Writing 2.8 – Feedback, Pro’s & Con’s

truck

Write what you know, write what you love.  We’ve all heard this before, and we usually practice it.  Usually.  Doesn’t matter what it is or when, as long as you enjoy your time at the keyboard.  Right?  Usually.

Back in April or May of 2012, I was visiting a friend’s blog and saw a picture of a rusted pick-up truck.  It was stuck, abandoned in the woods and following the picture was a story about how the truck had gotten there.  I told the author how much I enjoyed his story, and he semi-laughed because I didn’t know it was not a true story.  He explained something called Friday Fictioneers, a writing group that shared a picture prompt every week for which a gathering of writers would create a story, poem, or anything they were inspired to create from the picture.  Something I had never heard of before – Flash Fiction.  Flash Fiction?

Through teaching Language Arts for over 20 years, a picture prompt was something I had assigned to students hundreds of times, but I had never actually written something like that myself.  I looked up the blog and found a most fun group of people.  Just as I was told, there was a picture to be found every Wednesday.  By Friday morning, the Friday Fictioneers had posted a few dozen links to their blogs on which were their take on what the picture had inspired.  Writers from various states, countries, even continents were posting, sharing, reading, and commenting on each others’ work.  It was brilliant fun.  Here’s the link to my first go at “flash fiction.”

van-winkle-tunnel

Until that time, I had always thought of “flash fiction” as a cop out for someone who was too lazy to write a longer story.  Boy was I wrong.  It was not a cop out.  It was a challenge.

I’m not sure what the best part of the Friday Fictioneers was.  Maybe it was the pleasant camaraderie.  Certainly it was the positive comments and feedback I received and also gave to others.  Maybe the fabulous mix of styles, such as poetry, fiction, humor, horror, children’s stories, things that seemed like children’s stories, and, of course, even zombies.  Regardless of what you wrote, the “suggestion” was to write only 100 words.  Most people did, some didn’t, but it was not vital either way.  I chose to strictly stay at 100.

Along with the mix of writing styles was a mix of approaches.  Some writers would read your story and find positive things to praise in your comments.  Some writers would visit your page and give you something more than just “great job.”  Some would make suggestions for improvement and even point out grammar or punctuation mistakes.  I did that.  Some would also suggest changes, ways to make your story better, or at least ways to edit out less important words and phrases in order to give you extra room for more descriptive vocabulary.  It was not unusual for me to leave a suggestion, thus beginning an exchange of five or ten comments, back and forth about further variations.

This writing group, writing exercise had several valuable rewards.  The obvious one was blog traffic.  More important was making new friends.  Even more important was writing instruction and improvement.  I can’t speak for others, but I learned a great deal about editing and revising.  It was both work and fun to begin with maybe 117 words and then do some critical thinking to trim it down to only 100.

I learned much about writing dialogue, how to have your characters say only what was purely necessary while also writing the way people might actually speak.  This is the problem for most people who are not good with dialogue.  They write what seems like more proper English but not necessarily “real” language, the way we speak to each other, which isn’t always in complete sentences.  But that’s not the most important part.

The important part is two-fold.  First, as I said, I loved it.  I, like many others, couldn’t wait until Wednesday morning to find that week’s picture prompt.  There were snowy mountains, rusted fences, crumbling barns, and mischievous cats.  I would see each picture and allow the wheels to turn, sometimes left, sometimes right, then back again, until just the right story hit me.  The praise I would often get was nothing I had ever gotten anywhere else.

The idea was to spread the love.  Don’t just soak up your own attention.  Get out there and read what others were writing.  Tell them what you loved but don’t hesitate to point out what you didn’t love.  It seemed, at least to me, perfectly okay to make suggestions of what others might consider changing.  I would usually find something to compliment and follow it with, “You might consider changing ____ to ____ because ____…”  Just today I pointed out a misplaced period.  Nothing that would stop a bus, just a minor thing, and the author was very happy that I had caught the error.  However, not everyone reacted that way.

After eleven months of regular participation, I stopped.  I had visited someone’s blog to leave a comment, but the writer was not happy about it.  One writer, no way for me to know or remember who, except that I know it was a woman, replied with something like, “Well, if that’s what you think, then you have no imagination.”

bicycle-accident

I don’t know exactly why, but it had a strange effect on me.  The following Wednesday, when the next picture was posted, I had nothing.  I looked at the picture up, down, forwards, backwards.  I flipped it again and again in my head, but I had nothing.  It was as if that woman had knocked me off my bicycle, and I just could not get back on it.

