On Feedback

August 12, 2019

Submission, or The Silence

In the past few months, I’ve written my first fiction. In the past few weeks, I’ve let people read it for the first time. And in the past few days, I’ve begun to receive feedback.

This exposure to the eyes of others began with my submission to the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize this month, which was a gruelling but worthwhile experience. I interrupted a structural rewrite of my novel to enter, which meant polishing 10,000 words (the first three chapters) of my work-in-progress. Because editing requires a drastically different mindset from writing, it turned out to be quite painful to switch from writing to editing, and then back again. But I’m glad that I did it, because now I have a piece of work that I can use as a writing sample, as well as a “sanity check” for the project I’m working on. I also learned some lessons about how to switch between the two processes, and about submissions, which will presumably remain pertinent when I begin to submit to agents next year.

After hitting send, I had a strange post-partum feeling, which I (melodramatically) felt must be like suffering a stillbirth, since eight continuous months of effort had produced nothing in the world whatsoever. Even in the least likely, best scenario, it would be a case of waiting months before I received feedback. In the meantime I would face silence.

The overwhelming odds on the outcome are that I receive no feedback at all, until the shortlist is announced, and my submission is not on it. An absence conspicuous to me, and to no one else. This was a useful thing to learn, since presumably all submissions are like this—no fireworks, just silence.

As a result of this harrowing feeling of having shouted into an indifferent void, I decided to seek feedback from a few other sources, whom I hoped would be more forthcoming and responsive. In other words I asked a few friends and strangers to weigh-in on my sanity.

These included “beta readers” from Writers’ HQ, as well as a few other writers. Though I have many highly literate and intelligent friends, I’m not yet emotionally ready to bare this section of my mind to them. I feel reluctant to involve the laity, though this is no reflection on them, but only on the state of my soul. “Someone fetch a priest” as Bowie once sang, and the feeling is not far from that, though I hope only to require a confessor, rather than last rites.

Preparations for feedback

This week I’m getting the first of that feedback. I am incredibly grateful to receive it, as I know from experience that it is hard stuff to formulate and give. But even knowing this, I wasn’t sure whether I would be mature enough to take criticism on a subject so close to home.

I therefore spent a lot of time in mental preparation for it. I wrote the following list of reminders to reflect on while reading the responses. Perhaps they will be of use to someone else:

  1. This is a draft. It’s not finished, and it’s not perfect, nor should you expect it to be. That’s why you’re asking for feedback in the first place.
  2. Your readers are offering to do hard work to help you for free. This is no small undertaking. It is kind and generous of them to do at all.
  3. If they just say “I like it,” you can’t improve. You need criticism. You need to be told what doesn’t work.
  4. You are yourself unsure about some things you’ve written, and you are worried you’ve gone too far in certain places. If your readers confirm or deny this, that’s excellent feedback about where the line is.
  5. Focus on the positives; don’t ignore the negatives, but remember that your brain is wired to focus on them, so you need to compensate.
  6. Negative feedback is great meditative practice for insight into the fundamental nature of suffering, self, and impermanence (sorry if that’s too Buddhist).

I also turned to Emma Darwin’s immensely helpful blog. I searched her tool-kit and she did not disappoint—she wrote a great post about taking feedback a few years ago, which I highly recommend.

I’m relieved to report that my first feedback was actionable and not unduly painful to take, even with my strong negativity bias. But I’m still glad I did the mental preparation to ensure that I could receive the feedback graciously and make the most of it.

If you’re lucky enough to receive feedback, do yourself a favour and gird yourself spiritually to use it effectively.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.