On Outside Input

So, I talked a little while back about giving writing advice, and I think it’s about time I talked about receiving writing advice.  Not about taking criticism – there’s more than enough of that on the Internet, and it basically boils down to “actually think about the advice, and don’t be a dick to people willing to give it to you”.  That, of course would either be too easy or too complex, and thus a topic for another day.

One of the harder things to do as a writer is to send your work out to be critiqued.  Sending out something that represents hours, days, sometimes months or years, of your hard work and telling someone to point out all its flaws?  That doesn’t necessarily come naturally to people.  It’s always stressful, and it’s usually at least a little confronting.
But say you’ve got all that under control.  You’re a large, semi-muscular human being, and you can take it. Well done.  Whatever you did, it worked.  And then, one day, you send out a story of yours to, say five people.
One of them tells you they loved the main character; they really related to him/her, and they felt so sorry for them, it just worked.
One of them tells you that the main character needed heaps of work.  They were too passive, they didn’t do anything.
One of them tells you that the main character is a bit too much like Character Z from X series that you’ve never read.
One of them tells you that the main character needs work, and proceeds to give you a list of reasons, plus some suggested areas to change and how to change them.
One of them tells you the main character was fine, but maybe it’s the villain that’s the problem.

Well, that’s a whole lot of advice that’s interesting individually, but absolutely confusing and useless when put together.
What do you do?  Not just in this situation; in any situation?

Never ask yourself whether a reader “gets” a book.  Not because it isn’t sometimes relevant, but because it’s a bad habit to get into.  Dismiss all critique with “It’s OK, they didn’t get it; I’ll listen to this person instead, they understood” is a fast track to not getting anything out of outside input at all.  If you have to ask that question, you probably already know the answer.  The person saying that a Kafka story should have had a happy ending probably doesn’t ‘get’ the work.  The person saying that the characters should be the focus of The Lord of the Rings probably doesn’t ‘get’ the books.  This is, by the way, not necessarily a bad thing.  I fully admit that I don’t really ‘get’ certain books.  I don’t ‘get’ Lord of the Rings.  It has an audience, and that audience is not me.  I much prefer a book with more focus on characters than setting, and a book with a more ambiguous line between good and evil.  Therefore, if I were to suggest changes that would make The Lord of the Rings the kind of book I like, it would have dramatically changed the focus, the plot, the everything.  

And from there on, that particular point gets a bit complicated, so I’m going to pull back for a minute and talk about those five examples.
One and two have valid, but different interpretations of a character.  It probably means that it’s a case of YMMV, and you’ll need to reconcile those yourself.  I’ll talk about that in a minute.
The third person is likely to make you feel the most nervous.  Writers, as a rule, don’t like being told that we’re exactly like another writer.  Suddenly, accusations of plagiarism start to whirl through our heads.  We’re hacks, we’re unoriginal, we’re destined to die doomed, alone, and (worst of all), unpublished.
Step one: Stop that.  Breathe.  There are two things you can do, and it’s best to do both.  Number one: ask the person what makes them similar.  You’ll be able to tell from their response at least an idea of how big the problem is.  If they’re vague, and “I don’t know, they’re both jaded detectives”?  Your problem is probably not huge.  If they list of a whole lot of things, such as most of their backstory, mannerisms, or the like, then you might need to worry.  Number two: Go read the books.  Libraries are awesome.  And you don’t need to read the whole series – just get a feel for the main character.  This is the real dipstick test – you can’t argue with that oil line.  Just be careful you’re not making up differences just to avoid changing that character.d

The fourth person is trickier – if they are an experienced writer or editor, it will probably be tempting, especially if you’re new yourself, to just say “oh, well, they obviously know what they’re talking about” and follow them blindly.
This may work.  It may also lead you far, far astray.  And it’s likely to end up with someone other than you writing your story, and while it might be a good story, it won’t be yours, and you won’t really have learned anything.

The fifth … well, they might have a good point, they might just not want you to think your whole story is crap.  Think about it, mull it over.  If it helps, great.  If not, it didn’t, and you can go back to the others.

Which brings us all the way back round to the crux of the issue: how do you take advice, keeping a balance between “people won’t like that, so I need to fix it”, and “Changing this will take the story away from my vision, so I can’t change it”. 
Especially with large rewrites, like the main character one specified above, there’s a huge temptation to just say “Well, that’s the story I had to tell, so it’s staying”.  At least some of the time, this would be right.  As noted above, sometimes a reader is just not the audience for your book, and they never will be.  Some of this can be weeded out in the process of choosing betas – either choose beta readers who read your genre as a favourite, or who read most genres indiscriminately.  Asking a fantasy reader to beta a thriller novel is not going to get you very far.  You might make an exception for a well-read beta who is a writer themselves, but be aware that their useful advice will be mostly about pacing and character construction and things that are fairly universal to all genres, but mostly, choose people who like your genre.
Sometimes, symbolism will make the choice of who to listen to easy for you.  If they suggest a change to the main character, and your response is “But that would ruin the point I make in chapter 8”, then maybe that’s not advice you take.
More beta readers will also help.  If one says they hate the character, but five others say they love him, well, maybe it’s just that one person.  If one says they like him, and the other five hate him … well, then that’s where you might have problems.

In the end, the skill that you really need to cultivate is to be able to look at a particular change and see two things about it.  First, the ramifications of the change.  That’s the easier one, since you’ll know the story so well.  The second one is harder.
It’s important, when you receive advice, to realise what problem the advice is actually trying to fix.  Sometimes the problem and the solution given are two entirely different things.  Maybe a beta reader tells you the main character is too passive, and should be more proactive, but that really doesn’t fit your story.  What if the underlying problem is instead that you haven’t invited the reader into their headspace enough, so what you intended as a calculated passivity from a character who prefers to think before they speak or act actually just becomes unjustified passivity.  Bringing some situations where they take charge in, yes, will help, but bringing the reader into that mental world, show them working through the problems they have a little more, and maybe the character will feel more rounded.  No problem has only one solution; the only wrong solution is the one that leaves the story feeling like Scotch tape over gaping holes, or the one that muddies the internal logic or point of the story, rather than clarifying it.

As usual, what did I miss?  What do people do differently?  Anyone have horror stories, or inspiring tales of the book that got the perfect fix?

One thought on “On Outside Input

  1. Pingback: How To Pick A Beta Reader | Whimsy and Metaphor

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