You’ve just finished writing your Magnum Opus. It’s beautiful and shiny and ready for your writer/editor friends to critique. You hand it off to your writer’s group. The critiques roll in, and you cringe as you read/hear them. The euphoria of offering up your latest sacrifice of words turns to horror as your words are dissected and shredded.
A valuable tool for writers, and especially self-publishers, is a critique group. It’s important to find one that offers actual constructive criticism. That means it’s not about praising the author and stroking their ego. Nor is it about gleefully tearing the writer to shreds. It’s about giving actionable feedback that the writer can choose to use to improve their story. It’s about helping them see potential pitfalls in their story and offering ideas on how to avoid them. There is no requirement for the writer to use said feedback, and all parties approach the process with the intent to help.
I want to start out by saying that the most important aspect of using feedback is to keep in mind your vision of the story. If a piece of advice goes against your vision, set it aside. You don’t have to apply every bit of feedback you get. You do need to think about all the feedback you get. Don’t just dismiss it because you don’t like it. Sometimes we aren’t ready to hear that our gleaming gem is really a steaming turd. Don’t dismiss the hard or uncomfortable feedback just because it’s difficult to swallow. Let it sit before coming back to it and deciding whether or not it goes against your vision.
So how do you translate some of the advice you get? Many times you will get a diagnosis that feels vague because the critiquer sees a problem, but might not know how to diagnose it. Sometimes you get conflicting feedback that says opposite things. Often, the critiquer sees a problem but might not give the correct diagnosis. How do you interpret that vague advice that says there is a problem but doesn’t clearly define what the actual problem is?
Most of these interpretations in this post are taken from the feedback I’ve received over the course of four manuscripts, some feedback comes from the over 250,000 words of critique I’ve given, and some of the feedback I’ve seen given to other writers. All feedback that you receive is individual to you and your story, and the following interpretations are based on my personal experience. You may find that your interpretations differ.
1. You need more description. I can’t picture the setting/character/what’s going on.
This advice can be confusing because it’s often not about the amount of description but where it’s placed. I tend to sprinkle my description throughout the narrative. When I get this advice, it usually means I need to front load a little more of the description. As a reader, I tend to hate lengthy descriptions especially at the beginning of a chapter. The ones that go on for paragraphs, so the actual story gets lost. So I tend to avoid them in my own writing. But, when you start a new chapter, you need to establish enough of the setting for the reader, so they immediately get a sense of where they are.
Conversely, if you happen to be one of those writers that drop all of your descriptions into the first paragraphs of the chapter, the “you need more description” advice doesn’t mean you need to add more to those opening paragraphs. It tends to mean your reader gets into the narrative and because you’ve only included description at the opening of the chapter, they lose their sense of the setting as they progress. This is where dribbling bits of description into the narrative becomes important. You need to remind the reader now and then of where the characters are and what they are doing.
2. Show don’t tell.
I really hate this bit a codswallop. There is a time and a place for both. But, typically when this bit of advice makes its ugly appearance, it means the reader isn’t emotionally engaged. It’s a far more complex issue than ‘show don’t tell.’
There are many reasons why a reader might not feel emotionally engaged. Maybe the character is flat, or the scene lacks a goal. Maybe the pace or tension of the scene is off. When you get this piece of advice, don’t immediately rewrite every bit of your scene showing every detail and reaction. Dig deeper and look at the scene and characters themselves. Try to figure out why the reader might not engage with your characters or the scene. Be careful when this advice appears. Make sure to read between the lines.
Now, there is a caveat to this. Sometimes when I am critiquing a scene, the writer will tell me the character’s emotional state.
“You can’t go,” Mary said. "We're having dinner with the Harrisons."
John grew angry. “Yes, dear.”
And my response to this—because I’m a big believer in subtext and conveying emotion through body language—is to respond by saying, “show me John’s physical and internal thought process here.”
This is different than saying, “Show don’t tell.”
How do you ask?
I am asking for a specific moment to be expanded on to build out the tension of the scene. What I’m looking for is something like this:
“You can’t go,” Mary said. "We're having dinner with the Harrisons."
John’s fingers curled into fists. The stupid cow would ruin everything. He pasted on a smile. “Yes, dear.”
This doesn’t need to happen every time a character emotes, but subtext and body language is a powerful and oft-times underused tool.
3. This character is flat.
Translation: I have no idea what this character’s goals are AND/OR this character is a stereotypical rendering and not realistic.
The advice doesn’t tell you how to fix the character outright, but it does tell you that the character you’ve written isn’t human enough. They aren’t fully developed with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, agendas and obstacles. They are inconsistent in their actions and reactions because, you as the writer, don’t yet fully know who the character is.
This doesn’t mean you need more back story. You don’t need to know everything about your character’s past, but, you do need to know who they are.
Real people are complex. They have a history that affects everything they do. They have emotional and physical tics. You don’t need to write an entire history for every one of your characters, but you do need to know what motivates your characters to act. Some writers use character interviews, some use elaborate worksheets. Yes, some write entire genealogies and histories. None of these methods are wrong. Use what works for you. I prefer simpler methods. It all boils down to the same thing. Make your characters into fully fleshed and real people.
4. Too much information or the dreaded info dump.
This is a tough one because some genres need more info for the reader to understand the complexities of the story than others. Fantasy and Sci-fi are known for this because they build new worlds and civilizations. Often, when you first start writing a story, you cram as much of the information in about the world and the cultures as possible. You want to share all the cool stuff that you’ve created, but you do it at the expense of the pace and tension of the scene.
What you have to ask yourself is, does the reader need this information to understand what’s happening in this moment?
No? Get rid of it. Find another place to insert it. Dribble it in as it becomes relevant. Save it for the appendices.
Yes? Then you need to find a way to deliver the information without sacrificing pace and story. Is your character prejudiced against people from another country? Don’t write the entire history of why and drop it into the scene, show the prejudice through the character snubbing, belittling, or bullying a person from that country. Is your character afraid of fire? Don’t give us a full chapter summary of why have the character show us. Maybe they have burns from an accident, and so now they go out of their way to avoid open flames, or they clutch their arm whenever they are around flames. There are many ways to deliver the information without dropping it in a lump mid-scene.
5. This chapter/scene is too slow.
This tends to mean that the story goal is missing from the chapter, which ultimately means there is no conflict. There is no tension because none of the characters are working toward their personal goal or working against another character. There are many reasons that the goal might have gotten lost. Look at the structure of the scene. Does it work toward pushing the story forward? Do you spend too much time in the character’s head or maybe it is a scene that is dialogue heavy, and you’ve neglected to include physical and internal cues that convey subtext thus revealing the conflict. Are the characters in the scene working toward a specific outcome? No? Why not?
Story is king. It needs to wind its way through every scene. Conflict isn’t just about explosions and fist fights. Conflict can be internal, or it can simply be two people working toward opposing goals. If your scene is too slow, the chances are high that you’ve lost the thread of the story and your characters are no longer reaching for their specific goal.
Feedback is essential for a writer and storyteller, but getting feedback can be difficult and sometimes hard to swallow. Interpreting feedback and finding a solution can prove to be a monumental task. Don’t be discouraged. Take your time to process the feedback. Look at it. Weigh it against your vision. Set your story aside for a few weeks and come back to it. Read the feedback again. Use what makes sense for you and your story and leave the rest.