Feedback

How can I help?

I wrote earlier this week about writing for my niece. The second piece of this is something I’ve been struggling with for a while.

Why me?

I created a podcast. (You might have heard of it, 600 Second Saga.) This makes me a gatekeeper of sorts. Not a super fancy gate wearing gatekeepers (that’s what real gatekeepers do right? wear gates?) but one nonetheless.

I read a lot of other submission guidelines along the way to creating mine. Some of them said something about accepting or soliciting work for underrepresented groups. A few called out specific populations. Some didn’t. I thought, only a monster wouldn’t want that. Only a person who is a garbage person would need to even say that. Of course, I want a range of experiences and stories.

Not a monster

And then Trump got elected. On a wave of people who think that it is more important to have false change and loud shouting than to disavow actual Nazis. So…here we are today. I would like everyone who reads my blog, listens to the podcast, or reads my books to just know, of course, I’m not a monster. Just like the day after the election at work, even though I didn’t talk about it at all before directly, everyone knew how I felt. Because when someone needed to say, hey it’s not cool that we only have white dudes as avatars, that was me. When someone had to say it’s not ok to say that word/thing/etc it was usually me. And eventually, they just stopped saying them (around me at least). Because they just knew that about me.

I wish everyone here knew that I wasn’t a monster. And I wish that everyone felt free to say, hey! Not ok! Every time I said something out of line (if I do, please do, I try hard, but I screw up often).

So here I am. Saying I am not a monster. I do, of course, want work from underrepresented groups. Especially groups that are going to be feeling the pain the worst in the next few years. I want to help lift your voices. I want to do what I can. And that is the absolute bare minimum that any decent person should be doing.

I want work that is about being who you are. I want work that edges on political. (Not that I haven’t already got that, just wait for the inauguration day episode, which was written and recorded before election day.) I want work that doesn’t file off your edges.

I don’t get demographics on authors, but I know for a while I had more authors outside the US (this is the easiest demographic for me to keep track of, though I’m not 100%, but if your email is clearly outside the US I have a hint) than from inside, which is a good component. But I want to keep doing better.

My offer

What I think I can do is make this tiny little offer. If you think your voice isn’t welcomed, isn’t heard, and isn’t represented and you are struggling and aren’t sure if your story is a fit, or is ready, or you want feedback? Let me know. As long as it meets the other guidelines (link at the top but basically, ~1K, no swearing, sff) reference this post in your email, and I’ll do what I can to help, make suggestions, etc.

Critique Sites (Scribophile)

I broke this one into two posts. The first focused on Critters, this focuses on Scribophile.

Scribophile

Scribophile

Scribophile’s icon even looks more modern

Scribophile is much more of a writing community. Which, I could use a little of…even if sometimes I wish writing was really the solitary pursuit we are lied to and told it is.

Pros

So much more modern. Omg the website…it feels current. It feels like it isn’t 10,000 internet years old. (Sorry Critters, but it is true.) There are some cool tricks along with this, like inline editing tool. This tool is amazing. Just drop your comment right into the line of the content it goes with. Done! (The potential downside to this would be a focus on line edits when someone is looking for something more developmental.)

It is a community. Like there are groups and forums and it is far more interactive. This is both a plus and a minus for me. Having a community to talk about things like marketing and using tools and the rest? Could be seriously helpful.

Karma (like the credits from critters) doesn’t expire. This is the biggest pro for me and why I am trying it. I don’t want to go back and do all the math, but my rough guestimate would be if the points were the same I’d have way, way over 200 Karma sitting around unused. With Critters, I just stop for a month because I’m busy and it all goes away. So I don’t use it like I should. From everything I can see, Karma doesn’t expire. Having that giant number there mocking me would be an incentive and pressure to use it. I need that. This is entirely personal. I need a giant number mocking me.

Cons

There are so many rules and feelings. Don’t critique unless you ask someone first, don’t critique if they are in this or that thing, don’t critique when it is a blue moon on a Tuesday. Aren’t you a critique site!? Don’t you want people to critique?

