A little while ago, fellow Gingernutter Paul M. Feeney and I got into a conversation about the role and function of critical readers in the writing process. And in the course of the conversation, some interesting differences of emphasis emerged. So in the interests of both exploring the concept in more detail, and also canvassing opinion from others, we thought it might be useful to have the conversation in a more longform setting.
KP: I guess I’ll get the ball rolling. I think it’s worth starting where we agree, which is to note that critical readers are an important part of the drafting process, and that it’s vital to find people, whether fellow writers or not, who are willing to give you honest feedback on your work.
If I remember, where things got interesting was when I stated that I tended to ask critical readers to tell me what they thought was wrong with the story rather than what was right, because for me the point of the critical read was to uncover flaws that as the author I would be too close to see. And again my recollection is that you had a somewhat different take. Can we start there?
PMF: Well, I think my take was more that I just ask people - people I trust, who I know will give me genuine, honest feedback - to read it and see what they think, see if it works. I think if you ask people to specifically ‘find what's wrong with it’, psychologically, they’ll feel they have to find a flaw. Now, that could range from a word or sentence they didn’t like to an entire crucial aspect of plot, but for me it just muddies the waters because they’re going in to the story specifically with a mindset that’s looking for ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ stuff. It’s like people who feel they always have to mention one negative aspect in a review, regardless of how much they love something because they think it adds authenticity or something. Bullshit. Just be honest, that’s really all you should do. Be honest within a framework of knowing what’s technically not great and what’s personal opinion (eg. I loved this story though it had major editing/pacing/logical issues). Anything else is kind of irrelevant, at least to me.
But yes, find those who will give you fair, genuine and honest feedback, people who are widely read both in the genre you want to write and outside of it. As great as it is to get told something is excellent, that they loved it, it doesn’t help with refining; same with being told ‘it was shit’. It’s demoralising and you can’t work with it. Critical feedback though, is essential, and it’s essential that the writer takes it on board. It’s also essential that you know where it’s coming from. Part of the ‘fun’ of getting other writers to look at your stuff is that often, they’re not telling you what’s wrong with it, they’re telling you how they would have written it. Again, helps no one. If someone tells you - for example - that the motivation to violence of a character didn’t quite ring true, it’s pretty bloody useful, you can look at it, work with it. If they’re telling you about specific word choices, they may have a point, but equally it might be straying dangerously into writer ego territory… I’ve had variations on this in the past. What about you? I know you had a variety of things said about your novel, not all of which sounded particularly fair to me.
KP: I think I agree with you that if you ask people to pay particular attention to what doesn’t work, then psychologically they are likely to feel obligated to do so. I think when I send out a draft (usually a D2 or D3) to critical readers, my operating assumption is that there will be things wrong with it - stuff I haven't seen on either a story or structure level because I’m just too close to the text. For me, that’s exactly what critical readers are for - to find the flaws, whether factual or plot/character wise that my closeness means I can’t see.
You’re spot on about other writers though. The critical readers I value most highly are the non-writers, the avid readers, because at the end of the day, they’re my primary audience, the people we want to reach. I know since I started writing I read books differently. I can still get caught up in a good narrative, but I do also find myself analysing why it’s so good. That doesn’t spoil my enjoyment, but it certainly changes the experience. Yes, sometimes you’ll get CR feedback that really amounts to ‘that’s not how I’d have done it’, but that’s always easy to spot, so I don’t mind it - but I agree that most times it’s also not useful (though when it is, it can be a huge eye-opener). There’s a Neil Gaiman quote here that feels relevant, where he basically said that when the feedback gets specific about what’s wrong with the story and how to fix it, it tends to be less useful, but if someone just says vaguely ‘it doesn’t quite work for me, not sure why’ they’re probably on to something. In the context of this conversation, the first response feels like a writer one (‘I’d have done it like this’), whereas the second is definitely a reader response.
With the novel, yes, it went through several rounds of critical reading, and each time it came back with a ton of notes. I even had one Critical Reader with an early draft who just couldn’t get through it, and downed tools around the 35% mark. Now obviously, that’s hard to hear as a writer, but equally obviously, that is hugely valuable feedback. His basic issue was the pacing, and looking back at that early draft, he was 100% correct. I’d made a stylistic decision that had a huge negative impact on the pace of the first 6 chapters, and a lot of the fixing came when I abandoned that structure and cut to the chase.
Yeah, the word choice thing is slippery. I mean, I hate word repetition, it bugs the shit out of me, so I always look to fix that in my own work and will always point it out as part of a critical read for someone else - but to me that’s a technical issue, for others that’s a stylistic concern or even a non-issue (it doesn’t bug everyone).
