Listen, absorb and reflect

Friday, December 1, 2017
Shivaun Plozza interviewed by Amy Adeney

Shivaun Plozza headshot
Shivaun Plozza

"What connects an intellectual understanding of story to the ability to construct one," says tutor Shivaun Plozza, "is tied up in soliciting and digesting quality feedback." Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Shivaun about how to give an receive feedback effectively, and the role it can play in fine-tuning your writing.

You say that seeking feedback is an integral part of the writing journey – can you share some examples of how feedback has impacted your own writing journey?

When I worked as an English teacher I repeatedly told my students that one of the best ways to improve writing skills was reading - to read widely and extensively. But I've realised there's a chasm between what you pick up subconsciously when reading and the ability to adequately construct a story from scratch - knowing what a story is and being able to write one are two different but connected things. What fills that chasm, what connects an intellectual understanding of story to the ability to construct one, is tied up in soliciting and digesting quality feedback. I guess what I'm saying is that reading gives you the building blocks but feedback shows you how to piece those blocks together to make the best possible house.

For example, I'd never thought about structure - I just wrote the story that came into my head without questioning the order of events or how best to tell that story. But after listening to my feedback partners say things like 'it's a bit slow in this section' or 'I wasn't sure what the purpose of this scene was' or 'the ending was rushed' I was able to guide my revisions to focus on structure. I'd never consciously thought about the way certain plot points hit at certain times in novels until someone pointed out that I wasn't hitting them in mine. The thing about writing is that the novel that exists in your head and the novel you actually write are not the same thing - feedback helps you realise what you've got right and what you need to improve on, because it's hard for a writer to separate their vision for the novel from what they've actually written in order to clearly see the novel's faults.

Participants of your upcoming workshop will learn who to listen to, how to interpret what is said, how much feedback to incorporate, and how to maintain ownership of your writing while still being open to changes. What are some common mistakes writers make when considering feedback of their work?

I would say the number one thing is they don't listen; instead, they get defensive (which is completely understandable as who wants to hear the writing project they've spent years working on is anything but perfect?) While not all feedback is going to be spot on, it's vital to listen, to absorb and reflect before making a decision on how you want to act. I always advise my students to stay silent when receiving feedback - to listen even when they don't agree or when they feel the need to explain ('but I was trying to ...' – it doesn't matter what you were trying to do. If a reader doesn't get it, perhaps what you were trying to do and what you actually did don't correlate). It's always up to the writer what feedback they act on but the process won't be helpful at all if they dismiss any and all concerns.

On the flip side of that is the writer who has so little confidence in themselves that they take on board every piece of advice offered as sacrosanct and end up creating the novel equivalent of Frankenstein's monster or getting themselves so confused about what to believe and what to do that they stop writing all together. Holding true to your vision for a project is important when putting it out there for feedback - it's about finding the balance between being open to acting on criticism and owning your vision.

What advice can you offer to writers who are asked to critique the work of others?

'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is important to keep in mind when giving feedback. To offer feedback sensitively and thoughtfully is vital - it's not hyperbole to say that giving aggressive or needlessly harsh criticism to a writer can cause them to throw out an entire writing project or, worse, give up writing completely. I was told once I didn't have the talent for writing and it almost caused me to quit so I say this from experience!

In my course we'll learn specific ways to go about providing helpful feedback but one important thing to note is you need to be generous. I often see in workshop conditions, writers who don't give feedback to other participants but expect to receive thorough feedback themselves. Giving other people feedback is not only a generous thing to do but it also helps your own writing practice. I firmly believe that few things hone your editing mind more than critiquing others' work - it gives you the ability to find and articulate flaws in a way that is difficult to do with your own writing, where you often cannot see the forest for the trees. Once you develop a critical eye and the ability to sense and articulate what is and isn't working, I find you can then apply that with greater ease to your own writing.

Do you always turn to the same people for feedback on your writing? Have you ever received helpful feedback from an unlikely source?

I have a writers' group that I've been a part of for a number of years and they are my frontline for feedback. And I of course have my editor and agent. I don't actively seek feedback outside of these groups. But that wasn't always the case. Having done a lot of study and short courses on writing I have been critiqued hundreds of times so over the years I've been able to whittle down who I show my work to until I've found the group that works best for me. 

That said, when you put your work out for publication you get reviewed, so writers of course have access to a variety of opinions, should they wish to seek them out. Reviews can be a great way to get a sense of the most common concerns readers have with your work so that you might be able to improve subsequent writing projects. 

Your second YA novel ‘Tin Heart’ is soon to be published. Did you learn any lessons from the publication of ‘Frankie’ which led you to do things differently the second time around?

The thing about writing a novel is you can't really learn how to do it without actually doing it - you can study writing and have a basic intellectual understanding of what a novel is but until you sit down to write it - and to see it all the way through to publication - you can't really know what's involved in the process. Which means you make a lot of mistakes. A lot. But the great thing is that hopefully you don't make the same mistakes twice, so it gets a little easier the more you do it. Certainly the feedback I received in writing Frankie, my first novel, helped me plan Tin Heart better.

About Shivaun Plozza

Shivaun Plozza is the author of ‘Frankie’, a darkly funny novel about a troubled teen willing to defy her friends, family and the law to find her missing brother. Her second novel, ‘Tin Heart’, is due for release early in 2018. Other works have appeared in anthologies and journals including ‘Where the Shoreline Used to Be’, ‘ELLE Australia’, ‘Text’ and ‘The Victorian Writer’. When not writing, Shivaun works as a freelance editor and manuscript assessor.

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.