When Readers Strike Back: How to Understand and Use Reader Feedback | Fiction School Podcast #10

When Readers Strike Back: How to Understand and Use Reader Feedback | Fiction School Podcast #10

In every writer’s career, there comes a point where we have to do something terrifying in order to get better.  We have to start showing our writing to other people before it’s done, before it’s perfect.  We know something’s wrong, but not exactly what, or why.  And we don’t know how to fix it yet.  

We need help from others to see our stuff clearly.  Many times we’re still in the gap of our writing career.

So we show our ugly, half-baked, misshaped, illogical, melodramatic fiction to some readers, and they tell us what they think.  Sometimes their ideas are helpful.  Sometimes they make us want to stab ourselves in the eye with a chopstick.

I mean, once upon a time many years ago, Tommy and Baker were in the same workshop in grad school.  Between us two, it has become known as “The Worst Workshop in the History of Writing.”  One student used a phrase over and over in a story which a class member repeatedly misread as “the banana-headed women.”  Another person said, “It’s MY workshop.  I don’t want ANY negative comments in MY workshop.”  And our professor came in one day and gave this long soliloquizing lecture on this photograph he had of Brad Pitt in silver pants.

But we learned from that workshop.  All writers learn a ton by showing their work to other people.  It’s a long process, but do it enough, and we start to see how to write better, because the people ask us questions and help us see our writing with a more critical eye.

On this episode of Fiction School, we look into this strange but enlightening process.  How do you learn what the good advice is?  How do you ignore the bad advice?  What’s the best way readers can help a writer make fiction better?  And why is it okay–or, actually, GREAT–if some people hate your fiction no matter what?  We answer all this and more.

Have a listen to the show, then find some good smart people to share your stuff with, and do it!

Lightweight world champion Louise Adler and prize fighter Joe Rivers demonstrate the exact wrong way to respond to reader comments, way back in 1926.
Lightweight world champion Louise Adler training and prize fighter Joe Rivers demonstrate the exact wrong way to respond to reader comments, way back in 1926.

SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 10

  • Jody kicks off the show noting how audience reaction to Shrewed! was so different each night.  Every time it was performed, she felt completely different about the show and script she’d written.
  • Different audience reactions are really stark. When audience doesn’t laugh at a comedy one night, but then does another night, it’s kind of a shock to the playwright.  If you take only one audience reaction to heart, you can go off on a misguided revision jag based on a bad bit of feedback that doesn’t serve you all that well.
  • Tommy mentions a story he once saw in a fiction workshop about a loaf of bread that wouldn’t stop rising, that was so bad nobody knew what advice to even give.  “That’s some rising action for you” Jody says.
  • Take reader feedback selectively; beginning writers want to use every comment, but that doesn’t work for revision.  As you get more experienced, you can predict audience reactions and work with them as you draft.
  • Writers can overreact to some feedback, or can completely shut down and not take any advice at all.  Neither extreme does any good.
  • Conflicting advice can be confusing, so it’s sometimes helpful for the writer to see what you disagree with and try to understand why the reader made that comment.
  • Don’t feel like every reader comment is a commandment for you to rework.  The more people you’re trying to please with your fiction, the more watered down it will be.  Not everybody has to love everything about every part of your story.  It’s okay to have some people that don’t like your writing, because there will be others that will LOVE your writing.
  • You have to have a thick skin.  Be open to  others having better ideas than you about your story.  When somebody gives you a good idea, it’s okay to steal that, because you’ll use it in a unique way.
  • Sometimes, the helpful advice is very strange.  Or, as Baker says, “It was the pinnacle of my professional career when I suggested that you have the dog hump somebody’s leg.”
  • That’s the value of having a trusted reader.  You can steal ideas from them.  They know you’re going to steal them, and that’s okay.  It goes both ways.
  • Just because somebody reads your work doesn’t mean they have the best ideas or that they’re your best reader.  You have to take each piece of advice with a critical eye.  Too much praise is just as unhelpful as too much criticism.
  • Jody details some different audience reactions–sometimes guffawing, sometimes just crickets.  This kind of audience reaction is so different than what novelists feel in an immediate moment; but we do live in a 5-star world, where everything is rated and reviewed, and authors can get instant feedback from strangers through ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.
  • Reviews are a lot like the feedback in a writing workshop.  It’s a balance and you can’t put too much stock in one specific reaction.
  • Jody works in concentric circles when getting feedback on a new work, starting with rabid fans (her dad) and gradually working out to more critical feedback.
  • Part of writing is including the things that are crucial to you, the writer–when you get contradictory advice, it can help you see why that character or scene is so important, and how you can strengthen it, rather than sinply following the advice to take it out.
  • The best thing a reader can do to help out a writer is to give the writer options, several routes to take to make the story better.
  • Jody wants to be careful not to edit the script too much based on just one iteration–like the current actors and their choices, the director’s setup, and so forth.  The actors are a valuable resource, though, because they can identify unmotivated lines or unclear moments in the story, since they’re invested as performers.
  • Reading fiction out loud can sometimes give you instant feedback as if it’s a stranger reading it.  When it doesn’t sound good or you’re embarrassed as you hear it, that might show you in stark terms what works and what doesn’t.
  • Tommy uses readings as a big part of the revision process, making marks and stars in the margins to know what is working and what doesn’t.
  • Jody tells a great scene of reading her first novel aloud and crying as the sun is coming up because she realized how far she still had to go.
  • How you write affects how you show things to people.  Jody can crank out a whole manuscript, and Tommy works more slowly, so Tommy can show segments to people as he goes along and Jody can show the whole manuscript.  Piecemeal revision doesn’t work for Jody, but it helps Tommy along in the process.
  • Baker comes down right in the middle(yet again0–writes faster than he used to, and can tell what is working in the overall scheme, but shows the trouble spots and difficult scenes to others–scenes that really need a fresh set of eyes on them.
  • When getting feedback, writers need friends that pat you on the back as much as friends that stab you in the front.
  • You can’t predict your audience, so you can’t overreact to any audience’s reaction.  Don’t put too much stock in one reader’s response or one audience’s response.  Look for the trends or similarities between lots of comments and that’s the best way to recognize strengths and weaknesses.
  • “Get a thick skin or get out of the business.” –Tommy Z

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