bridge over river with reflection in the water

Acting on feedback

So, in yesterday’s post, I talked about the fact that my agent thought I should cut a character from my draft manuscript.

Claire was spot on in her reasoning about why the character was problematic, but I didn’t feel that her suggestion for how to solve the problem worked for me.

And therein lies one of the trickiest elements of writing: listening to feedback and accepting good advice while, at the same time, maintaining your integrity as an author.

When you don’t want to take a comment, it can be really hard to know whether you’re being resistant purely because you’re attached to the book as is, or because making the required changes feels like too much work, or just because you don’t like criticism (or the way it’s delivered). Similarly, how do you tell if you’re just making changes to please your agent/publisher when, actually, they improverish your work?

There’s no easy answer, but being honest with yourself about what’s really going on in your head is a good start.

Anyway, when it came to Claire’s really excellent points about my problem character, I applied one of my key rules of thumb for dealing with feedback. First, I tried not to think about it for 48 hours and then I sat down with the book and thought about how I would change the book page by page to accommodate Claire’s suggestions… But I just couldn’t get it to work: the blow-by-blow stuff about ‘she did this’ and ‘he said that’ etc. wouldn’t come together. It all felt and sounded wrong, contrived. The characters I had created just wouldn’t cooperate in the scenarios the change required me to put them in.

So I went and sat in the bath. I do that when I’m stuck. Somehow being soggy helps me to solve problems – go figure.

By the time the water was cold, I had a game plan that took all of Claire’s fanatastic thoughts about why the character was problematic and made them work my way, with my characters, in my book. In other words, I took the substance of what she had said but, as the author, I also accepted responsibility for figuring out what to do to fix the problems she had identified for me.

And that is one of my other major rules of thumb for dealing with feedback. Often people make really good points, but what they suggest in terms of changing the book may well be out of step with your intentions and/or aesthetic. So take the substance of the comment – there’s something wrong with X – and figure out how to fix it your way.

In the end, I replaced an existing minor character with my problem character: this allowed me to change the role the problem character played in the protagonist’s life so that she was part of a much narrower world. This, in turn, meant that the problem character interacted with all the other main characters instead of just some of them, tightening the narrative and the plot.

The change worked because there were a lot of similarities between the two characters, not just in terms of the roles they fulfilled for Evie (my protagonist) but in terms of personality.  However, as there were some aspects of the minor character that I wanted to keep, the resulting ‘composite’ character was a true combination of the two. Although many of the changes were surprisingly small and subtle, I had to edit all the composite character’s dialogue very carefully to reflect not just her new composite personality but the change in her relationship with Evie.

Once I had it all worked out (and had checked that it actually worked on the page), I wrote to Claire to explain my plans, but I was still on tenterhooks to see whether she would like the result and feel it addressed the issues… and she did! Happy days!

Even so, when Claire read the manuscript again there was a second little set of edits to undertake…  But that’s the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear about any ‘rules of thumb’ for dealing effectively with feedback that other writers (or editors!) use. How do you decide what feedback to accept and what to reject?

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