Where do you start a review of a book about feedback for people who write books? My initial temptation was to start by pointing out page 67, where the author refers to someone who was not “phased” by criticism (that should read “fazed”), but the book has moved beyond that phase of its development. Writers crave feedback from the very first words they string together in the creation of a book. Is my first chapter riveting? Does the first page set the reader’s expectations appropriately? Does the first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
Once the book is out, however, the focus changes. A book review isn’t for the author, no matter how much we love reading the good ones. Book reviews are for potential readers and for booksellers. A book review answers the question, “should I read this book.”
In that spirit, let me back up and look at Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, by Joni B. Cole. It is, first and foremost, a book for writers. In fact, it strikes deep into the heart of the writer. As I said above, we all crave feedback. We all need feedback. But most of us dread feedback.
I am writing this from my hotel room at the SCBWI annual conference. Just before the big social event Saturday night, I was chatting with a young writer and asked her how the conference was going for her. “Just got my ass handed to me on a platter at a one-on-one manuscript review session,” she replied. She held her hands out in front of her, as if holding a plate. “Here you go. Here’s your ass.” This kind of feedback can be a crushing blow to a new author. Heck, it can be a crushing blow to an award-winning, best-selling, top-of-his-game writer. And this is what Joni is talking about in Toxic Feedback.
Of necessity, the book is somewhat schizophrenic. It simultaneously addresses the writer receiving the feedback and the person (often another writer) who is giving it. Joni doesn’t take a kittens and rainbows approach. She doesn’t say that you should tell someone how wonderful their manuscript is while ignoring the gaping plot holes, dimensionless characters, and atrocious grammar. She does, however, guide feedback providers through the process of matching feedback to the developmental stage of the manuscript.
If your writer buddy has just completed a marathon session at the keyboard, leaving keys smoking (and slightly damp from sweat) creating a brand-new chapter for her book, this is not the time to point out that she has a subject-verb agreement problem on page 24. She’ll figure that out in a future session. Now is the time to say, “Wow! You wrote 3,000 words in three hours? Once you clean up the description of downtown London (that’s the Tower Bridge, dear, not the London Bridge), this is going to be fantastic.” Later, when the final draft is complete and you’re giving it a last perusal before she submits it for publication, that’s when you should point out the missing comma on page 12 and the misspelled word on page 39.
We must have negative feedback. In his keynote speech at the SCBWI conference, Gary Paulsen referred to the endless cycle of Hollywood movie production fakery: You’re wonderful. Oh, no, YOU are wonderful! I’ll never be as wonderful as you. This does nothing to advance our craft. But “you suck” doesn’t help, either. Feedback can be negative without crossing over into the category Joni calls toxic. There’s a massive difference between, “If you developed Sue’s character as much as you developed Uncle Dave’s, it would help to understand why she ran away” and “Your character development for Sue is horrible.”
We need positive feedback, too. If you point out only what stinks about a manuscript without telling the author what’s great, he may despair and toss it away. No matter what you’re critiquing, the creator needs to know what’s working; what to do more of. Joni spends a lot of time in the book talking about how to receive feedback, how to process feedback, how to squeeze the most value out of it. She also spends a lot of time talking about how to give feedback. It makes me want to hand copies of her book to anyone who is going to review one of my own manuscripts.
And we need specific feedback. It struck home for me when Joni talked about knowing why something does or doesn’t work. If you don’t know exactly what you did right, it’s hard to do it again. And if you don’t know precisely how you screwed up an article, you’re likely to screw up the next one. Specificity is very important in feedback, as is recognizing whether feedback is reflective of a problem in the manuscript or simply a personal bias in the person providing the feedback.
I’m not a big “writer’s circle” kind of guy — if I spent all my time in writing groups I wouldn’t have any time to write — so the end of the book dragged for me. It is also a very woman-oriented book. Guys don’t obsess about what kind of muffins to take to a writer’s group. But the message she put forth at the beginning of Toxic Feedback was clear, and was reinforced throughout the book. I’ve been writing for a long time, and I definitely learned something from Joni.
Whether you are soliciting feedback on your own work, or reviewing a manuscript for someone else, Joni’s book will help to pull everything into perspective. For writers, it will help you to recognize useless, toxic feedback and not let it faze you.
Postscript: Why did I call this a “feedback loop” in the title? Because I wrote a post on this blog back in May about some feedback I received on a Who Pooped in the Park? book. Shortly after that, I noticed I had a new follower on Twitter, and read an interview with Joni on her “My Literary Quest” blog and added a comment on the blog post. Joni Cole saw my comment and sent me an email. We ended up chatting, and she sent me a copy of her book, which I’m now reviewing. Authors do have to be careful to remember our audiences and not just spend all of our time writing for (and to) each other. But interaction with other authors is one of the things that keeps us going.
These days, with 96.4% of our incoming email consisting of spam (warning: that link opens a pop-up ad), I often dread opening my email. I do have one less email address these days since I sold the newspaper, but I still have my personal email, bookstore email, and a special address I created for a message board called the Straight Dope, where I’m a staff member. That’s a lot of spam.
One day last week, however, I opened my personal inbox to find a message from a soldier by the name of Leo Pederson. That email read as follows:
Rarely do you find a children’s book that is both educational and entertaining to both children and adults. Even more rare than that is a book that also creates a mutual interest beyond just the reading of the book together. Thank-you for the hours of bonding time you helped create. As a soldier I have spent years away from my daughter and your books give us many adventures when we are together. I hope you continue doing what you do.
Wow. That leaves me almost speechless (generally speaking, I’m only speechless when I’m unconscious). I don’t know you, Leo, but the time you took tracking me down and sending me that message was worth a lot more to me than just a royalty for a book sold. That is precisely what motivated me to start writing in the first place. I’m glad I could make a difference, and I’m going to get started on my next children’s book now!
NB: In a case of fascinating timing, I just read an interview with Joni B. Cole, author of the book Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive. I must read that now!