Articles, Writing

The Right Kind of Support

As I write this, I am in the final stages of preparing my second monthly newsletter – in it will contain something juicy for my subscribers for my upcoming project. This weekend, I prepared an Instagram story as a call-to-arms for anyone in my meagre following to join up before I drop the newsletter on Monday.

This all seems straightforward, does it not? By my own confession, I am not a social media marketing expert; indeed, the whole process seems very much smoke-and-mirrors, but I do try to do it a bit better each time. I don’t think I could’ve made my newsletter easier to sign up for, and I’m thankful to all those who have subscribed so far.

However, I’ve had feedback to my social media efforts that, on the face of it, seem fair and critical – and indeed useful – but I’m struggling a little to deal with quite how they’re being framed.

I’m quite lucky to find myself involved in a few communities and with a group of fellow authors who are very supportive. I never take that support for granted, and indeed, signing up to my newsletter is a personal choice by any reader or supporter, as there’s nary anything quite as personal in today’s digital age than an email address. Being able to beam my message right to people’s email addresses is a powerful privilege and not one I take lightly.

But let’s get back to the matter of feedback. Should we value feedback from those who claim to support but don’t put any action behind those empty words.

Let me expand on the personal experience I have had: I’ve received feedback on a promotional Instagram “story” from a follower on my Instagram who has made no effort to actually engage with the stall I’m setting out. They won’t sign up to my newsletter as they “don’t want clutter in their inbox”. Fair enough. I think it’s true that it’s more important that my newsletter readership is engaged, rather than just being merrily sent to the inboxes of people who will never read it. It’s a nonsense to spend time crafting a newsletter – as I have done – that sits unread in an inbox full of junk mail. I won’t ever get a return in engagement on that. The comment from this particular follower that there’s no point them signing up to a newsletter they have no intention of reading is valid, on its own, on face value. Initially, I was minded to take this feedback in isolation, but as we will discuss, my thoughts on even that have changed.

But then I pondered a bit on the particular history of this follower, who I do know on a personal level. They didn’t choose to buy – or even read – my short story The Landlady as it was “too scary”. Despite not even looking at it. My upcoming newsletter will mention an upcoming live-stream I’m hoping to hold in connection with Nightmare Tenant (I’ll absolutely blog about it soon) – even this did not tempt them to subscribe, even to see what the announcement was. It was a completely cold reaction; fair enough if my writing exploits are not to their interests, but the framing of this came across as very mean-spirited. No sign of a “good luck though”, just a blunt rejection. The impression I got from them was that they’d make a point of being busy so as not to engage with any of my promotional endeavours.

I’m really excited about Nightmare Tenant but I can’t help but feel a good amount of disappointment and dismay from these responses. Sure, there’s some good standalone points that I can use to improve. But this particular ‘supporter’ has pretty much confirmed that nothing I do will ever be ‘good enough’ for them to actually engage. That’s a pretty disheartening, especially as this is a personal contact who purports to be on friendly terms with me.

I get absolutely that my writing thing is not to everyone’s interests, and I do not take support in any of these endeavours for granted in any way. But two things emerge from this situation:

  • Is this feedback valuable? Even on face value, some good points were made. However, they came from a source that has expressly said they will never engage. Do I feel incentivised to take this on board? Not really, honestly. This is something from an author’s standpoint. I feel there are some good points in the comments that have been made, but the way they’ve been framed to me puts me on the complete defensive.
  • As a supporter, remember that those who you offer criticism or advice to are human. I feel quite disappointed that, while offering some good ideas for improvement on face value, this supporter has become unaware that how they’ve framed their criticism – without any positive balance, no “That’s nice, maybe next time try…” – no, it’s just finding faults. And they’re not prepared to make any investment; indeed, it just comes across as less helpful, more snide and nitpicky.

Once again, there is no obligation for anyone to support my writing endeavours by subscribing to the newsletter, buying any of my work, or even reading my blog or social media pages. I am so, so grateful to all the full-throated support I have received, and it keeps me going. I enjoy the community I’m in so much, and I am grateful for their support.

But this kind of completely negative support doesn’t help me. Sure, the points being made to me, in isolation, are good for continual improvement but it’s more the framing of them that just leaves me feeling quite demotivated and upset. I’d have found it less upsetting or distressing if this had been a random online internet troll but the fact it’s from someone I know on (apparently?) friendly terms cut a bit deeper. That’s less easy to dismiss out of hand.