Seriously, I did one critique and now I feel bad. Don’t get me wrong, I think the critique itself was good and valuable, but I don’t know if I followed the magical unseen rules or not. So much bullshit. I don’t know if I want to, or currently have the capacity to, climb bullshit mountain to figure out if I can critique things or not.

YOU ARE A CRITIQUE SITE! No one should get pissy about a decent critique. Sure, one that is brutally bad? I get being upset. But so many rules. So much demand to talk to people. I don’t want to be your friend. I want to give you good feedback on your work and go to the next. A fucking blood pact that we super swear that we will read and critique each others work, not what I signed up for. This is like a store saying they don’t want to sell you anything.

But…

None of that seems to be official site policy. The actual site makes critiquing really nice and easy. It is like HERE have a thing to read! Nice, simple, straight forward. But I read a few posts from the forums and now I’m feeling very much like I should take my ball and go home.

So?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. Anyone know of any other good critique sites that combine the best of these two. I really want to give Scribophile a good try. I want to push myself harder to talk about my work and myself. That might sound crazy because I’ve put out several things this year plus the podcast… Is that crazy? Do I do enough marketing? (No.) Do I get enough feedback? (No.)

I still feel towel throwey iney.

Critique sites (Critters)

So I’ve tried different Critique sites. Critters and now giving Scribophile a shot. I’m…frustrated.

Critters

Critters

Critters

I actually really like Critters. It would be the site I’d recommend for SFF short/flash authors. But …I’m me? And I have my own personal bullshit to deal with. This means it is good and bad.

Pros

It really encourages you to review something every week. Make a habit of it. Sit down, read, give feedback. It has great information about how to give a good critique. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at giving feedback because of Critters. And not just feedback for writing, in general, at work. I really appreciate the skills I’ve learned.

You also get to read the other critiques later (scribophile seems to let you do this right away – which I don’t like) so you can learn. Do you view things the same as other people, differently? How did they say something? Is what you are saying valuable? But without feeling (for me) like I need to read everyone else’s critiques first. That is probably something I can get over, but with Critters? Not even an option. As an author, this is great because you get multiple critiques and if 5 people say the same thing, pay attention. If only one person does? Eh..maybe it isn’t as big of a deal.

MORE CRITIQUES. From what I’ve seen Critters is usually much better for the number of critiques. Almost everything I ever sent in got at least 10. The basic number for Scribophile is …3 or sometimes 6?

No…bullshit? I mean yeah, sure there is bullshit. But, basically, it is unseen. Or it was to me. In the years I participated (under more than one name – sorry Critters, I know you have a real names only policy, but you are letting clearly fake names in so whatever) I never saw more than a couple of blog things, which will be in the cons below.

No other stuff. 99% critiques. Yeah, there are forums, I went there once, that was enough, there wasn’t much there, I left. It was ok. No one sent me messages saying I had to read them. I never felt like I wouldn’t get critiques if I didn’t make friends. Making friends wasn’t even encouraged. That’s my kind of people!

More short fiction and flash fiction. For me, this is a pro. For others, I’d think it is a con.

The weekly cycle. You don’t have to always be looking for new stuff, you just get the message once a week and you know you’ll have until the next Wednesday to do your critique and get credit for it.

Cons

The website feels so old. Like 10,000 internet years old. Everything about the site feels super old. The colors, the layout, the way it works. So old. So dated. But that is really all surface, it works fine everywhere I went.

You have to push to take full advantage of it. This is my biggest problem. By so very very much. I’ve done a lot of critiques. To fully take advantage of the site you need to always have something in the queue. If not? Your % goes down and you might as well have not critiqued at all. This is honestly 100% of my problem with the site. I’m bad at going HERE READ MY SHIT! And all the work I do every week I don’t send something in for critique is wasted, other than the value of doing critiques, which is a value! Don’t get me wrong. That is a huge value. Would I have kept doing Critters for several years if it wasn’t? (…Well maybe…)

I do find other ways to get feedback, but then…why am I doing this? This is the point where I throw up my hands and deflate like a popped balloon.

