What I’ve Learned from Giving Feedback on Writing

So much of being a writer, or any artist, is about receiving feedback from others. One must have the humility to learn what is working and not working with one’s art. Perhaps your sound is not “in the mask” as an opera singer when you are going to a particular passage, or you have a character who is underdeveloped as a writer, or your lines are not in the right planes as a ballet dancer. Other people have eyes that you don’t have for yourself; therefore, it is imperative to understand how other people are perceiving your work.

There is the flip side, which is what one can learn by giving feedback. In seeing the flaws of others, one can learn things that do or don’t work in a piece. It is hard to make general rules out of these things, because critiquing each piece or work of art or performing artist is so individual and specific. However, these are some things I have learned as a writer over the years of giving feedback to my colleagues and peers, and this is by no means an exhaustive or complete summary

-Detail. Detail must serve the thrust of the story or the piece of writing. Too many extraneous details are the darlings that one has to kill, as per the proverbial writing adage. Are they helping build character or plot, setting the scene so the reader understands the world that the writer is building? Some writers want to include every bit of minutiae, and the reader who is giving feedback is probably crossing out large sections with their pen. This is a very common problem one sees in manuscripts, and it is understandable. Any writer wants to tell the reader about everything that is in their head and create that same richness on the page.

-Backstory. This is such a tricky one. The reader needs enough backstory to feel grounded and understand the context of characters. Novels, by nature of their longer form, allow for more backstory, but this is not to say that short stories don’t require this as well. One of the trickiest questions with backstory is placement, for the writer is in danger of an “information dump” where they spill all the information about a character or something from the past when only parts of it are relevant to the present action. Also quite challenging is how much should be told and how much should be shown; will pieces of the backstory be revealed as the novel or story unfolds, or will it be up to the reader to deduce what has happened? Not enough backstory makes a piece of writing seem superficial and too much in real time; too much makes the piece static. Conventions of writing have changed over the past couple of centuries, and nowadays, there is a favoring of not explaining all the information from the past.

-How much does the reader know about a particular context or group of people or type of person? A 20-something may not appreciate a historical novel and want the writer to use more current conventions or imagery, not understand why a woman had to get married by the time she was 20. Whereas a senior citizen who is reading a story by a Brooklyn hipster may not understand the reason for using the present tense and trendy vocabulary. This becomes even more serious when looking at matters of race and culture: many African-American (and other non-white) writers have lamented the fact that white critiquers do not understand the literary conventions which the writer is coming from and are stuck in Eurocentric notions of “good” writing. Also, for writers who have a foot in the door in cultures overseas and are writing about non-American culture, there is always the challenge of knowing how much to explain or define particular terms. Generally speaking, immediate, overt descriptions come across as clumsy–i.e., “she ate a gulab jamun, an Indian dessert of fried milk and flour balls soaked in a sugar syrup flavored with rose.” The issue of culture/ethnicity is highly charged, and up for much debate. There is a fine line between a reader’s insensitivity or ignorance and a BIPOC writer’s weak craft that needs to be corrected, and it can be very difficult to know where that line is.

-The “architecture” of a piece. This relates to plot and structure and how events and character development are unfolding. Maybe a story should begin two pages in from where it currently begins, or maybe on page 9, there is a great sentence that really sums up the theme of the story and should be put at the beginning. Do the events feel organic? Is there clear causation, because it may not be evident to us readers? Sometimes things have to be shuffled around for the story or novel to flow better. 

            From my own experience recently, feedback I got from my Bread Loaf workshop led by Charles Baxter made me realize that I had to stop rotating various points of view so quickly and stay in one point of view for a longer period. This led me to re-sequence the first few chapters, and now it flows much more smoothly. And conversely, a story I read last week did not clearly lay out the premise at the beginning, and so I encouraged the writer to choose a paragraph or line from several pages in to put at the beginning to make the story’s intentions clearer.

-Point of view. There are times when a manuscript is suffering because of the wrong choice of point of view. Or perhaps the point of view keeps shifting. is this writer really saying what they want to say through the point of view they have chosen, or are they being limited by it? One story I read recently abruptly shifted to a minor character’s point of view, when omniscience would have been a better choice to encompass the lead character as well as the supporting characters.