I feel there’s a social contract here – I’m more than happy to support my fellow authors as my support – signing up to an email newsletter – ultimately costs me nothing. I give people the support I hope they would give me – not because it’s a quid-pro-quo, or that they then owe me their support as I’ve lent them mine, but because they genuinely want to help me like I’ve helped them.

The social contract between creator and supporter should be two-way: a supporter can offer genuine and earnest feedback in goodwill but should be prepared to invest a little in that creator in terms of tangible support. Conversely, as a creator, I am much more inclined to take heed of feedback, suggestions or comments if the person has made that tangible commitment.

My strategy from now is not to take this particular instance to heart as ultimately it doesn’t matter. I’m not angry about this; rather, I think it is their loss if they cannot find a reason to offer genuine support. I’m grateful, more, for the real and full-bodied support I enjoy and will focus on that rather than this negativity. I would prefer to surround myself with this kind of support – enthusiastic, but not sycophantic as criticism needs to be constructive and helpful for continual improvement – than focus more on this than needed.

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Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Analysing Beta-Reader Feedback

For my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw, I’ve been lucky in that I have recently gained a great deal of useful feedback from a series of beta-readers, all of whom have now completed their reading of the third draft of the book and submitted their reports to me.

These comments are extremely useful and I’m grateful of the time all of the beta readers put in to reading the book and also offering the feedback.

The question I have at this point is, now that I have the feedback, what do I do with it, and how can I make the most effective use of the comments I’ve been given, so I have recently given some thought as to how I can glean from the feedback the overall trends in the comments.

For the second draft, this plan was a lot easier as I only had one beta-reader report to deal with, and drawing up an action plan from that was easier with only one opinion to go from.

To draw up an action plan for the next edit, I quickly realised that this needs to be organised or it won’t be effective, and I think in previous posts I’ve talked about my shoot-from-the-hip approach to planning the story. I don’t want to rely on my intuition as much as it’s unreliable and it provides more of a mental tax on the creative process, which bogs one down.

So, as each of the reports has come through, what have my tactics been so far?

  • Firstly, I’ve been conducting a series of “debriefs” with each beta-reader, where possible. This has taken the form of an unstructured chat about the reading experience, dipping in to the feedback and generally just talking out ideas to resolve issues and points made in the feedback. I’ve already had some great ideas the implement into Draft 4 from these so far and I’ve more to do!
  • All of the feedback I’ve got has been imported from the individual responses into a main feedback spreadsheet. This has helped me, at a glance, view the different responses to each question. I’ve also tried to plan ahead and highlight salient points in the feedback as positive (in green) and things that need improvement (in red). I am deliberately not describing these red comments as “negative” as I think that term has connotations that don’t apply in this situation.

At this moment I have the main feedback form comments imported into my feedback spreadsheet (questions to the left, each beta-reader’s comments get their own column so I can at a glance compare and view different answers to various questions) and highlighted as appropriate. My next task is to add to the spreadsheet the various notes from the online debrief sessions I’ve been doing.

As I mentioned in my previous post about this beta-reading experience, I want the feedback to be all in one place for easy analysis, and this method of logging the feedback in an organised way is going to make my next task – drawing up an action plan for each of the questions, which will then feed back in turn into an overall master plan for the next draft – a lot easier.

Already I feel that I am a lot better prepared to squeeze the most value out of the feedback I’ve got for this book – I’m feeling confident, but there’s plenty of work to do. I’m glad I sent this draft to the beta-readers now as I was confident of its stature but there’s some golden ideas to further enhance it.

I think also looking back, my belated epiphany to the level of organisation is already paying off for this project and other ones. I’m working on a new project which I hope to talk about very soon wherein I’ve learned my lessons from the planning aspect of this story and it’s making the writing process considerably easier and more enjoyable!

I see myself as a “technical writer” so these insights into workflow and how it’s changed over time – for the better, I must add – help me reflect on my own process and how it is constantly evolving and becoming more efficient! Hopefully readers find this interesting too and helpful also.

Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Surveying Beta Readers

I’m currently in the process of gaining feedback from a selection of beta-readers for my work-in-progress post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw, which is now at draft 3 stage. I’ve had three out of the eight people who have been sent the work respond, and I’ve undertaken a couple of beta-reads myself in that time.

First of all, it’s important to understand what I wanted from my beta-readers – if I didn’t know what I wanted then the feedback I would’ve gotten would’ve been just as scatty. Just before I sent The Thaw out, after actually having agreed who would beta-read, I received an email from Bethany Votaw with her novella Tracker, which I agreed to beta-read for her. She included in her email a series of questions she wanted me to answer to comprise my feedback.

