How To Separate Good and Bad Writing Feedback

In my last newsletter I told you guys to ask me questions so that I could write blog posts and record videos to answer those questions.

You guys sent in some really great ones that I'm excited to answer today! Here's the answer to the second question:


TRANSCRIPT:

Hi!

My name is Tomi Adeyemi and I'm the author of CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE! I'm excited to come to you today to answer two of your writing questions.

Let's dive in!

Here's the second question I received:

Dear Tomi,

I don't know where to begin. I've had this idea for a movie for years and I finally put it down on paper. I've never written a script before and I guess it wasn't very good, because I showed it to a friend who works in film, and he kind of shut it down. He said it wasn't exactly "sell-able" in so many words, and I shouldn't bother working on a second draft. I don't know whether to believe him or not. What's worse, I feel like a fool for wasting so much time on it. So here's my question: Should I listen to someone else with more experience or do I keep following my own initial instincts? How do you know the difference between a good idea that not everyone gets and a bad idea, plain and simple?

Okay, this is a really great question and there's so much to unpack here, so bare with me as I try and unpack it all.

The first thing I want to address isn't actually something you asked about:

"I feel like a fool for wasting so much time on it"

The first thing you need to know as a writer is that no time is wastedEvery time you're writing, every time you're daydreaming, whether you finish a script or you don't finish a script, whether you write ten pages, or a short story, or you write poetry on your phone---all of that is practice.

Whether that script goes somewhere or it doesn't go somewhere, you are honing your craft.

You haven't wasted any time.

I used to feel as frustrated as you because I would start all these stories and I couldn't finish them, and I felt like I was wasting my time. Additionally, I would write a lot of fan fiction and that felt like an even bigger waste of time because it wasn't something I could publish.

Now that I'm at this stage with a published novel, I can see how everything I wrote (even my geeky, 300-page, single-spaced Naruto fan fiction) helped me find my writing style and allowed me to practice developing characters, worlds, fight scenes, and everything in between.

So the first you need to know is no matter what happens with this script--whether it's sellable or not, whether it's great or not--you haven't wasted any time.

Okay, let's move onto the second part of this question.

"Should I listen to someone else with more experience or do I keep following my own initial instinct?"

Thing you need to learn is as a writer, there's always going to be someone who's going to give feedback, and not all feedback is going to be right for you.

The best feedback helps you write the story you thought you were writing the first time.

That's how you know if feedback is good or not.

You can't really judge this off that first feeling when you initially get the feedback because sometimes you just get sensitive about having someone say something about your work.

Even for me and CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, there's been times where I've gotten feedback that at first didn't feel good. But once I sat with it, once I calmed down, once I separated my emotions, I was able to see that their feedback was going to be best for my book.

So if your friend said your script "wasn't sellable," the first thing you need to ask yourself is: is this person reliable?

You said he works in film. My question would be: is he a film agent? a screenwriter's agent? an assistant for a film or screenwriter's agent? a development executive or assistant?

Those would be people who have knowledge about whether or not a script was sellable.

Someone who works in other aspects of the film industry might not be able to give you feedback on if it's sellable or not because that's not what they're doing every single day.

Another thing you need to know: sellable does not mean good or bad.

My first book--the one I worked on during my old day job, sometimes 4, 5, 6 hours everyday for about six months--that book wasn't sellable. When I tried to get that book published, the feedback I got from literary agents was "this is good, but I can't sell it."

The reason they couldn't sell it was because it was a genre that wasn't selling anymore.

Now these were literary agents whose everyday jobs are to sell manuscripts to publishing houses, so when enough of them told me my manuscript wasn't sellable, but it had good writing, I knew that I could write, I just needed to write another book (thus CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE was born).

So another thing you need to do is separate sellable from good and bad and find out if what you've written just isn't what people are buying right now, or if it has craft issues and that's why it's not sellable.

Another thing you have to remember is just because a person works in an industry, doesn't mean that they're the authority on you or what you're doing or what you can do once you hone your skills.

To give you an example from my life, when I was in college I wanted to take a fiction writing class. There was this fiction professor who had published two adult literary books and I applied to his class every semester for five semesters and was rejected each time (which means the same teacher rejected me for 2.5 years).

I went in after my fifth rejection and said: "Hey, can we talk about my application? I just want to know how I can improve for next semester."

In that meeting he tore about my submission 10-page submission for very superficial reasons like, "oh, this shouldn't be in all caps" and "this character shouldn't start like this." 