But the thing with the novel is, every draft was improved by the CR feedback, I got, and while the final text won’t have addressed every concern of every reader, I think every single response gave me at least one better way to do some part or other. I guess my worry is that if I don’t make it clear that I’m expecting people to find issues, that I’ll just get soft soap or ‘I liked it’ type comments… What kind of feedback do you find the most useful? Top level summaries or detail work?
PMF: I think I prefer a mix of the two, something in the middle. Having only done short stories and one novella, perhaps I’ll find I miss more in a longer work when I come to it and will rely more on critical readers, but I think that if you aren’t pretty sure (give or take 1% or so) about a short story by draft two or three, you probably ought to go and do something else. Having said that, sometimes people will point out general impressions in a story that maybe didn't quite work for them. Too many characters, or a superfluous character; not enough backstory for a specific event; maybe a minor continuity issue. That sort of thing. I had a story recently appraised by another writer and he pointed out that the narrating character moves pretty quickly to violence and murder, and it would only be a matter of a sentence or two to establish something in his past to make it more logical. That was hugely useful. but generally, it’s an overview for me, with a bit of detail focusing.
I’m halfway through a novella just now and I’m really worried that it slows down in the middle after a lot of ‘action’. That’s the kind of impression I’d be after, though I would never ask someone to specifically look for it. I think that way lies madness. At the end of the day, you take it all on board but it’s down to you what to use and what not to use. I’ve had offers of complete line edits to specifically reduce word count, and while I really appreciate someone doing that, it’s essentially just another way of changing how you write. Unless you’re a pretty awful writer - and this is where genuinely honest readers are needed - edits should only be necessary ones. A good editor will see where there might be issues of pace, logic, unnecessary exposition and so on, but they shouldn’t be trying to change every single line. If they are, they’re either a bad editor or you’re a shitty writer and at this point, you really ought to know which one it is.
There’s a trend nowadays (maybe it’s always been there) for some writers to dismiss all criticism of their work as people ‘not getting it’. Now, I’m not saying there might not be something in that, sometimes, but it tends to be more an attitude of not being very self-aware; of a mix of ego and insecurity. I think that, in writing, some tend to forget that thousands upon thousands of writers have gone before and instead of being humble - whether you mean it or not - when others offer their experience and advice, certain writers feel that they are the trailblazers, the mavericks. They tend not to last. There’s a wealth of talent out there, with a lot of experience and advice to offer, and only a fool or an egotist (sometimes both) would dismiss it. Of course, the flipside of that is those who would like you to think they know it all, despite having done nothing or little with this wealth of talent and knowledge they profess to have. But I digress…
KP: I agree with that last point. My own personal take on that (and I’ve nicked it from someone else, but I can't remember who - might have been King in ‘On Writing’, it usually is) is that as a new/emerging writer, for the vast majority of us, it’s really, really important to learn the ‘rules’ and conventions of writing, both in terms of grammar and in terms of story structure, etc. Once you have that understanding, it’s then also fine to break those rules, providing you understand the rule you are breaking, why you are breaking it, and how breaking it improves the story.
Now I am a giant hypocrite on this point, because I know nothing about story structure, beyond what I’ve picked up from reading and watching stories. Early on, I sent a short story to an editor, and one of his comments was ‘I liked the way you introduced a ticking clock right at the start, because it freed you from having to worry about a three act structure’. Now, I respect that feedback, but truthfully I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I mean, I figured it out by implication, it’s not rocket surgery, but it did highlight to me just how little I consciously think about stories in those terms while I’m writing.
Wow, that got hopelessly off track, sorry. To go back to your opening comment, one of the things I value so much about conversations like this is just how different approaches can be. As a concrete example, even at D3, I never know if anything I’ve written is any good. Honestly. I have zero objectivity about my own work. It’s a major flaw. I can only see what I intended, and constantly struggle for distance or ‘objectivity’. I’ve shared stories I wasn’t wild about that have been extraordinarily popular and sold quickly, and on the other end the short story I am most proud of is utter marmite - at least half of the people who read it hated it (though the ones that like it love it) and it’s been rejected 18 times. So for me, that first critical read is vital quality control, because I never know if I’ve gotten anywhere near nailing it until that moment.
