Thursday, June 11, 2009

How Much Stock Do You Put Into What Someone Else Says?

(Strap on the life vest. I'm goin' in deep today....)

This question has always plagued me. When I first started with a crit group, I changed every single thing they told me to. I guess I just sort of assumed that's what everyone did who got feedback. Hey, I was a newb. Don't judge me. *wink*

Some people have been blogging about this this week. Beth Fleisher said it yesterday on the QT blog. Jessica Faust had something about writing what you know (and I added "love" Write what you love). I swear I scheduled and wrote this before I read their stuff. I've been to crit group this week. I've heard some stories lately from people who are changing everything because of a single suggestion. (Not people I've directly talked to, so this is all hearsay, but still. I know it happens.) And it got me thinking and asking myself:

How much stock do you put into what someone else says?

So way last summer, I was telling my DH about a crit suggestion I got (which is a miracle, cuz he doesn't much care for the writing gig), and I just didn't like it. And he said the words that changed my life. Seriously. He said, "Like I tell my sixth graders, just because someone tells you to do something doesn't mean you have to do it."

Whoa. Wait. What?

I don't have to change it? For real?

It was like I'd never thought of that before. Since then, I take every suggestion seriously, I really do. But sometimes they just don't work for my story. Or I've worded things the way I want to, and I don't care that it's not grammatically correct or that it repeating. It's deliberate.

My confidence has increased in this area since I've realized that just because my critmate doesn't like present tense, doesn't mean I have to change it to past. Or that if they don't like something, doesn't mean it has to go/change. Now when all three of them can't figure out what the heck is going on...well, then yeah. I have to rewrite whether I like it or not.

Don't get me wrong, all critiques are attention-worthy. That's why we're in crit groups, right? But changes are not mandatory. Over the last year, I've learned what kind of writer I am and what I'm trying to achieve. The critiques I get that fit me and my story are like drugs. I just can't get enough. And I usually do implement everything they tell me. The critiques I get that don't fit me and my story and my style get tossed. In private, of course, but tossed still the same.

This is why random crits by people I don't know are difficult for me. I know there are places to find critiquers (Critique Circle and OWW for example) and I've been to those places and left dissatisfied. My online groups are with people I have spent time getting to know and trust, even if we haven't met in person. I know they "get" me and/or they "get" my genre and my style. That's important to me, so I can get the best drugs, er, crits possible.

So I'm curious. How much stock do you put into what someone says about your story? Have you enjoyed Critique Circle or OWW? Where did you find your critmates? What about agents? Do you automatically buy what they're selling? Why or why not?

How much stock do you put into what someone else says? Especially someone you don't know that well. That's what I want to know. Here's why: I've seen some people in the past change everything everyone says. Their story gets lost. They get lost. They have no confidence. So I guess this is about YOU too. How do you get the confidence to toss the crits that don't work for you? How do you decide what kind of writer you want to be? Have you? Do you stay true to yourself and your story? How do you do that amidst the advice, critiques, and self-doubt?

Wow. Toldja it'd be deep. Hope you had the proper gear.

26 comments:

Abby said...

I've gotten some really awesome critters off the QT forum, plus my husband, who never worries about hurting my feelings, even when I'm rolling my eyes at his suggestions.

By nature, I'm a rule follower, but for some reason, when someone makes a suggestion contrary to the way I think something should be done, I dig my heels in and don't want to comply. Most of the time though, after I've let it fester for a few days, I'll realize the change will make the book better or that it's something I was worried about all along, and was hoping no one else would notice. :)

Still, there are things I've left alone, because I liked them the way they were, or because I felt like it would detract from the story if I changed them. So, I guess it's my delusion that I'm always right that keeps me from changing everything. :)

Great post!

M. Dunham said...

Did you happen to see my post about this very topic last week? Apparently it's on a lot of people's minds, hah.

Scott said...

Short answer: I stay true to the story and me. Not all suggestions are bad. Not all suggestions are good. Sometimes you just have to trust your instinct.

Long answer: kidding!

I don't think I've ever made every change a critter suggeted. I look at the suggestions, look at the context surrounding the area in question, and then make an informed decision.

One critter didn't like the title of my project. I love the title. I've been threatened with bodily harm by my dearest friend in the Universe if I even consider (not that I would) changing the title. On that one, instinct and love (for the title) won out.

As writers, we can either give in to the demands of our critters, as well as our alleged (one day) audience, or we can stay true to who we are as writers, to the voice we create. I cannot base everything I write on what my mother, brother, sisters, friends, enemies, fellow bloggers, and whoever might think about my writing. I can only write to the best of my abilities and, day by day, strive to write just a bit better. I can learn from the crits I get, but I don't think I should have to change who I am, or the voice I write in. : )

S

Tess said...

I listen with an open mind and then go with my gut. Usually, I take about half and leave the other.

