I’ve been collecting feedback on the short stories I want to submit places from both friends and the online writing workshop over at sff.com. So far the reviews of the work is positive, which is comforting. It isn’t the things that people like that I find most helpful, unsurprisingly. While I like hearing that people enjoy my stories, the things that don’t work are the things I’m most interested in.
Which brings in today’s topic. How do you know what criticism is worth taking and using? I’ve gotten a few suggestions for changing things up in all three stories that I’m currently editing. I think to best answer the question of how do you know, I’m going to just go through the crits and the process here for each story.
First, Monsters. This short story involves a man and his slightly odd wife and a monster and a mean prince. The feedback I’ve gotten is basically that the beginning feels too different from the second half and that the connection between the monster and prince isn’t clear enough. Also, the naming constrictions are weird and that I either need to remove all the names except the odd wife’s or name everyone. I feel all this criticism is valid. The story’s first half is different in feel than the second mostly because I wrote the first half years ago and my writing has evolved and frankly, gotten better. Since none of my readers seem to have picked up a clear connection between monster and prince, I think this is valid too. Clearly it isn’t a case of one person missing the obvious, it is more likely a case of me not showing things the way I mean them to be shown. As they say, if one person has a problem with you, it could be them. But if five people have a problem with you? It might not be them. So for this story, taking the crits and using them is fairly easy.
Next, Delilah. This story is a retelling of the Samson and Delilah story from the bible. I posted it on the writing workshop as well as sending it out to my usual victims. I’ve gotten fairly positive reactions to it, with one reviewer kindly going through and bolding awkward sentences, typos, and fixing my strange comma usage. This kind of nit picking crit is really useful if a story doesn’t have any major problems. It saves me tons of work in the revision process if I have the stuff pointed out for me. Another reviewer suggested that there was too much fate feeling in the story. I’m not sure I want to remove the fated feeling, since that is a part of what I like about the story. I am, however, going to add a little more active thinking and awareness on the part of the main characters since I think that will help keep them understandable.
Then there was a crit on the story that I’m not going to go with. Mind you, it isn’t always this easy to see what doesn’t work for you about a suggestion. The crit in question was to change the story so that one of the Philistine leaders is a true villain in the tradition of Othello’s Iago. I can sort of see where the person is coming from, but to create a villain to fight against like that would completely change what I want to do with the story. This, I think, is the most important way of knowing what is good and useful criticism. It has to pass my “does this communicate what I want to communicate” test. If you don’t know what story you want to tell, then you probably aren’t ready for the feedback stage. Once I know the story I want to tell, I can use it as a meter to judge the feedback. Does this thing help me tell the story better? Am I getting across what I want to get across? If not, what are they suggesting might work better? It helps too if you can have a dialog with the readers so that you can point out what you were going for and ask them for what might help them get there as a reader.
The third story, Bladebearer, is the hardest one to figure out the good from the chaf. The story is about a young alien who gets stranded on a planet and has to survive. So far I’ve had two readers decide this would be a great first chapter of a novel (because I need another novel project like I need a bullet in the ass, really). My imagination is trying to run with that feedback. I found myself sitting in bed the other day outlining chapters in my head. I had to put a stop to that right quick, heh. Another reviewer said she got bored in the middle of the story. I’m not sure what to do with that crit. I’m filing it in the ‘reread and evaluate” drawer. The story is a bit longer than I usually write them at 5107 words. I could stand to trim a bit, though I’m also going to be adding a little on the advice of another reviewer. He wanted clarification on what was happening in the beginning of the story and I think I see a way to make things more understandable. Reviews have mostly been positive, which is comforting. The hardest part about this story, for me, is that I really like it. I wrote the whole thing in an insomniac rush at work one night after being inspired by George RR Martin’s Dreamsongs to try my hand at a little genre bending science fiction/fantasy. I also wanted to write something happy for a friend of mine who suffers through my writing even though she really doesn’t care for the subject matter, endings, or feel of it. (She’s the only friend to make it through my first novel attempt).
Maybe someday I’ll turn Bladebearer into a novel for her.
But because I really like the story, I find it harder to take criticism about Bladebearer. I get a bit defensive and want to argue instead of listen. This is a personality issue of mine as much as anything, I think. But it is one of the obstacles I work with as a writer.
So, to sum up. For me a good crit is one that helps me see how I can make the story I want to tell come across clearly to the reader. It points out the things that work and the things that don’t work. Useful feedback shows me how to improve as a writer and a communicator.
Not very useful crits are the ones that suggest changes that don’t fit with the story I’m trying to tell, or ones that are clearly stemming from some sort of reader bias (these are hard to tell sometimes, sometimes not so much). Also in the not useful category are people who just say “oh, nice story.” Grr. Those people get no gold stars. Saying you liked it doesn’t help me as a writer. If my only goal was to write things and hear “I love you” from the reader, I’d hand them to my mother (who still, by the way, hasn’t gotten back to me on the last story I sent her). The whole point of rewriting is to make things better, clearer, stronger. My feedback readers are my coaches, my cheerleaders, and my workout partners all in one. I can run on my own, to stretch this metaphor a bit more, but I’ll go farther in less time with help. “Good job” or “stop running” aren’t help.