Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's not you, it's me. (Or is it?)

Have you ever gotten feedback that you just plain can't make sense of?

Well, of course you have. Silly question.

So how do you tell whether you should take a beta reader's input seriously or throw it out?

First of all, the answer is to ALWAYS take a beta reader's input seriously.

Does that mean they're right? No. Does that mean you have to change something if one beta reader didn't get it or didn't like it? No. Does that mean you as the author are a slave to the whims of anyone and everyone who reads your book? No!

But always first consider whether there is anything you can do to change your book so you won't get that reaction again. That's what I mean by "taking input seriously."

Here are three other items to consider when you encounter beta-reader feedback that you disagree with:
  1. Have other readers complained about the same problem, or is the critical reader an outlier?
  2. Is your reader qualified to make the observation? Or, at least, is your reader more qualified than you?
  3. Is your reader the target audience?

Let's start with Number One: Is anyone else complaining about this?

I once received the following piece of feedback from a publishing industry professional, regarding my fairy tale retelling, Bad Fairy:

I felt that the narrative voice was unrealistic due to the age of Delia. No baby, three-year-old, or six-year-old is capable of having such an acute and accurate grasp on their world. This rang false to me, and I would suggest you recast the protagonist in a far more mature role.

This feedback threw me for a loop when I received it, because the story is very clearly presented as a retelling of the protagonist's childhood from the point of view of her adult self. It baffled me to think anyone would misinterpret this story as being told from a child's point of view, and I can't think of anyone who needs to be told that newborn babies don't philosophize.

But the takeaway point here is that no other readers, from the test readers to the publishers, ever cited this as an issue they had with the book. I have no idea why this reader didn't "get" what everyone else seemed to, but no one before or since has misunderstood the narrative as actually coming from the child; everyone else seemed to understand that it's the child's experiences filtered through the words of her adult self. (Especially since she breaks in frequently and puts childhood events into perspective against the backdrop of her entire life.)

So what did I do? 

I re-examined the prologue and first couple chapters to make sure I had established the tone clearly, tweaked a few things to make it a little more obvious so perhaps people would get it sooner, and left the rest alone. Readers are smart; I've been cautioned many times to trust my audience. I think I did enough and concluded that no, there really never was a problem here, but I was willing to take a look at it and make sure my intent was coming through. That's all you need to do; if you're pretty sure nobody else is having this problem, double-check your work, but don't feel obligated to make massive changes based on a single reader's misunderstanding.

And if you ARE getting this feedback from multiple readers:

Listen to them or tweak what you've written so people stop saying it. I cut a scene the second time someone told me they got bored during it. I incorporated some expanded setting information and some reduction of certain kinds of character conflict when I got publisher feedback about sparse world-building and repetitive antagonist arguments. I included more opportunity for my protagonist to have confidants when early readers told me they were alienated by her lack of approachability. You don't necessarily have to fix your novel in the way readers advise, but you do need to take common complaints seriously. 


Now on to Number Two: Is your reader qualified to make this observation?

So you're a writer. Your reader is a reader. You've put that reader in a position to react to your writing, presumably in a somewhat authoritative way--suggesting that you'll listen to and respect their opinion. I'm sure we've all met certain kinds of people who have an opinion on everything--even subjects they've never studied or experienced--and these types of people sometimes let authority go to their head when asked to weigh in on your work.

I once received the following feedback from a beta reader on my NA fantasy/romance, Finding Mulligan:

Okay, there’s obviously a lot of nervousness in early sexual attraction type encounters, but I suspect that with girls, there’s also a kind of calm they get from being near the object of their affection. So, at least at some point, she should describe the feelings, not just of soaring euphoria (Romeo and Juliet type thing), but of feeling calm and excited at the same time.  Like, imagine you were a mare in heat.

"Calm" is not an emotion I have ever heard someone volunteer while discussing how they feel about meeting their crush for the first time. It also goes against common sense. So I argued this point, asking this fellow (yes, it was a man) why he believed women feel "calm" when they meet "the guy." He explained--condescendingly--that I needed to watch estrogen-fueled music videos from the 80s, re-read Romeo and Juliet, and pay attention to how horses in estrus go nuts until they find their mate and calm down. "That's how it is for girls," he explained, finishing his e-mail.

Further questions revealed that not only was this an adult male reader's opinion on how teenage girls feel, but he had never had a girlfriend in his life. I had a sneaking suspicion that I probably shouldn't listen to "how to write girls' attraction experiences" advice from a man who compared women to horses in heat (or, well, anyone who thinks Romeo and Juliet is about romance).

So what did I do?

Instead of assuming he was full of crap, I went to the source: I posted a question on my blog asking female readers who'd experienced a crush to tell me, in a couple sentences, what had been going through their minds when they laid eyes on the object of their affection for the first time. I got this:

oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! is he really coming to sit down next to me? oh my god! he's so cute! he's probably just being friendly, so don't be spastic. (and then when he's gone, i start imagining how he'll ask me out, and then i imagine how we'll get married and what our babies will be like and so on.)

How can I let him know I'm interested without scaring him off or being too obvious?

Wow, he's really cute.
I am totally checking out his package.
How can I get us alone so I can snog the crap out of him?
I wonder if he likes me or if he's just being nice?


Ohmygod ohmygod, she's so pretty, even her freckles and grey hairs are pretty, is she sitting over here? I better sit one space apart so I don't look like Stalky McStalkerson. Oh my god, what do I say, how do I say it, she's actually talking to me, oh my god. (Accompanied by chihuahua-esque shaking.)


Shiiiiit, he's cute!