Icy Roses said...

This is difficult. For one, while I'm a member of Critique Circle online, I'm not a fan of it personally, because I like having a face to my critter. I need someone I trust. At the same time, I'm also skeptical about having good friends do it, because they're not tough enough or they don't write so they don't know much about critiquing.

It's really picky about my critters. But when I get criticism, I will usually feel like someone stabbed me. Go read a bunch of compliments to validate my work, and then when my wallowing session is over, I'll come back and read the comments with a fresh eye. Ultimately, it comes down to me whether I want to change something, although for the most part, I do. Because for the most part, the problems brought up I already knew were problems but kept denying until someone else repeated it. If the thing I'm supposed to change isn't true to the story as I see it, then I won't. But I don't ignore critiques just because I feel like my baby is perfect the way it is.

Ha, sorry, that was the most disorganized comment ever.

Michelle McLean said...

I used to do the same thing - change everything that was suggested. Until one day a change was suggested that I just really didn't want to do. I almost broke out in hives not making the change, but since then it's been easier for me to leave things I really want.

My current WIP is a great test of this for me. It's totally different from anything I've ever done before and one of my crit buddies is having a hard time adjusting to the new tone...usually I write historicals and this is a YA Urban Fantasy. So I can have fun with the language and not stick to the formal language of a few centuries ago. And she's just not used to that coming from me.

There were some things she wanted me to change that I just really don't want to change. My character has all these sarcastic little asides to herself that I love. Now, if everyone has a problem with them, then I know I might need to work on it. But I'm not going to change it for one person, or probably even two.

If it's a general consensus though, that's different. I kind of use that as a gauge now when it comes to stuff I don't want to change. If more than one person is pointing to the same thing, then there's a problem I need to address. If not, then it is their opinion against my own, and since it is my book....mwhahahahaha....I get to leave it be as I see fit :D

Mandy said...

Oh boy! This post hits home hard core. Authonomy was the first on-line platform I joined that invited critique. I changed every aspect of my first four chapters to satisfy every whim of every commenter. It essentially nullified my voice and destroyed the tone of my story. I've also ventured over to critique circle, but was dissatisfied with the platform. There's too many rules and regulations, and from what I could tell, you can't have a novel critiqued unless you are a paying member.

Forming relationships with writers I've met online has been the greatest and most productive experience for me. It wasn't just about finding someone to give me feedback, it was about talking to people that have been where I've been and feel the way I feel. The friends I've made just by networking is the real reward and any feedback I get is just icing on the cake!!!

Megan said...

In a less professional sense, this was probably the hardest part of my teaching career. I didn't want to impose my writing style on my students, but how do you teach them to write without SHOWING them how YOU write? I struggled with this whenever I corrected papers, and found myself erring on the side of too much criticism because I couldn't hear the kids' voices...Ahhh, the things I'd do differently.

B.J. Anderson said...

I really try to get a manuscript finished before I throw it to the wolves. Then I'm not influenced by all the critiques. Then, I get a bunch of critiques and analyze what all of them had problems with. If they all didn't get it, then there must be a problem.

If I don't like what someone has to say, I sit on it for awhile. Sometimes I change it if I decide their suggestion has merit. I think you have to make and keep it your own.

Jamie D. said...

For me, it really depends on the advice, and who's giving it. I was in a crit group here for awhile, and being new to the whole thing, took a lot of advice that I later learned from far more experienced writers wasn't very good. Unfortunately, the thought of having to go back and change everything *again* was just too much, and I put that novel "in the trunk". Needless to say, while I appreciate comments on my writing anytime, from anyone, I weigh it carefully and let it sink in for a few days before I decide what to take, and what to toss.

Honestly, I think if I had friends who were readers, but not writers, that would probably be the most valuable advice to me as far as non-technical crits go (story, cohesion, etc). Those type of people would ultimately be my audience, so their opinion would hold a lot of weight with me.

Unfortunately, I don't actually know many people outside of family who read, but don't write. And I wouldn't have my family crit for me.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is a great topic, Elana!

I've always been the "this comes with a large grain of salt and no expectations" kind of critter, so I sort of expect taht everyone else knows I'm either going to take it or leave it when they give me suggestions.

I consider every crit a gift, so I absolutely take it all seriously, write it down, ponder it. But at the end of the day, if it doesn't fit, I'm returning it.

My poor husband has had to get used to me saying things like "I like where you're going with that idea, but I don't think it will fit here. Maybe I can use that in another novel :D!"

Bless him. He has the best suggestions, and always gracefully accepts it when I don't take all of them.

Aaron Polson said...

I agree that the best crits are often from those that know you. I think it is important to build a working relationship with any critique buddies. A "working" relationship--not an "I can't say anything mean 'cause we're buddies" relationship. When "strangers" crit, I just look for patterns. Tess is right about going with your gut...

