Friday, December 4, 2009

Fiction Friday: On Feedback

A writer-friend thrusts a sheaf of papers at you and says gruffly, "I wrote this. What do you think?"

Helpful feedback is less about what you, the reader, like or dislike than it is about helping the writer determine what works or doesn't work. There are nearly 7 billion or so people on this planet, each with his own likes and dislikes, and the fact that you don't care for a piece of fiction is not a good indicator that it's crap. That's just your personal taste.

What is more helpful is providing feedback on:

1) Characters: believable? interesting? consistent? Does it feel like the author likes them (even the mean ones)?
2) Dialogue: realistic? Does each character have his own voice, so you can tell who's talking, even without dialogue tags?
3) Structure: is the plot believable? does it hinge on the actions of the characters, or the whims of fate (aka deus ex machina -- which was perfectly acceptable in the days of Greek tragedy, but today is considered to be really cheeseball)
4) Voice: Does it match the piece? (You don't tell the story of starving sharecroppers in Alabama with the voice of an English butler (generally). Is the voice consistent, or does it slide in and out of other voices? Is it too intrusive?
5) Language: how well do the metaphors work? Do they fit seamlessly into the narrative, or feel like they were shoe-horned in because the author thought they were cool?
6) Narrative, action and dialogue: are they balanced, or does the work lean too heavily on one or another?

Last Week's (Month's) Winners:

Steven G (who has no blog, despite recurring requests) and Berowne at Savage Reflections

This Week's Prompt:

Actually, what I'd really like is some guidelines, similar to those listed above, for poetry. When someone asks you to provide feedback on their poetry, what do you look for?


  1. Yikes, I am feeling guilty here...

  2. Hmm, I don't read that much poetry, but for starters:
    1. Does it scan? (According to the rules of whatever form it's supposed to be)
    2. Does it rhyme, if it's trying to?
    3. Does it have consistent imagery?
    4. Does the language suit the subject?
    5. Do all the words actually mean what the poet thinks they mean?

    Speaking of feedback... care to glance over the revised beginning to my book? Getting ready for Scary Publisher Submissions and could use an impartial view (or seven).

  3. So much depends on the poet who thrusts it into your hands. More important than the merits and demerits of the poem, perhaps, are the needs of the poet. What does he/she need in order to make the next improvement?

  4. First we must learn about the wide range of poetry that is written- learning styles such as a sonnet or villanelle, free verse, lyric, literary comment style- ask the poet what style it was written.

    Using that knowledge read carefully to see how the poet uses rhythm, metaphor, rhyme & other poetic methods.

    Read poetry aloud; it was I believe, meant to be heard in oral tradition, and is easier to hear the flow.

    Figure out what makes the poem successful- as if drawing a circle, and is there a picture within that circle.

    Remember we all have our aesthetic biases and try to make the other person write like we do.

    Try your best to keep this in check and instead see what the poem is trying to be on its own terms.

    Look for the hints it is giving towards what it wants to be.

    Try to take on the other poet’s aesthetics and imagine how the poet can best revise the poem from that point of view.

    “There is one rule for poetry. There are no rules.” --William Patrick

  5. Thanks for mentioning me as a Last Week's (Month's) Winner. I'm not quite sure what, or why, I won, but I appreciate the mention. :-)

  6. I am guilty of giving lame feedback - sorry!

  7. its hard to give good feedback on poetry because a lot of people write in that "I wrote a poem" style you know where every word is a new line or it is typed all haphazardly and bouncy on the page and they also read it that way too with the pause after every word you know in that "I am reading a poem" style - otherwise if it relies on imagery and metaphor I try and give perspective to that when possible.

  8. Someone asked me to give feedback on a book she wrote that had been self published. It was horrible and had so many flaws I couldn't find ONE positive thing to say about it. So I just suggested a few things and then she wanted to see my book. I sent her 3 or 4 chapters.

    She wrote me back with the most valuable critique I'd ever gotten. A screenplay of mine suffered the same fate with a Hollywood studio reader. Her review was so brutal. But once I took it in, I realized she was right and changed the sp to reflect that. Ditto the book.

    As a comedian for over 20 years and a writer for longer than that, I can get praise from friends and family but that's not what I'm looking for. I tell people to be honest because as a comic? I'm tough as nails.

    I've found the biggest problem is that writers (and comics) always want to hold on to their work and can't see the flaws for the trees. This does not work in Hollywood.

  9. I'm not good at given an opinion on poetry except my "opinion"...ooops...i believe poetry is a very personal experience.

    much love

  10. Excellent advice, as always.

  11. Mmmmmm. I took the day off and went shopping. Played a Gibson Songwriter Special at Guitar Center, took two naps and watched an entire episode of Bonanza. Oh shit, this is the blog, not Facebook. Sorry.

    Uh....I agree with everyone else.

    Thanks for the mention, and the nudge.

  12. I am so glad that NaNoWriMo is over, so that I can get back to business -- like Fiction Friday.

    There's a little present waiting for you over at The Turtle, Jeanne.

    As for providing feedback on poetry, I'm afraid I feel utterly inept. The poems that I like are the ones that encapsulate a moment, a memory, a feeling. I confess to feeling uncomfortable with rhymed poetry unless it's done in such a way that the rhyme just tiptoes past me. Rhythm, on the other hand, seduces me. So I can tell you whether or not I like a poem, and I can probably tell you why, but I don't know enough about the technical aspects of poetry to offer much in the way of helpful criticism.

  13. After some thought, and reading the responses from your esteemed colleagues, I must confess I find Dave King's response revealed something often overlooked in my pursuit of art.
    A song on the car radio invokes a memory in time, but if a true audiophile lets you hear the same song on true high quality equipment, it takes you into the studio, into the artist's head. Good poetry does that for me. How do poets like Maggie May or Chef E do that with words?

    The business of honing a sculpture until it is perfect is most tedious in poetry. What IS the artist saying to others, and still to me? Performing an autopsy on a body must have certainly helped Michelangelo, but the nuts and bolts of it can seem dull to me.

    Indeed, what makes the poet sit and contemplate the need to write it down, and then make sure someone reads it?

    True to Dave’s note, the next narcissistic step is to always ask another, “Well, what did you think?”

    That bond between the audience and art is stengthened when the poet spills the words onto the stage.


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