Thursday, April 03, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Eleven

Getting Feedback and Public Speaking

James O. Born

 I guess the three blogs I posted while I was on vacation went up without a hitch.  Just the way I like things to work.  But in writing a novel things rarely work out the way you expect them to.  Even the plot doesn't work out the way you originally envisioned it.  That's one of the wonderful things about writing a novel.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing a novel just for yourself.  That's what happens anyway.  99% of all novels are only read by the author and maybe a few of his or her friends.  As long as you enjoy writing, that is not an issue.  But at some point you will probably want to show your novel off to someone else.  You want to get some feedback.  There are number ways to do this.  There are critique groups, professional organizations like the Mystery Writers of America or you might have a friend who you trust to read it.  I never did any of these things and I'm not sure I regret it.  Sure, I had a couple of friends read one of my early novels (not Walking Money, but an unpublished novel) and they were very complementary.  But I didn't get any criticism that made the book better and frankly, I'm not sure they were qualified to give me criticism looking back on it.

A few years ago I was the lunch speaker at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s conference in Denver, Colorado.  A great conference that I highly recommend.  I taught a few classes that were along the lines of this blog and then, on Sunday afternoon I addressed the entire conference.  I'm comfortable with public speaking and have learned how people cringe at the thought of eating rubber chicken and listening to a stilted dolt, reading from notes.  I spent a career in law enforcement putting up with that.  So I worked very hard to not give any conference goers that experience.  And although it may seem like everything I say is off-the-cuff, most of it I've worked out well ahead of time and intentionally throw in a lot of jokes.  No one is ever unhappy with the talk if they laughed during it.

The trick in public speaking is to know what your audience wants.  Should it be a talk on practical ideas?  Should it be inspirational?  Should it be realistic or just a silly break in the day of long workshops?  In the case of the Rocky Mountain fiction writers I had decided to split it between an inspirational talk with some practical ideas.  It would last for 22 to 35 min., depending on the response.  Then, the night before, I read an essay online called I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson  .  I had to make an audible at the podium and change the entire tone of my talk.  I had to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  Aside from the harsh title, Mr. Olson makes some valid points.  The point I made at the conference was, this is not the kind of guy you want feedback from.  I did not care for his snarky tone, but he did make some sense.

This is one of the hardest subjects for me to comment on.  It is difficult to get good feedback, but it is also difficult to give good feedback.  I have read countless manuscripts from my friends who, when I suggest certain things, always seem to have an explanation why it has to be in the book.  This is an area which completely baffles me.  I rarely read manuscripts anymore because I'm not sure I can provide anything worthwhile.  It is also an enormous strain on a writer's most valuable asset: time.

So if you’ve found that perfect mate, who wishes to read your writing and has insight that you value, damn all the other signals and marry that person.  It doesn't matter if they're a homicidal maniac, if they’re a very good first reader, snatch them off the market and consider yourself lucky.  Who cares if you spend the rest of your life burying bodies in the backyard to keep them from being arrested.  Finding someone who will give you the right feedback that can help your book and push it towards publication is such a rare occurrence that they should make movies about it.

Many critique groups require a great deal of effort for you to read other people’s work and provide feedback.  Not only does this encourage others to take your work seriously, but it's a good way to learn what not to do when you're writing.  It's one of the few times you can learn from other people’s mistakes.

If you are thinking about some conferences, I would always recommend the Rocky  Mountain Fiction Writers or something like the South Carolina Writers Workshop (where I was also the opening speaker) or perhaps a more specific conference like Sleuthfest, hosted by the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.

If nothing else, it's never a bad thing to get out and meet people.  Especially if your chosen profession/hobby requires you to be alone most the time.

Todays quotes are varied in content and provider.
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.”― E.B. White

“It’s a great lesson about not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it…You have to let people see what you wrote.” ― Tina Fey


  1. from Jacqueline: Jim, I do enjoy these posts very much. I never go from notes when I speak - invariably, my stories are rooted in something I am interested in or that has captivated my imagination, and by the time I begin the book, I have immersed myself in the subject, and that becomes the essence of my talk - and usually it goes over fairly well. And I confess, I also draw back from critiquing anyone else's work - I don't really want to be in that position, and frankly, I don't think I'm very good at it. I hope you've got more of these posts up your sleeve.

  2. These are good posts but are you writing a new novel?

    Helen Mills

  3. I have been in 2 wonderful critique groups and can't imagine myself without the input of those great peeps. You do have to learn what to accept and what doesn't work for your story, which takes time and effort.

    And rats, James O. I was about to ask you to read my current WIP. Glad I didn't embarrass myself.

  4. James O. Born4/03/2014 4:29 PM

    Not to be terse, but why do you think I'm making my first comment for the day at 7:30 eastern standard time? Actually, I will make a bold announcement in the next few weeks. Not so bold really, just something about a new book coming out. I guess, from a writer's perspective that's fairly common. So I'll be making a fairly common announcement in the next few weeks.

  5. I will hold my breath until you make your bold announcement.