Monday, May 6, 2013

Neil Gaiman and the Key to Accepting Critiques

Today on Twitter I stumbled across Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules of Writing. 

^^Click on that.  It will take approximately 40.5 seconds to read--I timed it for you.  So go!  Read it, love it, live it...

Then come back?  Hopefully?

They're all excellent tips, of course, but number 5 was the one that jumped out at me today:

"Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. 
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

Let's break that down, because it's really important--in fact, I think it may be THE KEY to being able to take critique from people without ripping out your hair or eating a pound of chocolate or littering their comments with expletive-ridden responses.  Not that any of us would ever do any of those things.  
Neil Gaiman says jump, you jump.

So anyway...

Neil Gaiman says:  "When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right."
Example:  Beta Reader #3 says you have a pacing issue in the middle of your novel.  It is VERY LIKELY that you have pacing issues in the middle of your novel. 

Oh, but wait....

Neil Gaiman also says:  "When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."  
Example:  Beta Reader #3 thinks this will be remedied by adding more action scenes.  While at least considering their idea would be wise, it might actually be the case that you're simply not getting to the root of the conflict in the middle section.  Adding more action scenes might dull the impact of the actions scenes that are already there and/or give you an excuse not to make the other scenes as relevant and conflict-ridden as they need to be. 

The problem:   It's usually a lot less obvious.  Depending on the critiquer, in this simplified example, you might simply get, "There weren't enough action scenes in the middle section.  I missed those there."  And then it's your job to realize that the issue they're detecting is lack of tension in the scenes that you do have. 

Note:  I do think there are exceptions to this rule in people who know you and your story very well.  But even then, what I'm about to say STILL APPLIES......... 

I think the important thing to get from beta readers is this:  

What is it that they're reacting to?  

In my experience, if you can look past what they're specifically suggesting and pinpoint the things in your work that are prompting those suggestions (ie, in our example, the middle scenes aren't pushing your characters far enough in the right directions), it immediately starts to feel less like You vs. Evil-critiquer and more like you being the master of your work and finding real answers to real problems with the help of some benign fresh eyes.  

Though I must admit, I still usually eat chocolate


  1. And yes, "critiquer" is a word--the OED can disagree with me all it wants.

  2. This is good advice. We want our critiquers (yes, it's a word!) to tell us where the story works and doesn't work. And where the story's not working we want them to give us a reaction ("I was bored here" "I lost track of the plot here" "I'm not connecting with the MC"), not tell us how to write the story. They may have ideas about what they would do to fix it, but ultimately, it's not their name on the cover.

    And a quick Neil Gaiman-related Doctor Who plug: this coming Saturday's episode ("Nightmare in Silver") was written by Neil Gaiman. In the UK, tune in to BBC1 at 7pm, in the UK, BBC America at 8pm ET, and in Canada, SPACE at 8pm ET. :D

    1. Ooops... I meant "in the US, BBC America at 8pm ET..."

  3. Such great advice. Critiquers (take that, OED!) are an invaluable resource and it's important to listen to what did and didn't work for them, but when it comes to the actual fixing, you are the one who truly knows your story. :-)

  4. I have one critiquer who I trust completely, and I will utilize suggestions from her, but from others, you're so right -- just tell me it's not working, I'll figure out what to do about it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Seems like a sound principle, to me. The more specific the critiquer tries to get, to easier it is to miss the mark. Generalizations leave more open space for the author to root around for solutions; creativity does some of its best work when you don't shove it in too restrictive a box. :)

  6. Absolutely. If they fix the problem, it's no longer my words. Even if I would have come up with the same solution, it no longer feels like my solution. And as Colin Smith said above, it's my name on the cover! Just tell me what the problem is, let me work it out. Great advice - especially the chocolate part :)