I kept falling back to the woman’s words, that I had no imagination.  I wanted to say, “Excuse me, but have you not read my work here for the past year?  Have you not seen how well my work is received?”  But who am I?  I’m nobody special.  Who was I to tell people how to write better?  What had I accomplished that gave me any right to tell someone what to do?

After thinking further, I realized I had accomplished something.  I don’t think there are many people lurking around these blogs who can say that they’ve spent as many years as I have working specifically, on a daily basis, with words and language.  I did accomplish something, several somethings, and I had four slices of paper with signatures and seals of approval to show for it.  I had a diploma and certificates to prove that I knew my stuff.  How dare this woman tell me I have “no imagination”?

Pieces of paper?  Do they really prove anything?  Do they make one person better than another?  Well, better – yeah – but only better at whatever the task is for which those papers are required.  If I’m stuck on the highway with a flat tire, those pieces of paper aren’t going to do me or anyone any good.  If my toilet is leaking, those papers aren’t going to stop it.

Still, each week after that, I tried to write.  I looked at those pictures and tried several times to come up with another story about someone on the brink of something terrible, as most of my stories did.  Nothing.  Each time – look at the picture – nothing.  What the hell happened?  Was it really just that woman who knocked me down a peg?  It was the only conclusion I could find, but I wasn’t going to admit it.

stock-footage-a-man-in-a-fedora-typing-on-a-vintage-manual-typewriter-film-noir-style-lighting

Instead, I wrote a blog post about how I was going to be a more “serious” writer.  No more wasting words and writing time on these picture prompts.  Yeah, I mean, that was for 5th graders, right?  Sure it was.  Maybe.  But even if it was, I couldn’t do it anymore.  I didn’t choose not to do it.  I just lost it.  No more stories about kids nearly torn apart by guard dogs.  No more long-lost children returning home to find the father they had abandoned.  No more teenage lovers secretly meeting in an abandoned house as a silent stalker arrives.  No more conversations between God and Jesus on Christmas Eve.  No more ghosts who didn’t know they were ghosts.  Nothing.  I had nothing.

What’s the point of all this?  I guess it’s to let a fine group of people know that I did not climb my way up to a higher ground to where I imagined myself above such “amateur” writing.  No way, not at all.  Quite the opposite.  I didn’t rise anywhere, but instead I was knocked down somewhere.  Whatever it was that had been driving me, week after week, was gone.  I’m sure a huge part of what I loved was the praise from others.  In fact, I was very surprised, but happily surprised, on occasions when a few people would tell me, “This isn’t your best.  I expect more from you.”

Imagine that.  I had written well enough, and often enough, that other writers could rightfully say, “I expect more from you.”  While that might seem like a put down, it is actually tremendous praise, but it was praise I can no longer live up to, and that’s sad.  I’m not crying that someone hurt me.  I’m not looking for pity.  I’m saying that the creative spirit for this kind of writing was knocked out of me.

Occasionally, I find posts from some of the bloggers I know through Facebook, and I visit their stories, leaving the same comments I had before.  But I limit my visits to the few people who I know are okay with my comments.  I also limit my visits to only the few I happen to see on Facebook.  I don’t seek out the stories, but I will visit if it comes across my desk.  Desktop.

So – to all Friday Fictioneers – I thank you very much for helping me improve my writing.  I hope I have helped some of you as much as you have helped me.  I would like to get back on that bicycle again, and I only wish it was that easy.  Writers are sensitive, which is why we write, to express how something has affected us.  Good writers want to get better, and we don’t get better from “Great job.”  We get  better from, “You might consider changing ____ to ____ because ____…”  So when someone leaves feedback that isn’t exactly “Great job” but is intended to help, please be careful how you respond to it.  It might leave a mark.

