I've been getting so much fantastic feedback on my last two posts (which can be found here and here.) I now know I have a ton of rewriting ahead of me on Chapter 1, but this is not a bad thing. I actually find it quite inspiring when people tell me I need to rework my writing (am I crazy?! Maybe ... ) I generally take it to mean that my beta readers are engaged in what I've shown them, and that they think I have it in me to do better. However, I don't respond positively to all feedback, which leads us to the subject of today's post ...
If you're like me, you're careful to show your writing only to people whom you trust, i.e., people who you believe will give you strong, constructive feedback. But sometimes one can get blindsided. I want to tell you a little story about something that happened to me when I sent my first unpublished novel around for informal review.
I sent a copy to an individual (let's call the person Sam) who runs an independent publishing company. Sam is a very nice, helpful person in general, and a friend of one of my good friends/BEs. I had met Sam before and found them to be warm and intelligent. (All the markings of an excellent beta reader, right?)
That's why it shocked the socks off me when Sam ripped my manuscript apart (not literally, although they might as well have.) Now here's where I want to pause and deconstruct exactly why this person's critiques were so jarring, and in my opinion, detrimental. My novel was a faintly auto-biographical coming-of-age tale with a criminal trial in the background (that part was pure fiction!) The nuts and bolts of the trial were not so important as how it affected the family. Sam's comments were along the lines of, "I wasn't at all interested in the family's dramas; why didn't you make the trial the center of the book?; I think you should have gone into detail about the politics behind the case," etc.
My first reaction: "Sounds like a fascinating book, but it's not the one I'm writing." I think I actually told Sam that, along with thanking them for taking the time to read my manuscript and to give me feedback. But in all honesty, I wished I'd never given my writing to this person. I felt numb, and in shock. And most of all, my instincts told me that something wasn't right about what I'd just been told.
I shared the experience with my friend who knows Sam, and she was immediately sympathetic. She pointed out that Sam publishes mostly politically-oriented non-fiction, and it did not surprise her, in restrospect, that they would be so focused on the criminal trial aspect. But my friend, who used to work in publishing, also acknowledged that Sam's critiques were just plain out of line. She validated my hunch that a good beta reader/editor should respect the genre and goals of the author, and not try to impose their own literary vision of the world on the writer. (I later met a professional copy editor who said the same thing.)
So what can we take away from all this? See below ...
FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Does the feedback you're getting pass the "smell test," i.e., are your instincts telling you there's something foul about it? I'm not talking about getting all touchy when someone tells you something you don't want to hear about your writing (fyi, one of the best critiques I ever received was from a BE who said, "Your protagonist is completely mechanical, you can do better than this, Cammie!") It's key to remember that your reader/editors' role is simply to bring out the best in YOUR writing, not to try and turn you into a ghost writer for their own ideas.