Monday, September 12, 2005

Writing and Cooking - It's all about the feedback

I love cooking. Always did.

Yesterday I had guests over for dinner and so I spent the day cooking. (It was actually more like two hours, but who's counting?)

I made split pea and ham soup, trout in dill and lemon sauce, and garlic mashed. Not a big deal meal, but still very nice I thought.

We sat to eat and immediately I could see that the soup was a hit. The bowls emptied out fast.
Then we had the trout and mashed, and that's when the bread became very popular. I tasted the trout and to my horror, it was gross. I don't know what went wrong, but something did.

What does that have to do with writing?
In cooking, just like in writing, there is the issue of feedback and criticism. In cooking, just like in writing, the 'audience' has different personal tastes. In cooking, just like in writing, there is the question of target market.

Working backwards then, a meal cooked for kids would be different from one prepared for adults, just like when writing.
As far as personal taste goes, the same dish could be a favourite of one person, but a nightmare to another, just like in writing.
And finally, different guests at a dinner party may have different ways of giving the cook feedback. One might try to drown the taste of the trout with bread, another would say very politely, 'I think there's something missing in the trout, but I'm not sure what,' and yet another, usually kids, would simply state the obvious, 'yuck!'
As a cook, I tend to prefer the direct 'yuck' approach. At least then I am able to offer something else and salvage that person's meal.

As a writer, I have the distinct impression I would like the direct approach much better than having to decipher the true meaning of a feedback given to me in a roundabout way. If you're wondering, here's the code as I know it:
- 'This part was a bit slow for me,' means the writing was boring.
- 'I'm not sure what exactly you meant here,' means the writing was vague.
- 'I thought some of the word choices and language was a bit awkward,' meaning this part was poorly written.
- And my all time favourite - 'I understand this is your first draft, so I'll only comment on...,' means the writing was raw and bad despite it being your fifth draft.

How do you prefer to get your feedback? Wrapped in a blanket to cushion it, or thrown directly at you stone hard?

Result of weekend post was no surprise:
- 15 clicked on Guess the Google
- 6 clicked to take The Sexual HELL Test (I guess that everything with the word sex in it would score high :)
- 4 clicked on What obsolete skill are you? quiz
- and finally 2 clicked on The 3 Variable Funny Test
No one felt like getting too deep and my list of posts received 0 clicks.

Last - I am working hard on changing my template to a 3-column design so if the page looks weird on occasion, please forgive.

Categories: , , ,


Jennifer said...

Ahhh...I like baking better, but I can cook when the occassion calls for it!

Tell me what doesn't work. Don't beat around the bush, don't code your comments in vague words, just tell me what you think--honestly.

The whole reason I have people read/critique my work is so I can find where it does and does not work. Hell if I didn't want feedback then I wouldn't ask you to read it!

Just my take :)

elcapitanhink said...

To be cynical for a minute: those four polite responses could just as easily be from a person who didn't bother to give your writing the attention it merited. I know for a fact that when I get too heavy in blog posts, people will post a comment that ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a complete non sequitur.
Yes, you might see a few commenters who--on their good days would be quite astute--post some two-fragment nonsense reply about how "Man! it's SOOOO hard to cook fish!" or, as my first thought was, quote one of my favorite scenes from the movie Strange Brew. "I'll have two bowls of split plea soup, please."

The point of my ramble is this: you should always vet your critics, making sure that you are getting good feedback. In my mind, having someone tell you "Hrrm. That paragraph was a tad wordy" after you've seen them misspell "dog" a handful of times should be a check against your wannabe editor, and should not be allowed stand as the final say on the matter. I also think that abrasive critics, so often lauded in the culture today as "unafraid to speak their minds" are often just sour jackasses with an axe to grind.

OR maybe I'm just bad at what I do, and need a well-crafted rationale for dispensing with all criticism.

Pat Kirby said...

I like my feedback honest, but diplomatic. If the writer is on the defensive, if the writer feels "attacked," then the writer isn't absorbing all the information presented.

There are some good articles about diplomatic critiquing over at Critters.

But audience is a factor. One of my "funniest" worthless critiques came with a short story (contemporary fantasy.) The person whinged about the contemporary setting saying that it threw her out of the "fictional dream" (snerk). She complained about my use of green chile and New Mexican foods and suggested I make up fantasy spicy foods.

(Even on rejection, the story has been well received, so I know the premise works.) Hello? Contemporary fantasy. That's the point. A CONTEMPORARY SETTING.

Bummer about the trout; sounded good. I don't eat pork, so I would have been eating a lot of bread at that meal. :)

Carter said...

