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The rules are there for writers to use…

by Richard Sutton on January 16, 2014


A discussion about how to actually use all the suggestions once they start coming in. Feel free to add your own findings from experience.

I recently received some partially useful criticism from a book advertising site. Since the Indie Explosion began, some eight years ago, with the advent of print-on-demand production equipment that could actually produce a trade-quality product, sites offering to advertise your book have sprouted everywhere. Many of these make wonderful assurances that their criteria for selection are set so high, readers can safely find a title that satisfies their interest with none of the poor editing errors that self-published books are still “known” for.  (There’s that self-published guilt thingie, worked as a marketing tactic) I spent a lifetime, pre-fiction, in marketing and advertising, so I know a good pitch when I’m on the receiving end of one. Still, just because it is a pitch doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid crit. The problem is that it can be hard to know which to absorb and which to toss. Some days it feels like everybody wants to tell me how to write my book. I trust my editor, but everyone else? How do I separate the wheat from the chaff?

Having just completed my sixth novel, I’ve learned just how important honest criticism can be. I’ve forced myself into a perpetual, smiling thank-you mode, when it comes to anyone offering “notes” on my work. Traded critiques, Beta reader reports, reviews, even rejection letters all can provide just the right combination of suggestions to help me improve my writing. Every time.

Notice I said “all”.  When we decide we want to write stories in book-length, many of us realize they are going to need some help. Many also expect that there are lists of do’s and don’ts – rules – that will teach us how to write a best-seller of we can only stumble upon them.

I’ve found in my own stumbling that no such lists exist that will work equally for every writer. A list compiled by one writing critic, really only expresses their own personal preferences, plus rules from teachers and professors they have adapted over the years and massaged into a shape that works to support their own opinion. Along with the variations that abound between readers and writers, there are also genre considerations, target market considerations and many other criteria that a writer must confront while they perfect their own craft. The lists that writers who have known some success, sometimes provide to new writers, are usually compiled over an entire writing career. For a good reason. Everything changes all the time. We’re not all set up on a level, clear floor, shooting arrows at stationary targets, but at moving, nebulous shadows from a pitching deck.

In addition, we probably won’t ever reach a level in our writing that will happily usher us through an open doorway with a clap on the back, saying “You’ve arrived!” Instead, it’s an ongoing process of elimination, addition and adaptation that will go on for our working lifetime. If we’re serious about our work and its readers and keep an open mind, we might get lucky more than once or twice. But, just at the moment when we think we’ve learned a thing or two, the next book will throw us into a tailspin of self-doubt. We’ll reach out for something to break our fall. That’s when we might grab hold of a bit of criticism as if it will help us sprout wings.

Chances are, any one item or note of suggestion will only help a little. There will always be other issues that will need a different perspective, and that is why we need all these bits and pieces over time, to actually learn the process that works the best for us.

Now most of the advertising sites, similar to the one I mentioned, are also the front door to a service offering. Editing and proofreading are only the most typical. I ran the notes that I had received past my editor, whom I’ve trusted for several years now. She told me that when she read the book in question, she didn’t find enough of the specific fault, to slow down her reading and enjoyment of the story. She also said, in effect that the errors which one former high-school English Lit teacher finds in any given manuscript may not be caught by another. It’s all quite subjective, once basic competent writing has been learned. “You don’t write your books for only an audience of former English Lit teachers, do you?”

No, but then again, I hope that some of them will enjoy my books, so I need to know what they will be looking for. If a literary agent that sells lots of YA books has a specific criticism of my YA work, I need to know that as well. If a reader who enjoys Historical Fiction has a nagging issue with one of my characters, I need to know that, too. I need it all. It becomes an ongoing, open-ended conversation leading to more conversation. Do I immediately rush to the keyboard to make all the suggested changes? Not always.

From the huge pile of broken rules, honest critique, reader comments, and so forth, I can assemble a roadmap to improve… wait for it… THAT book. Not every book. My own process makes writing to formula determined by market completely impossible, but maybe not for another writer, but some scraps learned in one may be collected and saved for future use. What works for me might not work the same way for you or your story. The main thing to remember, I’ve learned, is to consider frequency of criticism — are several readers commenting upon the same thing – and whether making any suggested changes will damage the story or change the intended voice.  If they do, and it works, then it’s one more thing to add to the process pile, but if it doesn’t, you can get side-tracked so badly it becomes hard to return to the work at all. You have to be discerning and careful.

I usually see it in visual terms. Some film directors like the technique provided by a jumpy, hand-held camera. Others are quite adept at the highly polished, pared down to the bare minimum, cryptic school of action, while others are great at dream sequences and back story. No producer would want all of them collaborating on one film. You can’t have it all in one story. Besides, it’s your story. It will tell you (if you listen) how it needs to be told. You have to pick and choose which criticism you take to heart, and which you keep a wary watch for, just in case. It’s a juggling act, not a level on a ladder. Writing Rules are more like signposts you use as you pass them than perpetual hand holds. Writers remain eternal students of the form. The day we figure it all out is the day that our next book will probably be a disaster. Keep the conversations going, pile up the suggestions and use what works.

  1. How timely it was to read this … I sent what I hope is the “final” draft of my novel off to my editor about an hour ago. I feel like I’ve spent the last 6 weeks living your blog, trying to ferret out what are useful ideas and which are simply because a reader wants me to write the way he/she writes. But I’ve lucky enough to have an editor who can explain a concept in a way that allows me to apply it in more than the single place where she pointed it out.

    BTW … I’ve started “The Gatekeepers” and enjoying it … great story idea … and reading about the country of my heritage (via my mother) is very cool!

    • Thanks, Mary. It can get confusing sometimes, assembling all the commentary. I hope you enjoy Gatekeepers. I like it better than TRG, but that’s just me.

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