Thursday, December 1, 2011

Listening for what they mean, not what they say

I'm about halfway through implementing my new idea into Project Demo. There's plenty more revision to do (it's the writing project that never ends!), and I'm not yet satisfied that my new idea is working, but I'm feeling more confident about it than I have in a while. I feel like I'm finally beginning to realize my original vision for the story.

In fact, I've spent much of the past few weeks pulling text from my first draft to insert in this latest draft. These were elements in my first draft that I loved, but I took them out on the advice of others because they weren't working. My readers were 100% right, but the mistake was mine. Instead of taking out those elements, I should've figured out how to make them work.

That's the trick with critiques. Sometimes a reader has profound, surprising insights that can make a story. Other times it's a balancing act, acknowledging a reader's feelings, without directly taking their advice.

An example: One of my beta readers LOVES my villain. She thinks he's sexy and charming and vulnerable, and she doesn't understand why the main character doesn't date him. Part of me is flattered that my villain is a real three-dimensional character. But the other part of me is screaming: "No, no, no! He's the VILLAIN! She can't date him! He's BAD!" So the solution wasn't to contort my plot to make the main character and the villain date, but rather to address my reader's feelings. She thinks the villain is charming. What if I do more to show that while he's charming, he's not a good person? What if I make him stand too close, push too hard, and violently lose his temper? That way I'm using my reader's input to strengthen my story, but also keeping true to my vision.

It's a difficult balance. Sometimes, as a critiquer, I try not to make any suggestions, only give reactions and questions. But reactions and questions easily bleed into suggestions. How do you make sure you stick to the story you want to tell in the face of criticism?


  1. Wow, this is a great post, Anne. I's so true. We really have to trust our gut first and foremost and figure out how to incorporate critiques and suggestions without compromising our vision. It's easy to be swayed by someone else's passion for our stories, so it's something I have to remind myself of often.

  2. Ruth: Aw, thanks! It really is hard to find that balance, and I've been especially struggling with recently. Sometimes it's hard to give ourselves permission to really trust ourselves, isn't it?

  3. I love your approach of highlighting the badness of your villain. Revision is really like painting, isn't it? You can paint over someone and replace him with a bush, or paint in someone new standing next to him, or you can add new shades to the figure who's already there, to emphasize particular elements that weren't getting noticed.

  4. Some feedback comments are like wine- they take time to fully ripen and have the full impact.
    I have my instant reaction and then the second round- the one after I let all the ‘instants’ settle down. Second round is the more productive one.
    And feedback is not created equally. That’s why in processing I find that I am doing a third round- the one where I am the arbiter.
    No choice but to trust the author: YOU.

  5. Anne: Too funny, I was just telling someone earlier today that revision was like painting! Great minds! But I totally agree, it's just layer after layer, trying to get the exact depth, the exact shade, the exact texture that you're going for.

    Mirka: Oh, love the analogy to wine! The beta comments I'm thinking over are ones that I've been mulling for a bit, and I really think that's the best... I've gotten closer to understanding them, and to deciding if I agree or not. But yes, you're absolutely right! If I don't trust myself, then who can I trust?! Thanks.

  6. Hmm. Not to hijack your topic, but I'm sitting here wondering who will be playing your increasingly attractive villain in the movie that's bound to be made from the book. EvilGeorge Clooney is probably too old for the part. EvilTaylor Lautner? Hard to picture.

  7. OMG ANNE! So funny you should mention this, I totally saw him yesterday!!!! He's a little old for a teen role, but this is exactly the type of look I'm going for!

    Actually, now that I look back at the images... hmmmm... maybe not. But still, good to know you're looking out for me! ;)

  8. When I was in a critique group, one of the pieces of advice I consistently got was that there were too many characters, that one of the protagonist's friends could have been eliminated and her role given to another more significant friend. But the character others found superfluous was one I really liked and admired. I finally trimmed out a few other characters (who really weren't necessary) and made her a tighter, more focused character. I'm still glad I kept her.

    It takes so much time to learn how to accept and use criticism and how to keep it from writing your book for you. It's hard to separate the grain from the chaff. Trial and error helps us learn how to do it properly.

  9. I think you are handling it the right way. Take the reader's feeling into account. Having your MC date the villain might not be right for the story, so making more of a case against this in your MS would be the right move.

    Great post!

  10. Mary: Yes, that's another good example. Your critique group was right, but you had to figure out a way to take their advice your own way (and not get rid of a great character!). Trial and error, and I think learning to trust our instincts as writers...

    Kelly: Thanks, Kelly. I think it's important to take readers' feelings seriously, even if we don't give them exactly what they think they want!

  11. Good question, Anne. I've been on both sides and have never felt like I handled it exactly right.

    It seems like you are though, because you are hearing what your reader is actually saying (great post title, by the way!). She is telling you that your guy isn't coming across as a bad guy. (Which could also be good because of the potential conflict that the Protag sees he's bad but no one else can.)

    Anyway, to answer your question - I think it's a good idea to address what suggestions ring true to you, and then dig deeper to see what the reader is actually NOT saying.

    Good luck.

  12. Bridgette: The other hard part, of course, is making sure I'm not just hearing what I want to hear, though, and really taking the readers' responses seriously. I think you're right, though. We just have to work with what rings true to us.


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