With the novel, this made the process particularly protracted and painful, because the initial response (which was correct) was that it was some ways off being a publishable manuscript, for a lot of different reasons. And even at D6, I got editorial feedback that said similar things - and that feedback was still correct. I’d made some bad stylistic decisions, both at a sentence level and at a structure level, and I hadn’t realised that having broken out of those, the whole book needed re-working so that, with those ‘rules’ no longer in place, the action was always where it should be in terms of focus and pace.
And by then I was 18 months in the hole on the project, and it was a pretty serious gut check in terms of continuing. And ultimately I did because I knew there was some good writing in there, and I also felt that if I could get the rest of the book up to the standard of the best bits, I’d have something I could be happy with putting out into the world. So even when the criticism got emotionally difficult for me, it was absolutely what the book needed, and it’s a far better manuscript as a result.
Your comment about a line edit is interesting, at least partly because I’m never quite sure where a ‘copy edit’ ends and a ‘line edit’ begins. That said, I had a story accepted by a semi pro market, and the suggested edits amounted to removing around 20 or 30 words from a 3K story, and they made a massive and immediate improvement to the overall readability, without affecting the impact of the story at all, which again for me was a real eye opener, because I thought it was a pretty tight piece of prose to start with…
PMF: To me, line editing is essentially someone going through a work and editing on a sentence by sentence basis. I know it’s not supposed to be quite as close as that - it still should pay attention to flow, pace and style - but I often find that some people focus far too much on reducing word count at the expense of the story. Another form of ‘this is how I would write it’. But one person’s ‘bloat’ is another person’s rich and interesting detail. It’s a fine line and you’ll never please everyone, so you have to decide how you want to write.
“...because I know nothing about story structure, beyond what I’ve picked up from reading and watching stories.” But you do know, even if you don’t know you know. You know? Another side of writing I’ve always been skeptical of is the idea that it can be boiled down into a formula. Add a pinch of this, mix in some of that, and hey presto, you have a story. There are thousands of people who will tell how you should and shouldn’t write (most of them names no-one has heard of), yet for me, it boils down to reading a lot and writing a lot. And also being highly aware of what you find works for you in a story and what doesn’t. Eventually, you’ll develop your own style and way of working. For me, writing is merely using words to convey what’s in your head, and there are multiple ways to do that. So, I get immediately resentful when someone says ‘you musn’t do such and such’, especially when I check out their own stuff and find it lacking. I tend to find that the more a writer has achieved, and the better they are, the more simple their advice is. And it tends to be, read a lot and write a lot, and find your own voice. And clearly, you are one of these writers who does read a lot, and pays attention to what he reads.
But I agree; you need to know what the ‘rules’ are before you can break them and not look like a mess. There will always be new things to learn in this, but if you don’t even know the basics, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, your writing will reflect that. I was once told by someone not to use ‘-ing’ verbs because it was ‘passive voice’, but that was because they had been told that by someone else. It confused me hugely because I cannot think of a single piece of work I’d read that didn’t have them. To me, this is an example of trying to force the writing to fit a formula, or a prohibition, without really understanding it and the writing will show that awkwardness and forced aspect. There is always more to learn in this game, and much of that comes from listening to other, better writers. Or even just reading what they’ve done. If all you read is the horror equivalent of 50 Shades…, then that is all your writing will ever reflect.
I don’t know, maybe it’s about finding what does and doesn’t work for you, and going with that. What do I know? I’ve never studied any of this stuff, I hold no qualifications. I just sat down one day and tried to write and didn’t hate what I’d done, so thought I’d do some more. And it went from there. Most of the time, I feel like I’m in a completely dark room, feeling my way around a sculpture of some kind and then trying to describe that to someone outside of the room. It’s all very frustrating and headache inducing, and add into that a dozen or so different people trying to tell you a dozen or so different things...and those are just the ones you listen to.
KP: Well, yeah. I think your first and last points kind of tie together there, in that yes, we’re blind men trying to sculpt, but also there’s that instinctive grasp of story, even if we can’t articulate it in terms of formula, and there’s also taste - the way we filter what we personally enjoy in others works and figure out how and if and when we can use it ourselves, in some new way. There’s a Dan Harmon quote that ties in with this - I heard him talking on a Writers Panel podcast, and he said one of the things he tells his new staff writers when they start is that they are story experts. They have to be. They’ve grown up in a culture saturated with story, they’ve absorbed thousands of hours of stories, in TV’s, in movies, in books. That kind of rang true to me.