So?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. More stuff later this week about Scribophile. I don’t know.

Missing

What real life things are missing from fiction?

Jocelyn at 52 Letters wrote a great post about the Top Ten Parts of High School she wishes YA authors talked about more. Really good to think about, but fantastic if you write YA. I don’t write a lot of YA at least nothing that happens in high school.

missing piece

Missing puzzle piece

I’ve been thinking a little about what is missing from other fiction. (I’m also a bit inspired by the great series Elizabeth Rose has been doing about heroes and heroines.)

Finding things that are missing seems slightly harder than I expected. Part of it is that I don’t really want my fiction to really reflect real life. No one wants to read “And then she slept moderately well for a couple hours and then woke up to use the bathroom and then went back to bed and tossed and turned before finally falling back asleep.”

All of this kind of comes back to the voice thing as well. We don’t want a real voice, we don’t always want reality in fiction. There are some elements though that are valuable, or at least could be more interesting or dramatic.

Missing Drama

Real financial trouble

I feel like financial trouble in books (and tv) is weird and fake. People will go from having trouble eating one day (and they never have to eat the last bag of rice that might be old at the back of the pantry, just don’t have anything) to taking a fabulous trip the next day. This seems a bit better in books, but there are still a lot of times where I roll my eyes. If you want to hand wave and make someone obscenely wealthy, fine. But don’t pretend someone is super poor and then have them never have actual consequences from that.

It also seems to reinforce this idea that poor people are poor because they want to be. Not that there are situations that make it hard, like not having enough gas money to get to work and losing your job. That’s drama.

Sibling/Family humor

Not exactly drama, but even with siblings you hate (which is common in fiction) or who you are fighting with (also common) you share a great bit of history. You knew the same people, have the same reference points. Like it or not, you probably even have in-jokes with those siblings or family members. Why don’t more of them use it? Having moments of shared points leading up to something, not just, “We are from the same blood.” but more like, “Remember the time when mom was super tired and washed the red shirt in with the whites and you had to wear pink shirts to school for a week.”

Giant drama over tiny things

Fiction often has giant drama over giant world-ending things. People create drama over tiny things. People scream and fight like crazy over the remote or dinner or other things that mean nothing. Usually, because there is something else giant and stressful in their lives. These moments can be such a good way to show so much about a person. It can make a person look petty, but I don’t think it has to, it’s about how you tell that story.

Does the person break into tears because they forgot the sourdough bread and the sourdough was their daughter’s favorite and she’s sick and all the stress of dealing with that is just overwhelming? It can be touching.

What else?

What other things could be done more/better in fiction? What do you feel is missing from the things you read?

Save

Dress Code

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately and feeling very admonished. I think a lot of what I’ve been reading has been a bit like sending out the dress code to the whole office when you really need to talk to the one guy in dirty board shorts and flip flops. (There may or may not be some parallels to my job as well.)

There’s a thing that happens at not great workplaces when someone is breaking a rule or being an ass. The person wearing too much perfume/cologne/lethal axe body spray, the person who thinks the dress code is at best a vague suggestion, the person who is half-hearted about showing up or being polite or whatever. But people/management/leadership/a boss doesn’t want to talk to the person and say, “Hey! Show up to work, it’s your actual job!” or “Stop trying to kill us with Axe.” and instead they send an all-staff email.

What does this do? Make the rule breaker go “Oh Mah God!” and shape up? No! They ignore it because of course, it doesn’t apply to them. If they thought it applied to them they would have obeyed it in the first place. Instead what happens is the person who wears a lightly scented deodorant starts to worry that it’s about them. They go out and buy an unscented deodorant. And they stress out about it.

