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.

Novels versus Stories: A Personal Reflection

Last July, I completed the first draft of my first novel ever. It was my third attempt at a novel, the first being when I was a senior in high school, writing 120 some handwritten pages. The second was a decade or so later, and that novel became unwieldy, at 400 some pages, and not even one third of the way through. It was at that point I realized that I needed to back up and understand how to write shorter forms to simply accomplish the goal of completion. I always knew I wanted to be a longform writer, I was always interested in novels rather than stories, but I had to be able to see the arc of a work of fiction and put it on paper. It was indeed a struggle. How does one create the architecture for a work of fiction? I had a lot of impulses, but what I lacked was technique. I had very little understanding of craft and how there were certain “tricks” to understand the underpinnings of fiction.

Certain things I grasped intuitively through writing; there are other things about stories that I still am trying to understand, years later. What a story needs is very different than what a novel needs: the structure and plot need to be tighter, everything has to be accomplished with an economy of words and space, there can be very little that is extraneous and we need to feel the arc very palpably, see the transformation of the character. It is interesting to study short stories and their writers (something which I have done quite a lot over the past decade, in my MFA program and in a short story discussion group), for the short story is not a monolithic entity. I, very oddly, I’m not a fan of the much-lauded Alice Munro, for I find her jumps in time to be rather jarring and disturbing. However, George Saunders’s omissions work, because they leave out information that is implied and that we can piece together. I feel that Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorter short stories are generally much stronger than her longer short stories, as the latter feel a bit meandering and padded. Anthony Doerr does wonderful work with showing the passage of time, writing clearly structured stories that still hold a lot of emotion. And finally, one of my absolute favorite stories is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” which practically uses standup comedy to address serious issues that Native Americans face.

And what of novels? Why do I prefer them to stories?

To me, a novel is something soothing and complete. It is its own entity in a book, something you hold in your hand, a complete oeuvre from cover to cover. We talk about the accomplishment of “writing a book,” meaning a novel. A novel has the legroom, so to speak, the extra space to develop all the themes and thoughts and ideas we have as writers. I liken it to a Boeing 767 or Airbus 380 that needs a long runway to take off: it is a large aircraft and it needs it space to launch and to carry the passengers to a far off destination, covering a wide swath of time and distance. A short story is like a small Embraer jet that can maneuver small runways and take you where you need to go quickly and efficiently. I like the expansive nature of a novel, the way it can take us on a character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). We can savor the prose, follow the various threads introduced by the writer, study the plots and subplots. We might even marvel at a slightly atypical structure–perhaps the novel is not written in traditional chapters, or the chapters are irregular, or it is fashioned into different sections.

19th-century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy wrote their novels in serial fashion, with regular “episodes” that accomplished weekly or periodic entertainment for the reader. Therefore, their novels tend to be more conventionally structured, chapters more even in length. As novels became more and more available as their own printed form, the form naturally expanded and took on new shapes. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop was a novel in stories (see the earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2019/12/16/in-defense-of-the-novel-in-stories-cathers-death-comes-for-the-archbishop/). The nature of prose also expanded, and over the decades in the 20th century we got writers as diverse as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Morrison. The phenomenon of metafiction arose, although one could argue that Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was proto-metafiction, and also magical realism.

Today, we have a multitude of forms, styles, writers, backgrounds, and this makes the entity of the novel all the richer and more fascinating. And still, the pleasure of sitting down with a book that takes us on a literary journey from start to finish is incomparable. We have a human need to connect with a character, a family, a story line. Satisfying this need is a great challenge as a writer, for figuring out the architecture, so to speak, the structure and plot and sustaining it over hundreds of pages, is quite a task. I had the great fortune to ask Joyce Carol Oates after a Zoom interview how she managed the challenge of structure over an 800-page novel, and her answer was simply that the story had to be told, the characters’ stories needed that much space. Easier said than done for mortals like me compared to a literary titan! 

There is also the question of when to pause and shift gears from one character to another, one plot line to another, etc. This affects where we put in breaks either in the form of chapters or sections. Another challenge while writing a novel is not being redundant. We need to fill space, we need to expand the histories and backstories and details, but how much is too much? Have we repeated ourselves? Are the details we are presenting the reader necessary, or boring? And what about the themes and the basic idea of the story: is it interesting enough to engage a reader over multiple pages? Agents will often tell writers that the key to a successful query is to make the agent want to read past the first page.

Have things been resolved by the end of the novel? Have the loose threads come together, or are there aspects that leave the reader hanging? Is the novel put together in a way that feels cohesive? I recently read a novel by a Nobel laureate that felt like a draft: it completely lacked backstory, skimmed the surface of the story by focusing heavily on dialogue, and felt too long, like it should have been a novella. The novel clearly needed to be edited. This is proof that even the best writers struggle with the challenge of the novel, and that their output will vary from book to book. In a back-of-the-magazine interview in Vanity Fair, the interviewer said to Roth that surely, he must know he can write a novel by now. Roth’s answer was an emphatic no, that he couldn’t write all novels, only this one, the current novel he was working on at the time. 

I am still learning much about technique and craft when it comes to the novel, and I hope it will inform me in my revisions and subsequent works. Despite all the challenges, I still feel like it is a worthy and absolutely gripping pursuit to be a novelist. There are few greater thrills!