As NaNoWriMo begins to wind down it’s time to think about what comes next. After the drafting and the revising it’s always good to have a second or third pair of eyes take a look, but what happens when everyone gives you different feedback? Stormrise author Jillian Boehme shares her experience with differing critiques and how it helped her writing.
You’ve done it! You’ve completed a draft (congratulations!) and now you need to figure out if it’s a big mess or not.
(Hint: If it’s a first draft, it’s definitely a big mess. Complete a second draft before you go any further!)
Receiving critique from trusted readers is one of the most important steps in the development of a novel. Though it may feel terrifying at first, reading constructive criticism—and learning how to respond to it without taking it personally—enables us to grow as writers (and possibly as human beings).
Anyone who has sent out a manuscript to a group of readers knows what it feels like when those critiques start to roll in. Each one that lands in your mailbox makes your stomach do this weird, twisty thing that’s a combination of excitement and dread. You’re dying for the feedback, but you’re not too excited to have your work’s flaws highlighted in lime green for all the world to see.
Okay, it’s not all the world. But it can sort of feel that way.
The collective wisdom of the critiques–assuming you’re sending them to the people who should be reading it–can either gently or not-so-gently open your eyes to inherent flaws in your story. A gaping plot hole that you might have missed will be easily spotted by those who’ve never read the story before. A protagonist who does a big Thing without having a believable motivation is going to be crucified by those who just aren’t buying it. Good readers will ask questions like, “Why is she doing this right now?” and “Could this have believably happened in the time frame you’ve outlined here?” and “What the heck did he do that for?”
And, too, there’s the ever-useful “Huh?” I’ve used it myself. Sometimes it’s just that the reader missed something they shouldn’t have. But mostly it means “this thing you just wrote makes absolutely no sense and I’m not even sure how to address it”.
In the beginning, you’re learning how to craft a strong story arc and how to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like Lord of the Rings fan faction. But as your writing matures, the nature of the critiques shifts. Your critique partners will pull out things that are more subtle, like a protagonist whose arc isn’t strong enough, a supporting character who doesn’t add anything to the story, or information that is being shared too early or too late.
The key to knowing which advice to hold onto is twofold: 1) You need to be hearing it from more than one person and 2) It needs to resonate with you and with your vision for your story.
So, if one person says “Ed the Janitor has no real purpose in the story, and I think you should delete him”, and five people say, “Ed the Janitor is my favorite supporting character”, then probably Ed’s role in the story is safe. But if more than one critique partner is pointing out the inherent weaknesses in Ed’s character, then you need to listen.
It takes an open heart–a combination of vulnerability and teachability–to be able to receive what people are saying so that you can then move toward allowing it to resonate with your story. That’s when you start asking questions like, “Okay, what does Ed really accomplish? Do I need him? Is that scene in chapter 12–the one I love so much that it’s going to be engraved upon my tombstone–really adding to the plot?”
Those questions can be painful! But so it goes. As a general rule, if more than one set of eyeballs sees the same problem, YOU’D BETTER PAY ATTENTION.
Of course, not everything is straightforward.
A few years ago, I received two critiques on the same day that were polar opposites. I’m talking, there is no way that these two people read the same story.
Reader #1: “…spellbound and incredibly invested in the characters”
Reader #2: “I had no sense of any of the characters…there was nothing to like about them.”
Reader #1: “I had a hard time putting the book down and I feel like you hit all the really big moments beautifully.”
Reader #2: “…there was nothing to hook me…”
Now, before you make the assumption that Reader #1 was my mom–she wasn’t. Both of these readers were highly qualified to critique a manuscript. Both were talented and experienced. Both were honest and forthright.
Reader #1 went on to point out (beautifully) all the areas she felt needed work (I agreed with every single one). It wasn’t all cotton candy and fairy wings, for sure. And Reader #2 made it clear that she was this level of honest because of our relationship and her belief in my abilities.
Meanwhile, my head kept spinning. Counterclockwise, rapidly.
I sent a mildly frantic message to Reader #3, asking if she had time to read my first chapter and tell me everything she hated about it. (Yes, those were my exact words. I wanted all the ugly up front.) This reader is also highly qualified and experienced. And knows how to be brutally honest.
Reader #2: “The biggest problem I found was no real worldbuilding.”
Reader #3: “Your world is solid…but almost too detailed.”
In desperation, I reached out to yet another reader—someone who’d been reading my stuff since the early, embarrassing-novel days.
Her response? “It’s probably a good sign, actually.”
I had no idea what she meant.
She clarified: People are having different reactions. They’re not all pointing to one inherent flaw, like a broken plot or a superfluous character. They are reading the same words and seeing different things. Some of them pointed out similar flaws (like too much telling when I should be showing, or a lack of clear motivation for my main character), but there was no single, enormous flaw that ALL or MOST readers had pointed out. (Others had read, too, besides these three.)
Most encouraging of all? I was incredibly motivated to revise the manuscript based on ALL the feedback, including the heart-knotting response from Reader #2. Which speaks well of my ability to get slammed with conflicting (to a high degree!) critique and to move on quickly.
It took lots of years for me to get to that point. You can get there, too.
We are all part of the same circle. May you learn from me today as I continue to learn from those around me–and may you go on to share what you’ve learned with others.
And keep writing, no matter what falls down around you!