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Complications Ensue:
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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Q. Many writers said in their blogs or guides that is important to get good feedback, so I'm wondering, how to convince people not to "spare" you - meaning, saying what they exactly mean, without being afraid of hurting your feelings. Or, is there a good "read between the lines" technique for all those "it's good, but something is missing - what is missing? - I don't know" comments? And, how you handle these issues? (I mean, even my own brother is being vague with his comments, even though he knows me all his life and knows I'd rather get slammed for not doing something right, than leave it incomplete or not done properly.)
The first thing you can do is pursue the feedback. Make it really clear: "This is a rough draft, and I'm going to be rewriting it anyway, so fire away." Or, "Please kick my ass."

Often you have worries about your own material. Ask about them. "Are there too many minor characters -- did you find it hard to track them?" "Did you like the scene in the convenience store or did you feel that the story lost steam there?" "Did you enjoy the way Quentin is so over-the-top, or did he feel too much like a cartoon?" "Did you buy the romance?" "Did you like Sally or was she too much of a pain in the ass?" "Did it feel too long?" "Where did it sag?" Your reader can then reassure you, or go along with your own criticism.

One great way to get honest feedback is to start up a writing group. Everyone in a writing group is there to give and get honest feedback, so they won't have compunctions about busting you for the flaws in your writing. (Just make sure that everyone starts out saying something nice. See the section in CRAFTY SCREENWRITING on writing groups.) If you don't live in a town with a lot of writers, you could form a long-distance one using Skype (or whatever free internet teleconferencing software allows multiparty conference calls).

Bear in mind, not everyone can give you clear feedback. All feedback is useful to a point, but some people analyze their experience reading something, and some people don't. If someone doesn't think about why he likes movies, he may not be able to tell you why he liked or didn't like a script. If someone doesn't read fiction, they may not be able to imagine the movie from the pages you have written.

Also, you have to match the reader to the reading. If someone doesn't like chick flicks, he may not be able to give you good feedback on your chick flick. It may not be in his wheelhouse.

Now, how do you get great feedback? That's harder. Great feedback not only tells you what seems wrong, it tells you what is wrong. Great feedback tells you what is structurally wrong with your story.

Good feedback: "the middle sags." Great feedback: "the middle sags because it's no longer clear what your main character wants."

Good feedback: "I don't care about the main character." Great feedback: "I don't care about the main character because he doesn't really have a goal, so I have no reason to root for him."

You will find great feedback about as often as you find great writing, which is to say, rarely. And you won't necessarily find the two bundled together. Of the people who've given me the best feedback, maybe half are writers; the other half are development executives and producers. These people are treasures. They give you notes that cause you a lot of work; you think, "Crap. How did I miss that?"

How do you find people like that? Same way you find a great agent or a great producer: perseverance and luck. I found Tommy Gushue by asking on my blog for a reader intern. I met Victoria Lucas when we were both development execs working on projects together. I met Virginia Rankin by taking her a bunch of pitches; she had really good notes on all of them. When someone gives you really deep insight into your material, hold onto them!

While you're at it, develop your own feedback skills. When you read someone else's material, think carefully about what works and doesn't work -- and why. Analyze the elements of story: main character, opportunity/problem/goal, obstacles/antagonist/flaws, jeopardy and stakes. If you're critiquing a TV pitch, really try to go under the hood and see how the story engine works. Trying to come up with springboards yourself. Sometimes you need to play with a story in your head to really figure out how it works.

Then some lucky writer can find you.



This is a great post. I just finished an outline for a 1/2 hour comedy spec. I put out a request on twitter and facebook for readers and got about 9 takers! So far the feedback has been really helpful and eye-opening.

Great feedback is also up to your perception. I love feedback that mentions something I was unsure about or had doubts about myself or thought I could get away with in my writing.

I'm also a part of an online writers' group. We use a website called tinychat for the multiperson video chats when we meet.

By Blogger JayTee, at 6:51 PM  

I think a lot of people feel like if they can't "fix" your problems, they shouldn't bring them up. They even start second-guessing whether it's a problem at all. And the truth is, most (civilian) readers aren't going to have any idea what is structurally wrong, etc, with your story anyway--they're just going to know what felt awesome or shitty to them while reading.

So I tell them explicitly: I don't need solutions, I just need to know what you enjoyed/what you didn't enjoy. Usually, people feel comfortable saying stuff based on their feelings, like: I loved Character X, but that fight scene was so confusing. Etc. I find people are willing to lay any old problem on the table when they're just asked to give their gut reactions, because they feel comfortable and knowledgeable talking their feelings in a way that they aren't when trying to do critical analysis.

It's more like having a mini focus group for your stuff, I guess, and less of a critique. But I find it helpful, because if my reader can point me in the general direction of what's not working, I can usually put my finger on what's exactly wrong and come up with a solution for it better than anybody else can anyway (because I'm so familiar with the material). Asking people for likes/dislikes solves the problem of being too close to your stuff without relying on your audience to be super articulate or analytical.

Also, I'm not a huge fan of giving a reader questions before the fact, because then they tend to focus on that stuff (and come back only to reassure me that it's fine) rather than looking at the piece as a whole--which sort of defeats the purpose.

Alternatively, if I just need some validation and don't want a brutal critique, I'll tell the reader(s) that, too--that I just want to hear good things for now.

As for writers or other people who are super experienced at giving/receiving feedback, I usually just sit back and let them do their thing. :)

By Blogger Sasha, at 6:54 PM  

Great reply. I was going somewhere along those "ask million question" lines, but it would get too tiresome, as people think you expect them to like at least something. In the end you'd get at least some sort of useful information, but it takes a real effort.

Self analysis looks interesting, but I reckon it's hard to be completely unbiased.

Thanks a lot, will try some of these suggestions.

By Blogger Luka, at 9:23 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger 劉林育雅嘉韋, at 2:19 AM  

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