I know, we are talking to the internet. Heck, I’m doing it right now. I don’t want to admonish because they are big name authors and I’m nobody. Mostly I’m writing this to purge the demons from my head that are telling me I’m doing it all wrong. I can’t possibly do anything, I should shut up and quit. I don’t think I’m going to stop anyone from shouting at the internet telling people they should sit down and shut up because they are horrible for wanting people to review their books, not reviewing everything you read, promoting themselves, not promoting yourself correctly, writing sequels, writing a stand alone, doing anything for free ever, charging for anything ever.

All of this “advice” (I cannot scare quotes that hard enough) is supposed to be helpful. But I think that, much like this post, it is sort of raging at frustrations. So…I guess everyone gets frustrated and rages on their blog about it? I don’t know. I’m not going to quit. I’m sorry about the things I get wrong, and if someone wants to talk with me directly about it, I really am happy to listen. I need to stop listening to the raging of others that makes me anxious and panicked about what I’m doing.

TLDR?

Sit down and coach your staff one on one rather than sending an all-staff email with the dress code.

Compiling Feedback

What now? I need to start compiling feedback.

Ok so I’ve gotten feedback and I’ve thanked the person (I really liked Elizabeth@Be There Dragons’s suggestion of a small thoughtful gift is a great one). Then I need to work on what to do with it.

Some feedback is better than others. If I’m going to be doing a full rewrite  the grammar and spelling are likely not that helpful. If someone doesn’t like the genre…then not much I can do about that. If someone doesn’t like strong female leads or magic or aliens or whatever, then I have learned that the book/short/flash wasn’t for them. But I’ve also learned that the piece doesn’t have a lot of cross over appeal.

Within a novel/la

I try to pinpoint things like if a character is called out multiple times throughout a novel (or novella) for being harsh, crabby, angry, etc. I want to step back and look at is that the perception I want of this character. If it just shows up once? Or only from one person it isn’t a theme, I can look at that one incident. What I want to see first is what are the things that are repeated. Anything that shows up more than once needs a lot of attention, it needs to be carefully considered and look for why is that showing up.

I have something in my To Edit queue where the major feedback was on the character’s attitude. Some people thought it was bitchy, others said cold, some aggressive, some thought she was kickass. This was a theme, this character fit a pattern and I sat down and looked at who was reading it (inside genre readers/outside genre readers/men/women/etc) and compared that to my target audience. I also thought about what the goal was for the reader to feel toward her.

My initial goal for her was that she be a bit…not ideal, kind of not really a person you’d want to be friends with. Which I achieved. Except that doesn’t really make for a good read. So I succeeded. YAY! But I failed. Ok time to dig back in and make changes. Sometimes you try things and they don’t work well, that’s ok. But, then I need to loop back and fix it.

This is a bit where iterative design strategy comes in, but hold that thought for now.

So I create a list of character changes that need to happen. Then I focus on plot, what was confusing, didn’t work, or needed expansion. In beta passes these are the things I want to know. If it is one person or one spot? I’m going to try to fix that one spot, or consider if that one person (out of many, one out of one wins, one out of many may not) makes sense. (Back to the person who hates magic and complains every time my character uses magic? I’m going to ignore that. The person who doesn’t like strong female leads? I’m going to try really hard to ignore that even when it continues to eat away at my brain like a horrible brain eating worm.)

Shorter or flash fiction

I treat this a little different because especially for flash fiction and sort of under 7K fiction I’m really looking to see if the tone works, if it feels like a whole story, does it work.

I want especially to see what things people are confused by and on the other side what lines they really like. In a short piece (and since I do audio for my short works) a line that reads well is worth a lot so I’m going to hang onto those.

Just one person or many

When working on web design or elearning design and one person can’t get to the next screen that could be multiple things. It could be a technical issue, which we rarely have in writing, it is extremely rare that someone is unable to turn your page. So I almost never have to trouble shoot technical things like that. (Except last week when all the i’s disappeared from my comments.)

If one person has a problem with something it is worth considering, if more than one? It likely is a problem. If they can’t understand something? It isn’t understandable, I can do a better job of explaining it.

