If you’re fortunate enough to have a good critique group or first readers, you’re going to get a lot of advice on your work, some of it spot-on, some of it close to the mark, and some of it that you violently disagree with. (If you’re not that fortunate, I’d strongly recommend doing something about it as you’ll learn a lot both by getting and giving critique).
The spot-on stuff is easy. You just do it. The close is also pretty easy, as it can be adapted to fit. It’s the violently disagree with that’s hard, because as much as you might like to, you shouldn’t just dismiss it.
Readers offer suggestions because they either 1) disagree with the choice you’ve made, 2) they’ve missed something you expected them to get, or 3) they’ve gone somewhere you didn’t expect. In all of those cases, it’s important for you as a writer to understand why that happened and whether it’s because you didn’t put something down on the paper that was in your head, because you’ve left something sketchy where you should have filled in the details to keep your reader on the path, because you didn’t think of it, or simply because your reader has missed something obvious—it does happen.
The process I go through when I’ve been handed a suggestion that seems to me to come out of left field is thus: 1) put it aside for a moment to see if my backbrain can field the ball and figure out what went wrong. 2) Wait to see if anyone else had the same problem/suggestion, or one that came in the same place. 3) ask questions of the critquer.
That last should be handled delicately. The person making the suggestions is giving of their time and perspective, and you owe them the courtesy of being both polite and respectful no matter how wrong-headed you might think this particular comment is. You’re not trying to defend whatever they’ve disagreed with, you’re trying to find the root of the disagreement.
I try to ask questions like, okay you’ve said X, can you expand on that a bit? Or, if I’ve got an inkling what’s wrong, here’s what I was trying to do there, did that come through? Or, sometimes, what if I told you x about what’s coming up, would that change things?
This is one of the places where the Wyrdsmiths really excel—often, while I’m still trying to figure out what lost someone, another person in the group who has better perspective, figures it out and gives me the piece I need to make sense of the critique, or better still, proposes a solution that fits into the spot-on frame, thereby saving me a ton of work.
Of course, sometimes it comes down to artistic or philosophical differences about where a story should go, and there you have to be willing to say X is going to make some percentage of my readers unhappy and accept the consequences, whatever those might be. It’s not much fun, but it’s what owning your work means.
Getting comments and critique on your work is one of the most valuable ways to improve it. It’s also something that you will have to deal with if you’re planning on working with agents and editors. Finding the right balance between doing what’s asked of you and putting your foot down is tough, especially when it could mean killing a deal (always a matter of last resort). There are two main questions you have to ask yourself when you look at a suggestion.
1, does it make the story better? If the answer to this is yes, you move on to question two. If it’s no, you have to take a moment and think about why the suggestion was made (okay, so you should do that if it’s a yes too, because you’ve just been offered a chance to learn something). I was going to talk about this in brief below, but I’ve discovered that it wants to be its own post on rewrites, so more on that later.
2, and potentially much harder to answer, does it advance the purpose of the story? This is the place where things go foggy and vary wildly depending on what sort of writer you are. If you’ve got the whole story in your head or in an outline and someone makes a good suggestion that doesn’t follow along, you’re posed with an immediate dilemma, go with the shiny new thing or stick to your outline. I’ve done both depending on the situation.
My very first short story sale involved taking the second half of a 6,000 word short and throwing it away to write a new ending. I’ve also looked at a beautiful idea and quietly (and somewhat sadly) put it aside. One of the few times I’ve really gotten hammered by a member of one of my writers groups (and rightfully so) was when I let myself slip at the time it was suggested and say that I wasn’t going to do something. I had good intentions, but it was a breach of etiquette and absolutely the wrong way to handle the choice.
In general, if you’re not going to take a suggestion, there’s no reason whatsoever to tell the person who made it, because it will only make them feel as though they’ve wasted effort. There are two exceptions to this. A, editorial/agent suggestions, in which case you discuss the problem the suggestion addresses and try to work out a comprise (more on this in the rewrite post). B, book length works where this person will be critiquing the story on an ongoing basis and where not taking the suggestion will have a significant impact on the reading of the story.
