Being a Better Writer: Good Sources of Positive Interaction

Hello readers, and welcome back to another Being a Better Writer Monday usual!

Yeah, I know. I need to think of some new greetings. Regardless, I hope you all had a wonderful weekend. Mine was both invigorating and enlightening. Twice a year my faith holds a church-wide, televised conference over Saturday and Sunday, and this weekend happened to be it, so I had a lovely weekend relaxing in my recliner listening to said conference and doing self-discovery and examination.

In any case, that doesn’t have too much to do with today’s topic, though if I wanted it too, I likely could find some application. Actually, now that I’ve typed that, I think I can already see some application, but it remains to be seen if they’ll come out in this post or not.

So … Good sources of positive interaction. This is kind of an interesting topic, one that has to do more with the tangential bits of writing than the straight act of putting your fingers to a keyboard (or pen to paper, if you’re that old-fashioned). You could probably write an entire book—no, you could—without ever finding a need for this particular topic. But as you write a second? Or a third? Or start to edit that first one?

Well … this topic suddenly becomes a lot more valid. As solitary as writing can be at times (which is very, just ask my friends and family, some of whom occasionally see me come up for air), it’s also an act that cannot exist in a vacuum. Not just socially (we as human beings need interaction with others) but for the good of our writing as well. We need feedback. Responses. Interaction.

So how do we find good interactions that will improve our craft? And how do we avoid those that will harm it?

Well, that is the topic according to the post title, isn’t it? So let’s dive into this.

Okay, we’re going to start with (as usual) the most basic: why does an author—any author—need sources of positive interaction?

Actually, for that matter, what do I mean when I say “positive interaction?” After all, that’s kind of a broad topic. Am I talking about reviews? Audience interaction? Editor interaction? Day-to-day interaction?

Well … actually, I’m talking about all of those things. Reviews, audience, editors … all of it is interaction. From writing groups to reader feedback, it’s all interaction. And, like any other form of interaction, it can be good or bad.

For example, a lot of authors I know don’t read their one-star or two-star reviews. Some extend this to not reading their reviews at all. Why?

Because there’s a danger in—especially once there’s a few hundred of them—diving into reviews that have little to nothing good to say about your work. As one author I listened to put it (though I’m paraphrasing here), ‘there’s a real dangers in reading those reviews and starting to see those flaws in your own work even if they don’t exist and then trying to fix something for someone who is never going to read another one of your books anyway.’

In a way, this is a bit similar to the whole “Look our for Detractors” post I wrote years ago: There’s no sense in exposing yourself to material that isn’t going to at least give you something to go on. Which, by the way, is why the author that wouldn’t read one and two-star reviews would read three-star reviews. At that point, any flaws discussed would likely be given a bit of balance.

Now, I’m not saying that one and two-star reviews don’t have merit. Crud, I’ve left a few in my time. But as a creator, this author held that they didn’t want to dig deep into a bunch of reviews that found little-to-no value in their writing and damage their own confidence. Or worse, build themselves up to believing in a problem that wasn’t there.

In all fairness, I believe they have a solid point, and though I still peruse my one-star reviews through a justly-earned lens of skepticism, it still does feel a bit like a hit sometime when I come across one.

But at the same time, what would happen if I listened to those reviews? Do they carry any real merit? Well … considering there’s a one-star review for Colony that boils down to ‘this book has too much character and plot, and I don’t like either’ I’d venture to guess no.

Anyway, let’s not run the risk of getting too off-topic here. The point is that fixating on these reviews (or for some authors, even reading them) can be a source of negative interaction, one that detracts from their writing and saps their confidence to create another book. Which is bad.

Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be aware of our own flaws and areas where we can improve with writing. We should! But that’s what good interaction does. A lot of low reviews are not designed to do that. Crud, some of them are just personal attacks on authors that folks have decided to target. That’s not a great source of interaction.

But moving away from reviews for a moment and back to interaction, I think you can see why the author I spoke of made this choice, and why many others follow in their footsteps. They want to create the best story they can each time. And so they try to limit their interaction to things that push them to create that best story. Things that lift them up OR help them up.

Anything can be an interaction. When I talk with a fan, that’s interaction. When I send my editing team a draft? That’s interaction. Etc etc. If you’re wondering about “sources” of interaction, well … all of these are interactions! It’s making them good that is the tricky part. And that … Well, that starts in an unexpected place.

It starts with you.

Let me tell you a story. Not where I was the author, but the “interaction.” Early in my writing career, when I only had two books out, and was working on a third, I found myself in a very odd position. Someone I knew had handed my number out to someone else who invited me to a lunch to talk about writing and whatnot. I was skeptical (and rightly so, and later requested that this person not simply give my personal number out to whoever they wanted), but saw no harm in taking a free lunch, at the least.

What followed was one of the more awkward lunch meetings I’ve ever had. The individual who had invited me there (at their own dime, no less) wasn’t there to pitch me a book, or to try and hire me onto a publisher. No, I was there to be, at their request, a source of “good interaction” with a wanna-be author they’d somehow taken under their wing.

Here’s the thing: They didn’t want me to “coach” said young writer. They basically wanted me to tell them what they wanted to hear: That their work was great, and that their decisions were justified, and that they should publish it (“… and could I help with that?” was suggested but thankfully never truly on the table) immediately to start making money.

