Handling criticism is one of the most important parts of creating a great story.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked via Twitter: “Mrs. @mbweston, what’s your writing process?” To answer his question, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about how I go about my personal writing process. So far, we’ve covered:
- The Writing Process: Part 1 – Getting Your Inspiration
- The Writing Process: Part 2 – The Conflict
- The Writing Process: Part 3 – Plot: Your Story’s Skeleton
- The Writing Process: Part 4 – The “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Example of a “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (A)
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (B) Description
- The Writing Process: Part 6 – Cutting Your Darlings
- The Writing Process: Part 7 – Editing for Grammar & Style
You can hear critiques from your advance readers two ways: 1) in person, or 2) through their notes and comments. Some of my readers hand me their notes and let me have at it. Others like to sit down, usually over coffee, and discuss their findings with me. The latter method is the most thorough, but the former doesn’t sting as much.
The most important thing to remember: when your reader doesn’t understand something, it’s your fault. As the writer, it’s your job to communicate your story to the reader. If your readers are confused, it’s your fault for failing to communicate that part of the story properly. Don’t argue with them. Ask for advice on how you can change it. Above all, don’t yell.
However, I will not say that the advance reader is always right. Someone’s decision to like or dislike your story is a matter of opinion, and opinions will differ widely among your advance readers. My funniest example of this: In the original version of Out of the Shadows, I killed off a dragon named Kinole who had become my hero’s ally. Two of my best advance readers, @JillEBond and Sasha, wrote differing comments on the manuscript:
- Jill: “I can’t believe you killed Kinole, you *expletive*!”
- Sasha: “I’m glad Kinole is dead. He was annoying me.”
At first, I had no idea what to do about such differing opinions. I knew something about the scene affected both readers on an emotional level, but I was unsure how to fix it. I decided that Jill’s emotional reaction was stronger, and I cut the death scene. (Jill’s argument that a cute, stuffed-animal dragon would be a great seller also kept poor Kinole alive.) However, something about Kinole annoyed Sasha, so I toned a few of those qualities down.
Because your advance readers will have separate opinions, keep these principles in mind when reading their critiques:
- Don’t begin making changes until you read through most of the critiques. See the above for my reasoning on this. (However, make grammar changes right away if you can.)
- When you receive opposing critiques, try to figure out the heart of the issue before deciding what to do. See the Kinole illustration for details.
- Some of your readers aren’t going to like characters that the majority of people may love. One of my readers despises my main character, Davian. This reader is in the minority, and I know the motivations behind his disgust. I keep that in mind when I am reading his comments.
- Your readers might have different tastes in writing than you and your audience. A person who reads only romance probably won’t like my writing. However, taste differences often go deeper than genre. One of my readers prefers adjective-filled, flowery writing and often inserts ideas for description that don’t match my style. I’m not a flowery writer—especially when it comes to emotion. I would rather show the reader my character’s reaction and let the reader imagine the rest. That’s me, but it’s not everyone. I don’t want to change my writing’s voice, but I do want to pay attention to anything that might make my writing better. I usually end up taking a few key descriptive words out of this person’s comments, and make it work in my own voice.
- If all your readers comment on a particular section, but their comments are different, you may have a larger, structural problem that needs fixing. I’ve noticed that when one section gets too many comments that don’t fit, I either haven’t explained myself enough earlier, I need to adjust a plot issue, or I need to alter the paragraph. Often I find that the change the story actually needs has nothing to do with my readers’ comments, but it fixes all of them.
- On that note, don’t change something huge before thinking it through first. Always consider the heart of the issue. One of my readers suggested I change Tommy to a twelve year old instead of a seven year old in A Prophecy Forgotten. His reasoning: when I wrote scenes from Tommy’s point of view, it made him feel disjointed. The problem was not Tommy’s age. It was switching from writing in an adult point of view to writing in a child’s point of view. I solved the problem by eliminating Tommy’s point of view entirely, which also added to the novel’s suspense by making him unpredictable.
- Just because your readers don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. In this case, I’m referring to killing off characters, but you can apply it to your specific situation. I killed off two popular characters in Out of the Shadows. Both deaths were necessary, especially for my third book, and a few people didn’t like it.
- Some people are just overly critical or don’t know what they are talking about. If one of your advance readers seems unreasonably critical, treats you with condescension, or seems like he has no idea what he is talking about, ignore the comments and don’t use him (or her) on your next manuscript. After a few tries, you will know who you can trust and who you can’t.
- Remember that your readers are in ultra-critical mode because you need them to be in ultra-critical mode. Take it easy on yourself. Your readers are looking for errors because you have instructed them to do so. Chances are, the people who read your story for fun probably wouldn’t have noticed.
- Last but not least, remember that every writer makes these mistakes. You are not a failure because your draft contains mistakes that you missed. You are a success because you are willing to seek help and listen to advice. This is part of the process of producing a final manuscript.
Above all, remember to thank your readers for their time. I try to 1) mention my advance readers in the acknowledgements section of my novels and 2) give them a free, signed copy of the novel when it comes out. Try to do something similar, especially if you want them to keep reading for you.
Once you apply your advance readers’ suggested changes, you’re almost done! You only have one step left, and that is the next post!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.