But there’s an important second layer to that, which is taste. I mean, as I get older, I find I can appreciate more and more work, art, in all kinds of genre than when I was a kid - back then, I loved what I loved and I hated everything else. But at the same time, whilst I like to think I’m better at appreciating quality, I do still have the things I love the most, the things that move me. Like, I can appreciate and enjoy the best hip-hop, the best classical, the best pop, but the music that will always move me the most is hard rock, punk, and metal. And obviously writing is the same.
Tarantino once said about movies that violence in films was an aesthetic, and if you don’t like violent movies, you wouldn’t like his movies no matter how good they were. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but I think there’s something to it it terms of genre. Because I self identify as a horror writer, even though a lot of my output is not out-and-out traditional horror. And I think ultimately that’s because I identify the most with the horror aesthetic, and the desire to freak out my readers, to really make them feel something, drives everything I do at the keyboard.
So to get back to critical readers (!!!) I think being able to identify what parts of the feedback are a product of differing aesthetics, and which relate to a more universal or fundamental problem or issue is important, if maybe sometimes easier said than done. And like you said, the line between ‘bad writing’ and ‘you don’t get it’ can sometimes be crystal clear, and sometimes… not. And I guess when it isn’t, it’s back to instinct as a storyteller - does the crit ring true with your own perception of the story as written? And there’s also the issue of weight of numbers - I send out to at least three CR’s per round, ideally four or five. And if one of them says something I disagree with, I may well ignore it. but if three or four highlight the same issue… there’s probably something that needs addressing.
But in closing, I’d also say that what I find most valuable about critical readers is that different perspective - that discrete point of view and aesthetic interacting with the work. At its best, it can help me see my own story in a whole new light, and that’s incredibly valuable to me.
Any final thoughts?
PMF: I don’t think I have much more to add, other than to say I kind of agree with the thing about having an instinctive grasp of story, because it’s how we come to understand the world, it’s how we learn things when we’re young and, if you have the parents who will encourage - or at least, not discourage - you’ll probably find your way to films, TV shows and books. But as for being experts? I’d have to say no. Not everyone becomes an expert in story merely by watching films or reading books. You’ve got more of an advantage than someone who doesn’t, but to become an ‘expert’, you have to open up that extra level of awareness. You’ve got to know why you like what you like, or rather, why it works for you. Sometimes you’ll find you just like things because you do, because they sing to you. Other times, it’s easier to analyse. But I think on some level, you’re becoming more aware of it simply because you’re trying to pay attention, if that makes sense. I have to admit to not being particularly good at defining these things. I’m lost when other writers go into deep analysis of a work, it really throws me because that’s not my approach. I can point to stuff that’s really moved me, and I can say why to a certain extent, but I can’t take it fully apart because sometimes, I think all of this exists on an instinctive level, and really, all you’re doing by paying attention is honing that instinct, making it more viable and aware. I think, personally, I approach writing and reading from a deeply emotional level, whereas others come at it from a more intellectual side. There’s nothing wrong with either, but it does speak to that subjectivity of things; if someone says such and such a work had a great intellectual resonance but I find it boring, what does it mean? Does it mean I’m wrong, or they are, or is it something in the middle? to me, the ‘worth’ of a story is how much it moves me. Something like Daniel Keyes’s Flowers For Algernon will always rank very high in my estimation because it moved me deeply, reduced me to tears. It also helps that it’s very well written.
Deep down, I think we all still approach everything from our own bias, from our own subjective outlook, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s what leads to these intense disagreements over works of creativity. That’s not to say I don’t think you can criticise stuff, and I’ve been misunderstood on this point before. Certainly, there are many technical aspects that can be criticised and, indeed, must be, because once you start to lose that standard, well, anything can get a pass. But at the same time, some of those arguments can blur over into personal taste. I think you’ve got to know when you’re defending what you consider good work, and when you’re merely defending your own personal viewpoint and that can be a very difficult and humbling thing. Which is why I have a double approach to critical readers. I need them to tell me about big gaps in logic, or continuity issues, or whatever. But at the same time, I think you’ve got to come to a point where you trust your own instincts. I think if someone is telling you that they didn’t like something in general, that can be merely down to taste; but if they’re telling you that your grammar is weak, or awkward, that you use too much repetition, that your characterisations are inconsistent, that your dialogue is unrealistic and so on, you probably should start to listen. If you don’t, you’ll never improve as a writer and surely, that’s what we all want to do?
Thus concludes our conversation about the role of the Critical Reader. What do YOU think? Where do issues of technical competence end and taste begin? How do you handle multiple or conflicting CR feedback? Do you disagree about the importance of critical readers? And how do you approach critically reading the work of others? Sound off in the comments below, and let’s keep the conversation rolling...