Tuesday, September 3, 2013

TTYU Retro: Critique vs. artistic vision - how far should we respond to reader reactions?

I have sometimes had discussions with friends of mine about responding to critique where I am reminded that they and I disagree rather strongly about the extent to which one should be willing to change one's writing in response to critique. The question has a lot to do with what I call "writer's compass," in other words, how a writer senses the direction to go with a particular work. How much of what we do is an indispensable part of artistic vision, and how much is open to change at the suggestion of others?

I think the answer will be different for each person, but I wanted to look at where the borderline lies, because it's a tricky question, and a potential pitfall as well.

You've written a story. Let's say you love it, the language you've used and the message it's sending. Then someone else reads it. They tell you...

a. They love it. They think you shouldn't change a word. 
This is heartening, and makes us feel good. But if someone tells you not to change a word, then chances are they are not noticing any possible problems. Every work of verbal art can and will be interpreted in different ways by different readers, so very likely a different reader would catch something to point out.

b. They "get it," but they have issues. 
I don't know about everyone, but I am most likely to take advice when it comes from someone who obviously understands what I'm trying to do. A person who "gets it" is the one who can sense the vision of what I'm trying to achieve - and their vision matches pretty well with mine. In this case I'm going to be very careful before I reject anything they say, because they and I are working toward the same goal.

c. They have issues. 
If you don't get a sense that the person sees what you see as the end goal of this writing endeavor, then you have to go through point by point and ask whether the things they point out, or the things they suggest, match with your vision. Will their suggestion get you closer to the ideal version of the story that you imagined? If so, then make a change. If not, don't.

d. They "don't quite get it."
Be careful with this one. If you really have a sense that your reader's comments aren't making sense, try to figure out if the reader had a vision that really differs seriously from yours. Maybe they imagined a premise that was very different from what you had in mind - then you'll find their comments are serving that premise, and working against what you were doing. Unless you find that different premise really compelling, you shouldn't take this kind of advice. Maybe they disagreed with some of your decisions, either thematically, or in the plot, etc. It's a perfectly good idea to question your own major decisions about the story. There may be a better path. But if you play around with the new direction and it's not working for you, don't go there.

e. They hate it/seriously don't get it.
This is an interesting one. There's a difference between a reader who says they don't like the story without giving reasons why, and one who starts dismantling you point by point. People can reject stories for very simple reasons, often having to do with a point of disagreement with the premise. You see this a lot in reviews of science fiction - if the reviewer can't wrap his or her brain around the idea of people dealing with aliens on a different planet, then they might have hard time saying constructive things about how the premise has been executed.

If they dismantle you on one thing after another, so that you find yourself thinking, "Were they even reading the same story I was?" then something else might be going on. I call it "falling out" of the story, and it basically means that they missed something really important, and/or stopped caring. Do not ever ignore this. If a person has fallen out of your story, you should be taking inline comments with a serious grain of salt (I've had people tell me that my writing style is unreadable. I have ample evidence to suggest that it's not). On the other hand, you must ask yourself why, and where, the person fell out. It might be at the very beginning. I think about it this way: if someone cares about the story, then all the complexities of the Varin world will seem to have purpose; if that reader doesn't care about the story, then the complexities will feel like shackles at every turn. Everything you've worked so hard to achieve can work against you if your reader "falls out." So gulp down the sense of insult, ignore the details of the reaction, and figure out where they fell out. It will make an enormous difference for the story's success.

f. They had struggle points.
Struggle points are places where something causes the reader to get kicked out of the story. Maybe, grammatical errors or anachronisms. Maybe, a word that seems to come from a really mismatched context (like a Harry Potter term showing up in Dune, for example). Or they can be things like my own experience with people who told me, "Every time I see the word Tagret I read it 'target' and it takes me three or so readings to interpret it correctly." I'll go with the name situation because it's one of the most difficult. My character has been named Tagret for so long that I really had a hard time imagining he could be anything else (thus my previous post on changing  names). However, more than one person had brought my attention to this as a struggle point, and the final argument for me is that if a person is being kicked out of my story, it doesn't matter how close that name is to my heart - my readers have stopped reading. If your readers stop reading, you've lost them. And you've lost a potential sale if you run into an editor who gets kicked out by the same thing. So you have to ask yourself some serious questions about what kind of compromise will still serve the vision you had in mind, and still keep people from getting kicked out of the story. In my case, I found after quite a few interesting-yet-all-wrong options that I could change the name Tagret to Tagaret, keep the pronunciation precisely the same (similar to Margaret), and avoid the confusion. Sure, it does mean that some readers will accidentally call him Ta-GAR-et. Do I mind that? Not really. That' s just one of the hazards of having a story "out there."