Eric said...

Since I still consider myself a newb writer, I like hearing as many opinions as I can get. But I'm also aware that I am "very different" from anyone else I know. I don't think like alot of people, I don't always see things the same way, and I definitely don't always agree with everything people say. When I get critique advice, I spend a decent amount of time making sure I understand what they are saying and look at it from their perspective. Then I just do whatever it is I want to do. Sometimes that means I agree with what they are saying, sometimes it means I have learned something about myself (or my own writing), and sometimes it just means I'm going to be stubborn and keep things the way I wrote 'em initially. I always keep my mind open (or at least try to) and just make the best judgment call I can. I'm actually surprised to hear you ever had difficulty with this though Elana. You've always struck me as someone who knows how to maintain that balance very well, taking what you need from a critique while maintaining your own distinct voice.

Rebecca said...

I am in love with this post Elana! It's something I've always thought about but never thought to discuss.

You hit it dead on when you said how you start out by changing everything everyone says in the beginning. Then you slowly start to realize that may not be the best idea.

I too, find that I mesh better with some people's critiques than others. But almost everyone has some valuable feedback to give. A little of this and a little of that usually works for me!

Oh and the whole putting your stock into one person thing - for me it depends on the person. I'm doing a major revision right now, all based on the opinion of one agent. Something I wouldn't be doing it it weren't for the fact that I realized she was right after some time sitting with her comments.

Always go with your gut and take everything with a grain of salt and you'll be fine. Right. Right? I hope that's right!

Kat Harris said...

I couldn't have said it any better than Tess.

And when in doubt, try using their suggestion, and then decide which you like better.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I have to agree with you that I get more out of crits that come from someone who I know and am friendly with on some level. I think maybe because there is a mutual respect there? The only time that I might give a crit more weight than my own opinion is if it came from an agent, but even then I would have to think long and hard before going against my own instincts.

TereLiz said...

I welcome any criticism of my work, even those with which I don't agree.
But I have to say the process has been much more rewarding since I now have beta readers who care about the story, as opposed to sites like C.Circle or critters online.
While these can be great resources, the only incentive that most members have to critique is to in turn be critiqued. There

TereLiz said...

Elana, I think I accidentally deleted part of my last comment as I was submitting? Damn this tiny laptop mouse pad. If it doesn't make sense, just delete my comment completely. Sorry! Great post, btw.

Merc said...

I, too, used to think I had to take all suggestions people gave me, until I got so frustrated by conflicting opinions and I started wondering why I hated the "finished" product that I had to stop and think about it. :P

Whose story is this, mine or the crit group's?

It was like a lightbulb went off. LOL

Since I'm the one who has to work with, live with, and have my name on the finished product, I sure as hell want it to be MY story. You know?

How do you get the confidence to toss the crits that don't work for you? Practice. Also, by the time I'd tried taking everyone's advice, I hated the story and no one else liked it either, like that one Aesop's fable. ;) So, it comes down (for me) to slowly building confidence that I can write and with some effort, I can even figure out what the heck I'm trying to do with a particular story. :P

Crits that are so far off the mark or ones that just fail in every way to understand or "get" even a tiny bit of what I'm writing (even if I explain in author's notes what I'm trying to do so people can help me figure out the unclear bits) tend to be politely set aside, the critter thanked, and I move on.

How do you decide what kind of writer you want to be? Have you?
I want to (am working on) write in a style and with subjects that entertain me, and hopefully other people. I'll experiment freely but it still comes back to me needing to enjoy what I'm doing so others can too.

I'm also confident enough by now to stand behind my world-building and wackiness. :P If I want my necromancers to be a certain way, blast it, I will KEEP them that way. I don't have to follow "conventions". ;)

(Yes, I have gotten crits that explain why I cannot have this that or the other thing in my writing, and I must follow genre conventions, etc. I tend to ignore them heartlessly.)


Do you stay true to yourself and your story?
I try. It's the only way that will REALLY make me happy in the end.

How do you do that amidst the advice, critiques, and self-doubt?
Plenty of (non public) ranting to friends who understand and can sympathize allows me to blow off steam when I get really frustrated, or really doubtful, etc, and I try to keep in mind that:

This is MY work. I'M the one who (after all) has to live with it. Will I be happy with the finished product? Yeah, there've been quite a few duds *sigh* but I'm still very much learning and I really want to be satisfied with my finished products so I care about them. When I try and keep it in that light, it's sometimes (not always) easier to stay true to what I want/envision when looking at crits...

It's all very imprecise with me, but a great topic and discussion, thanks! :D

~Merc

ElanaJ said...

Wow, you guys, so so so so so many great responses. My daughter has been sick with the stomach flu all morning and it's so fun to come back online to this!

Thanks!

