Thursday, January 15, 2009

What to do with feedback

I've come to learn that having a panel of first readers is not a typical thing for an author to initiate. Debut authors, especially. But having been a poet for so many years involved in both live readings and an online community, I am confident enough in my writing not to fear feedback. Indeed, I find it to be essential. So when I set out to write a novel, I knew I'd have to recruit my friends as first readers if only to have someone urging me to keep completing chapters! I chose to create a 'formal' panel instead of just passing around chapters as e-mail attachments because I like the idea of having a structured environment for criticism. So instead of a back alley street fight in which my poor manuscript gets the shit kicked out of it by my highly intelligent and discriminating friends, I have a civilized boxing ring in which my poor manuscript gets the shit kicked out of it by my highly intelligent and discriminating friends.

So far there isn't much to critique because nothing has really happened in the story yet, but my readers all have interesting input into the characters and my writing style. My dilemma now is figuring out to what extent I am going to allow all of the feedback I'm getting to inform the story. So far the only revisions I've made based on feedback have to do with issues of clarity. Some concerns that my panel expressed over David's voice I haven't addressed yet because I'm giving David more time to develop and grow into himself. If after a few thousand more words, he is still annoying the hell out of everyone who tries to read his narrative, then I'll consider a re-write. My policy as of now is to "let David be David". And we'll see how that plays out.

I shared some of my ideas for upcoming plot points with one of my readers today, and she approves of and is excited about everything I've revealed to her, but she also made a suggestion for a future event. She thinks David should get a cat. Now, I could write that into the story...but it wouldn't serve any purpose except to gratify the friend who made the suggestion. As a writer, I prefer not to dictate events, but to allow the characters to lead their owns lives and merely record what happens to and around them. I'm hoping that none of the other panel members try to steer the plot by making suggestions that "so-and-so should do such-and-such". Bringing something to my attention that I may have overlooked is one thing. (As when a panel member alerted me to the fact that I'd recorded David making an aesthetic judgment of a book cover, which is something David clearly wouldn't do, and it was actually my own assessment of the cover that had deposited itself into the narrative. That was my error, and I'm glad my reader caught it.) But putting in requests is completely different. I'm gratified that a reader would take so much interest in my characters as to feel ownership over them, but I think I have to draw a line at plot contrivance.

Another line I've drawn has to do with offers of writing assistance. I'm bad at dialog. Thusly, many of the characters I've created are taciturn, introspective types that don't do much talking. I had one of my readers offer to write some dialog for me. While, again, I'm gratified that the reader is able to take so much ownership of David and Claire after only four short chapters that he'd feel comfortable putting words into their mouths, I'll have to pass. I try not to feed my characters lines to deliver, and I'm relying on my readers to notify me when I've written something that David or Claire just wouldn't say. I have a tendency to stay up too late writing, and after a certain point, I just get a bit delirious and things start making their way into the chapter that have no business being there.

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