Iterate

I’m sure someone has written a book perfectly on the first pass. But I am super not that person! I am a fan of iterating. Some people write a first round and then throw it away and then go forward after that. I don’t always do that. But I’ve absolutely thrown things out. Sometimes it is better to take the lessons you learn and move forward.

Most of the time you can wrap those into the next version. A character too cold?  Find ways to warm them up. Reread the scene. What else needs to happen.

I often fix a bunch of things on a single pass, but having a plan makes a big difference in getting a good outcome.

You can’t iterate endlessly. At some point you have to put your penny down and go forth and try it.

BUT!…

I get this. A lot. Less than I used to, it happens a lot though. I read a piece of feedback and I get this gut reaction of …BUT!

I struggle, but I generally manage to set aside the explanation, or write it down (which is useful later). When someone is reading (or listening) to something I wrote I don’t get a chance to explain when they make a confused face.

Everything I want to tell them, everything they need to know has to be in front of them when they need it. Sometimes you don’t want to give it to them yet, so you have to compel them to keep reading.

You don’t get to argue with the reader, you don’t get to hold the book in front of them, you don’t get to tell them they have to do something.

That moment when I want to go “but!” is the moment I can learn the most from.

Feedback: editing and tracking

I’m just writing this as I go (so I don’t have a month’s worth of Feedback and Editing and UX posts all ready to go). I may have totally screwed up by not planning this all out, but I really just wrote the first post to get my own thoughts out and it turns out I have a lot more thoughts…So I have learned a thing. And next time I have a big thought thing I might plan it out better. Maybe. …

My editing checks

I have some things I always get wrong. I try to make sure before I send anything out I do a good solid edit pass of my own to really make sure I’m proud of what I’m sending out. Knowing my own weaknesses is a strength. (Yes Dunning-Kruger, I know you. I fear you, as I should.)

  • Undescribed characters (yes, I have characters you don’t even know the gender of, sometimes that’s intentional, sometimes I just haven’t done a good job of describing the character)
  • White rooms (I’m not quite as bad with this, but still not great)
  • It’s and Its (I’m horrible at this, I’m very slowly, painfully getting better, but I always do a CTRL+F on both it’s and its and check each instance to make sure I got it right)
  • My word list (I have a list of words that I …probably don’t want to use unless I’ve got a good reason for it, I CTRL+F all of these as well)
  • Read out loud (yup, I read all my stuff out loud before sending it along)

This is just what I try to always run down my checklist. I have other things on my checklist but these are always things I try to nail down before I send it off to live in someone else’s brain.

Tracking feedback

I’m the kind of person who makes spreadsheets to track all the things. So I have a feedback tracking spreadsheet. For the Critters site I mark down everyone I critique for, my thoughts of it in the form of a 1-5 word note (good, weird, eh, NEVER AGAIN, hilarious), if they responded.

I also color code them. Green means do all the critiques for this person! Either the actual thing was fun to read or incredibly good. Or…maybe more frequently, it was good and the person was gracious in response. I have had things I read that weren’t great, but the person responded to lengthy or intense feedback thoughtfully, those people get a green fast. People who respond by lashing out, being weird or demanding, or aggressive? They get red. (I have seen very little of this, it is mostly positive.)

I think it helps take some of the oh I think I remember this person out of the equation and helps me to feel like I’ve got a basis for those future decisions.

Up next?

I think I’ll write about what I do with the feedback and how I take it in and what I do with it after I’ve got it.

I still want to wrap in how I think about the feedback as a user experience test but I’m having a hard time putting that into words.

Feedback

I’ve been reading a lot about beta-readers, critiques, feedback, editing, and all the things that surround it. This post (well series of posts) is me working out my thoughts about feedback of all kinds. It’s going to start fairly traditional, but expect it to take a weird turn at some point in the second or maybe third post…(UX…dun…dun…dun)

I’ve read about writers who are scared of feedback, nervous about sending things out into the world, and protective of the things they’ve written.