Eric, I struggle with the same things every writer does. I'd like to think that over the past 16 months since joining a crit group, I've gotten better and better at deciding what stays and what goes. It's all in the confidence building, which is something that is an important part of writing--of doing anything creative, really.

Merc - you must be my long lost twin or something! It is an imprecise thing, but one well worth thinking about and examining. And I always want MY work to be MINE. Good points.

Kate, the mutual respect thing is an interesting angle. That may very well be true... Are we that biased? I probably am.

Rebecca, a little of this and a little of that. I like. :)

Aaron, I like your "working" relationship. That's what we need in crit partners.

Tess, you are beyond wise. Thanks!

Jamie D. I feel your pain.

Mandy - I'm so sorry you got bad crits! And maybe not even "bad" just "not right for you and your book." I know several people who love Authonomy. It's another one I don't enjoy.

Megan, you're so right! Teaching IS exactly like that! And kids are such great copiers, they almost learn to write how you write. Great point.

Icy Roses, if that was disorganized, then so am I! I understood every word.

Michelle, I think it's good to have different writing. You don't want to have every book be the same. Keep it up!

M. Dunham, I missed your post! Doh!

Scott, you started out better than I did. You are very smart. :)

Abby, you are not delusional. ;) I know I'm not right and that's where I come from in crits. But if I've done something deliberately, I don't change it, no matter the "rule." Good point about that.

Thanks guys! What a cool discussion!

~Jamie said...

It's funny that you mentioned the present to past thing... I was struggling with this VERY problem. I decided to go with present... it was a tough decision, and I made it 1/4 of the way through my book and stuck with it.

Well, then I started querying with my present tense book and I started hearing the same thing from agents--this should be in past...

okay... I still didn't believe it... so I did a poll on my blog and out of like 50 votes only four of them were for present tense-- I was wrong.

So... sometimes we should listen, but I do agree that you have to go with your heart!

Danyelle said...

It depends. I try to keep an open mind, and make this about the story and not my ego. Some days this can be difficult. ;-) But what it comes down to is staying true to the story. If the comments lead away from the story, while a valid opinion, they aren't going to help the story shine as the Story.

christinefonseca said...

Wow...This is a great, DEEEPPPP post. I have a hardtime trusting people at times, especially with my writing - as a result I do best when the crit comes from someone I know.

That being said, I used to try to change EVERYTHING a crit mate suggested - cause you know, she is absolutely amazing so I figured she knew what she was talking about. After a while I realized I had lost the things that made the story ME...so I stopped that and changed. That is how I learned WHO I was as an author.

Now I am better about taking what is said and deciding what works or doesn't work for the story I am trying to tell!

GREAT POST!

Lisa and Laura said...

We're late to the game, but I just wanted to say that this is a fantastic post.

It's a good reminder that writing is subjective. What one person loves the next person will hate and want you to change. If you doubt that, click through some Amazon reviews and you'll see the proof.

As hard as it may be, sometimes we need to have faith in ourselves as writers and in the story we're trying to tell. That's not to say that we should ignore critiques that site issues or confusion, but don't let them rule your writing either.

Of course, that's easier said than done...

Crystal said...

I'm late to this post, too! But it was very informative & heartening, especially as I read through all the comments. Like Lisa & Laura, I agree that writing is very subjective and mainly based on taste; some people like science fiction, others hate it; some like humor or romance, etc. I've used Critique Circle, too, with some good & not so good experiences. But mostly good. And like most other commenters here said, you have to read comments with an open mind, take what you can use, and chuck the rest. And that's really the gist of what I learned at Critique Circle. Because, in the end, it really is YOUR story, YOUR VOICE. Hope that makes sense somewhat! :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My crit group is great and I follow their suggestions most of the time (okay, just about all of the time). But not long ago I received feedback from an agent (Joanna) who felt my voice and dialogue had a tendency of become too mature for YA. It was easy to fix. Problem was I started to read The House of Night series and let that leaked into my voice (I honestly thought it would make it better).

Eek! This resulted in two rejections (though I'm sure the voice wasn't the only reason). It wasn't until another agent pointed it out (though she couldn't figure out what was off about it) that I discovered what had happened. When I read through it again, I realized my mc sounded like she was suffering from a multiple personality, and it wasn't pretty.

A few days after the agent contacted me (and asked me to resubmit the novel if no one else wanted to rep it, and I was will to do some serious rewrites--though I think she meant a completely different voice), I landed yet another full request from a major agency based on my first chapter (and dazzling query). This time I didn't rush to send in the ms. A writer friend reread it and gave me some suggestions (some of which were similar to the other agent's ). This resulted in two new chapters and some major rewrites (timelines, imagery, descriptions, symbolism--none which existed before). And yes, my mc now has only one voice. Her organic one. ;)

Okay, it might still end in a rejection, but at least the feedback led me in a positive direction this time.

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