Too Many Notes – Some Ramblings on Feedback

As a competitive classical pianist, one of my favorite movies is Amadeus. Yes, it’s not exactly historically accurate, but on the whole it’s a great film. Here’s one of the more memorable scenes:

Feedback. We all want it. We all strive to be better at whatever it is we do. Having worked in a creative industry for fifteen years now, and writing for more than that, I’ve learned quite a lot about how to process feedback over the eons that I’d like to share.

People are really good about telling you when something isn’t working for them. When something doesn’t feel right. When they just don’t like it. You’ll hear all about what doesn’t work from your readers. And sometimes you’ll even hear about what does work, and that’s always nice too, so you can make sure you keep on doing whatever that is.

People are not really great at telling you exactly WHY something doesn’t work, or specifically how to address it. There’s definitely an objective layer here where they’ll be right: “Too many typos” is a good example. But that’s not the kind of feedback I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real creative stuff. The guts, so to speak.

In that clip above, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that he really enjoyed his music. He then goes on to say, after some difficult internalization, that it has “too many notes.” Mozart immediately goes on the defensive and the conversation descends into utter madness about the “number of notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.” The Emperor closes by telling him to “just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

We laugh at that last line in particular, because it’s just flat out absurd. It’s obvious that the Emperor knows nothing about musical composition.

But even people who are experts in your field won’t be able to tell you how to solve your problem. Ten readers may discover the same issue, but if you ask all ten of them how to solve it you’ll get at least eleven completely different answers. Probably more. You cannot address your problems by asking people what they’d do instead–they aren’t in your head, they don’t know your story like you do. They all have their own vision of where they want it to go and if you listen to all those solutions you’re going to have a heaping mess on your hands. Art is not–I daresay it CAN not–be created by a committee. It sure as heck can be REFINED by a committee’s feedback, however.

You have to be confident that you are in charge–you are the creator. You are the one who makes the final decision on how to fix a problem. Sometimes maybe you won’t address every problem and that’s A-OK! Name one film/movie/song that’s absolutely perfect for you with every word/scene/beat. You can’t. Everyone can always find something to critique–especially when you’ve asked them to do just that! So it’s okay to not stress out over fixing every single thing. Just fix the big ones.

If someone tells me the opening chapters of my novel are too slow, it’s easy for me to get defensive: “But there are explosions and crazy-ass monsters falling from space and soldiers of questionable intent rounding up children and wacky escape sequences and and and and!”

But when I sit back and look at it a bit more carefully I’ll notice that while all those things may be true, the main character has no concrete GOAL. There’s no ultimate thing he’s trying to achieve. All that action is just noise–none of it gets him closer to any sort of goal because he doesn’t have one until halfway through the book. And watching characters wander aimlessly across the page for chapter after chapter can make the story feel slow and lacking any sort of tangible progression no matter how many explosions or chase scenes you’ve got. If I ask the people who gave me that feedback they may say “you need more explosions!” or “how about more crazy-ass monsters!” and that wouldn’t really solve the problem. I’d toil away for a few days adding even more fluff.

Did the Emperor really mean there were too many notes? Probably not. Maybe he meant it was too fast. Maybe he meant the oboes were so loud that the string section got lost in the noise. Maybe he was just really tired after a day of partying with his court. Mozart needed to analyze why the Emperor felt that way, not get defensive, and not take his suggestion on HOW to fix the problem–because it was, after all, a pretty ludicrous suggestion.

Don’t knee-jerk react to your feedback. Don’t get defensive about it. Don’t do whatever the person giving the feedback says you should do because you’re not writing their book. Analyze it. Massage it. Weave it back into your story. Use that gift of feedback to find ways to strengthen your own creations.

Now go out there and CREATE.





3 thoughts on “Too Many Notes – Some Ramblings on Feedback

  1. Hah! From the movie, I didn’t get the feeling that Mozart ever took feedback in any way. ;P

    But yes, I think your post is spot-on, in terms of using feedback mostly as a way to identify what/where problems are, rather than how precisely to fix them.

    That said, I do find people’s suggestions valuable. Not because I use them as-is — though I suppose that happens on occasion — but rather because I use them as springboards, as building blocks, for my own ideas.

    • Yes! I do love hearing ideas for that exact reason. I’ve solved so many story issues by listening to ideas of others. And it usually happens exactly as you describe. They’ll be in the middle of telling me how they’d fix it and some mostly-unrelated solution falls into my head. The discussions definitely help me zero in on what’s wrong and how to potentially fix it. Just be leery of taking every idea everyone offers verbatim.

      I’ve seen so many video game projects wrecked by executive feedback because the developers fell into that exact trap.

      “But he said he wanted more cowbell!”

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