I’ve read from the professionallier people that you have to get lots of betas, you have to take in everything, you have to pay all your betas, you have to do 2 or 5 or 7 rounds of feedback, or that you have to [insert thing I read once here x 74].

I have absolutely zero authority, and zero whatever it takes …this is what I think!

Feedback is important

What is feedback? From who? What kind? How do I get it? What kind? What do I do with it? How do I respond to it? How do I use it? Oh god oh god it is all awful I should just delete the whole thing! (STOP!)

You may already know the answers to all of these questions. I didn’t. I still don’t. I guess we all have to struggle with our own things, but hopefully someone else is helped by me flailing in my continued quest to sort out the answers to these questions.

Getting feedback

I have tried a lot of stuff. So this is sort of the ways I’ve gotten feedback, not really what I do with it, or even so much what kind, how I respond, how I use it. I’ll get to all that later.

Critters.org

I am a member over at Critters.org which is a site where you submit your own pieces, and other people critique it. You have to critique about three pieces for every piece of your own that gets critiques. The feedback varies greatly. Sometimes it is awesome and detailed and helps pinpoint exactly the problem. Sometimes it is…not great. It isn’t quite anonymous but you don’t know the people, you might get to know them a little after doing a bunch of critiques or getting a bunch, but the turn over seems fairly high, so there will always be people who know nothing about you giving feedback.

The anonymous aspect of it is interesting, people are generally quite polite, but people aren’t afraid to say that something doesn’t work for them, that they hate characters, arcs, etc.

There are also some other aspects of this that make it more or less useful. It is always weird to get people who don’t read flash fiction critiquing flash fiction and saying they wanted like pages and pages more background. It is odd to get things from people who hate that genre or type of work reading it and then saying how they didn’t like the thing that fits the genre. There seems to clearly be a sweet spot of length that works best.

I know there are other sites like Critters that do similar kinds of exchange things. I just haven’t used them.

Friends and family

I have a couple of family members who read inside my genre and a couple friends who do as well. Personally, I’m very nervous about sharing my work so it took me a long time to get to the point of sharing things with them. (I have a friend who bugged me for years before I let her read anything.) I generally have them read a fairly close to final version and some of the picky ones come back with grammar things (which I love, comma fail).

I do have one extremely picky and brutally blunt friend who I will ask to read early things, because I know he’ll say things I don’t really want to hear. He never feels bad (at least he doesn’t seem to!) about saying that something sucks, or needs a rework, or even isn’t working at all.

Most friends and family you’d share things with should like you, and want to be nice to you. This is great, and can be a good way to sort out ideas early on, get a boost that you should keep working, and the like.

Novel swaps from NaNoWriMo

I’ve done this a couple times. Or tried would be a better way to say this. I’ve signed up and read a lot of books for other people and sent critiques, feedback, reviews, whatever you want to call it.

Sometimes this works well. I’ve met people who are wonderful are excited to give feedback and are glad to hear what you have to say. Sometimes people don’t ever respond past the first, here’s my novel now read it.

Personally, I’ve found that sending a sample of the first chapter or two back to the person and then asking them if that is the level/type/kind of feedback is what you are looking for helps. It helps identify the people who never respond again. It helps make sure I’m looking at the things the authors wants looked at. It helps make sure we are on the right page. And personally, if they say thank you? It helps me feel better about spending a lot of time on a read and feedback.

Paying

You can pay for beta-readers and all levels of editors, copy editing, proof-reading, etc. I know some people think this is absolutely vile and disgusting, but whatever. I don’t pay beta readers. I do try to:

  • Show my extreme gratitude with specific and thoughtful thanks
  • If they are also a writer offer to give them feedback/beta-read for them (and then make sure that I do a detailed and thoughtful job and a quick turn around)
  • If they are a local (friends and family basically) and not a writer, buy them dinner
  • Help with other things, if appropriate (I have NonWriterly skills…most of my skills maybe…)

On the other side when I do give feedback to people I want to be thanked, to know my contribution was valuable and useful. I want reciprocation (most of the time).