Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Picking and choosing

Not to be confused with picky or choosy. Although I can be those sometimes as well.

When I first started receiving feedback on my writing, I thought that if someone said something it must be true. Which meant it must be changed. So if someone said, "This scene is dumb, take it out," I took it out. And if someone said "I don't like this character, give her blue hair," I gave her blue hair. That's what feedback is for, right? At some point our editorial vision turns myopic and we can't see the forest for the trees, so we ask others to read our work and tell us when we've jumped the shark (maybe literally).

As you might imagine, this eventually put me in a really frustrating cycle. I'd change something for one critique partner and another would say they hated the change. I'd change it back and a third reviewer would say I should go in an entirely new direction. I had so many voices in my head that I couldn't hear my own, and my story fell apart in revisions. I actually walked away from a manuscript - probably the best thing I've written to date - because I didn't even know what I wanted it to be anymore. I'd put it through too many critiques by too many people in too many rounds. My beautiful jello mould had melted into a glob of hot mess.

I took a very different approach with critiques on my current manuscript. I restricted the number of reviewers and made sure they were a diverse enough group to catch 90% of the plotting or characterization mistakes I made. I took notes on each round of critiques (we critique a few chapters at a time) and then let them sit for several weeks. I didn't make changes, I didn't read through the notes, I went and distracted myself in other ways. Then, when the little critiques started to add up to big picture changes for me, I went back and made the changes I wanted to make.

Yeah, read that again. I'll even bold it for you. I made the changes I wanted to make.

If I didn't like the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I didn't agree with the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I got conflicting feedback? I chose the one I agreed with and made the changes.
If I could understand the point of the feedback but wanted to take the story in a different direction? I didn't change it.

This is your story at the end of the day. You have to tell the story you want to tell, which means you get to pick and choose the changes you make. You own the story, so you're responsible for the choices it makes. You ask for feedback to point out what you can't see, but that doesn't mean everything they see is right for the story you are trying to tell.

A point of clarification: I draw a distinction between feedback that you don't like but is true and feedback that you don't like because it doesn't tell the story the way you want to tell it. I've received plenty of critiques that, given enough time, I see the error of my ways. But I've also received plenty of critiques that don't jibe with the story/character for me. Sometimes I can even see where they're coming from, I just disagree. Don't give yourself permission to ignore ALL feedback - after all, you're trying to make this the best story it can be - but do give yourself permission to ignore the feedback that doesn't feel right.

So be picky. Be choosy.


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Excellent post! The temptation to change EVERYTHING in response to feedback is great, but if you do that, you will definitely run around in circles and make no progress.

Trust your sense of story-telling. You'll know which feedback is important for improving your story (even if you didn't want to hear it) and which is just the reader re-writing your story the way s/he would have done it. :)

JEM said...

Thanks, Dianne! And you just reminded me of one other point - you have to know WHY you're making the changes you're making. If someone suggests a change and you don't know why your character would do it, then you shouldn't make that change. There should be a purpose to everything you do in your story.

Tere Kirkland said...

Yes! It's a hurdle all but the most egotistical writers have to overcome.

Even though a writer can't be an island—I can't function without solid feedback—just remember whose name is on the manuscript. ;)

Eric W. Trant said...

You mentioned a couple of line-edits. I ignore line-edits with extreme prejudice. I'm writing the story, not them.

But I listen when they say they did not understand or jibe with something.

Like yourself, I only change the things that make sense. If I see crit that says something radically different than what I saw, then I ignore it.

But if I see something that reminds me of my own thoughts during re-reads, then I take it to heart and make the change.

Be picky and choosy. That's a great point, because otherwise you will KILL your story!

- Eric


Love this post! I've learned the hard way to be picky and choosy: To thine own (writer) self be true.

An agent once told me that I should change the title of a manuscript. He said "Searching for Grasshopper" sounded like a memoir about growing up in Iowa. I changed it. Again and again. Then I realized that the first paragraph of the manuscript (and the potential book cover) tells you straight away that it's about a martial arts journey. Years later, the original title is back, and that's where it will stay--marketable or not--because it represents the true spirit of the book.

Thanks for the post!

Lola Sharp said...

The biggest tricks/skills with this topic is: experience (which you clearly have made progress on knowing what advice to take and picking good CPs) and EXCELLENT CPs. Seriously, quality CPs are priceless. *holds and lovingly pets my CPs* *'my Precioussss'*

You may go through a few (by politely disengaging) less skillful CPs before finding really good ones. CPs that get you and your writing but also know when/where to call you on something. I am very blessed with good CPs...but it was a process weeding through and finding the right people.