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Ow, that hurts! But only if I let it.

My current wip has had several beta readers of the very good variety. It's had a professional edit by an experienced SFF editor, and an agent with an editorial approach who put it through its paces again. Recent feedback from further editors has been good. In short, here's a book I'm confident about - so much so it's gone out to a few people for a pre-copy-edit review.

One hated everything about the book. The critique was thoughtful, with clear identification of what the critter didn't like and why. There are some things I may strengthen on the back of it. But it's not a critique I'll be applying in full, and here's why:

Critiques aren't to be considered in a vacuum. A reader may not be a good match for your work. They may like a different style of writing, or a different sort of plot. I write dark stuff - fluffy bunny lovers aren't always the critters for me.

So here's my Top 5 things you should consider when you receive a critique.

(That's right, I said YOU should consider as the receiver, not as the giver. Because a critique is not under your control - your response to it is.)

1. What are the critters strengths?

Are they a good grammatician? Good at characters, getting into role, voice-aware? Honestly, with all my regular critters (I have about 8) I'm familiar with both their work and their critting style. They're the ones that I turn to because their strengths match what I need. I rarely need someone to dissect a character for me - I live and breathe any character I write. But I suck at physical description and need to be told to go back to plot school sometimes, and critters help me do that.

2. What stage is the wip at?

Early crits should be red-penned. That's normal. It's not a reason to chuck your new opus in the bin. It's a reason to file the crit in the back of your mind until the rewrite. At which point, if you're anything like me, you'll nod sagely at everything that's been red-penned and wonder if your critters need to go back to the School of Sharp Teeth and toughen their feedback up.

3. Are there themes in the feedback?

This is a big reason to have more than one critter. On the same day I received the rather devastating news my book was rubbish, I had another hard critter come back to say it was superb and lots of other nice things. Suddenly I'm left with two poles-apart crits and I'm scratching my head.

At that point, I look at whatever other feedback I have, and then I balance it. So, in this case a possible deus ex machina was raised. I see that one commissioning editor noted the same, but felt it made for a satisfactory ending and just needed some strands to support it. Those strands were added, but maybe they need a little more oomph.

But! Two other critters liked the ending and that it was built up to well. They'd picked up the strands I'd put in and, even though they suspected where things might go, were satisfied when they did. Therefore, on balance - the ending stays with maybe a check at copy edit if there's anything more that could be added to support it.

4. Is it a crit of your book, or the version of the book the critter would write?

On at least two occasions I've realised a crit doesn't made sense of what I've written. It's important to figure out why. It may be that I've lost the critter, in which case I need to address that. Or it may be that the setting or theme sparked something and the critter wanted to share what might be a better way of writing the whole book. In which case, it's not helpful and can probably be filed under Don't Worry.

The book is your work. If you change it because of someone else's vision, you run the risk of losing its strengths. By all means, if someone suggests a fix to something, think about it. Yesterday, an experienced critter pointed out that a slight change of emphasis would make one scene more incisive; that change is so in there.

But don't start taking out multiple characters and strands and changing plot and tone - you'll only end up with a book out that doesn't feel like you. If you've spent the time at the writing and planning stage thinking about what happens when to whom; if you've listened to trends and feedback and implemented what felt right to you, then have confidence. (As one who struggles with that component, I might pop my own tip up on the wall.)

5. Who to turn to?

Hard crits hurt. Critical reviews which give no 'busfare home' are difficult to make sense of. Our first response is to go into defense mode. In defense mode we don't think well. For me, when I'm at that stage, I need wise heads. And cake, from those I trust.

After I've had all that, I can come back to the crit with a clear head and thank the critter kindly, because honest feedback is valuable. After that, take what's useful, leave what isn't, and move on. Because that's in your control to do so.


I feel your pain on this one, Jo. Sifting crit is its very own art form, and in some sort of sick payoff, it seems like you gain in proportion to the pain you expend.

What a system.

But it's so necessary. Like you, I live and breathe characters. I get lost in the narrative and forget to add necessary description. Or I try to imply something with a light touch, and discover it was too light. The reader would have to be in my head to get it. *sighs*

Good betas are a gift for when you're writing your book. But afterwards, when the reviews come in, I think all you can do is save them and think on them for future projects. Your system seems like a good one to me. Give yourself the necessary emotional distance to sift your crit, and come out a stronger writer for it.

You go, girl. Looking forward to the next book. :)
Joanne Zebedee said…
Thanks, Catherine. I rely on my betas so much - they're all fab! It's finding good ones that's so hard.