As writers, we live with our stories and characters for years, even decades -- so it is no surprise that when we take those stories out of our heads and put them on the page, our defenses rally to protect them. Hearing critiques becomes an intense and emotional experience. But those protective instincts and heightened emotions could be preventing your story from reaching its full potential.
As a first-time author, I had to learn to listen to feedback and filter it through my own vision for the book. I use a pattern of thinking that served me well during the process of writing and revising my first novel, The Fire Horse Girl.
Guest column by Kay Honeyman, author of the young adult debut,
THE FIRE HORSE GIRL (Arthur Levine, Jan. 2013). In a starred review,
Booklist said "Honeyman's voice, authentic and consistent, transcends
this historical fiction/adventure/love story to embrace every young woman
who has ever searched for the real person hidden under the veneer of
society’s expectations." Honeyman grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and
attended Baylor University. She currently teaches middle school and
lives in Dallas, Texas.
REMEMBER THAT THE PAYOFF IS A BETTER FINAL DRAFT
If the comments are critical, I resist the impulse to defend my story. In my first writing class, we wrote short stories and brought them to class to share. My instructor laid down one rule - “If it isn’t on the page, it isn’t on the page. Don’t waste time trying to prove it is.” I try to make listening to a critique my first instinct. It’s not always easy, but the rewards of clearer prose, a better story, and a richer experience for the reader are worth it.
DON'T CLING TO COMPLIMENTS
Positive comments come with that wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling, but they can be even more dangerous. Just like I try not to push against criticism, I work hard not to cling to tightly to one person’s compliments. Good can often get in the way of great.
EXAMINE *WHY* READERS HAVE THEIR CONCERNS
Once I have heard a reader’s feedback, I reflect on what they meant. Early readers have a difficult job – sorting through the messy, cumbersome first or second drafts of a story. I have asked them to find problems that, at that moment, even I can’t see. It is my job as a writer not only to listen to what people are saying but also dig beneath the surface and discover why they are saying it. If a reader doesn’t like a character, maybe I haven’t shown their role in the story or their motivations. If they point to a scene and shake their head, I need to look at its purpose and stakes. A good critique will spotlight problems in a manuscript or a scene. It will point to part of the mechanisms of the story and say, “This isn’t working.” My job is to tinker with the parts until it’s fixed.
I may deal with the suggestions the day I get them, or I may continue to write forward and deal with them later. Either way, it helps to write down every critique I get. I tend to put them in as comments on my Word document with the reader’s initials attached. That allows me to keep up with what was said and who said it. Until I have listened, reflected, and revised if necessary, the critique stays in the document.
Critiques can bring a fresh perspective if you allow them past your defenses, filter them through what you know about the story, and then use them move your story towards its potential.
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