Advice From Every Side

Photo by marrycunningham on Flickr.

A short one today.

Even the most well-meaning friend can unwittingly undermine you with a destructive or demoralizing piece of advice β€” even when it’s technically sound.

By way of example: I recently started passing around a fantasy novella I’ve been working on to some beta readers, with the intent of releasing it for free as a promotional piece for my book. Here is the full range of the advice I got:

1) Don’t release it for free, people will devalue your work.
2) Don’t sell it, people love free.
3) Release it now, it’s totally ready!
4) Don’t release it now, it’s totally not ready.
5) Don’t release it at all, it will sabotage your later efforts.
6) Your novella has to be BETTER than your next book because of [some sales principle I don’t really understand]
7) Your novella can’t be better than your next book because people don’t expect an author’s quality to go down over time.

In terms of the narrative, advice was equally split. Everyone had a favorite character. None of them picked the same one. Too much romance. Not enough romance. Tone down the action. Crank up the action. And so on.

Now, all my friends are fine people. And clearly, they all want to be supportive. But if I tried to implement their suggestions equally, I’d quickly lose my mind, because it can’t be done.

This sort of contradictory advice is all over the blogosphere, too. I’ve read more vehement debates about the free / 99 cent Kindle issue than I care to think about. Some of it is market-driven. Some is just cynical. Most is utterly subjective.

All any of us can do is stick to our convictions, move forward, and always keep learning. And that’s no real revelation, but sometimes it’s easy to forget.

  • Man. All you NoInkling peoples are chasing me down with pieces of my own mind and making me eat them. Not sure how you got a window into my head like that but I am SO THERE. Up till recently I thought that I would need several layers of beta readers – at least three readers between each layer of about three massive edits – before querying; but now I’m thinking there is such a thing as too much beta-reading and that the chief “errors” to correct are those points on which most or all of my beta readers agree.

    At any rate – I know your frustration. You got the feedback, now it’s time to sift and move on with your vision, while holding all critques loosely.

    Goes for myself as well.

    • I think the difficulty lies in separating the objective criticism from the personal preference. For instance, McCusker pointed out that each one of my readers preferring a different character was potentially a good thing — it meant I was appealing to a broader reader base.

      You’re right in that there comes a point where editing and beta-reading can become just another obstacle instead of a tool for moving forward.

      • I agree with Tracy – that flashed through my mind too as I was reading this post. Especially since I’ve had the privilege of reading the novella in question, I can see how such conflicting feedback would be frustrating.

        The marketing aspect I’m no good at – still have a LOT to learn there. But when betareading I do try to restrict myself, as Joni said, to more technical points.

        I do, however, like to leave writers little “this is what’s going on in my head as I’m reading this” comments; though I hope that any writer I do that for understands that I’m just trying to give them a glimpse into what’s happening in my “reader’s brain” at the time, and any opinion on that front should be taken with a big ol’ boulder of salt.

        • I think that’s a good way to go about it. Like I said before, all any of us can do is just keep learning and improving.

        • I like getting the “what’s happening in this reader’s head” feedback from my readers. Here’s where more readers are better. If one person misreads your intentions with a character (say they think Character A is the embodiment of Envious Banshee Girlfriends everywhere), that’s just one person. Their own biases could be affect how they react to that character. No matter what I do, maybe I can’t help what this single reader thinks or feels because they have a particular hangup. If I only have one reader/editor, I’ll never know one way or another.

          However, if I give my story to a good sample of people (say 7 or 8) and they ALL think Character A is a harpy banshee, I’ve got problems and I need to address them. Especially if, in my mind, she’s a strongheaded but fair character!

          Workshop is good for one reason. It’s a crash course in writer/reader expectations. We often get so close to our characters, we can’t always see that their clever rake isn’t always that clever. With time, sometimes we can get better at anticipating how our work will come across with our audience.

          I’ve given enough feedback to Dan for him to know I have particular hangups with some of his characters that he couldn’t have anticipated. (God, Dan, why is Character B so stupid and useless?! Make him less of a waste of flesh, please.) If I was Dan’s only sounding board on his drafts, he’d be getting some pretty specific (and not necessarily great) advice regarding his themes/characters.

          I absolutely believe in the necessity of more than three readers. But I think that it’s important to designate/use ONE editor for technical matters (and that editor should be someone that you pay/compensate, perhaps with edits on their own work if they are another writer).

          If you use more than one editor for a novel-length manuscript, shit gets messy. Each editor may rejigger your sentences differently. Or have different preferences for dialog tags. Everyone has their own stylistic hang-ups. While every editor can give you a handful of good technical edits, having one editor with a style that meshes with yours (or who you trust to improve yours) will allow you to know that they are editing sentences / cutting out superfluous words / providing good technical feedback.

          So when I look for readers, I don’t actively discourage them from providing technical feedback for me. But I usually ask for *just* beta-reading and reactions, since I know ahead of time that I’m going to one source for technical advice.

  • Joni

    Dude, if you let me read it, I promise to restrict my advice to things like “make sure a while is two words” and “this passage is bumpy and confusing, maybe do this?” or whatever sorts of constructive things you like.

    πŸ˜€

    • I appreciate that. It’ll be in your hands as soon as I have the next revision done. πŸ™‚

      • Joni

        Yaay!

  • Tracy J.

    Hey Dan! I’m helpin’ ya! *honk honk*

    Have I mentioned I’m enjoying this blog? No? Consider it said.

  • It’s painful how true this is. In the end, we have to accept that we’re part of a very subjective field–writing and all of its many aspects with few exceptions (like grammar, spelling and punctuation) is hugely subjective, so contradictory advice comes from all sides. The most useful advice, especially when it’s a manuscript critique, is when you hear a common theme–the plot is too slow, or they couldn’t connect to a specific character, for example. When you start to hear those kind of things repeated, that’s when you really know there’s something concrete to fix.

    • Great insight as always, Ava. I don’t have anything to add, you summed it up very well. πŸ™‚

  • Colin Kerr

    You’ve hit on a topic near and dear to me. I don’t write, but my more creative, productive friends do, and they often send a draft to get a reaction. I always say I’ll help, because what kind of ass doesn’t help a friend with a book? But then, after giving notes, they say, β€œYes, but Michael said exactly the opposite.” Michael tells me he hears much the same.

    Writers and editors alike act like they’re put out by the process. I don’t know what to make of it. If you ask a dozen people to edit a manuscript, of course they’ll give you a dozen different kinds of advice. It’s not physics. Do writers want a dozen opinions to chose from, and if not, why send out so many manuscripts?

    My friends have not been published, and I have never edited a book which was subsequently published. Most of us fight with computers for our salary. Maybe my input is not worth hearing. I try not to be cross, but editing takes time and effort, and it’s taxing to be dismissed. Just as writers agonize over giving away or charging for sample work, I think about charging a fee for editing just to see whether people take me, and editing, more seriously. But I like what you say about sticking to your convictions. As with most of your posts, your words apply to far more than the craft of writing.

    • This is a great comment, Colin — actually, I think it might be worth responding to in more detail.

  • Erp, I don’t recognize any of that advice as mine (I hope). I definitely think one can have too many beta readers. Too many cooks and all that. Ultimately, it is your child to birth into the world and your instincts should prevail. Feedback is lovely, but frequently it is either compliments (which are pleasing but unhelpful) or nitpicks which don’t address the true weakness in the manuscript.

    I really enjoyed reading the comments on this post, Dan. Thank you for putting your finger on one of the many challenges of writing.

    • Thank you for the comment, Anna. And no, none of that advice was yours!