Monday, July 18, 2016

Friday Feedback: Bonus Monday: When Advice -- or Feedback -- Contradicts

It may surprise (and confuse!) new writers when they get totally contradictory "advice" from readers as to what works and what doesn't. After all, if there isn't an objective truth to what works in our writing and what doesn't, how will we ever know where and when and how to revise?

The answer is a simple but terrifying one: 

Ultimately, we have to trust ourselves.

Having said that, for ME, writing a good book -- a good story -- takes a village. 

I want and need the advice of my trusted BETA readers, my agent, and, ultimately, if I'm lucky, my editor. 

I would be lost without it. But just because I get advice, doesn't mean I always take it. 

To be clear, I always listen to it. 

To be clear, I always listen to it. But I don't always take it. 

Does that make sense? 

Look, if I'm asking someone to read for me, than the simple fact is, their advice is worth LISTENING TO to me. I may not necessarily agree with their suggestion of how to fix something they don't like (and really don't love when people tell me how to fix something unless I specifically ask for that -- rather, I like to hear what their problem/issue is for them, then figure out how I should fix it myself in a way that is organic to the characters and story I've written. Unless I ask. And sometimes, I do ask.

But what if readers contradict one another? One says they love X character; the other says X character isn't working. One hates the opening and thinks the opening should start three chapters in. Another says the opening is their favorite part?

I mean, HELP!!!!

I do have a rule of thumb of sort about advice/feedback, and it's this: If one person I admire (this would include anyone I've enlisted or asked to read on my behalf -- otherwise I wouldn't have asked -- or my agent** or editor**) takes issue with something, I listen (as I said). I take the advice as "food for thought." BUT, if a second or third takes issue in the same place or with the same aspect of story, I know I need to revise. I assume I have not successfully accomplished with my writing, story or character building, what I thought or hoped I had accomplished. 

(Of course, if the one person who has issue with something is my agent or editor, I skip right to step two. Of course my agent or editor's advice carries more weight than a BETA reader's since they are professionals in the business and need to like my work because they are repping it or bringing it to market. But still. What if three BETA readers all love a character that my agent hates (why, yes, this has happened...). Or what if an aspect of story isn't working for a few BETA readers but my agent doesn't voice any concern over it? 

How do we parse through all this conflicting advice?

For sure, there is a hierarchy (with agent and editor coming first), but what must come first and last is the writer's own gut. If it's not working but I love it, I keep going back in. Asking the question: why doesn't he/she love this character or story aspect that I love? What do I think I'm doing successfully, that I'm not doing successfully yet? How can I read and see this more objectively (e.g. through their eyes).

Sometimes, pointed specific questions like that about a particular character or scene can be asked of a new reader, based on prior feedback. "My agent is struggling with this character I love. Might you tell me where the character works for you or doesn't?" That kind of thing. Fresh eyes go a long way in helping us to see what gets lost in our months of repeated revision and rereading. 

But in the end, it does, always, come back to us. I thought it might help to have some advice and  thoughts from a few other authors about how they deal with conflicting feedback and advice: 

From Amy Fellner Dominy (author of the forthcoming DIE FOR YOU, A MATTER OF HEART, AUDITION & SUBTRACTION and OyMG. . . and a picture book or three under contract. . . Amy will be hosting Friday Feedback this coming week!!!

Don't immediately rewrite and don't immediately discount the note.
  • Give yourself some time. Don't immediately rewrite and don't immediately discount the note. Our first response to criticism can be emotional. Wait until you can objectively consider the suggestions and then act accordingly. 

  • Get a second opinion. I'm in a critique group with two very talented, published authors and they will often have completely different notes on the same pages. If they both question the same thing then I know I have a problem. If they both love something, I know I've hit a chord. 