Actually, let’s step back: I’d already by this point been working on what to ask my beta-readers. Bethany’s email helped me focus my efforts as my initial questionnaire, even at an incomplete stage, was sitting at around 47 questions, and that was before I’d finished. I reflected and thought this would be a tall order for any of my beta-readers to complete without it seeming like “a job”. I wanted beta-reading The Thaw to be as easy as possible, as it’s meant to be fun.

To that end, I “zoomed out” with my questionnaire, choosing to ask less, broader questions and allowing my beta-readers to expand on their own thoughts. These are all intelligent, gracious people giving me their time – for free – and I felt bad “working” them too much, so the long questionnaire was simplified down to 25 broader questions.

The initial 47-questions one was an in-depth quiz featuring text boxes and tick-box answers. I structured it into what I thought were logical sections: General Thoughts, Story, The Ending, Setting & World, Themes & Influences, Characterisation and six sections I titled “character focus” sections on specific main characters. Can you see how this quickly became a nearly-50-question goliath that even I, the creator, was struggling to tame?

In organising the feedback for my beta-reader’s, I thought about including the questions via email, or on a separate, empty Word document for my beta-readers to fill in; this was the approach I took when the sole beta-reader (I did ask others!) replied. It worked but with this, as I was expecting a lot of feedback both in terms of scope and in terms of the number of beta-readers, I decided I needed to be organised off the bat and having feedback forms floating around in my emails just wasn’t right.

As a Microsoft 365 subscriber I have access to a product called Microsoft Forms, which is a tool in which surveys and quizzes can be created and responses collated. I have used it already with some success with my Doctor Who Fan-film Reverence of the Daleks, which has an Audience Survey attached to it. Therefore, I thought Microsoft Forms was a no-brainer in collating the feedback for The Thaw draft 3.

(Obviously, I’d be remiss to not mention that other providers are available: Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Jotform, etc; I just chose Microsoft Forms because it integrated with my OneDrive storage)

Microsoft Forms has a lot of powerful survey features – sections, branching etc – of which I used practically none in this instance. The difference between the “public” survey I created for the Doctor Who film and the “private” survey I was planning for the beta readers of The Thaw draft 3 was that with the “public” survey I decided to guide the responder a lot more with more mandatory questions, while also simplifying some of the questions for the sake of time and effort with tick-boxes, dropdowns or rating boxes, as if a form is “too much effort”, people won’t want to expend the effort, for better or worse.

With the “private” survey for my volunteer beta-readers I could be more confident that they would be inclined to fill in a long text field; indeed, the feedback form for The Thaw draft 3 was 25 questions and a “what would you rate the book out of 5?” question. I kept it simple and streamlined and I’m really pleased with how it worked out.

Even now, I am considering how I could’ve done the feedback form better – maybe I could’ve built on some of the interesting lessons from the “public” form I did for the Doctor Who film and included a section of tick-box answers to provide me with a quick snapshot of statistics for how my beta-readers felt that perhaps wouldn’t require a great deal of thought and typing into an open-ended text field.

That said, I’m confident that I hit a great balance with this feedback form in allowing for detailed discussion while not making it so overly-long that it felt like a slog or an effort, which would’ve been doubly concerning as Microsoft Forms, sadly, doesn’t give the option of saving a response partway though, it’s all or nothing – I am forever grateful of my beta-readers, all of whom so far have spent considerable time filling out the form, some nearly two hours!

So far, I have had three detailed and considered responses, all readily accessible in my Forms dashboard. They’re not going to be lost in my emails or scattered around my hard drive – though I will blog in the future about my efforts to centralise my workflow. My plan once I have more responses is to pull them out of Forms and put each question in a spreadsheet – yes! – with the answers from each respondent and draw my conclusions from there. I’ve already downloaded the responses so far to my computer so I can read them there as PDFs but they’re always accessible online and easy to find!

Bethany recently complimented me greatly on my organisation of my feedback during a live stream she hosted (I belatedly join the chat at around the 1hr13m point but it’s all great), and I am really pleased that my method worked and has made being a beta-reader of mine considerably less strenuous. While it may seem like a lot of effort to set up an online feedback form as opposed to sending questions as a document in an email, I think the organisational benefits of having that feedback readily accessible (for the author) and readily submittable (for the reader) really makes it worth considering, even if it may take some additional time to set up.