What to Do When the Critics Disagree

One of the more common questions from my post on when your critics are right was what to do when the critics disagree. When one person says your sad ending should be happy, but another says it's not sad enough, who's right?

A little background: Air Pirates is written with two POVs--the main storyline in Hagai's perspective and backstory told in Sam's past. I've gotten all kinds of comments on this.

(For the record, ALL of my beta readers are awesome people who get it. Not a single jerk has read this novel. They just differed in their opinions of where it should go.)

  • "I love the two storylines. It never gets boring."
  • "I like both Sam and Hagai, but switching back and forth like this is hard. What if you took out Sam's story and made it it's own novel, like a prequel?"
  • "Sam is awesome, but I thought Hagai was annoying. Can it just be about Sam?"
  • "I LOVE Hagai, but Sam is too much. Can it just be about Hagai?"

If I were to follow this advice, I would simultaneously have to: (1) remove Hagai's story, (2) remove Sam's story, (3) write a novel each for Hagai and Sam, and (4) change nothing.

You can see where that might be difficult.

But the purpose of critiques is not to fix the novel for you. Critiques give you an idea of how people are responding to your novel. It's up to you how you address that. To the tips!
  1. FOLLOW YOUR GUT. You know your story best, and you can usually tell which comments resonate with you and which don't. When it was suggested I split the novel in two, I debated it a lot, but ultimately decided it would turn the story into something I didn't want to write. That freed me to focus on what I would change.
  2. LOOK AT THE ROOT OF THE COMMENT. Even though their advice was contradictory, all of my beta readers were correct. I just had to go deeper than the advice and look at the reason behind it. Hagai was annoying sometimes, and Sam was sometimes too much, but removing one or the other as a main character wasn't an answer I liked. Knowing the root cause, however, I could fix the real issue: make Hagai more proactive; make Sam less of a Mary Sue.
  3. LOOK FOR THE TRUTH IN EVERY COMMENT. So I ignored the suggestion of splitting the novel in two, but did I ignore the comment entirely? Heck, no. There was something that reader didn't like about switching back and forth, and it was my job to figure out what it was. Realizing that made me take a cold, hard look at both storylines to figure out what made "switching" difficult for some people. I shortened some chapters, deleted others, and focused the tension so each storyline could stand on its own, resulting in a far less boring story overall.
It looks cut and dried, but believe me, it wasn't at the time. Analyzing critiques is hard work (and a good reason to limit how many beta readers you have at one time), but Air Pirates is a lot better for it. Good enough? Heck, I don't know. But definitely better.

What do you do when critics disagree?

10 Ways to Tell a Critic Doesn't Get It

On Monday, I said your critics are usually right. But there are times when you get someone who just doesn't get it. How can you tell the difference? Here are some guidelines.

  1. They get your characters' names wrong. Repeatedly.
  2. They hate your favorite part. Not some clever bit of dialog, but the part where the whole story's about an ex-smuggler who works for an assassin and hopes to find his daughter before his boss does. THAT part.
  3. You write a story where evil isn't all black and white, with good guys and villains who are varying shades of gray, and they say, "Your characters seemed to have both good and bad qualities, so that I couldn't identify with any of them."*
  4. They suggest you change the vampires because "vampires that drink blood are cliche."
  5. The best thing they have to say for your story is, "It didn't make me throw up."
  6. They think your epic fantasy is "too unrealistic. Who really believes in dragons anyway?"
  7. Their favorite part is the maid with no name and one line of dialog--the one you deleted in the revisions you did while waiting for this critique.
  8. Their idea to improve your zombie story is to get rid of the zombies.
  9. They end their critique by saying, "I suspect that no matter what I say, you're going to continue trying to write."
  10. They send you a link to their self-published novel as "an example of how to do it right."
* Actual quote.

Got anymore?

The Kitchen-Sink Story VS. The Rule of Cool

The Kitchen-Sink Story: A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.

The Rule of Cool: Most readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for something that is totally awesome.
-- TV Tropes (intentionally unlinked because I care about you)

Yesterday I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:

Most of the responses were combinations. Steampunk ninjas. Jumper elves. The most common response, though, was all six: elven ninjas with Jumper powers, driving steampunk mecha in a genetically perfect waterworld (possibly fighting dragons).

