I’ve just finished the first chapter of a book I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m happy with how it came together generally, but had a feeling that I often have at the early stage of a creative project. “Why don’t I get some feedback and figure out if this is worth developing?” It seems to make so much sense, figure out if it’s any good and whether there’s a market for it, before I put the work into creating an entire novel.
I’ve had similar feelings in the early stages of developing a board game and in creating a website. When I’ve actually followed my desire and posted early stage projects, the feedback I’ve gotten has been vicious, ill informed and pretty useless.
In our heads we imagine that experts in the area we’re working will see our early stage project, give it their full attention, then provide a measured, reasonable, informative critique. Instead, we’re far more likely to get Statler and Waldorf trying to make some cheap jokes at our expense.
If we think about the random assortment of people who make up most online communities, this is the predictable outcome. Experts who provide such feedback in the daily work lives will be unenthusiastic to provide it for free in their free time. In contrast, people who don’t know anything are having their opinion solicit for the first time and will be far more eager to respond. Those who don’t understand what you’re doing also won’t be able to understand that it’s an early stage work – they’ll compare it to polished, finished products and find it desperately lacking.
Beyond this divide, we are unlikely to randomly find someone who would be the type of person to buy our product. This results in people who just don’t like the sort of thing we’re creating giving us feedback. Spoiler alert: you aren’t going to get good feedback that way!
My mom tried to read the first book of Harry Potter and strongly disliked it. If J.K. Rowling had asked her for feedback when it was a manuscript, my mom would have told her to abandon the project. Stardew Valley was a wildly successful indie video game, but the creator got some brutal feedback on it during development from some Redditor.
Stephen King wrote the tampon scene that was the intial idea for his book Carrie and threw it in the garbage once it was done. His wife, Tabitha, fished it out, read it and told him that she thought he had something with it. He completed the work, it sold its paperback rights for a record $400,000 (in 1973), which launched Stephen King’s literary career.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have friends and family who uncritically support us and assure us that terrible output is genius.
If you’re able to receive a mountain of criticism, unemotionally sift through it, remove the vast majority of bad feedback and not let it affect you, then find the occasional pearls of useful suggestions, this might be a worthwhile process. For the vast majority of creators this is a waste of everyone’s time and you’ll be upsetting yourself for no reason.
Pay an Expert then?
You can pay for reviews / editing / teaching and get people to critique your work. Again, finding someone who gets what your doing can be a challenge. If you showed your gamelit fantasy novel to a typical high school English teacher they’re going to say it’s garbage. If you hire an editor who typically works on hard sci-fi and get him to edit your steamy reverse-harem romance you’re not going to get good feedback.
Writer groups are another option, but my experience has been that they’re more for emotional support than improving your technique. If you had the right group, this could work and be useful.
What to do instead?
The ideal group to give you feedback would be a panel of fellow creators who understand the space you’re working in and can follow the tight path of emphasizing the good parts, removing the rough edges and helping it be as good as it can be.
I have no idea how you could possibly assemble such a panel or why they would devote themselves to helping you develop your project.
What I think is the most worthwhile group you’ll get feedback from is a group of alpha readers. This is a group of readers who like the type of work that you produce and will read a production ready work and provide you with feedback. They’re *NOT* proofreaders / editors, but instead they give you a chance to get reader feedback before it’s been published and give you the opportunity to make changes.
Note as well, you send alpha readers a production ready work – NOT the first chapter that you’ve banged out earlier in the day! Sadly, I think there’s just not a good forum to get feedback on this sort of work-in-progress.
If you have an audience and have already published a few books, it’s easy to offer advanced copies to some of them and instantly create alpha readers. For your first book it’s a lot harder. Trying to find people who have given positive reviews of similar works is worthwhile. Getting friends and family to read it, while taking their reactions with a grain of salt, is also worthwhile.
How have you tried to get feedback on your creative work? Has it been useful?