It wasn't anything concrete or anything that I could actually learn from. When I asked him about that, he said, "If you're already making mistakes like this, I can't teach you."

...

...

...

Needless to say, it was a super bitchy thing for him to say!

It was terrible and petty "feedback," if I can even call it that. But for me it was also a wakeup call that I needed to stop applying to his classes. "If he couldn't 'teach' me how to write, then I didn't need to 'learn' from him."

Yes he was a writing professor, yes he had published two books, but he hadn't published two books I would ever want to read. He wasn't J.K. Rowling.

So him saying "he couldn't teach me how to write," was probably correct because I didn't like what he wrote about so he probably didn't have that much to teach me.

Instead I studied authors like J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins - stories that captivated millions and were turned into movies. Let's just say, those were the right teachers for me.

And this doesn't just apply with writing!

Another great example of not listening to people who tell you that you can't do things happened today when goddess and warrior Sloane Stephens won the U.S. Open.

In her championship interview, she said that once she went to a tennis academy when she was 12 and a coach there told her mother she would be lucky to play in a low division of tennis after she left that academy.

TODAY she won one of the hardest tennis tournaments of all time after coming back from a surgery in January.

Moral of the story is you are never going to come across someone doing something incredible who wasn't told "by an expert in their field" that they didn't have what it takes.

So really assess who that person is, if they're compatible with you, or if they just don't deserve your time of day.

If I had listened to that asshole teacher, I wouldn't be writing you now with the book that got the biggest publishing deal in YA history. 

If Sloane had listened to that asshole coach, she wouldn't have went home today with $3.7 million dollar check and a championship title.

It's great to get feedback from someone in the field that you want to be in, but if that person tells you that you can't do it, work that much harder and prove them wrong. 

The only person who can tell you if you can or can't do something is you.

Alright.

Now that I've moved past my personal trauma (lol), let's move on!

"Do I keep following my own initial instincts?"

Once you find out if the person you're talking to has reliable information or not, the next step is: "Okay this is their feedback. It doesn't feel good. Why?"

I don't think you can assess feedback the moment you get it. I think you need 2-3 days to sit with it, and not feel so emotional about it.

Once your emotions are removed, then you can assess if the feedback is in line with your story vision or not.

There's a Neil Gaiman quote that says when someone tells you something is wrong with your story, they're almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong.

For me, I find when people tell me something's wrong with my story, they're almost always right because with this book I've been lucky enough to get feedback from really great people.

When they tell me how to fix it...they're almost always right! I'm lucky enough to now have my solid pool of people who give feedback--critique partners, agents, editor, boyfriend, brother--and when they make a suggestion to fix my story, they're right 80-90% of the time.

So the more you surround yourself with people who get you and your writing, the better feedback you'll get naturally. But this takes time, so if you don't know yet if you're getting feedback you can trust, you have to break it down yourself.

If you want to hone your writing instincts, ask yourself: were they right about what's wrong with your story and just not right about how to fix it?

Once you take time with feedback and step back from the initial emotional response, that's where you get to a place where you're able to assess if the feedback is true to the story that you want to create, or if it's someone who has a vision for your story that is completely different than your own.

They say that the best editors and the best feedback is supposed to help you write the story that you thought you wrote the first time.

So take time with the feedback (assuming he gave you feedback and didn't just say it's not sellable, because remember, not sellable doesn't mean you wrote a good or bad script, it just means they can't sell it) and take the time to assess: is this feedback going to help me write a story that's true to my vision or is it going to take my story in a different direction?

If it's true to your vision, go for it. If it takes it in a different direction, that's when you say, "thank you, but that's not what I'm trying to do with this story."

In Summary!

Okay I threw a lot at you so I just want to recap:

  • analyze the source of the person giving you feedback - if this feedback is that your script isn't sellable and it's not coming from a person who's in the daily business of selling or evaluating scripts, I wouldn't trust it; if it's someone telling you that you don't have what it takes, screw them, prove them wrong, laugh when you do
  • after you get your feedback, sit with it - decide if the person is right about what's wrong with your story and just wrong about how to fix it, or decide if they're wrong about what's wrong with your story because they're trying to take it in a different direction than you originally intended
  • remember, no time is wasted - whether you sell your script or don't sell it, revise it or don't revise it, you've written a script and that's more than a lot of other people can say. So just keep going and I hope that you get good sources of feedback!

 Okay!

That was a long answer, but it was a really good question!

If you're wanting to ask a question, submit it here! You might see it answered next month!