SCRIVI COME MANGI SECONDO LUCY

31 thoughts on “Writing 2.8 – Feedback, Pro’s & Con’s

  1. Your stories are on my list of go-to-first for Friday Fictioneers. Even though Madison and Rochelle have always emphasized positive feedback, I’ve been bitch-slapped by a couple of participants, too. But you keep it up because your work always makes me look over my shoulder. ;)

    Maggie Duncan

    Sent from my iPhone Buy my books “Blood Vengeance,” “Fences,” and “Spy Flash” from Amazon.com

    >

  2. A college writing teacher knocked me off my bicycle for ten years, and it’s taken at least another ten to find my voice and confidence. Improv has been my fodder for the past few years, which is a lot like flash only it never ends. However, it definitely honed my skills because I don’t want to type any unneccessary words on my phone, which is how we usually post.

    Incidentally, the maximum number of comments permitted by Blogger is 5,000, in case anyone was wondering.

    My improv partner just quit, however, so perhaps I’ll check out Friday Fictioneers. Thanks for the reminder about being constructive. I hope you regain your balance soon.

  3. I not only actively participate in a lot of these prompts, but I run one of these programs, and have been running it for over a year. What I’ve learned is this: the majority of bloggers only and strictly want a pat on the back of a job well done. Not all bloggers are writers, but all want to believe they are… because, well, let’s be honest here for a second: 95% of the people hate their fucking jobs. And their blog is their little island of escape.

    Do you want to know what I think? I don’t care, I’ll say it anyways – I wish every blog out there had a little banner saying “YES I AM OPEN TO TRUE FEEDBACK” or “JUST TELL ME I’M AMAZING BECAUSE I CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” See? Now wouldn’t that make the world a better place?

    Just keep being who you are, and bugger-off to the haters and nay-sayers.

  4. Hi Rich,
    First, great subject for a post, and honest and open, bleeding right onto the screen. I wish I had thought of using this for a post, and I would have said some the same things as you.
    Second, I miss your stories. When I go to the list of stories, there are certain writes whose stories I look forward to reading. There are other writers whose stories I read mostly because they will read my story and it doesn’t seem fair not to read their stories. And there are some writiers whose stories I avoid, because their writing is just not for me.
    Third, no matter whose story it is, I try to find something positive to say about it. Rarely do I make any suggestions for improvement. I have come to view Friday Fictioneers as a mutual admiration society, an opportunity to give and receive positive feedback. Is this a copout? Probably. The brave, bold move would be to try to help people improve their writing. But I think this approach is fraught with danger for multiple reasons. To be a writer requires some toughness. You should be able to take criticism. But not everyone can. Some writers react badly to anything but praise, and act like you just spat on their child if you offer suggestions. Worse, they attack, which is what I think happened to you. Writers are, as you said, sensitive. I became angry recently because I put myself out there by giving a published short story to someone close to me and they proceeded not to read it or give me any feedback. I was pissed and took the story back, and they were apologetic, but I won’t be won back. And I won’t be sharing my writing with them in the future. Another issue I have with critiquing is I always question whether I’m right in my evalution of another’s writing. Yes, I have the pieces of paper and years of experience as a writing teacher. But still, I worry about what the effect will be if I’m wrong, or just don’t get it, or it’s just a matter of not being my kind of writing. Finally, one thing I know from my teaching career is that sitting in judgment of someone else is the most onerous part of that job to me and I’d rather avoid being in that position.
    Fourth, you have to get back on that bike. Sometimes my stories are very uninspired. Sometimes I’m embarrassed I couldn’t do better. But I tell myself it’s better to participate and that the good stories will come some weeks. Also, there’s the social interaction. I’ve had so much good fun and communication with the writers that it far outweighs the few negative experiences. But you have to realize that when you try to help people with their writing, you’re going to get some venom from some. When this happens to me (rarely because I don’t put myself out there nearly as much as you) I usually just blow it off with two defensive manuevers, first that my attacker is wrong to be coming at me, and second that he or she is just an insecure asshole. Still, I can’t help but feel abused, but you can’t interact with people and not have that happen sometimes.
    Well, didn’t mean to write a novel, but your piece really struck a chord in me.
    By the way, speaking of correcting, I read the description of Room 317, and the last word should be loose instead of lose. Don’t know how hard it is to edit, but I know you would want it to be perfect.
    Thankfullly, I know you are the kind of person I can mention this to without worrying about damaging your fragile ego.
    Keep writing,my friend, you are getting there.
    Ron

    • edits always appreciated, and novel-length comments too.

      i greatly dislike that one person’s small comment knocked the fictioneer spirit out of me, but somehow it did. i can’t explain it except maybe that i thought she should have been grateful but instead threw a punch. but in her defense, it was an experience i had once before, and it caused a literary website to completely disable their comment section, because i would leave feedback and other writers just wanted the “pat on the back.” they turned off the comments but not after some very vicious attacks on me. they’ve since enabled comments again, but they are moderated to only the pat on the back.

      oh well. i guess we can only do out best and move on. thanks for the nice thoughts and the editing catch.

