Gay romance fiction

LOVE NOTES: on critique and helping colleagues hear your opinions clearly 

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever received notes that didn’t help at all. Have you ever sat in a critique group that wandered and wavered and had trouble accommodating all its members equally? Or what about wrestled with giving feedback on a book that stymied all efforts to noodle out its problems? Revision is a hairy, scary business and we lean on each other in desperation, anxiety, and faith because great notes make our books better.

Notes are part of the air we breathe, but the art of giving them is hard won and oft-ignored. We all need different things from the critique process, and once we find a few canny, capable writing buddies who know how to steer us right, we cling to them like a raft in rapids. Thing is, as we all get better at giving notes the ecosystem in our groups and chapters improves exponentially.

When I’m giving notes on anything: a book, a party, a rollout, or a performance I invariably use a model I learned from one of my mentors in the movie business.

  • Something good

  • Something bad

  • Something you’d change.

The academics among you will spot old-school Hegelian dialectic in that trio but aside from that, there’s serious wisdom which unpacks when it’s put in practice with creators.

Opening your feedback with a positive gets their attention and goodwill flowing so they can hear what you say and trust your intentions. Following with the negative lets them know your praise isn’t empty and that you’ve paid close attention to areas where some things weren’t working. And finishing with an opportunity for change points them in a specific, practical direction and indicates possible topics of focus or progress, wrapping things up with a helpful bow.

Even better, this 3-part note strategy works in every situation: critique groups, Amazon reviews, book cover discussions, editorial convos, award parties, Christmas dinners, the neighbor’s garden, even your sister’s hideous bridesmaid dresses….anything in which your opinion is solicited and you have to proceed in a professional manner. This model allows your contribution to be positive and substantive without taking ownership away from the person in charge, it forces you to be precise and mindful about downsides. And it encourages them to examine the areas which could improve.

Some folks refer to this approach as a critique “sandwich”, because it buries the negatives between two slices of upbeat razzle dazzle, but I think that oversimplifies the approach and muddies the goal. In fact, the third “Something I’d change” section is often the most impactful because it synthesizes the positives and negatives to give the recipient a jumping off place, not as a blanket solution but as a way of focusing on specific problems.

Notes can pack a wallop, if you deploy them carefully. Beyond that Good/Bad/Change model… here are a couple other things you might find helpful about feedback and how to make it matter.

Specificity is critical. Give concrete details and references so that they understand what worked or didn’t, when and why and how. Telling someone that “It was hawt!” or “That sucked” gives them nothing to work on. If you cannot be specific about your reaction then you aren’t actually giving notes they can use. As an added bonus, learning to be ruthlessly specific in your criticism will also develop your precision and focus in your own work. Win-win! Pay attention and the rewards will be mighty and magical in all directions.

Find the right time. Notes sometimes need time to ripen, and context can change what ears here. Ask yourself: what is the essential thing I need to convey and what can wait or even fall by the wayside. When I go to a show or a film, I don’t give notes backstage or at the afterparty. Ever. Even if people beg and cajole. They say they want the unvarnished truth right then; they are lying. The emotions sweep everyone along and disaster is all too possible. That’s nuts. If they want notes they need to be calm and conscious after the fact. Instead of barfing it up on the night, I thank people and say honest, positive things holding my opinions until everyone’s had time to decompress. BUT everyone in show business knows they can call me in 24 hours and I’ll discuss and critique in exhaustive, ruthless detail, just NOT on the night. The same goes for books. Why would you critique something the day after it’s finished or an hour before a submission deadline? Give people time to be open and attentive. Timing can make all the difference between wasted, painful drudgery and insight that transform a project into a shimmering miracle woven from dragonfluff and unicorn bone.

Support their efforts. It’s called giving notes because it isn’t about you. Hell, you may be more educated, experienced, insightful, brilliant, perceptive, connected, mature, or successful… but once you agree to give someone notes you have agreed to make their project your focus for as long as it takes to react specifically and professionally. Give them the gracious courtesy you would expect, that everyone should expect. One of the easiest ways to spot a complete newbie in a writing group waiting for a crazy harangue about how everyone’s projects can be completely changed to reflect imaginary books they haven’t written. That sucks. I say that because I once WAS that opinionated jerk and whatever value those notes had, I wasn’t serving their process at all. Please note that in a critique group this showboat habit can turn into a toxic bloodbath if left unchecked. If your notes start to feel like grandstanding or piling on, what you’re doing isn’t notes but a soliloquy about your own perspicacity. Go find a production of Hamlet to star in.

Notes aren’t solutions. When you give feedback, your job is not to solve those problems, but to point out where they may exist. If you are solving the problems then you are writing the book for them which stretches critique and editorial into something closer to ghostwriting. Yes…we’ve all thrown an idea to a friend or suggested a line or a twist or a title, but when you start rebuilding a scene or a character or book from scratch, you are tempting fate, grace, and human decency. Someone, somewhere is going to feel used, abused, or confused so you are begging for tears and outrage down the line. Seriously examine the relationship and your mutual expectations.

Pick your battles. Unless you are a paid editor, an intimate, or a dedicated writing colleague, don’t bury people in an avalanche of thoughts about what their book should be. Unless I’m looking at something for a close friend or a paid gig, I try to limit my notes to only three main areas/topics. After a certain point people can’t absorb anything else. If you overwhelm them, they’ll zone out and NOTHING will get fixed. Even better, by focusing, you can help them prioritize what’s essential and what’s gravy. Boiling all my reactions down into three sections helps me to be more coherent and helpful with my comments.

Listen to their voice. More than anything the greatest act of critique is one of generosity to pay full attention to a project that hasn’t really earned your full attention yet. Rather than allowing yourself to give your solutions, your voice to this story, bend your ear to their glorious possibility. Look for the oak tree in the acorn.  Try to see what this artist, in their best moments, is aiming for. Look for where, in their worst moments, their craft, their experience, or their abilities fell short. And finally, see if you can sense the opportunities to tune into their unique tone/world/take/vibe, probe for areas where their special magic lies dormant, where the beauty of their story is hidden like water underground, so they know where to drill.

Remember: Something Good, something bad, and something you’d change. That’s how the writer, the genre, even the world get better. Next time you have to give feedback on anything, give them a go. You may be surprised what it reveals about your work and everyone else’s.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2017. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.