Knowing When to Follow a Critique’s Advice. And Not.

Posted: April 20, 2017 in Writing
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Most of you are probably not old enough to remember actual prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes. Not those lame tattoos or stickers. We used to get actual toys — mini puzzles, tiny race cars, code rings, those whistles that go “whizzzzz” when you blow them.  Same thing with cereal boxes. I remember receiving actual playable records you cut out of the back of the box and stick on your turntable. Nowadays it’s all about the Happy Meal toy.  Because kids today couldn’t possibly wait through a whole box of cereal or even a whole box of Cracker Jacks to get to the prize (come to think of it, we weren’t always entirely patient, either).

So you may understand how we felt when, after all of the anticipation, we finally got our prize and it turned out to be … well, junk. There’s a certain amount of build-up when your mom says you can’t pour out the entire box into a mixing bowl just to get a toy; you’ll just have to wait.  Or when you’ve finally saved up enough pocket change to buy a box a Cracker Jacks with no idea what may be waiting inside.

Getting feedback on your manuscript is like that. You never know what you’re going to get after the long wait. And the anticipation is especially accute when you have to work just to find someone reliable and experienced to actually read your stuff in the first place. After all that, sometimes the advice you get is … well, junk.

The difference, though, is that sometimes you can’t tell if the advice is bad or not. Sure, if you can get several people to look at your stuff, you can start to see patterns and maybe get a consensus on certain rough spots or problems.  But even then, it’s hard to know if they just aren’t seeing what’s on the page. Often, when a reader misses something you feel is very clear, that simply means you’re not seeing it from their perspective — you can’t.  Other times, it just means they aren’t paying attention. Or maybe they aren’t part of your target audience. This is especially true when you write children’s books. It is unlikely you will be receiving detailed critical analysis from eight-year-olds. Or maybe your readers just simply aren’t familiar with the tropes of your particular genre.

This is why we work so hard to get multiple readers — so we can see if everybody sees the same thing or not. But even then, we may not agree. To be sure, it is not healthy — or practical — to take every piece of advice that comes your way. You will drive yourself insane trying to please every reader. Tastes vary. You know your voice and your message better than any reader, and you know when certain advice will break them. So you choose not to follow that advice.

But none of these judgement calls are black and white. There are a lot of reasons one might choose not to heed the advice of a critique, and not all of them are because the advice is fundamentally flawed. You may decide to go a different route than that suggested, solve the problem a different way. You may decide to wait and see what others say. You may know something the reader doesn’t, that gets revealed later in the story and which will make what you have written make perfect sense. Or, you might not be in an emotional position to embrace perfectly valid advice.

I just finished a substantial revision to the opening of the book I’m querying, which addressed issues that had been riaised by a number of readers, including professional editors and agents.  These were issues I was unwilling to concede to at the time, and therefor unable to deal with then.  However, the time eventually came when I was able to accept cutting several thousand words — and my favorite scene — out of chapter two, and getting to the “good stuff” that much sooner.  I added higher stakes and made my main character work harder to get what she wanted. These were big changes, which resulted in alterations throughout the whole book. and the time had to be right for me to tackle them.

So just as important as the quality of the advice is your receptiveness to it. Obviously, if your reader suggests something that is way off-base, don’t follow it. Less obviously — but equally important — if you are emotionally unwilling to embrace the advice, don’t follow it then. Bad Things will happen if you force it when you’re not ready. But also, keep that advice on file for when your perspective changes. Because it will.

Back to my manuscript: After making this latest rather ambitious revision, I am getting feedback from fresh readers. And more than one has suggested the beginning is boring and I don’t get to the “good stuff” soon enough. Possibly this is true. I’m not able to hear this advice right now, though. Because I’m just not willing to rip the fresh stitches out of this manuscript and dive into it again. Not right now. I need time for this new version to “cure,” for the scars to smooth until it all feels natural to me again (I can clearly see the fresh passages and missing sections as if they are written in different-colored ink on the page). The time isn’t right, just as it wasn’t right the first time I heard the advice that led to this latest revision. Maybe I’ll be able to embrace it later. But if I start revising again right now, Bad Things will happen.

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Comments
  1. Amira says:

    OMG, thank goodness it’s not only me.

    I was in the exact same position. I just made MAJOR revisions to my first few chapters, especially to chapter 1, but also to the entire manuscript. And now again I had to hear that my first chapter has major issues, and I just burst out crying. Because I KNOW that my major revisions improved my chapter a lot. But clearly that wasn’t good enough, and every time it just feels like I have to choose between making my novel publishable and keeping my novel a story I want to publish.

    At least now I know that for other people it’s just as hard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rick Ellrod says:

    Excellent, John.
    Rick

    Like

  3. […] I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if […]

    Like

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