  5. Thanks Rich for sharing from your heart. I appreciate the help you provided so many times when I submitted my own, ‘Friday Fictioneers’ story. It was valuable advice and honesty that one, and all should have appreciated as well. I learned too, that though sometimes the comments are to help and encourage us, they often run deeper, and we as writers need to develop a ‘thick skin’ to constructive criticism. My reason for dropping out (except for an occasional return to participate) was to just devote more time to my bigger, more important writing projects, novels that for years were shelved, buried in my ‘archives.’ But still, I learned I the importance of cutting words, re-editing until every word counts, and every thought or description, and character was concisely conveyed. My best to you in all your writing endeavors. I have read your longer pieces as well as your short ‘Friday Fictioneers’ stories and you were and remain still one of the best writers of the bunch. :)

  6. A very similiar thing happened to me Rich. I started FF because I want to become a better writer. I think they have helped in that in a way that I didn’t see when I first started. It has helped me with editing and watching how my words are put together for the best advantage. I even got brave enough to send one of my stories off into the wide world thinking I might have a chance to get published! Which happened. It’s only published on the internet but for a new writer like me it was awesome. Then someone who I looked up to as a fantastic writer and who gave honest and helpful advice on my flash fiction said in a author interview that my writing was full of cliches and that was not a sign of a good writer. I knew that person meant me and it crushed me.

    The person apologised for making the remark which I don’t think he thought I would see in the first place. But it hurt. I second guessed my writing for months afterward. Still do sometimes. Did I stop writing? No. I was hurt and I was wondering if I should continue but I didn’t stop. Because I love what I do. I didn’t stop because this person that made that comment was and is a great writer. Sometimes he might not think before he says something, but we all do that occasionally.

    What happened was I got hurt and I thought of quitting but I didn’t. You want to know why I didn’t quit? Because I thought that man who made that comment about cliches in my writing wouldn’t stop. He would go on writing and show that his writings were getting better.

    Yes us writers are a sensitive bunch. That’s what makes us good writers. Get back on that bike Rich. As for cliches, I’m going to add another one. If I can do it you sure as hell can.

  7. That made me sad. I’ve never really participated in any of the picture prompt groups, but I have always enjoyed reading your stories. However I also know how hard it is to come back from the negative – and not just in writing. Thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Okay my dear. A little tough love for you. It is time to get back on the horse (bike). Lick you wounds and give me what I so love, your words.

    I found my way to FF through you. I instantaneously became hooked. So you are to blame for my addiction. I love the challenge of 100 word stories even on the weeks that my imagination seems like it’s in the crapper. And to hell with anyone who says you’re not imaginative. Ha! I beg to differ. But I realize only you can take that stance inside yourself and make it count. So do it NOW! (yes I have been told I’m bossy)

    I often give praise to fellow fictioneers but I like giving corrections and advice as well from time to time. You of all people know I’m not afraid to share whatever sense or nonsense I have. And you know I adore your criticism. Ughmm.. I mean gentle suggestion/corrections. So PLEASE bring them on. I welcome any words of wisdom you have to offer me on any subject frankly.

    So what am I trying to say. Well simply Richard come back to me, I mean us, Come back to us.

    From another sensitive writer, mouthy criticizer and hopefully friend.

    • thanks very much, miss. your kind of comment is not what i was aiming for, but it is most welcome of course. my intent was to admit that my stated reason for stopping was not the genuine reason, although i can’t really be sure who had seen the phony reason. regardless of reasons, i do look at the pics each week, and i do think about it, but i lost the anxiousness (positive kind) i once had. however, i have tested the water a few times, and i should try harder. and i also appreciate the freudian slip of the “me” instead of “us.” ;)

  9. i’m sorry that changed the whole experience for you, it sounds like a wonderful concept. perhaps you will get on that bicycle again one day, or perhaps a new one -

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