Every writer is going to have a different degree of faith and commitment to different aspects of a story. Names are some of the hardest things to change. It's always a balance. Every piece of feedback has to be measured against what we're trying to achieve, but at least for me, I realize that what I'm trying to achieve is not necessarily what is on the page right now. What I'm trying to achieve is a story that will work toward a certain set of thematic and other story goals... and also, a story that will engage readers and keep them all the way through.

It's something to think about.



  1. The biggest falling out I've ever been told about in one of my WIPs was something I couldn't change without changing the point of the story. My classmates didn't like my second POV character, simply because she was an elf. Creative writing class and I was the only fantasy buff in it, so take that how you will, especially considering all the ghastly stuff they never pointed out that I see now in the draft. (The writing is pretty awful, though the story itself is salvageable. Someday I plan to start over and use what I've learned since then.)

    But I did have a less drastic one that several of my writing buddies pointed out in a different story more recently. They said that I was essentially repeating information in a few passages in the first scene and that it threw them out somewhat. In my mind the passages weren't really the same thing and both needed to be said, but I poked and prodded at what the underlying reason might be for why they and I might both be right. I finally came up with a solution that is completely different from what they'd suggested but it still answers that falling out point. I hope. I haven't finished reworking it to see what they'd think of it now. But not only should it fix that problem, it'll cut out a few pages in the process making the beginning that much tighter. I hadn't liked having it pointed out, but I'm much happier with the revision-in-progress because of it.

    1. Yep, that whole "I can't handle elves" thing is what I call a premise problem. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    2. That's a good way to put it. A premise problem is probably what I had with one of my classmate's stories, too. But I refused to read it at all after I hit the snag, because I found the characters' actions and rationales too repugnant. Accepted the hit to my grade, too, for not finishing the critique or participating in the discussion. Some things I just will not read.

  2. You had me scared for a moment, but that's a wonderful solution. He's been Tagret to me too, but largely orally (okay, in chat too, but I hear it, not see it. Now I don't have to adapt :).

    Good breakdown of the various viewpoints too.

    1. Margaret, I'm glad you approve. You were part of the inspiration for the new spelling. :)

    2. I really enjoyed this breakdown. Listening to feedback requires as much attention as writing in the first place. It can be tempting to think people who don't get what you're going for are the ones with the problem, but if they're being honest, it's worth listening to them -- you may never win them over in a rewrite, but they've likely tipped you off to a weakness you weren't aware of.
      One thing I've learned to take with a huge grain of salt is any recommendation on how to solve/fix/rewrite something. A beta reader may have exposed a real flaw, but it's the writer's job to fix it; and the beta reader won't be aware of all the other problems you are trying to address when you rewrite. (A good editor, though, may know better than the writer what is likely to solve multiple problems ... :)

    3. David, I agree - even if people know where problems are, they don't necessarily know how to fix the problem in the right way. You are the one who knows best how to handle revisions in a way that stays true to your vision. I also agree that a good editor can see patterns well.

  3. Thank you so much for this 'classification' of readers. I've always gotten different responses from different readers but was never quite sure how much weight to put on each piece of feedback. I didn't want to just label everyone in the "they just don't get it at all" pile, and this definitely helps take each opinion and give it the appropriate place where it can be of the most constructive benefit. This one's going in my 'Writer's Bible'!

    1. Thanks, universeocean! I'm glad to be of help.

  4. I work so hard to make the words on the page agree with the vision in my head - not an easy thing - so some comments utterly confuse me.

    I got my first incomprehensible feedback - one that made me question what the person had actually read - just this morning. I immediately saved it to a file - she went to the trouble of writing it, and I am going to try to figure out what happened.

    I'm keeping your list above handy - this won't be the last time. Sorting the comment-critters into categories - and having different techniques for each - is a great idea expressed well. I already knew the one about 'get it, but have issues,' but most of the rest are new. Lovely work.

    1. Thanks very much. I'm glad that it can help you sort out the responses to your work and keep you on target.

    2. Then I wrote back and asked her about some of them - and she had some GREAT ideas.

      I'm SO glad that I didn't just say 'thanks for your comments.'

      I think the key was that she took the time, and made the effort, to tell me what she thought and how she felt about it.

      You so rarely get that kind of detailed feedback - I look forward to more confused readers - because it is my job NOT to confuse them.

    3. Great idea! Yes, it's really wonderful when someone takes the time to give us substantive feedback. Good luck with your project!