When Your Critics are Right

— February 21, 2011 (13 comments)
"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.

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  1. hee hee hee! so true adam! i have the opposite problem with recieving critique. i know that i need to improve so much, that i take crits to heart... but then- sometimes crits contradict each other, and then i get all confused!

  2. THE SHACK is an interesting phenom - my mom read it (because everyone else was) and she said it was ok, but she didn't understand what the fuss was all about. (My mom reads a TON and is pretty discerning). Yet, it's sold a gazillion copies.

    I think this speaks to the difference between story and medium - some stories like this touch some cultural zeitgeist and succeed because of that, possibly in spite of the medium.

    But publishers can't count on you tapping into the zeitgeist, so they require that you have it all going on - story and delivery. I would too, if it was MY money on the line.

    And the closer you get to the perceived "wide appeal" of the moment, the more likely publishers are to take a gamble on you. I thought this was an interesting take on trends.

  3. I think it's all about construtive criticism - that's what most authors are looking for. It's the only way to perfect your craft.

  4. I'm going to my first ever critique group this week so this is great advice! Though I'm like aspiring_x in that I crave critique because I'm sure I could make my writing so much better. I'm definitely in the learning stage at this point, so I have no reason to think "my vision" is correct over someone taking an honest look at my first draft.

  5. Yes, and when my CPs agree on a problem, it's easy for me to make the revision. But when they disagree, it's hard to know what to do.

  6. Excellent post. I totally agree, and I have had the same thing happen to me. :)

  7. Love this post. I'm terrible at taking critiques. Saying that out loud sucks, but it's the truth. I take it all to heart. However after talking with Maggie Steifvater she taught me to let the critique sit for 3 days (or longer) and then go back. You'll be more level headed. Best advice I'd ever been given.

    I find that most of the time they are correct, however you still know how to fix it the best. It's still your opinion in the end. Just make sure it's the right one.

  8. @aspiring: I've definitely had that problem. The simple (but not easy) answer to that is "go with your gut."

    @Susan: THE SHACK had church buzz going for it too (and then got a x2 multiplier when other parts of the church started calling it blasphemy). That's a really interesting link, too. Especially for me, as I'm looking at which story to pick next.

    @D.U.: Definitely, hard as that is to get :-)

  9. @K. Martin: Good luck with your first group! Humility is key, but it can go away with time. Hang on to it.

    @Myrna: It's so rare that CPs agree. When they do, you KNOW it needs fixing.

    @Larissa: Good to know I'm not alone either!

    @Jen: That's good advice. I know for me, I can't read critiques before I go to bed. Otherwise I'm too depressed (or my mind's too busy fixing things) to sleep.

  10. You make an excellent point. And I think it helps to have your work critiqued by multiple people. If only one person points out a particular problem, there is maybe a 10% chance that they are wrong. If two people point out the same problem, that drops down pretty close to zero.

  11. @Matthew: I agree, especially about the chances dropping to zero. Though I've found too many crit partners can be difficult too, but for different reasons.

  12. Sometimes the particular crit comment itself is wrong, but the feeling behind it is correct. What the writer needs to do is decipher where that feeling comes from and fix that bit.

  13. I've definitely had that, Elena. And you're right. It's not our job to do everything they say, but to figure out why something's not working for them.