Honesty is the best policy, in my book. I've been through several different critique groups (yes, I have some self-confidence issues :) ), and I have developed a very thick hide. Puncture it if you can. My feeling is: get to the point so we can both move on. I make my own decisions about the worthiness of the advice, and I realize that different people have different opinions. That doesn't make us enemies. If I ask for a crit, it's because I want the story to be the best it possibly can be, so have at it hammer and tongs.

Melly said...

"Hell if I didn't want feedback then I wouldn't ask you to read it!" Exactly my feelings, Jennifer, so why sugar coat everything or sound vague? Beats me!

Melly said...

Non sequitur - ouch Josh, you touched on a sore subject. I don't know if people don't pay attention or just being... well, you know what, but sometimes some of these comments, man...
Not here, though. I love the comments I get here, usually way more profound than the post I wrote :)

So, you're saying, speak your mind, be honest, but not brutal?
I agree with that too. No need to sugarcoat, but not to be needlessly ruthless?

Doubt you suck at what you do, btw, judging from what you've been doing at the WBA.

Melly said...

Oh, yes, of course. Attacking's no good. Imagine if my guests attacked me yesterday, knives and all, wouldn't have ended well.

You're so right, is depends a lot on who critiques you. I have this one friend, a writer too, that when this comes from him - listen Melly, this really isn't that good - I accept it for what it is because I know he appreciates my writing otherwise and I know that we think alike. So he can be as straight as they come with me.
With others though, people who I don't know as well, or who think very differently from me (re that person who critiqued your contemporary fantasy story) I'd probably need to hear it more diplomatically.

Hey, you and the J-man are always welcome for dinner. I promise I won't make any pork.

ME Strauss said...

Welcome back Melly,
Great post--nice analogy.
I like my feedback specific, especially if I can act upon it or discuss it. I like to know the reasoning behind the comments so that I can decide whether I need to do something or it would just *be nice.*

When it becomes a discussion the reader soemtimes sees where a quick surface change he or she is suggesting might unravel many things, but together you find a new solution that is better than the old and the first suggestion.

That's ideal, I know (BIG GRIN)

Oh yeah, and I like it to be fun.

Melly said...

I like that Carter. I would like to think I have a thick hide, but in all honesty, I probably don't.
And again, it depends who says it more than how they say it.

Self-confidence is such a problematic issue when it comes to our writing, isn't it? It's like I'm two different people: one for daily life with normal self-confident, the other for my writing with almost nil self-confidence. Why is that???

ME Strauss said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Melly said...

Thanks Liz. I was busy... cooking...

Absolutely, without reasoning the writer can't really figure out if a change is necessary, or what it is exactly that needs changing.
But sometimes it's hard to give reasoning. Sometimes you just love or hate a piece. You can analyze it, but still the feeling is there, unexplained.

Ideal, fun, discussion, happy... I don't know... sounds so... nice...
Are you sure we're talking about the same thing?
Just kidding, of course.

Melly said...

Oh, and Pat, sorry, I forgot to thank you for the link.
Will definitely look at it.

dog1net said...

Good analogy. I like the flavor of this post.

Melly said...

Hey there, dog1net. Well, as long as it's not the trout's...

Cavan said...

When I'm getting feedback - bite, scratch, maim - tear whatever I've written to shreds. I need that to know what I'm doing wrong (and chances are I'm doing wrong more often than I'm doing right). That said, I also need to be praised, and I don't mean in a mindless "your story was sooooo good, I loved it, it's so totally like the best thing I've read...ever" kind of way). Basically, I need to be told what's great about my work and what sucks. Only then can I know what to keep and what not to.

Generally, I can tell when a reviewer dislikes the story because they think its poorly written and when they dislike because it's just not their taste. In fact, on my blog I recently asked for beta readers for a short story I'd completed. One of those who responded told me that my story was decent, but instead of focusing on this character it should've focused on that character, and instad of being about this it should've been about that. His points were rather interesting, but ultimately, he just wasn't interested in my story and wanted the concept I'd come up with to be used in an entirely different fashion.

Jean said...

I can't fix it if I don't know what's wrong or can't break your code. If I'm writing something for publication (yes, for some strange reason, that is my goal), I need to know if it isn't working. I don't have much experience with getting feedback, so I'm sure my hide isn't thick enough yet, but it needs to get thicker. Please help. So far, nobody has hurt my feelings. I can usually see exactly what someone means when they point out a problem and tend to agree.

As Monica Jackson said, she can bring out the stiletto heels and tapdance all over the manuscript or she can (while banging her head on the monitor) tell you everything's just fine. I think stiletto heels, thoughtfully applied, would result in a more marketable manuscript. Bring 'em on.