You might guess that I “failed” this particular “job interview.” The story this young author described was a complete mess, though I did not say such. In fact, I tried my best to be a good source of interaction—which meant in this case trying to push them towards improving their craft, identifying the flaws, etc. They were a student at a college, so I pointed them toward the school’s creative writing courses … only to be met with derision, denial, and claims that they had “spoken with” some of the teachers of those classes, only to have their work refuted and that those teachers just didn’t “get it.” Or something like that anyway.

What’s the point of sharing this story? To illustrate one of the single most important bits about good interaction for your writing: It starts with you. If you’re not willing to have a good interaction, then it won’t happen.

This kid might have been a good writer someday. But from my interaction with them, they’d already closed off all interaction save something that praised their work. And while yes, it’s nice to get feedback that is positive in emotion, that doesn’t make it good feedback. As a creator, for good interaction to happen, interaction that helps improve, interaction that builds your talent and skill up, you have to be willing to open yourself up to it. You have to swallow a bit of humble pie and look at the interaction you receive and say “Well, maybe that’s right. Is it? What can I change?” You have to trust those that give you interaction, or decide if you trust them.

Note that I didn’t say one should say all feedback is right. Again, this lies with you. In order for interaction to be good, you need to learn so that you can pick out what does and doesn’t work with interaction. At the same time, you need to learn how to voice it properly as well.  For instance, I’ve had good interactions with my Alpha and Beta readers where one of them has said one part or another doesn’t work … but because they missed something earlier that tied it in. How? I don’t just say “You’re wrong.” I point out that I feel they missed an earlier context that I feel makes it work. However, I then also ask if they missed that context, and if they did, was it because the earlier context wasn’t enough? Should the later scene be tied-in more closely? Etc etc.

Point being, the interaction is good because on my end it’s … I don’t want to say humble, because that would feel like me tooting my own horn in opposite to that very claim. Shall we say “reasoned?” Or perhaps “open?” My sources of interaction know that they can throw something out there because even if I don’t agree with them, there will likely be a dialogue about it (Yay for modern editing tools!), and we’ll figure out what does need to change and then it’ll happen. After which, even for a minor fix, I thank them for their help.

Result? Good interactions. But while they’re good because I have good editors, the interactions also good because well, I work to make them good on my end, and they do on their end, and we meet in the middle with a good result.

But in that equation, if I wasn’t doing my best to have a good interaction, there wouldn’t be any good interaction. And this applies from everything from meeting a fan to commissioning a cover. In sense, we can use the old adage of “You reap what you sow.”

Now, brief aside: This doesn’t mean that you have to treat all criticism as “fair” or be congenial all the time. If someone comes to you in bad faith … ignore them or block or whatever. The challenge is making sure that you’re in good faith making the right call there (which we’ll talk more about in a moment). But recognize that while you work on making you a good interaction, some people will still stay “bad interactions” with zero intent of being a good one. Feel free to take those folks with a grain of salt, or just shove them off entirely.

But as I said, while it starts with you, what about finding sources outside of making yourself one?

Well, this one can be tricky, especially when you first start looking. For starters, it involves a measure of trust to get there in the first place.

Let me explain: When you first start looking for sources of interaction that can be good for you, be they reviews, fans, feedback, etc … How will you know what is good and what isn’t? Especially if you’re just getting started?

Well, there are two ways, and you’ll end up using both of them. One is trial and error, and the other is education. Both require a bit of trust, and both take time. But like most things in writing, there is no magic bullet. You’ll just have to go for it.

Education then. Let’s talk about that. So you want good interaction. But how will you know if advice or feedback someone giving is good, bad, or even worth merit? This is where education comes in.

Yes, it takes trust. You have to trust that an educator of some kind knows what they’re talking about. But say you take a few creative writing courses. You start to learn things like “plot structure” and “pacing” or maybe even ways of giving characters “depth.” You learn about these things, and then you start to realize that of the people you’re interacting with on your work, one of them doesn’t appear to have any idea how these elements work, and often criticizes things that don’t make sense, while others offer feedback and interaction that does fall in line with what you’ve learned.

Or maybe you learn about different “flavors” of writing, and how different styles appeal to different readers, and realize that this is why some feedback on your work seems so harshly divided. Thus allowing you to make a more careful judgement based on what you want to go for.

If you want your interactions with writing to be good, you’ll have to learn about writing so that you know who to believe and why. Some people, for all their fancy words, really don’t know what they’re talking about. Vice-versa, some people who may not know all the technical terms still might have a really good idea of structure or pacing.

Now the second bit: Actually finding these sources. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no easy way. You just go looking.

Try writing groups. Try fans. Look for feedback. Then you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s a form of positive or negative interaction for yourself. Which is why it helps to have your own self in line as well as have some knowledge of things so you know what to look for.

From there … Well, you just have to work to build what works for you. As I said back at the beginning, some authors don’t read one-star reviews or even any reviews. Others love reading them. Both want nothing more than to write the best book they can, but each have different rules for themselves that they set to keep their interactions good.

Likewise, you’ll have to build some of your own, likely by trial and error. But if you take away anything  from this today …

All writers need interaction. Positive interaction that helps us grow and expand (or even relax, though that’s a different kind of interaction usually). If you want to have good, positive interactions? Start with yourself. Then work outward.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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