Ink-Stained Scribe

Interpreting Conflicting Advice: Part I

Confused Writer (patriziasoliani)
I've been reading a lot of blogs and author/agent interviews recently, and there is so much information out there that it seems impossible to internalize it all at once. As writers, we must: have an open mind, but stick to our guns; persevere, but give up easily; be passionate about our work, but have distance. We must also have thick skin, but be sensitive; have a brand, but be ourselves.


Then I realized something: we probably don't.

Today I want to talk about one set of  conflicting advice, and at what stage of the process I think that bit of advice is best implemented. I make these suggestions because they work for me, so if you have alternative suggestions and uses, please use them in the comments!

Have an Open Mind vs. Stick to Your Guns

It seems obvious that revising a manuscript means changing it, but you'd be surprised how many writers I know (including me, a few years ago) make the mistake of believing a revision is little more than line editing and "cutting fat".

As writers, we must be open to the idea that our worlds, our characters, and our plots might need to change. If a writer's magic system is causing problems, but he can't bear to revise it from his original idea (having the characters speak incantations in iambic pentameter kicks too much ass to take out), he's going to hit a wall. Then another wall. He will start sacrificing things that have the potential to really make his story stand out, just to rescue that one detail. Alas, the detail has to be revised (see what I did there?).

Critique partners might make suggestions that involve restructuring your plot, changing or removing characters, and they will probably point out a few things that you knew would be problems, but resisted changing just in case they worked. Good beta readers will see where you veered off track, and point it out. This is where you have to be open to changing what you've written.

Having an Open Mind is Hard
When I first started writing The Mark of Flight, I remember not wanting to change a detail about a character who only appeared once. "Her crows died" was what I had written, but I meant "She stopped squawking". I knew it read like she had a flock of crows that dropped dead like they just flew over Arkansas, but I didn't care. I had written that, and I wanted to keep it. I was at an early stage of "The Writer" then. I think we all have that stage. Some of you may still be there, and that's okay provided you gradually loosen your grip on your words and allow them room to change. (I think it's important to know what stage you're at before you ask for critiques, but that will be a different post.)

In contrast, last year I asked Raven to read the finished product of the Mark of Flight (already much revised since the "crow" incident). It only took her saying one phrase--"I think you can do better"--to prompt me to totally rewrite the book, which I had started as a less mature writer of 17-years-old.

So where does "sticking to your guns" come in? Beta readers can offer you invaluable outside perspectives, but not all critique partners are right; sometimes these suggestions would dramatically change your story in such a way that it no longer fits your vision of the tale you wanted to tell.

For example:

When I was in university, I was part of a writing workshop. My friend Justin had written a vampire-hunter story, and it had the expected first-draft-itis, but one of the inflated literary [redact]s in the class took it upon himself to suggest a way Justin might improve on his story: by changing the setting to a tractor pull, and making everyone talk like professional wrestlers. I expect the new cast would look something like this:

Needless to say, Justin wasn't going to be taking that advice. Wisely, however, Justin got some distance from his piece and started looking at exactly what about his story had made the inflated literary [redact] want to change it. He was able to remove the suggestion from the problem it was (poorly) attempting to address, and found his own way to fix the problem. This ultimately resulted in a story he's much happier with (in theory, since he's still working on re-writing it).

Okay, so most people won't suggest something that wildly different, so let me give you an example from my own writing, where the suggested revision would have taken my story in a direction I didn't want it to go.

Back in my freshman year of university, I was taking my first fiction workshop (not yet high-level enough to have many IL[R]s). The time was rolling around for me to submit my second short-story, and what I had finished was not so much a short story as it was a 30,000-word space-opera novella called Perfect Sphere. My professor suggested I attach a $5 bill to each copy of the manuscript, which was about six times longer than anything else we'd gotten in class.

Luckily, the story was received well, and I was please with the professor's suggestion that I research the diamond trade for more inspiration, because it might be the framework for something publishable. Then, someone else in the class suggested that I make the MC, Hunter, an alcoholic.

Hunter is a classic example of the "flawed" character. He's actually one of Adryn's characters, whom I hijacked to satisfy a deadline, and whom I really love, probably because he's so flawed. He's abrasive, pessimistic, temperamental, and huge. More importantly, he's got the equivalent of an acid scar splashed across one side of his face, his shoulder, and over both hands--relic of an accident. Because of it, Hunter finds himself not only ugly, but monstrous. He reacts by being reclusive, to stave off the judgement of others, and when he can't be reclusive, he's grumpy, expecting rejection before it comes.

In my head, I tried the "alcoholic" hat on Hunter, and while it didn't look entirely wrong, it changed him. He slid a little farther across that line from "flawed" hero to "antihero", and I felt my own sympathy for him slip. Not because I think alcoholics make poor characters, but because I realized that the only reason a man with the military discipline of Hunter would ever let himself become an alcoholic is depression. Losing his faith in the world and his station in it.

And I couldn't let Hunter go there. He deals with his own trauma in a way that shows weakness--he runs away from people, and his default personality is grumpier than I am in the morning (ouch)--but still aims himself toward a positive goal (ridding the universe of real monsters).

So I chucked that advice, but I asked myself what that reader had been trying to say. Probably, I thought, it was because Hunter's flaws were only visible at that time in his grumpiness. I hadn't done very much to show his weaknesses, and I thought that was probably what she wanted--weaknesses. So I found some places in the story to work in the weaknesses he already had, and I liked it a lot better. I felt like Hunter's character potential increased.

Moral of the story: don't let a beta-reader pull you away from the story you want to tell. At the same time, try to find out why the reader is suggesting you change that portion of the story. Find out what isn't working for them so you can address that problem--your way.

What conflicting advice have you heard recently? Have you ever had to fight to keep an open mind, or stick to your guns when faced with a suggestion from a beta-reader?