It sounds great, largely due to the Rule of Cool stated above. Take two cool things, slap them together, and nobody cares how impossible the outcome is BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME!

But the fear, then (well, my fear), is being accused of writing a Kitchen-Sink Story. "You're just throwing in ninjas because you think they're trendy, not because they add anything to the work!" "Mecha don't make sense anyway, but in a world covered entirely in water?!"

At first glance, it sounds like these are two different sets of people: the SF geeks (who love ninjas) vs. the erudite literary heads who Take Fiction Seriously. But the SF geeks who find all this stuff awesome are also the folks who will nitpick your story to death. They want the cool stuff and a world they can dig deeply into (I know, I'm one of them).

Fortunately folks like me are willing to accept any explanation you can give them, provided it's consistent. So I think I'll do what I always do. You can feel free to follow suit:
  1. Ignore those who Take Fiction Seriously. Much as I'd love to win a Hugo, those guys aren't my target audience.
  2. Pick the elements I want, figure out why it makes sense later. It worked with Air Pirates, after all.
  3. Apply the Rule of Cool where necessary. Giant mecha don't make sense, neither tactically nor physically, but who the heck cares? They're awesome.
  4. Ensure whatever I make up follows its own rules. Sufficiently strange technology, or elements that don't exist in the real world, is treated like magic. State the rules, then follow them.
I don't know what I'll actually decide (depends on the story, I guess), but I'm definitely going to lean on the Rule of Cool rather than be afraid of the Kitchen-Sink Story. What do you think?

Oo, KRAKEN! Those are definitely going in the waterworld.

When Your Critics are Right

"Originally we tried to find a publisher, but each had their reason why THE SHACK was not a book they wanted, or they asked for substantive changes that we felt diminished the story." -- William P. Young, author of THE SHACK

When I first read the above quote, I laughed a little. I'd just finished reading THE SHACK, and while a lot of the ideas in it are frigging fantastic, the story and the prose grated on me the whole way through. I don't know what "substantive changes" were suggested, but at the time I was thinking, "Yeah, like make the story good!"

It may be that Young's potential publishers really would've diminished the things THE SHACK did well. I don't know. I do know that most writers have a vision, an idea of what their story is. And when a critiquer tells them why something isn't working for them, the tendency is to believe the critic is wrong--that the changes they suggest would change the fundamental vision of the story.

Sometimes this is true. Mostly, I think, it isn't.

Most of the time, your critics are right. Even if they don't know writing, they know what they like and what's not working for them. And chances are they represent a significant percentage of your potential readership.

One of my very first beta readers said a certain scene wasn't working for them. He said the prose was too florid, looked like I was trying too hard. I did nothing about it at the time, because I had a "vision" for the scene. It was supposed to be florid, like the narration of someone who thought too much of themselves.

As it turned out, the narrator who thought too much of themselves was me. One year and four major revisions later, I read that scene again and wrote in the margin: "This IS over the top."

All that time, I thought I was being "true to my vision," but after a year's worth of learning the craft, I discovered my friend--who had never written a novel in his life--was 100% correct.

That's today's lesson: Trust your critics. When someone says something isn't working, nine times out of ten, they're right. The people who don't get it are the exceptions.

Blog Growth

I want to take a look at how a blog grows, what does and does not affect it, what you can do to...

Okay, that's a lie. I just want to geek out about statistics.

This blog has been running since May 2008. Other than the spikes, you can see that it has had a pretty steady growth. Let's take a look at the spikes, the dips, and things I think should've affected this growth but didn't.

Both spikes were a direct result of someone linking to a post (this one in Oct 2009 and this one a year later,  though I think that first spike is a fluke ... as I recall, most of those visitors came from Google looking for this picture). Although I definitely gained readers both times, there was no significant, long term change in the blog's readership, no matter how big the spike. This is almost certainly due to the lack of swearing, drinking, and scantily-clad women on my blog needed to keep people coming back.

MORAL: Swear more, dammit.

The dips are usually when I posted less, like last August when I disappeared for two weeks. Makes sense in a graph that shows monthly readership as opposed to per post.