  • If you get conflicting notes (or if you only have one reader), then I try to get to the heart of the comment. What is the actual problem my reader is having? For instance, I recently had a critique partner tell me a scene felt too unbelievable--could I take it out? Well, I could, but I went back in to the section and realized that I hadn't set the scene up very well. I hadn't laid the groundwork for the event that followed and so it felt wrong. Once I built up the moment before, the scene worked just fine and I left it in the book. 
Don't be afraid to ask for more clarity.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for more clarity. Even when I'm working with my editor, I don't always agree with all the notes. If we discuss and she clarifies her thoughts, it always leads to a good solution--one that works for me and works for her. 

From Carole Estby Dagg author of award-winning middle grade historical novels THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS and SWEET HOME ALASKA):

I take all feedback seriously. I know even award-winning writers have completely re-written a better book after suggestions of their editors. I accept that I may have to revise 20 or a thousand times to get it right. I especially take seriously all comments that address my acknowledged weaknesses (not following up action with emotional reaction, not getting enough of what’s in my head onto the paper to make sense, and making senility-related word scrambles. I also give suggestions from my editor more weight than I do suggestions from a writing buddy. 

I especially take seriously all comments that address my acknowledged weaknesses. . .

But I know my characters and what I’m trying to say with the book better than anyone else. 

Even when I accept the suggestion, I solve it my own way. 

Even when I accept the suggestion, I solve it my own way. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an editor like mine, Nancy Paulsen. In shaping SWEET HOME ALASKA, for instance, she wrote that I needed another bonding scene between two of my characters, but left it to me to write the scene that felt right to me. At its best, writing is a constructive, collaborative process.

From writer pal Robin Reul, whose debut YA, MY KIND OF CRAZY (Booklist and AAP YA Read n’Rave pick ALA Midwinter), whose advice you will see echoes mine almost to a tee (I swear we didn't check or discuss first)! :

If two people voice the same concern, it’s now an identifiable problem. . .

If one person points out something that wasn’t working for them in my manuscript, I consider it. However, If two people voice the same concern, it’s now an identifiable problem, and I don’t think twice about making the change unless I have a strong reason not to. 

When I have two pieces of conflicting feedback, I consider if there may be other outside factors that might be influencing that reader’s feelings such as personal experiences, stylistic preferences or even their moral compass.

But when I have two pieces of conflicting feedback, I consider if there may be other outside factors that might be influencing that reader’s feelings such as personal experiences, stylistic preferences or even their moral compass. In the end, opinions are subjective and as unique as the reader they come from, so always consider your source. 

In the end the things I am never willing to compromise are character likability (unless intended), authenticity and development of plot and characters. Any point where a reader is getting snagged on those three key elements is always worth considering even if you may not agree with the feedback as a whole.

And, from Liza Weimer, author of HELLO? who hosted Friday Feedback just last week!

General comments:

Be specific on what you want them to read for. Plot? Character development? Copyediting?

Choose wisely and know for what purpose you want your crit partner, crit group, or beta readers to read your novel. Be specific on what you want them to read for. Plot? Character development? Copyediting? etc.

If two of more people point out an issue, PAY ATTENTION and definitely consider changing it! If only one person gives you feedback on that issue, you decide if it has merit.

If someone says their process is the only way to write a novel, ignore them!

If someone says their process is the only way to write a novel, ignore them! Everyone has their process. If it works for you, go with it!

Here are a few nightmare moments: 

1. I had an author tell me that under no circumstances could I include a flashback in the first 35 pages of my novel. Her editor friend told her it was taboo and an indication of poor writing. At first, her comment freaked me out. Then I dismissed it. My flashback was only a few paragraphs and was critical to my story. Needless to say, we didn’t exchange anything after chapter 1. What I learned: Don’t be afraid to push the limits and break rules. If you’re going to do so, do  so with purpose and do it WELL!

2. I had another author take my first chapter, which was written in first person, and send it back to me re-written in third person. She said my novel would be so much better if I wrote it in third person. Thankfully, this comment came AFTER my agent had told me how much he loved it. I never had her read another chapter.

