Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Listen to Me: Putting Feedback to Good Use

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just a heads up that my monthly post is up over at Pub(lishing) Crawl today, where I'm talking about the benefit of cause and effect in your scenes. Come on over and say hello.

Waiting for a critique it both exciting and terrifying. Did the beta readers like it? Does your story suck? Is it as brilliant as you thought or did you utterly miss the mark? As tough as waiting can be, the really hard part comes after those critiques come back and you're not sure what to do with all that advice.

It's not uncommon to want to do everything everyone says, but listening too hard can actually hurt your novel.

(Here's more on how to critique)

When you're just starting out (heck, even if you've been writing awhile) you want to please everyone, but trying to do what everyone says you should do without understanding why will only hurt your work in the long run. It's not always best to do exactly what someone says. Sometimes it's better to hear what they're saying and identify the problem that made them say it in the first place. For example, you might get comments like:
  • Nothing's happening in this scene, maybe you should cut it (but it could be a problem with an unclear goal, and simply making that goal more clear would fix it)
  • I don't understand why this character is doing this. Maybe explain what they're really after? (but it could be a problem with motivation, and explaining the specifics will give away the secret and kill the tension)
  • I don't believe he'd do that here (but it could be a failure to lay the right groundwork leading up to that choice, not a problem with the character's actions)
Sometimes readers spot a problem and knows something is off, but the trouble spot isn't where they see it--it's all in the setup, so the resolution isn't coming through correctly. Readers see the symptoms of the problem, but not the true cause. If you fix the issue where they mention it, you don't fix the problem and might even create a new one. But if you consider why they feel that way, you can trace those symptoms back to where you went off track.

(Here's more on getting the most out of a critique)

Even the best advice can be wrong for your book, and it's helpful to consider the source when reviewing your feedback. A mystery fan might nudge you to create more mystery or drop more clues, which might not be appropriate for your romantic comedy. The romance fan might encourage you to develop the sexual tension between the leads, even though there's no romance in the novel. A thriller fan might ask you to pick up the pace, even though a slower pace is what your historical fiction readers are after.

It's possible you're getting those comments because:
  • The mystery reader feels the plot is too predictable and she's getting bored
  • The romance reader feels there's no chemistry between your lead characters and they feel flat
  • The thriller reader feels the stakes are too low to make her care about the story
On the flip side, you can still benefit from those "outside your genre" readers. Would a little more mystery add humor or tension to your romantic comedy? Maybe secrets to reveal or misunderstandings that better fit your genre and the story you want to tell. Maybe tension between the leads is just what you need, only not the sexual kind. Perhaps there are a few scenes in your historical that could benefit from a little excitement.

(Here's more on asking for feedback, and how to handle the results)

Don't get me wrong, critiques are hugely valuable and I think every writer should find themselves a good crit group. But what's even more important is to find the confidence within yourself to know when a comment is good for your book, bad for your book, or good, but not right for your book. And that's challenging to figure out. Listen to what your readers felt, as well as what they said.

Hear everything, but don't listen too hard.

How do you handle feedback? 

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. as always, another fine post and one I'll share with writing students. I don;t know how you have time to write such great posts and WRITE too!

    1. And as always, thanks! I don't always find the time. Sometimes it comes down to either or :) I'm a morning writer, so that's when I work on fiction. Afternoons I can write about writing, so these articles get written then. Or on the weekends.

  2. Great post - an yet another example of why the link to your site is among the first support information I give to first-book authors that I edit.

    Part of my job as an editor is to ensure that my feedback (which is what an edit is - essentially) is constructive, comprehended by the author, totally supportive of their work, and translates accurately.

    I really enjoy that this post is so reassuring and stresses having confidence in your own abilities, talents, and skills. Don't know about y'all, but my writer's confidence can use all the support it can get! :D


    1. Thanks so much! That's what it's here so, so I do appreciate it. I think most (all?) writers have that nagging self doubt at some point. It's such a subjective process and there's no clear example of success to gauge our work against. We have to believe in ourselves and what we're trying to do or we'll spend time spinning our creative wheels when we should be creating.

  3. Dario Ciriello pointed me at your blog - and I'm very grateful he did. I sneaked a couple hours of reading in today, on multiple subjects, and am finding it wonderfully informative. Thank you for this, and the many other, terrific posts.

    1. I'll have to tell him thanks. Welcome, and good to have you here. So glad you're finding the site helpful :) I created it to help writers, so it always makes me happy to hear when I've done that.

  4. Nicely put. I always call feedback "a sample poll": they aren't WRONG and aren't saying you're WRONG, they just represent a share of your voters--um, readers--who would like more of X here. So the question is, can you satisfy them too without hurting too many of your other people or your principles... because often it just takes a small change here or there.

    Best of all, you nailed the trick to doing that. Too often, a reader sees only part of a situation, and we need to know how many ways we could really fix it.

    1. I like that, and it's true. It's a sampling of how readers feel about the book. I've noticed that it's usually fairly obvious when someone is just the wrong reader for that story or it wasn't their kind of book. Feedback either is of the "just didn't like it" variety, or suggestions are pushing the book away from what the author wants and turning it into something else.