What to Do When the Critics Disagree

— February 28, 2011 (8 comments)
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?

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  1. I approach this much the same as you. Critiquers are great for saying something doesn't work for them, not as much (always) in saying how to fix it. Digging deep to figure out what's really bothering them is tough. I think you've hit upon what can often be the answer: structure. People respond almost intuitively to structure, without necessarily knowing that's what's bothering them. So a weak structural ending will leave people without that emotionally resonant ending (this is often my problem), which will make them suggest all kinds of things that need to be fixed. A structurally weak middle will make people question motivations, etc.

    It's awesome, because it forces us to be better than we are, which is what feedback is all about! :)

    Great post!

  2. I've always found the "go with your gut" scenario to be the best.

  3. I think you're exactly right. You have to try to get to the root of the complaint, and change it in your own way. A way that resonates with your vision for the story.

    For example my own novel has an ensemble cast. I keep hearing that it is too many people to keep straight too soon, which I actually sort of agree with.

    Many readers want me to cut characters, but I've already done that, I don't intend to cut more. But, I CAN stagger the introductions better, so that you don't meet SO many people SO soon.

    I'm working on that now.

  4. This is a very good aproach. I always try to keep in mind that I'm only trying to gage a reaction when I here from my critics but *sigh* why can't they just do the work for me?

  5. @Susan: That's a great point about structure (I may have hit on it, but didn't think of it in those words). I think you're absolutely right.

    @Elena: Me too. Most comments hit me hard, like, "THAT'S what's wrong with it! Why didn't I see that before." It makes it easier to spot the comments I'm iffy on.

    @Matthew: Exactly. Ensemble casts are hard, but they certainly can be done (look at George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire). I think another good trick is to give the reader some unique hook for each character, even it's something cheap. Like, "Oh yeah, he's the guy with the eye patch." :-)

    @Taryn: Seriously! It'd be so much easier if everyone just told us what to fix ;-)

  6. Thanks for this post! I haven't dealt with the critique pile for Star Swans yet, but I know from the e-mails that they disagreed with each other on multiple things.

    How's your revision going?

  7. "What do you do when critics disagree? "

    I send them each a brief note informing them of the fact that the pack of space ninjas in my story was not actually fictional. Then I sic the ninjas on them.

    Also what Susan said in that first comment.

  8. @Myrna: I've been waiting on one other beta reader before I start, though she's been (understandably) busy. I recently finished drafting Cunning Folk, so I'll probably start Air Pirates revisions next week.

    @Paul: At least you send them a note. That's very considerate.