Constructive Criticism and You: A Handy Guide

Hey look! I’m writing something that isn’t a book review! And it’s not going to post on a Wednesday! THAT WORLD MUST BE COMING TO AN END

If that’s the case, I’ll give you a cute picture and then put the rest below the cut, so you don’t need to see my ugly death. Okay? Okay.

His name is Banjo, and he's adorable. And he knows it.
His name is Banjo, and he’s adorable. And he knows it.

So here’s the deal. I just recently got done with #PitchWars, a fun Twitter-based competition where a bunch of authors looking for traditional representation go in together and see if they can win two months with a mentor in order to later submit to agents. I’ve been having fun with the process, despite the fact that I didn’t win a place among the mentees. Nicely, some of the mentors I submitted to were willing to give me some feedback on what they thought about my submission, and what I could do to improve. I’m always willing to hear constructive criticism, so I said sure, why not.

I got my first letter back today. And while some of it makes sense, particularly in regards to my query letter, I disagree (rather strongly) with some of the comments in regards to the novel.

Here’s where my post comes in, because I think it’s at this point that many writers I know fall apart.

Just because a mentor/critique partner/beta reader/teacher/person says something about your manuscript, it DOES NOT mean you have to listen to them or follow what they say.

Let me repeat.

You don’t need to do what people tell you to do in regards to your manuscript.

This may seem a bit counter-productive, given that you’re going out of your way to have these people read your work and comment on what they think you could improve. “But Rion, this is my mentor/teacher/person with more experience than me! Shouldn’t they know better than lowly old me?”

In a word? No.

They are not you, and this is your book. Not theirs. You have more experience with this book than anyone else in the world. Not a single person on the planet is more qualified to talk about your book than you. Therefore, if you get a piece of criticism that you take one look at and go “…but that doesn’t make any sense,” then you don’t need to do it. There is no rule saying that.

When I started writing my manuscript, several of my readers told me that I’d dropped them into the middle of a world that they didn’t understand, and I wasn’t explaining myself well enough. What was the background? How did these things come into being? Why is it like this? So throughout my time in grad school, I worked on a prologue that reflected the tone of the book, worked on pointing out the pieces which were differing from the world we-the-reader live in, and building from there. My manuscript is at a place that my MFA mentor likes it, and believes it to be at a publishable level.

That self-same prologue and first chapter were sent to #PitchWars, and one of my mentors told me that there was too much backstory, I should allow the readers to find out what’s happening as it’s brought up, and the method in which I deliver the information breaks suspension of disbelief.

…As you can see, two directly contradictory piece of information. What do?

I listen to myself. I cannot stand books which rely on instant immersion. (You may have noticed from some of my recent reviews.) It drives me up a wall and completely keeps me from entering into the story until far too late. Therefore, I will follow the advice of my MFA mentors, and not of my #PitchWars hopeful.

SON OF THE REVOLUTION, my manuscript, is narrated by a very sarcastic narrator who takes the fourth wall with a grain of sand. It’s intentionally set up to sound like he’s telling the story to someone who isn’t from around here. Who doesn’t know the story. In my opinion, that’s established very firmly within the first sentence. I don’t think it detracts from the story, or the immersion. It’s also not something I’ve heard from other readers, though to be fair, I haven’t had that many.

And that’s all I need. This is my book, my opinion, and my choice.

Is it possible that everyone else, including myself, is wrong and my PW mentor is right? Sure. That’s always a possibility. And maybe this book will never be traditionally published because of it. That is a risk I am willing to take, for the integrity of my book. I think the book will be lessened if I do what the mentor has suggested. As the author, it is my choice to not do it.

Does this mean I’m going to give up on traditional publication? Absolutely not. I believe this book deserves to see the light of day, and I think it can be done, and I will keep fighting to do such.

But I will be selling my book, and not anyone else’s.

Please, authors out there. Please remember that this is your book, and no one else’s. Listen to critique–take to heart what you believe will help–and turn away that which you don’t. (That being said, if sixteen people all say that XX needs to be changed, and you don’t think it does, you may want to take a deeper look into why everyone says that.) This is your book, and no one else’s. You do not need to listen to every word of advice from someone else.

One of my favorite mentors in grad school taught me through his own actions that the strongest thing you can do for your novel is stand up for it and what you believe it says. Stand up, authors. Fight for your novel.

You’re the only one who can.


2 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism and You: A Handy Guide

  1. someone (Chuck Wendig perhaps?) once advised that you can ignore one person’s opinion (on your novel), but if 3 people or more have the same criticism then they’re probably right.

    1. Chuck Wendig is a smart man. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the “3 or more separate people make for a trend” argument, and I’d agree with it. There IS a fine line between standing your ground and being foolish, and it’s important to know where that line is, too.

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