When Laura Munson introduced attendees' readings to the group each evening, she gave the group a particular thing to listen for and provide feedback on that would help the writer move forward in her writing. Each focus was particular for the writer giving her reading, but the direction was instructive for the entire group.
In my case, Laura asked the group to listen for when they began to care about my characters. I read the first scene I'd written that takes Astrid into the mechanic shop. I was nervous. I hadn't shared this vignette with anyone. I was self-conscious. I know nothing about cars and now I'm writing about a woman who becomes a mechanic. I took a deep breath and started reading.
Derrick pulled the navy Pathfinder into the bay. Astrid stood to the side taking in her surroundings. It dawned on her that somehow even though Derrick had built this shop from the ground up nearly ten years ago, she'd rarely come in here. How exactly was that possible? I guess I was intimidated and stayed in the customer area, Astrid reasoned with herself.
Now she was standing where the magic happened. Where cars came in with problems and drove away in working order. She wished there was a shop like that for broken hearts. Pull in, fuse all the fissures, pull out restored. Tears pricked her eyes. There was no way around it. There were no easy fixes. Just one damn day at a time.
“Asty, open the hood will you?” Derrick's request interrupted her thoughts. Startled, she wiped her tears and walked to the driver's side. She opened the door and pulled the lever to open the hood.
“First test passed,” Derrick winked at his sister. “Thank you.” He motioned for her to join him under the hood. “Would you like me to introduce you to your car's engine?”
“Sure,” Astrid said.
“Nissan Pathfinder engine I'd like to introduce you to your driver, Astrid Cole. Astrid Cole, please meet your Nissan Pathfinder engine.”
Astrid giggled and playfully elbowed her brother. “Girl, the better you take care of this engine, the better it will take care of you. And an oil change is one of the most important things you can do to preserve your engine. Can you point out where the dipstick is?”
Astrid rolled her eyes and pointed accurately to the dipstick. She leaned forward and pulled the stick out and waved it at her brother. “Watch it, girl. We don't need any sass. Message received. You know where the dipstick is. Very good.”
Astrid looked around.
“What are you looking for?” Derrick asked her.
“I need a paper towel.”
“Why?” Derrick was grinning as he realized his sister was showing off.
“I need it to wipe off the oil. I'll reinsert the stick and determine what the oil level is.” Derrick walked over to a stand that held equipment and tore off a sheet of paper towel.
“Here you go, pro,” Derrick said as he handed her the towel. He watched her swipe the towel over the oily stick and return it into its place in the engine. She pulled it out and read the oil level.
“Whoa. I'd say I'm past due,” Astrid moved the stick in front of her brother so he could read it. “I guess this is one time where being heart sick and depressed is good for a car. I haven't driven much, so I haven't burned up the engine yet.”
Astrid handed the dipstick to her brother. He took it and replaced it. Then he gave her a big hug. She hugged him back and then announced, “Well that concludes what Astrid knows about her car.”
Laura asked for feedback when I finished reading. The women described moments when they started caring about my characters. I looked back at the text. They started caring on the first page! I was humbled, excited, and motivated to keep writing.
They talked to me about how natural my characters were with each other. I also heard that Derrick was too evolved. That he wouldn't talk like that. I love Derrick, and found myself slightly defensive. But I listened and knew she was right.
The feedback from these women echoed what I had received from friends at home when I'd begun asking others to read. I shared Astrid with Tammy and her response more than I expected. She loved Astrid. She wanted more! I kept writing, encouraged that I was actually achieving this fiction thing. I shared the scene when Astrid's in-laws surprise her at her condo. Tammy was angry with the father-in-law and had choice words for him.
Another friend said, “Astrid's hanging out in my head. I can't stop thinking about her and she's not even my character. I want to know what happens next.”
And then I shared a somber scene with a co-worker. She e-mailed me. “I am crying, Julie.” My writing made someone cry? I was taken aback. Rendered speechless, and so grateful.
Asking for feedback is nerve-wracking, but it's an essential part of the writing process. Writers have to be intentional about who they ask for feedback. They also have to learn when the feedback is helpful (even when it isn't what they want to hear) and when to let it go.
My writing is consistently better after I have had a trusted friend read it and make suggestions. The more writers ask for feedback, the better we'll get at receiving it. And most importantly, the better our work becomes.