I went for a walk with my dad last night, and the conversation turned to writing—mainly as a, “You’re getting old; what are you going to do with your life?” sort of thing. But as I mentioned my one-month challenge, my dad asked the feared question: “So what is your idea?”
Now I love my dad very much, but he’s not exactly my target audience. He didn’t like Avatar because of all the “made-up shit,” he couldn’t make it thirty minutes into Lord of the Rings, and after seeing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he said, “Whoever wrote this must be on crack.” So he’s not a fantasy fan—and he doesn’t read fiction at all. But he’s always enjoyed exposing me to new movies (or rather, old ones), and I respect his opinions. On top of that, since I always talk about writing, I felt I sort of owed him the truth.
So, with a deep breath and a warning that it wasn’t his cup of tea, I told him the general shape of what I’m working on. And he actually seemed to like it, which was pretty awesome.
But because of his desire to be helpful, he offered some… suggestions. Most of them weren’t bad at all, even great, but maybe not right for my story and where I want to go with it. A few of them were sort of cliché, though he might not realize it (he always loves to suggest long-lost siblings for some reason). And some of them would be awesome if I didn’t have something else in mind—I think my dad would be a pretty cool storyteller, even more ruthless than George R.R. Martin, but that’s just not my style.
Everyone has different opinions about what makes for good stories—and everyone likes different things. What would improve a story for one person might make it unbearable for another. And that’s the beauty of the entertainment world, all the variety and contradictions. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My dad’s suggestions show that he was engaged, that he’s encouraging me, and that he wants me to succeed. And I’ll give his ideas some thought.
But how do you take feedback at such an early stage in the story? How do you maintain the creative identity that you want while also incorporating the fact that you want an audience someday? When you’re still working on building the story (and seeing it change as it goes), how do you answer the dreaded question: “So what are you writing?”
For a commitment-phobe like me, the first question to ask before I’m willing to tell anyone my idea (or even part of my idea) is: Is there anything they could say that would get me to stop working on this? Even if it’s, “Oh, yeah, I just read a book like that,” or a vague expression of distaste, or whatever your personal kryptonite, you have to be confident that you would keep working on this idea no matter what they say. If you’re not, then keep the idea to yourself until you have a little more commitment to it.
Second, I ask whether or not I know enough about this idea to even explain it properly. You might know the vague shape, but if there’s too much left to develop and not enough to even form into a decent summary, then there’s little chance you’ll give the person the right idea about your project. If they can’t tell what you see in the idea, then they can’t give you anything useful—and the feedback might do more harm than good since they’re not even responding to the “real” idea.
Third, I try to know my audience. A lot of people will ask what you’re working on out of politeness, since it seems the necessary follow-up when they hear you’re a writer. And people often are generally interested in people who write stories—but they may not be interested in your genre or in hearing the entire plot. If it’s just polite small talk, be vague and let them ask more questions if they’re interested. I also tend to preface it with the genre or the setting so the person can get an idea if it’s their thing or not.
Fourth, figure out what you want from the feedback. Sometimes you’re cornered into these conversations (I always tend to escape with an, “I’m not ready to talk about it”), but if you either seek it out or decide it’s time to share, ask yourself what you want from the other person. A simple sign of whether or not the idea is interesting? Or a suggestion on how to make this plot point work? Maybe you trust their taste and want to get an idea for a certain direction to take the story or the characters or the plot. Depending on the circumstances, I think the listener will also appreciate having a set of parameters for how to deliver their opinion—I’m sure they want to know whether you want honesty or general support or suggestions.
Fifth and finally, if someone offers suggestions about things to add or change to your story, don’t dismiss it without giving it some thought—but don’t feel obligated to do everything they say. One trick I played with my dad was to offer him a counter-suggestion: “I can’t really do that, but what if I try this similar thing that I could do?” This was just playful back-and-forth, he doesn’t really care, but I was showing him that I appreciated him making the attempt to get involved. Ultimately, you have to tell the story you want to share and in the way that feels right to you, but overall, people making suggestions are just trying to help. And sometimes their ideas might jog some of your own.
For the most part, I don’t talk about my writing, and I definitely don’t talk specifics (as you see on this blog). I’m just too easily influenced by others’ opinions, and on top of that, I tend not to believe people when they give positive opinions. I’m still not sure if my dad was just being nice by saying that he thought it could be good. That’s why, when I’m still in the idea stage, I tend to keep it to myself.
Feedback when you’ve got it written, though, is something else entirely. But I’m not there yet.
I’m on my way, though. 🙂