Tuesday, September 3, 2013

TTYU Retro: Critique vs. artistic vision - how far should we respond to reader reactions?

I have sometimes had discussions with friends of mine about responding to critique where I am reminded that they and I disagree rather strongly about the extent to which one should be willing to change one's writing in response to critique. The question has a lot to do with what I call "writer's compass," in other words, how a writer senses the direction to go with a particular work. How much of what we do is an indispensable part of artistic vision, and how much is open to change at the suggestion of others?

I think the answer will be different for each person, but I wanted to look at where the borderline lies, because it's a tricky question, and a potential pitfall as well.

You've written a story. Let's say you love it, the language you've used and the message it's sending. Then someone else reads it. They tell you...

a. They love it. They think you shouldn't change a word. 
This is heartening, and makes us feel good. But if someone tells you not to change a word, then chances are they are not noticing any possible problems. Every work of verbal art can and will be interpreted in different ways by different readers, so very likely a different reader would catch something to point out.

b. They "get it," but they have issues. 
I don't know about everyone, but I am most likely to take advice when it comes from someone who obviously understands what I'm trying to do. A person who "gets it" is the one who can sense the vision of what I'm trying to achieve - and their vision matches pretty well with mine. In this case I'm going to be very careful before I reject anything they say, because they and I are working toward the same goal.

c. They have issues. 
If you don't get a sense that the person sees what you see as the end goal of this writing endeavor, then you have to go through point by point and ask whether the things they point out, or the things they suggest, match with your vision. Will their suggestion get you closer to the ideal version of the story that you imagined? If so, then make a change. If not, don't.

d. They "don't quite get it."
Be careful with this one. If you really have a sense that your reader's comments aren't making sense, try to figure out if the reader had a vision that really differs seriously from yours. Maybe they imagined a premise that was very different from what you had in mind - then you'll find their comments are serving that premise, and working against what you were doing. Unless you find that different premise really compelling, you shouldn't take this kind of advice. Maybe they disagreed with some of your decisions, either thematically, or in the plot, etc. It's a perfectly good idea to question your own major decisions about the story. There may be a better path. But if you play around with the new direction and it's not working for you, don't go there.

e. They hate it/seriously don't get it.
This is an interesting one. There's a difference between a reader who says they don't like the story without giving reasons why, and one who starts dismantling you point by point. People can reject stories for very simple reasons, often having to do with a point of disagreement with the premise. You see this a lot in reviews of science fiction - if the reviewer can't wrap his or her brain around the idea of people dealing with aliens on a different planet, then they might have hard time saying constructive things about how the premise has been executed.

If they dismantle you on one thing after another, so that you find yourself thinking, "Were they even reading the same story I was?" then something else might be going on. I call it "falling out" of the story, and it basically means that they missed something really important, and/or stopped caring. Do not ever ignore this. If a person has fallen out of your story, you should be taking inline comments with a serious grain of salt (I've had people tell me that my writing style is unreadable. I have ample evidence to suggest that it's not). On the other hand, you must ask yourself why, and where, the person fell out. It might be at the very beginning. I think about it this way: if someone cares about the story, then all the complexities of the Varin world will seem to have purpose; if that reader doesn't care about the story, then the complexities will feel like shackles at every turn. Everything you've worked so hard to achieve can work against you if your reader "falls out." So gulp down the sense of insult, ignore the details of the reaction, and figure out where they fell out. It will make an enormous difference for the story's success.

f. They had struggle points.
Struggle points are places where something causes the reader to get kicked out of the story. Maybe, grammatical errors or anachronisms. Maybe, a word that seems to come from a really mismatched context (like a Harry Potter term showing up in Dune, for example). Or they can be things like my own experience with people who told me, "Every time I see the word Tagret I read it 'target' and it takes me three or so readings to interpret it correctly." I'll go with the name situation because it's one of the most difficult. My character has been named Tagret for so long that I really had a hard time imagining he could be anything else (thus my previous post on changing  names). However, more than one person had brought my attention to this as a struggle point, and the final argument for me is that if a person is being kicked out of my story, it doesn't matter how close that name is to my heart - my readers have stopped reading. If your readers stop reading, you've lost them. And you've lost a potential sale if you run into an editor who gets kicked out by the same thing. So you have to ask yourself some serious questions about what kind of compromise will still serve the vision you had in mind, and still keep people from getting kicked out of the story. In my case, I found after quite a few interesting-yet-all-wrong options that I could change the name Tagret to Tagaret, keep the pronunciation precisely the same (similar to Margaret), and avoid the confusion. Sure, it does mean that some readers will accidentally call him Ta-GAR-et. Do I mind that? Not really. That' s just one of the hazards of having a story "out there."

Every writer is going to have a different degree of faith and commitment to different aspects of a story. Names are some of the hardest things to change. It's always a balance. Every piece of feedback has to be measured against what we're trying to achieve, but at least for me, I realize that what I'm trying to achieve is not necessarily what is on the page right now. What I'm trying to achieve is a story that will work toward a certain set of thematic and other story goals... and also, a story that will engage readers and keep them all the way through.

It's something to think about.