Don't act stupid! Act smart!
Do I have pimples? Left side or right side? LEFT SIDE OR RIGHT SIDE!!?! Left side, ok. Don't touch them, did I just touch one? Crap, maybe if I just keep looking left he won't notice them.

Being that there was no indication from any of these women that they felt calm and sated and permeated with a sense that all was right with the world, I did not change anything about the scene. I'm a little disappointed to say that my reader was actually offended that I did not take his advice, and even in the face of "these women say you're wrong," he insisted that he did in fact know better than all of us what women feel:

Right or wrong, though, I do believe I've got it doped out -- that's the way most of them feel. Probably nothing you can say will make me change that opinion. There's no shame in it, either. Okay, it's your baby. It's not me, specifically, you have to convince,... it's your audience. Good luck to you. I stand by what I wrote. Sorry.

"Sorry" is right, in this case. When you have a reader who is speaking for and speaking over readers who actually have the relevant knowledge and experience, you don't have to listen to him. Listen to people who have the experience or knowledge that would naturally lead to them being the expert. And more importantly, listen to them as authorities especially if you are not one. If my reader there had been a writer, and believed himself to be possessed of special insight into the female psyche in spite of actual feedback from female readers, he might as well not ask for feedback.

And if you ARE getting comments from an authority that suggest you've made a mistake:

Ask for clarification, don't argue. You may consider preemptively asking questions to avoid this--for instance, recently I asked my friend who's a nurse what the hospital admissions process is like so I wouldn't make a laughable mistake when my protagonist was in an accident. I had to change a scene because a friend who used to be in law enforcement told me a cop would never enter someone's house without a warrant in a situation like the one I described. I adjusted how a male character acted because a male friend called out a couple quirks that made him seem girlier than I intended him to be. I changed the wording on a scientific fact because one of my readers remembered high school chemistry better than I did. You should always be open to accepting that you might be wrong, but always consider the source, and don't take advice from people who have no business giving it.

And finally, Number Three: Is your reader your target audience?

Sometimes it will be very clear that a reader's feedback is not appropriate because they aren't in the demographic you're aiming at and are speaking from a place of ignorance. Once I received the following feedback from a contest judge in a writing competition:

I don't see why this story has to have a supernatural element to it, why it can't be a plain straightforward going away to college story. Am not very sympathetic to supernatural element [ . . . ] think it's a mistake, doubt author has the writing gifts to mesh supernatural tale with ordinary coming-of-age going away to college story. Author has lost me [ . . . ] have no patience for this sort of thing. Pity, because otherwise, author writes competently and intelligently, and has created intelligent character [ . . . ].

Here you can see an example of a biased reader. He doesn't want to read speculative fiction; therefore, his advice is that coming-of-age college stories and fantasy elements simply do not mix, and he believes I don't have the writing gifts to make this work. Because he doesn't like that kind of story, so why would anyone write it?

I didn't have a choice about who I got judged by, in this case, but when you offer your work to beta readers, try to avoid people who are actively disinterested in your genre, and try especially to attract readers who are in the demographic you're aiming for. You absolutely need to make sure that if you've written a YA book, you get some actual young adults to read it--not just the other writers in your critique group. They may very well be wonderful critics, but you will miss the special perspective of a particular population if you don't actually try it out on any of them.

So what did I do?

Nothing, in this case. If you get feedback that basically says "this never works" or "I don't like this kind of story, so it sucks," you're not on the same page with your reader, and they aren't going to be able to be fair to you. I'm not going to change what my story is actually about because I got a reader who doesn't like the genre; you can't please everyone. But you should try to please the people in the demographic you're aiming at, and you should try to get readers who are in similar situations to those of your characters so they can provide special insight. (Oddly enough, despite this negative comment from the judge, my entry did advance to the next round of that contest. . . .)

And if you ARE getting calls to change elements of your book from people in your desired demographic:

Ask questions if you need to, but always be willing to give extra weight to the comments of someone who's similar to your characters or who reads a lot in the genre. You can ask them questions like "If I changed X, would that make a difference?" or ask them to tell you stories about their sport, their college, their profession. Anecdotal accounts can inspire you with better effect than faking it and then asking an authentic member of your intended demographic to clean it up for you.

I have taken old-fashioned phrases out of my modern-day book based on younger people saying "we don't call it that anymore." I've adjusted the religious perspective of a character because a religious reader said the perspective was way more conservative than I thought the character should be. I've changed terms that certain groups wouldn't use to describe themselves based on those groups' preferences. But I don't take my stories in directions readers outside my intended demographic want me to. You can ignore feedback from people who are trying to make your story about them.

And that's it! In a nutshell: ALWAYS LISTEN TO AND CONSIDER ALL FEEDBACK, BUT NEVER, NEVER ACCEPT THAT YOUR CRITICS AUTOMATICALLY KNOW BETTER THAN YOU DO. Too often I've seen authors get bullied into believing all criticism is equally valid and readers can't be wrong, but if you can remember to always consider the frequency of the complaint, consider the source, and consider your intended audience, you should be well equipped to distinguish between feedback you should discard and feedback you should heed.

1 comment:

  1. Great post.

    Beta readers can make mistakes. I have. Even agents have.

    I once got a comment on a request from an agent on a novel she passed on. One of her reasons was that she said my dialogue didn't feel teen-ish enough. She even gave me an example.

    The thing is, the the line she quoted to me came from a middle aged man, not the 17 yo main character. And when you read the surrounding text, it is very clear it's the father saying the words and not the girl.

    So even the professional make mistakes too. Therefore your advice is spot on. Don't just change it, look at all those factors you listed above. You may change something, you may not. But at least you looked into it.