That latter was the case in the scene wherein I got hammered. I handled it the wrong way. What I should have done was shut my mouth and given myself a couple of days to think about it. Then, if I decided it still mattered (it would have in this case) I should have waited for the next meeting and spoken with the critiquer on an individual basis about why the (genuinely excellent suggestion) was incompatible with the novel I was writing.
What they wanted me to do would have made a good story, but it was a story that I had no interest in telling. The only way to stay sane in this business is to write what you love and love what you write. You are the one who is writing it and you are the one who’s name goes on the byline–it has to be something you believe in. You have to own the story.
I do all sorts of things as a writer and critiquer on the basis of how they taste to me, whether the words feel right in my mouth as I’m mentally speaking them—I always internally voice as I’m writing, perhaps because I came to writing from theater.
The best example of this comes from a critique I did for fellow Wyrdsmith Sean Michael Murphy. There was a sentence where I wanted one word changed—I don’t remember which one now, but that doesn’t really matter. It was one of a large number of suggestions. Sean was pretty happy with most of the suggestions, ignored some, and wanted to understand what I was thinking with others. This was one of those last and the conversation went something like this:
Sean: Why did you suggest this change? I think you’re right, but I’m not sure why.
Kelly: It just tasted better.
Sean: But why did it taste better?
Kelly: It just did.
Kelly: (unable to let the silence stay silent, begins mentally unpacking the process) Let me think about it…
It turned out that when pressed I had six separate reasons for wanting this one word changed. For me, the change reinforced something in the sentence, reinforced something in the paragraph, reinforced one of the story’s themes, amped up a plot point, showed a contrast between character voice pre and post traumatic event, and removed a slightly clumsy related word repetition.
I’ve found that’s usually the case when my brain says something tastes better rather than opting for a specific reason—my sub-conscious has a bunch of reasons to change something and is too lazy to articulate them all without being pressed. My new structural sense is definitely atasting thing because it’s hugely complex. I trust it in part because I know that the taste of something is very important for my process, but I still want to unpack it because I enjoy unpacking.
Jay Lake has a post up about workshops here and some of the things they do or don’t do. I agree with a good bit of what he has to say in terms of structure and how they function and that whether they are good or bad for you is situational. For example, I get a good deal out of the critiques of my work. Perhaps less now than ten years ago, but still quite a bit because my investment in my stories is structured a little bit differently from many folks.
On the other hand, I think he missed completely some of the things that I find most important about a writers group, the things that aren’t critique at all. And this may be a distinction between an ongoing writing workshop and a writers group, which seem to me to be two different animals.
So, here are some things besides critique that a good group can do for you:
Brainstorming, both on stories and career.
Share industry gossip.
Writerly support and cheerleading.
Cross introductions to agents, editors, and con folk.
Listening to complaints and brags.
And, most important of all, peer friendships.
One of the things I do as a part of my life as a writer is read and critique manuscripts for friends, students, proteges, and other writers of various sorts. This can be entertaining, educational, frustrating, and rewarding, all at once or by turns. Over 15 years of doing this, I’ve developed a number of personal rules on the topic. The main ones are these:
1. Always tell the truth.
2. Always be constructive.
3. Always try to help the writer achieve their goals. See also: Don’t try to make them write the story I would have written from the same premises.
4. Sometimes following rules 1-3 means recusing yourself.
2 is easy, 1 and 3 not so much, though 4 can help with that. Everyone has personal reading biases and tastes, things that work for them or don’t for reasons completely unrelated to the comparative success of the work. For example, most time travel stories don’t work for me. That includes any number of award-winning works that are loved by lots of other readers.
So, if someone gives me a time travel story and it’s not working for me, I don’t go into great scathing detail about the inherent problems of paradox and meaning. None of that is going to help the writer and it’s likely to aggravate both of us. Instead, I recuse myself and politely let them know that I’m not a good reader for this particular story. This can also be frustrating for both reader and writer, but hard experience has taught me this is much the better choice.