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Caution: Feedback Ahead

A business colleague from my retail buying days says that ideas are in their most fragile and vulnerable while we are still working on them. She's right. When we tell people about an idea that we're still playing with--plot points, or new ideas, or concepts for next book in a series --we can't help but be affected by how they react. Maybe they love it--great! Until it's time to write the book and we decide the original idea needs tweaking. And we tweak, because we're the one creating it, and then when we mention later the change in direction, that person says, "Oh. You said it was going to be about X." And then, a tiny little pin goes into our balloon.

I'm not talking about malicious people who want to hold us back. But the thing is, sometimes people react without knowing how their reaction will affect us. Ideas run on a natural engine of enthusiasm, but an unexpected reaction to something we're enthused about can be like an air bubble in the fuel line. We rethink where we're at. We might go so far as to question our new direction. Sometimes the feedback simply slows us down while we reexamine our decisions. Other times it stops us completely because we become paralyzed with doubt.

I am by no means suggesting that we don't solicit feedback. Living in a bubble is fine--sometimes preferable!--while we're developing an idea into a story. But once we have a handle on our own vision, we need to hear beta reader feedback in order to see how well we conveyed our concept to the pages. The key here is trust, because it's all too easy to discount someone's feedback when we think they might have alterior motives or aren't as invested as we are in the project.

Two cases in point:

After I finished book #6 in my Samantha Kidd series, I had four different ideas for upcoming books and I wasn't sure which to pursue. Someone from my reader team suggested I give them the ideas and let them vote. In theory, I loved this. I already knew these people enjoyed the series. I was eager to see which one they chose, and it was one less decision for me. Win-win?

Not exactly. The vote came in at close to a three way tie, and the one idea not chosen was listed as multiple people's second choice. Behind one idea, a reader simply wrote, "Nope." Why? I wondered. I love that idea! Why don't you? Did I not explain it well enough? (keeping in mind that I'm a pantser and that my descriptions were 1-sentence concepts at the biggest picture level). Other people expanded upon concepts, telling me what they thought could happen in that plot. Since I know little more than the title and general players of a book before I write it (see "pantser"comment), I don't know what direction the story will go. Will I now take it where they said because they said that? If I don't, will they be disappointed? If I write the book that nobody voted for, will any of them read it? If I realize that my concept plays out better with a slightly different twist than I gave the people who voted, will they claim I bamboozled them?

Second case in point: I submitted a proposal for a new series to my agent. I liked what I wrote, but she felt it needed work. Key factor here: I already know my agent wants the same thing that I want: an strong proposal that she can take to editors. I know where her comments come from: a knowledge of the industry and a familiarity with my genre and voice. She knows what I do well and what I don't, so when she tells me something felt scattered, I know it means I didn't do a good enough job of focusing the story in the opening chapters. I also know she wouldn't tell me that if she didn't think I could fix it. Her comments are always welcome. They are like getting a push from behind while I'm driving up a particularly steep hill.

Feedback is necessary to the process and it makes our work better. But solicited too soon, it can interrup our flow and have a negative impact on what we're trying to create. And make no mistake: as writers, we are creators: of worlds, stories, characters, and settings. My plotter friends discover their creativity during the plotting process, just like I discover mine during the writing-from-the-seat-of-my-pants process. Whatever our method for writing, we have to protect and nurture the idea that motivates us until we know we've captured our vision. Then we can share it with the world. But until then, proceed cautiously. Nobody wants their engine to stall before it truly gets started.

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