More than you asked for? Feedback on work-in-progress.
I asked a very creative friend to read the first two-thirds of my latest novel draft and was eager to hear his thoughts. When we got together, however, things went a bit awry. He pointed out some excellent things right off the bat. The opening sections need tightening, for one thing, and the mechanism by which character “A” obtains the secret files isn’t super credible. But when he began suggesting concrete plot alternatives and new characters, my throat started clenching with something approaching indignation. In essence, it felt like he was trying to re-write the story. (What are you doing in my backyard!)
Not that his ideas were bad. Not at all. But something didn’t feel right. We understand that feedback is absolutely necessary to improve our work–but why did I react defensively?
In the world of movie and TV script writing, after all, collaboration occurs all the time—staff writers kicking ideas around, or story editors simply dictating certain events to the junior scribblers. It’s the game played in that particular arena. Cross fertilization. Everyone involved knows it’s going to happen.
But for most of us, drafting a novel is a solitary, very ego-bound activity, and asking for feedback from a friend is not the same as requesting collaboration. For the past eighteen months I have been spinning threads undisturbed in my cerebral attic. When my buddy took his own scissors and yarn to my web, however, it unhinged other sections and the entire structure began collapsing. It wasn’t his general suggestions, but the introduction of foreign pieces. In retrospect, it was partly my fault for giving him only part of the book to look at (which in a way is rather like inviting someone to help you finish it).
The most productive writing feedback I ever received came from the editor of my first novel. She had a gift for nosing out dead scenes and laying them at your feet. She always refrained, however, from prescribing a fix. She would identify the issue and send me back to the drawing board to improvise a solution. It felt like I was being coached and not superseded, and for me it worked.
But, regarding my pal’s critiques: I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth. Asking a friend to read a work-in-progress–let’s be honest–is asking a hell of a lot of another human being. If we want them to function like professional writing coaches or editors, we should compensate them for the effort. Having slogged through the rough work of others, I appreciate the urge to tinker. The desire to get some skin in the game is only natural; and any reader’s suggestions–general or specific–deserve the writer’s sincere gratitude. They spring from a desire to help. It’s up to the writer to separate the wheat from the chaff with a smile.
It’s a small price to pay for getting free advice.