For the past two summers, novelist LaShonda Katrice Barnett has offered a series of 30-minute one-on-one feedback sessions at Islanders Write, The MV Times’ sponsored writers festival, to writers who have finished a draft of a novel. When asked for comment about the feedback session, one of those writers, Brenda Horrigan, said, “In our session together, LaShonda opened up a realm of future possibilities for me and my work. She assessed its main strengths, the likely publisher interest, and made suggestions on what to do next. Her encouragement, direction, and offer of future feedback motivated and reenergized me as a writer. I was particularly impressed by her assessment of the market for a book like mine — when I signed with a literary agent nine months later, the agent’s assessment echoed LaShonda’s almost exactly!”
Barnett is a writer and teacher whose debut novel, “Jam on the Vine,” was published in 2016 to swoony reviews, including this one from O Magazine: “Barnett creates an ode to activism, writing with a scholar’s eye and a poet’s soul.” Since she’ll be returning to IW this summer, we decided it was a good time to check in with her and ask about her approach to giving feedback.
You’ve very generously volunteered to talk one-on-one with people who have finished a draft of a novel. In these sessions, what kind of feedback have people been looking for?
Firstly, people are really grateful to have a close reader take a look at their writing. I am always touched by the look of surprise I get when I mention a particularly stunning paragraph, or interesting symbol, or pose a question about a participant’s writing. Writing is a very humbling act, and people — no matter how much they have published — experience a special gratitude when their work is pored over carefully. Secondly, people want questions answered — questions on anything from grammar rules to which point of view will best serve the story they are trying to tell to questions about the publishing industry. Thirdly, and though people are shy about this, it is a vibe that I feel many writers emit, they want to know if what they are writing is good — if I enjoyed it. This is the least important, of course, because reading is so subjective, so I try to dispel that energy immediately so our conversation can become what it needs to become: how do I elevate this draft to the vision of the story in my head, the story I want to tell? That’s the conversation!
How would you describe your approach to giving feedback?
From then on, I’d like to think the conversation is like a good match of badminton with the shuttlecock constantly in the air. Badminton and not tennis because shuttlecocks are much lighter than balls and there’s a gracefulness to how you handle the racket — it’s not power and speed, necessarily, which is all to say the onus is really all on me to offer constructive feedback that is both helpful but also delivered in a nice package (because it can be highly intimidating for some people to share their work); the writers just ask questions and listen and take notes and hopefully leave their sessions feeling inspired. I focus on three main areas: structure, language, and elements of fiction (plot, character, setting). Increasingly, I am learning that “intention” is something that takes up a little bit of time because sometimes the author has in the head, but doesn’t put on the page, what’s intended. So we discuss that, how to get the vision out of the head onto the page, which is much more than just finding a spot to plug it in, especially with literary fiction where everything is a delicate balancing act. I understand my role is to encourage the best writing I can. I’m not about sparing the writer’s ego because generally those sitting in the chair across from me know that it’s not about their pen’s ego (pens don’t have egos); it’s about serving the story the best way you know how. Depending on what a person wants from his or her writing life, I may suggest summer workshops for them to apply to or provide a list of literary ‘zines and journals where they should submit work. I offer examples of query letters (if they ask) and entertain any questions about publishing that I feel I can speak on accurately and honestly.
Last year at Islanders Write, you were on a panel about writing dialogue. If you had to give one piece of advice about writing dialogue, what would it be?
FALL. IN. LOVE. WITH. LANGUAGE. By God! I am bored to tears by dialogue I’ve heard before. Get to know your characters’ voices, lend them a particular rhythm, or a linguistic tick. This doesn’t mean that every character has a florid way with language, but every now and then one just might — it might be true to that character. I listen to tons of music when I’m writing, which helps to remind me that language should be musical, which isn’t to say pretty or flowery but certainly with a rhythm — define that rhythm any way that you want. I have a new rule for myself when it comes to writing dialogue: if I have heard the phrase said that way before, I’m pushing the backspace button to delete. Then I ask myself, how would Such-and-Such (insert character’s name) really say that? Now how would I say that, how would Such-and-Such say that. It’s called: learning how to listen. You could write: “Look at me sweating. It’s too damn hot in this saloon,” said the cowboy, or “Feeling buggy. Poke some holes in the lid, will ya? I can barely breathe.” Language IS character even more so than action. Imperative to remember this when writing dialogue
Feedback session guidelines: If you have completed a draft of a novel and have done at least one revision and are interested in signing up for a feedback session with LaShonda Katrice Barnett, please submit a one-paragraph description and between 10 and 15 pages, but no more than 15, of your novel or short story (saved as a .pdf only) to email@example.com. We will accept the first five submissions that qualify.
Islanders Write will take place on Monday, August 12, at Featherstone Center for the Arts. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.