-Is this the right form or length? Sometimes a story is aching to become a novel, because there is so much richness in it and such a large time span that it needs the space. Sometimes a story should be cut, because there is too much extraneous detail, and it can say what it wants in a short space. And then there is also the situation where a story can be a story in its current version, but have different versions: a longer one, a shorter one, or eventually developed into a novel or novella! This was the case recently in a writing workshop, where a story was quite interesting as it was, but it felt like it could be an episode in a Bildungsroman about the lead character.

These are only a few of the myriad of things I have learned from writers’ workshops for over the years. Hopefully these musings will be of interest to other writers because it is all too easy to look at the polished work of renowned writers and admire what they have done, but we have to be aware of the steps in the process.

What I’ve Learned: Literary Musings

Dear Readers,
2017 has been exponentially (or is it logarithmically? Whichever is bigger!) busier since beginning the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson. One of the greatest joys are the letters to our supervisors, in which we can expound on what we’ve read in a less formal way than our essays, much like I am used to doing here. Here are some highlights, based on what I’ve read. Thanks for reading!

-I feel that each piece of writing has a certain “secret code” to it, like a puzzle to be discovered, and once you understand it, the whole logic of the book becomes clear. I think that is what this MFA program is teaching us, to really look at great works of writing analytically and critically to see what is going on in terms of the craft. To look at all the seams and see how it is made. And of course, the best books are going to appear very seamless on the surface.
-Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was absolutely brilliant, and I enjoyed every second of reading it. She is a genius, and she makes it seem so effortless. The novel is so complex, and yet we do not see the seams. It makes me really think about what angle to take about retelling classic works.
-Nabokov’s The Gift – what can I say? I picked up the book, read the first three pages, and then put it down because I was so awed by his writing, and thought “@#$%, why bother, I’ll never write again!” The man was a genius. Why he didn’t win a Nobel Prize is beyond me. Nabokov is a master prose stylist; just his use of language is stunning. That is what to read him for.
-I thought back on how in the 10th grade, we read Native Son [by Richard Wright] and how it blew me away with how powerful it was, how complex the emotions were, and how there were no easy answers as to who was “good” or “bad.” And then suddenly it hit me – that novel is a great example of how to write emotional dilemmas. I quickly started making notes about what I remembered from the novel and how Wright did this.
-[Upon reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s] Capote is a wonderful writer, I’m guessing a lot of those writers from that era in New York are really excellent craftsmen and women, not to mention intelligent and literary. My mother said that in the 60s he used to be on talk shows. Wow! Who do we have on talk shows nowadays, Kardashians?!
-[Upon reading Nutshell by Ian McEwan] What a gifted writer! Just the level of detail and intelligence and polish is amazing. I had the same reaction as I did with the Nabokov — I put the book down for a moment and just thought, “Oh God, screw it, why do I write?!” What I learned in reading Nutshell was that in retellings, you have to pick and choose. You don’t have to be so literal, and transpose everything from the original work into modern times. A retelling can be something that captures the gist of the original, or uses just a few elements from the original, or adapt certain things from the original to make it modern.
-Retellings [of classics] are all about choices you make as a writer, much as a director would with a script. What do you show and what do you leave out? What do you change? What do you add? How is it relevant for today’s readers? All very fascinating stuff.
-[Upon reading James Baldwin] There is no one else like him. It struck me, halfway through Going to Meet the Man, that Baldwin accomplishes the most important goal of a writer: to be thought-provoking. A man of letters, culturally significant, not just a literary writer. I admire him. That said, I don’t always like him. I find that there was a sense of bitterness running throughout. I think I admire the writers most who really get you to think, who aren’t just rehashing something or just telling a ho-hum story about something ordinary. George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood — these are just a few people who come to mind. They leave a lasting impression on you. They are powerful. This is the sign of a great writer.
Bright Lights, Big City [by Jay McInerney] is an absolutely brilliant novel! So well written. Clean prose, nothing unnecessary, it tells the story so clearly and each word matters. Very entertaining, despite its flaws. I think for me the biggest letdown was the ending – I kept expecting for something major to happen to the protagonist. McInerney gives us these little climaxes here and there; he fails to give us one big boom at the end. And that really taught me something – you have to have a great ending. It’s interesting how Bright Lights is the story of a downfall. Downfall makes for a very effective theme in literature, a very strong theme; we see it in King Lear and so many other works.