MORAL: Post more often to artificially boost my number of readers per month.

In Nov 2008, I started posting blog links on Facebook and Twitter. There's a little growth, but not what I'd call significant.

In Sep 2009, I started posting on a regular schedule. Again, there's growth, but that's more easily explained by the fact I went to 13 posts/month instead of 8 (see moral to THE DIPS, above).

In Apr 2010, I got published and ran a contest. I got a few extra page loads that month (usually indicative of new people checking out old posts), but otherwise no big change.

MORAL: Nothing matters. Give up.

I don't really believe nothing matters. The graph obviously shows growth, but it also shows there's no single event to magically boost your readers (at least not this side of being agented). I'd say the growth correlates more with me getting better at social media than anything else--commenting on blogs, interacting on Twitter/Facebook, stuff like that.

Not that I'm awesome (I'm SO not), but I try to figure out what people do and do not like to read, and then give them that while still being me. And I'm slowly learning how to actually talk to people, even if it's just over the internet. Honestly, this is stuff anyone can do.

So do you keep track of your readership stats? Have you noticed any trends in what works or doesn't?

A Simple Fix: -ing Verbs

I love Dr. Seuss, but there's one of his books I always edit as I read. Bartholomew and the Oobleck just has an overabundance of passive -ing verbs. Example:

       With an angry roar, the oobleck was suddenly hitting the palace harder. It was battering and spattering against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace was springing leaks. The oobleck was ripping the windows right off their hinges.
       It was dripping through the ceilings. It was rolling down the chimneys. It was coming in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

There's a lot of good stuff here. Strong verbs. Apt comparisons. Colorful imagery. But the past progressive (which is what we call -ing verbs used this way) kills me every time.

It seems accurate. I mean, the oobleck didn't hit the palace just once. It was hitting it. Continuously. But this construction is passive, and in fiction it slows things down. Compare the above passage with this one.

       With an angry roar, the oobleck suddenly hit the palace harder. It battered and spattered against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace sprung leaks. The oobleck ripped the windows right off their hinges.
       It dripped through the ceilings. It rolled down the chimneys. It came in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

I don't know about you, but the new passage feels a lot more tense to me. And at no point am I confused as to whether the oobleck hit or was hitting. The scene it paints is perfectly clear.

Fortunately this is an easy, if somewhat tedious, fix. Search for "ing", and examine each one to see if it can be removed. (Of course you'll find a lot of gerunds too--verbs turned into nouns via -ing--which is what makes it so tedious).

Or you can do it the lazy way, like me. Learn the rule, and hope you catch them on your own read through. With practice, you can actually catch a lot, though probably not all of them. It is called the lazy way for a reason, after all.

Never Tell Me the Odds

Three years ago, I thought all you needed to get published was a half-decent book.

Most of you are laughing now.

The thing is if I knew, when I started writing Travelers, that it would take eight years and three novels to get to the place where agents said, "I like your writing, but...", I think I would've given up from the start. I'm glad I didn't know how hard this road would be when I started it.

But there are a few things I wish I had known, and I'll share these with you:
  1. Critiquing other stories can help you get better faster than writing them. You can critique dozens of short stories in the time it takes to craft one, and as I've said it's easier to see problems in other stories.
  2. In terms of learning technique, short stories are equivalent to novels, but with a quicker turn-around time. You can write dozens of short stories, and have them critiqued and revised, in the time it takes you to write a novel.
  3. A story must have tension at all times. Tension is what keeps the reader reading. They're either afraid something will happen or they want to learn the mystery behind it all.
  4. Nathan Bransford's blog is a gold mine. There are many, many good resources out on this internet, but if I could only point to one, I'd say read EVERY POST in Publishing Essentials on the sidebar.
  5. Backup your stuff. Remember that time you had to retype a month's-worth of work? Yeah. Backup your stuff.
Of course, I wouldn't have believed #'s 2 and 5. For that matter, I wouldn't have believed it would take this long to get where I am, even if someone told me. I had a lot of hope and an overdeveloped sense of I Might Be The Exception. So I guess it's okay if you tell me the odds. I just won't listen.

What do you wish you had known starting out?