Interviewer: OK, in our weekly spot about how to write a novel, I’m talking to novelist Louise Doughty. Louise, this week we’re talking about getting comments and feedback on your work from other people. ‘If there is anything in your own work you think particularly fine,’ said Ernest Hemingway, ‘strike it out.’ Is that good advice?
Writer: Well, few would-be novelists aspire to be as plain and brutal as Hemingway, I suspect, but his dictum is still worth tucking into a corner of your brain – not to be followed slavishly, but as an antidote to that great curse of the inexperienced novelist: over-writing. 
Interviewer: How do you know if you are over-writing?
Writer: Well, an excess of adverbs and adjectives is a clue. Repetition under the guise of emphasis is another, and extended metaphors should be rationed tightly.
Interviewer: Now, there comes a point in the writing of every novel when you just don’t know any more. You’ve been immersed in it for weeks, possibly years. You’ve lost sight of the original impetus behind the book and are plagued with self-doubt – yet at the same time you know there is something there and are not ready to give up on it.
Writer: Yes, and this is the point at which you should be getting feedback. 
Interviewer: From whom?
Writer: As a rule, I’d advise against getting it from your nearest and dearest. You will be wounded by their criticism and suspicious of their praise. Instead, join a writing community of some sort. You need comments from another writer. Those who have been logging onto my website will know that such a community has formed there. Creative writing courses and book groups are also good places to find like-minded souls. Through such contacts you can find someone who understands what you are trying to do – which is not the same as someone who is uncritical of the way you do it. There is a time and a place for emotional support, but that is not what we are talking about here. 
Interviewer: What kind of comments are useful in your view?
Writer: Well, you need someone who is prepared to say, ‘I really like the opening paragraph but I thought it went a bit wrong after that because…’ and, crucially, is prepared to be specific. ‘I just didn’t like him’ is not a helpful comment on a character. ‘I lost sympathy with him in the scene where he tells his brother the truth because I thought he was too brutal. Maybe you should re-write it making his motivation clearer and his language softer.’ That is useful advice: you can choose whether to take it or discard it.  Similarly, at the level of prose style, some well-meaning person might say ‘It’s a bit boring’, but a helpful critic would say ‘You have three paragraphs of description here before you tell us who is talking; maybe you should consider starting the conversation first and weaving all the description in, instead of having it all in one chunk.’
Interviewer: How do you personally get feedback on your work?
Writer: The most fruitful relationships I have with other writers are with the novelists with whom I swap work – usually the person whose novel is under discussion pays for dinner.  If you can find other novelists who are working at a similar level to yourself, with similar interests, and who are frank and unafraid of frankness from you, then keep them close at hand.
Interviewer: Now what about reactions to feedback? We’ve talked about getting it, but what about when you’ve got it?
Writer: Well, even with a trusted ally, there comes a point when you have to stick to your guns and say, ‘This person whom I really respect doesn’t like this bit but I do and it’s staying in.’  And of course, feedback can be annoying. For a start, a lot of the criticism you receive will be stuff which you knew already in your heart of hearts – you were just hoping nobody else would notice. And sometimes, you will bristle at a certain comment on your work, not because it is untrue but because the consequences of righting that particular defect are too daunting to contemplate at that particular time – accurate criticism is the most painful of all. On other occasions, you will have a gut feeling that the person reading your work just doesn’t ‘get’ it, or wants you to write a different novel entirely. Frequently, the only way to work out if criticism is useful is to nod sagely, then file it in a drawer. When the wounds have healed over and your ego is not under immediate threat, then you will be able to assess its true worth.
It certainly wasn’t like any other I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a few. There was a strange atmosphere as everyone gathered and I thought there was a definite tension in the air. Everyone was clearly divided into two sides and there was clearly some history between them. Anyway, the main part passed off OK, and I was having a decent time, chatting to all sorts of people. Then, all of a sudden, one group was shouting at each other and pointing fingers and generally being very unpleasant. It was quite a scene and insults were exchanged.  Fortunately, I don’t think the happy couple saw any of it, so I don’t think it spoilt their day. 
There was certainly a big turnout, more than I’d expected. I hadn’t been very sure about whether to go or not, I don’t normally like that kind of thing. I thought it would all be ultra-competitive, with everyone trying to prove they’d done better than everyone else since we last met.  But actually, we all got on famously and had a great time reminiscing about the old days. Even the people I hadn’t liked much before were good company.  It was a shame when it ended, I’d have liked to talk to them for longer. I wrote down lots of addresses and phone numbers and we all agreed to keep in touch, though I don’t know if we will.
It wasn’t the best organized thing I’ve ever been to. They should have kept it down to just a few key people, instead of which the place was crammed with all sorts of people that didn’t have much to do with the matter at hand. It became apparent pretty quickly that very little was going to be achieved. Half the people couldn’t hear what the other half were saying and we didn’t even get through the first point for discussion.  So the people in charge decided to cut it short and call another one, with fewer people, some time later.  So we were all back outside ages before it was supposed to finish. It was a farce, really.
I turned up because I used to work with both of them, though I hadn’t seen either of them for quite some time. Our career paths had gone in different directions. Actually, it was a bit of a shame, because they’d gone to a lot of trouble to organize it and then half the people they were expecting didn’t turn up.  They’d both given years of good service, you’d have thought more people would have shown up for their last day , but I guess they couldn’t be bothered. I’d only been planning to stay for a short while, but I hung on till the end. I didn’t have the heart to go, they looked so disappointed.
It was quite a performance getting there – all sorts of traffic jams – so I missed the beginning. There was only one empty seat when I got in there, so I just had to sit in it. When I looked round at one point, I realized I was sitting next to a neighbour I’ve never been able to stand. This put me off a bit, because I’ve always avoided him and I didn’t want to end up having to talk to him when the thing was over. I was thinking more about that than what the kids were doing up there.  What I did listen to sounded pretty good, and I knew they’d been rehearsing for ages.  Anyway, as soon as the last bit was over, I just rushed for the door and got out of there