Ask someone what they imagine when they hear the word ‘writer’ and they’ll describe a dishevelled artist hunched over a keyboard with abandoned cups of tea strewn around them.
This may not be far from the truth (I like to think I look slightly tidier, myself) but while we may write alone, we’re still writing for an audience and the only way to know whether we’re reaching out to our audience is to seek feedback.
Professional feedback is the most valuable way to develop one’s craft: to view our words through objective eyes that can suddenly spot weak verbs, wobbly plot arcs, and characters with questionable motivations. But in an inundated industry where most feedback we receive from publishers is monosyllabic, where can we get it? Writers have been creative in seeking it – we’ve formed critique groups, entered competitions, and joined organisations like QWC. If you’re lucky enough, you may even find a writing mentor.
In July 2008, I was awarded an Australian Society of Authors mentorship, and for the last year I’ve been working with Kate Forsyth in developing a junior fiction fantasy novel. The mentor/ mentee relationship is the linchpin of any mentorship, requiring trust, understanding, and clear communication. Kate is an experienced mentor and from the beginning it was an open and honest interaction. We were aligned in our goals, understood each other’s communication styles, and had similar expectations. During the mentorship, Kate patiently guided me through three major redrafts, unearthing writing muscles I never knew I had. After each draft she would construct a detailed editorial letter, which we’d discuss. Then I’d retreat into my hobbit hole for a few months to complete the next draft. Undertaking a mentorship is akin to running a marathon of the mind, and while I felt I’d trained hard in preparation, there were still sprints and stumbles along the way.
The value of a writing mentorship is the chance to experience professional feedback, however it is also a great challenge. Receiving feedback on your work can be tough – even a little painful – especially if it’s the first time you’ve sent your manuscript out into the world. Every writer secretly hopes that someone will announce their work as the Next Big Thing. Unfortunately, the reality of early feedback is often the need for significant re-writes.
How we react to feedback often has little to do with the delivery. Feedback can be challenging even when given in the most reassuring and gentle kind of way. Many writers find that their reactions are akin to moving through the seven stages of grieving and they may look something like this (Warning: reactions may have been heightened for dramatic purposes):
01 . Shock or Disbelief: OMG. Look at all those red marks. Every comment is negative. They hate it. Nothing can be salvaged from my wreckage of a manuscript. I honestly thought it was ready to send out. Am I that delusional?
02. Denial: OK, slow down. Maybe they were having a bad day? That’s it, their boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with them and they’re taking it out on my manuscript. Or maybe they’re not into my genre? If they prefer romance, how could I expect them to understand my gothic, transgender, steam-punk YA? They clearly don’t ‘get’ my voice.
03. Bargaining: Surely if I alter this tiny part in the story, my whole meaning will become clearer and the rest can stay as it is. Or maybe if I make this character a little more assertive/witty/ intense/muscly, they’ll understand my genius and take their comments back.
04. Guilt: I can’t believe I sent them this dreck. What on earth made me think it was ready to be read? How could I have wasted their time with such a clichéd, flawed, mud-heap of a manuscript?
05. Anger: I’m so stupid. In fact, the whole world is stupid – everyone and everything in it. I hate it all.
06. Depression: My writing sucks. I’ll never make it in this industry. Why bother? Never again will I burden the world with my atrocious writing, be it novel, blog post, email, or shopping list.
07. Acceptance and Hope: You know, on rereading the comments, they’re really not so bad. In fact, there are some great positives in there. I think they actually like my writing. Sure, there’s a fair bit to do, but I sort of knew that anyway. With a bit of time, I think I can fix this manuscript. It might just be the next Harry Potter after all …
I learnt a lot about myself during the mentorship. Namely that the quicker I accepted my reactions to feedback, the faster I’d move through the stages. If you ever have the opportunity to enter a mentorship or get professional feedback on your work, grab it with both hands. Just remember to embrace your neuroses and let yourself grieve any feedback a little. Soon you’ll be ready to run through the writing fields of your mind, wild and free and ready to rewrite.
Katherine is a children’s writer and illustrator whose first picture book, Squish Rabbit, will be published by Viking (Penguin USA) in 2010. She’s addicted to blogging and has had many short stories published in magazines, anthologies and educational publications.