can't stand.
- I want that story to be the best story it can be.
- I don't think they suck. I don't even think that sentence sucks. I just think that sentence isn't serving the story needs as well as it might. Or that plot element. Or that particular theory of vampire biology.
- I will also tell people what's working and what's so much better than the last story. Because that feels good and happy calm resourceful people are in a much better place to consider their POV problem than unhappy people stinging from a slap in the face.
- Once a trusting relationship is built, communication goes better and I can say "OMG that sentence!" and the other person can laugh instead of crying. Because together we've pushed it down to "behavior" instead of "identity".

Twice in the last week-- the last week!-- I've received draft feedback from readers that was so insightful and helpful as to make me want to cry. Not in a bad ouchy way, just in an amazed wow way. If only I could be so helpful to somebody else... This whole online fanfic thing is, for me, about sharing with other people. Sharing the stories, sharing the fiction-writing techniques, sharing the icons.
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Mr Pedia contributes the following commentary:

I am a writer.
I am a master wordsmith.
I am a professional writer.
I am an amateur writer.
I am a fanfic writer.
I am a learning writer.
I am an experimenting writer.
I am becoming a writer.

I am a writer. I am an excellent characterizer, a learning plotter, a meticulous wordsmith and am becoming a fully accomplished writer.

Is your writing talent half-empty or half-full? You must come to the point where you realize that each perspective is _true_, then choose the one that is _helpful_. If someone gives you the one that is not helpful, translate it into the one that is helpful. Show them by example, but do not correct them or _that_ will become the topic. Practice this translation until it becomes so effortless that you are not even bothered by poorly phrased feedback.

Sample conversation to think about:
"Your story sucked!"
(thinks to self: man I'm a terrible writer. I just can't get it right):
"Well I didn't write it for you!"

Sample conversation to think about:
"Your story sucked!"
(thinks to self: too general to be useful, try to get more specific):
"Oh? What aspect of it sucked most?"
"The sex scenes. They were terribly creepy!"
(thinks to self: well, I _was_ trying to make creepy sex scenes. But possibly there is more going on):
"So the sex scenes weren't right. Did you manage to read all the way through?"
"Yeah, but it made me really uncomfortable."
"So, after enduring the sex scenes, what kept you reading?"
"I just wanted to know what was going to happen next!"

N.B.: in a way this is positive feedback. But you need to get past the first sentence.

Two things:

1) In total agreement on all of the above, particularly these:

- I'm on their side. I don't workshop stories for people I can't stand.
- I want that story to be the best story it can be.
- I don't think they suck. I don't even think that sentence sucks. I just think that sentence isn't serving the story needs as well as it might. Or that plot element. Or that particular theory of vampire biology.


2) The only thing that irritates me is when people ask for constructive criticism, and then take even a genuine response as a flame. It makes it really hard for people like me who legitimately *want* real criticism to get it, because people get burned. It's even happened to me.
However, Mary Russell fandom has been steadily imploding, to the point that the insipidity of some members has become aggressive rather than its normal passive happy self, and certain people have been singled out as M33N for offering concrit at all, ever, to anyone.

Aggressive squee!groups spreading the cult of squee by the sword: okay, I can be against that.
What a cool attitude towards writing, and sharing ideas about it! These comments-- yours and the responses, are Exactly what I came to LJ and this fandom to find.

And I am even more appreciative now of the comments you made on my fic the other night. They were really helpful, and I liked that they challenged me to do something I hadn't considered. And of course, it helped to hear someone cared enough about the ideas to ask me to try. I even take flames that way-- if someone reacts That Strongly about something, it's valuable information. But I can see how not everyone would feel that way.

I really like the way you illustrate pushing the idea of a story's worth away from the idea of one's own self worth. That's also helpful.

Hob
I have to say, I'm not a fan of the squee. Squee should be reserved for fuzzy animals and the occasional amazing bit of wordplay. Otherwise it waters down the reliability of an opinion. I don't particularly want people to love what I write, I just want to know if it is worth saving or not.
I originally got online because sharing stuff around with your friends isn't terribly objective. I didn't think they were being critical enough because they seemed to link liking or disliking the writing with liking or disliking the friend. Imagine my dismay when I realized that the situation was worse online.
IMHO, posters seem expected to gush about everything: good or bad. The word 'review' means nothing in this environment and with every bit of schlock lauded, it becomes impossible to tell if a story is actually any good.
So I just don't get involved much in the fandoms.
If you want technical lets-make-this-better feedback, is available any time. Like, this weekend in between sniffing things and watching things explode, perhaps?
gah. i want to write something incredibly insightful because you are provoking it, but i'm stumbling on all of my words. I do think lj has an odd fusion of the personal and the ... not professional, but productive (in the sense of producing readable/viewable works), that creates odd situations (or I think of them as odd) like a person who complains about their work not getting enough feedback, and then feels satisfied by 5-10 more people commenting and saying "that's great" out of a combination of guilt and threat that the complainer won't write things anymore. It is odd to me that people feel justified about holding their audience accountable... But I think that also has to do with the kind of feedback one looks for, and also the way one approaches one's own writing.

That being said (and see, not terribly insightful) i've a question for *you* in particular. I have a b/g story that has been sitting dead in the water on my hard drive for almost a year. I think it's because the entire thing doesn't work. I hope that there are some salvageable pieces, but I simply don't have the critical distance to tell what actually works and what does not. I don't have a beta that will read b/g, look at structure/execution, and is willing to *tell* me if it's worth keeping. Nor do I have anyone with whom I can discuss ways that the pieces might work if i break them up. Is there any way you'd be willing to take a look at it? There would be *no* rush since academically my dance card is full until December. But I would love to have your thoughts. (although, seriously, don't feel obligated! but i thought i'd ask because for some reason your post called forth this fairly selfish response from me! hee)
I would be happy to read and think and respond. Send to my gmail address any time. Might need a weekend to read properly.