Melly said...

cWow, Cavan, 2 excellent points.

Tell me the good stuff too and be just as brutally honest about that ;) Of course we need to know what we're doing well, not just what we're doing bad.

Your other point - the distinction between someone not liking a story because it's poorly written or because it's not his/her taste makes a lot of sense. You'd take the criticism in a whole different light.

In fact, I think this is perhaps what Pat was saying too, but me being the thick person that I am took it the wrong way.

Melly said...

LOL Jean. Love your analogy.

Seems to be a concensus amongst us writers. I don't know, maybe we do develop a thick hyde with all those rejection letters. Maybe we can accept criticism much better.

Stileto heals is.

Patry Francis said...

Very interesting subject, Melly and I love the cooking analogy.

Unfortunately all criticism is not created equal. Discerning which criticism to accept and utilize and which to ignore is one of the most important skills a writer can develop. For that reason, I like my criticism honest, detailed and well-reasoned. No attack dogs or stiletto heels on my heart, but no Hallmark cards either.

Melly said...

Patry, you're so right. It's not just how to "accept" criticism but it's learning how to "discern" it.

Okay, I'll keep my dogs leashed with you... :)

Eric Mutta said...

As a programmer, I view the writer-reviewer relationship the same way as the programmer-hacker relationship.

On the left side of said relationships, you have the creators. They have to synthensize ideas, actively searching the maze within all creative minds, then immortalise their conceptions in ink. On the right side, you have the destroyers. With very little effort, they can savagely shred a piece to bits in the time it takes one to blink.

Before I started writing publicly, I spent an awful lot of time reading people's reviews of movies, books, etc. I came away with the following:

*90% of reviews are next to useless for the advancement of the writer.

*If someone is writing a review, then congratulations: either you impressed them or you really ticked them off.

*The best reviews come from those who could have themselves written what is being reviewed.

For my writing, I welcome all reviews, especially those from the raving savages who believe it is their duty to tear your work apart. You see, if you humbly point out the lack of anything resembling a neuron inside those craniums of theirs, they will retaliate by telling the whole world about it. In doing so, they achieve two things: making a mockery of themselves, and advertising your work to people who wouldn't otherwise have known about it...Call it writer's Judo :-)

PS: what on earth are split peas? (Having found his first target, Eric goes off to start the RSPCV - Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vegetables ;-).

Dana said...

How do I prefer my feedback? Directly, but with some respect. I wouldn't want to hear, "Your story sucks raw eggs." I would prefer something like, "Dana, this needs a lot of work in (insert sections) if you want it to sell."

Sorry about the trout.

Good post! And thanks for commenting on my blog today.

Lee Carlon said...

I've never had a problem telling people their food sucks, if it's no good I just can't eat it.

Breaking the news to a writer on the other hand I'm not so good at, I try to find diplomatic ways to say things, having studied communication in one of my jobs I know that people react to, and understand, postives quicker than negatives.

So instead of saying, 'your main character was poorly written and undeveloped,' I'd say 'you need to bring out more of your main character's personality and flesh him out,' not a huge difference between the two, but I think it would make a difference to the author, and as Pat said, there really is no point putting the author on the defensive because they'll miss most of what you're saying, and then you're wasting everybodies time.

Melly said...

Shame on me. I'm not sure about the difference between programmer and hacker, Eric, even if I think I was one (or the other) at some point.

Now to the all important question - what are split peas? They're usually field peas that are dried and then split. When soaked (like in soup), they get soft again and yummi.

So... you're going for the "negative publicity" stint? :)
I admit I more often than not wanted to do the same, but alas, I'm a chicken shit. Good for you, take it like a man, and give it like a man! ;)

Melly said...

"Your story sucks raw eggs." - That's hilarious, Dana.

Yeah... the trout.. oh well, what can you do?

I'll be coming to see you often :)
I love discovering new blogs.

Melly said...

Lee, you're my kind 'a guy! When it comes to cooking feedback.

You and Pat are smart people. I've seen writers go on the defensive and then they can't get anything else into their heads. It turns into an argument rather than a feedback session.

Shirazi said...

Fine points that i am going to take. Thanks.

Melly said...

Always good to see you here, Shirazi.

Erasmo Nault said...

I really appreciate people like you who take their chance in such an excellent way to give an impression on certain topics. Thanks for having me here.

Marti said...

Honest but not mean criticism please, with a spoonful of sugar (example - "But I liked this part") LOL

I am reading all of the WBA entries, and enjoying the journey very much.

Great post- thanks for sharing!

Melly said...

Erasmo, sorry, seems I've missed your comment. Thank you :)

Marti, I like a spoonful of sugar as well :)