3. A writer friend of mine told me a woman in her crit group argued with her over a character’s dress color. Why should it be blue? Maybe it should be green? The color of the dress had no significance. It was a minor detail, yet it ended up becoming a major discussion around the table and a major waste of time. Needless to say, she dropped out of that crit group.

My best advice:

Know the difference between constructive criticism and criticism. 

Know the difference between constructive criticism and criticism. Constructive criticism is about receiving sound advice: Comments should help improve your story, point out shortcomings, things that are missing or need flushing out and developing. The main goal of someone who gives you constructive criticism is to see you succeed. It elevates, instead of knocks you down. Constructive criticism isn’t meant to hurt or wound you, but to improve your writing. You don’t need to agree with every point, but the purpose of constructive criticism is to get you to think. Constructive criticism should be professional, (and sometimes humorous), objective, thoughtful, and clear. Those who give constructive criticism are not threatened by you. Their words should never be cruel or accusatory. They care enough to be honest, and they're not worried that if you succeed, it’ll mean they won’t.
A critical part of receiving constructive criticism: set that ego aside!!!!!! Be humble!

One of the hardest things I had to do with Hello? was remove one of the characters narrating the story. I had six, there are now five. My agent said six was too much and an editor said six was too much. Jordan needed to go! My initial reaction was to argue. But the most important thing I did was LISTEN to their reasons why. (Mainly, too much plot.) Always ask why if a reason isn’t given or it’s not clear and obvious. After listening to their perspectives, I had no doubt they were correct. Truthfully, their advice scared me. Each Hello?’ chapter belongs to a specific character and intertwine with the next. I ended everyone with either a phone call, text message, or a specific thought about the next character so that the reader would know who was next in the narration. Pulling a character meant I would have to reweave the story and do so seamlessly. At first, it was terrifying, daunting. But I did it! Victory!!!!! Not only was it the right thing to do, but I’m grateful for the advice. (Note: I kept Jordan in the story. But he’s now a strong secondary character.)

Here’s an example of how asking why and explaining why helped me decide to only take part of my agent’s advice. He told me that Emerson, one of the main characters in Hello?, shouldn’t come from a large family. (Emerson has four sisters.) My agent's argument was that having all those sisters in the novel was too much, adding complications and making it harder for readers to follow. I understood his points. But being an only boy with that many sisters had a profound impact on Emerson and influenced him deeply. After weighing the advice and my perspective, I decided the sisters needed to stay. But my agent was also right. The question was how to make it work. And that’s the point: writing it work. I needed to puzzle it out, but I succeeded and am thrilled with the results. 


So there you have it! A bunch of advice to try to help you muddle through that contradictory and, at times, overwhelming advice. Hope it helps! See you on Friday for a fun and light Friday Feedback! Cannot wait!

xox gae

Gae is the author of THE MEMORY OF THINGS coming September 6, 2016 from St. Martin's Press Griffin, as well as THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO and THE PULL OF GRAVITY. THE MEMORY OF THINGS has been named one of the most buzzworthy books of summer by YA Books Central and one of Barnes & Noble's most anticipated reads of the second half of 2106. Preorder your copy today


  1. Great post, Gae, et al.! So much great advice here today. I love it.

  2. Thanks for the bonus post and all the advice.It is much appreciated.

  3. Thank you, Everyone, for your extra insight and heartfelt advice. I almost missed it, and am so glad I didn't! TW is a great first step/opportunity to get some of my writing out there, even though it's in bits and pieces. Any and all feedback is welcome and helpful, contradictory or not. This journey is one big learning experience.

  4. Thank you, Gae! I appreciate all the different advice from different sources. Putting your writing out there and getting feedback such an important step, but knowing how to process it is another aspect entirely!

  5. Thank you so much for this!! When my kids get to the revising part of their writing, and they get contradicting suggestions, I tell them to go with the one that makes the most sense to them and their story. Now, I can tell them an actual author said the same thing!!