5 Things I've Learned From my Novel Feedback
When we started the Spun Yarn in 2017, I thought I knew a thing or two about what it meant to be a writer. I’d finished several novels over the years and also had a day job as a designer working with IDEO teams to use stories to communicate with our clients and customers. But once the Spun Yarn was up and running, I started to meet authors who had a completely different understanding of what it actually takes to write a novel. There were secrets to getting published that no one had told me about. It was like I’d just been petting the head of an elephant. I hadn’t realized that there were whole parts of the feedback and revision process that existed and that were SUPER important. The elephant’s feet. And his tail. And his back and his stomach and all of the rest of the parts of this giant beast of a process.
What I came to realize is that there are steps to eventually getting published that almost every book and every author needs to follow. If you follow these steps, it doesn’t mean your book will be published. But if you don’t follow these steps, there is a fantastic chance that it will never be published. There’s just too much of the elephant out there to ignore. I’m telling you, you’ll get trampled!
Here are five things I’ve learned about the feedback process from working with authors at the Spun Yarn.
First (and perhaps most obvious), you need to get feedback on your WHOLE manuscript.
Not just the first 100 pages, and not just a few random chapters. Having provided feedback to over 50 manuscripts at the Spun Yarn, one of the most commons problems we see with unpublished manuscripts relates to either uneven pacing or undeveloped characters. Both of these aspects of a novel are almost impossible to get effective feedback on if the reader hasn’t read the entire manuscript.
Second, you need to get feedback from someone who doesn’t like you.
Don’t get me wrong, they don’t need to actively dislike you. But they can’t be your friend or your partner or your mom. They should be a stranger and they should be responding to the words on the page, not what they know about you as a person. Just because a person is a stranger doesn’t mean they don’t care about your book. At the Spun Yarn, we’ve assembled a network of anonymous readers who are careful, diligent readers. They don’t know you, but they want to see your manuscript get better.
Third, it’s really important to get feedback from multiple people.
You probably have that one person in your network who is just fantastic. They read everything you send them and they always have thoughtful feedback. But the problem is that this is just one person’s opinion. If there’s one thing we’ve learned these past two years at the Spun Yarn, it’s that readers come in many shapes and sizes. And so do their opinions. It’s a huge thing to completely rewrite a character or an ending as part of a next draft. Which is why it’s so important to make sure that you have reader consensus on which parts of your WIP aren't working.
As a side note, this is also something we’ve seen when it comes to opinions from editors and agents. While these folks are professionals and super smart, it still often comes down to the opinion of a single person. Any good feedback approach should synthesize feedback from multiple readers (instead of just one) and distill reader consensus to make it clear what you should focus on in a next draft. Having learned that, we spend a lot of time at The Spun Yarn analyzing reader comments to find where readers are agreeing and disagreeing.
Fourth, you need *actionable* feedback.
Writing a novel is hard work. It takes a long time. The act of finishing it, then starting from the beginning with the revision process, takes an emotional toll. Knowing where to start when you get started again can make all of the difference.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel with your first edit. By focusing on some of the smaller, more obvious aspects of the manuscript that need fixing first (and I don’t mean typos or spelling errors), you’ll gain the momentum you need to tackle the bigger stuff. As part of a Spun Yarn Manuscript Report, we provide an author with a list of First Five revisions to focus on. It’s a great way to prioritize. And to get started.
Fifth, you need to thicken your skin.
Acknowledge that getting feedback is painful, but necessary. If your attitude when reading feedback is to look for reasons to ignore the criticisms, your manuscript won't get any better. You’re only human, after all. And that’s what makes you a fantastic writer. The Spun Yarn has made the feedback process as gentle as possible. Your feedback comes from anonymous strangers who care. They don’t know you. And you don’t know them, but they're not reviewers looking to pan you--they're honest, gentle people who want to see your book succeed.
Your feedback is delivered only to you. We’ve removed all of the bullshit politics that often exist in writers groups or classes. Your feedback report is your feedback report. Take a peek at it. Then take a jog around the block. Then take a longer peek. Then really read it and get to work on your next revision. Getting feedback is never easy. But it could be easier. And that’s what we’ve tried to do at the Spun Yarn.
So get out there. And meet the whole elephant! Your manuscript will thank you.