To write my novel, Bonobo!, I sought different kinds of training and feedback. I worked through a variety of texts, participated in several Meetup groups, and requested critiques from family and friends. The least-helpful feedback I got was from someone at a Meetup who wrote only, “Start over.” I guess that beats, “Give up.”
No one went to the other extreme, editing my work the way that legendary editors of yore did for, say, Harper Lee. The most productive thing I did was take a class on novel-writing from Sarah Stone through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program.
First, she knows her subject. She produced a popular textbook on writing fiction, and her novel (which I read) offers a unique, compelling, and emotionally difficult tale.
Above all, Sarah was encouraging. She didn’t foist a template on her students but instead helped each to achieve his or her vision. She would be great for writers with fragile egos (not a problem for me, comparatively) because of 1) her ability to find and extol what’s promising in almost anything and 2) her tact in suggesting other approaches. As a former language-arts teacher, I was really impressed. She told me that she sent comments that might embarrass students – for example, regarding problems with grammar – in private messages.
For me, her approach might have been a little too positive. Because she praised other students’ work that, I thought, had major weaknesses, I couldn’t gauge the quality of my work by her comments.
Nonetheless, she did suggest revisions. I appreciated that these focused on the big picture rather than on pickable nits.
She might take a different approach in one-on-one coaching or in other types of courses, but I suspect that in any teaching context she’s both kind and helpful. After all, she at least pretends to remember me when I pester her with updates about my novel.
The upshot for me is this: I felt more inspired and more able to finish Bonobo! I’m sure that it’s much better because I took Sarah Stone’s course.
As a recent reviewer of a promising new author’s (ahem) first novel, I can say that giving a helpful critique is not an easy thing to do. Glad you had the opportunity to get feedback from someone who has experience with making it productive and encouraging.
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