Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Round Table: Writing the Sequel Part Four

As promised, here's the next installment of the Writing the Sequel Round Table. We're talking about responding to criticism and how the writing may or may not be affected by the effect of writing for a known audience. Mileages, predictably vary. I found these responses to be some of my favorites. I'm sure you will too.

If you haven't read the proceeding installments, you'll find them below.

52 Reviews: Is there any pressure to address any criticism that you may have received from reviews or comments from readers when you sit down to work on the second installment in a series? Or do you view criticism as nothing more than a way to focus the inevitable growth most writers experience over time in a specific direction?

Jeff Salyards: When I first started agent hunting two and a half years ago, Scourge was almost 70,000 words longer than what ultimately went to print. While I had agents request partials and fulls, they all passed in the initial rounds. And while no one overtly said, “Hey, bucko, unless you’re Patrick Rothfuss, you ain’t clearing the gatekeepers with a 170,000 word debut,” the feedback implied that the book was too long, or at least that the pacing was off (there was a lot of the central character’s back story woven in). So I started tweaking the submission as I went, cutting, cutting, and still no dice. A lot of interest, a lot of passes.

With less than a third of my agent list left, I decided to really revisit the manuscript. I concluded that by trimming the “real time” story and the backstory together, I was just watering down both. So I scrapped that version and made the very difficult choice to excise the backstory completely and patch the remaining story back together. That wasn’t just killing some choice darlings, it was genocide. It was rough and a ton of work. I drank a lot. But I did it, and low and behold, I had two offers from agents almost immediately after shopping the truncated version. I chose one, and got a deal for the series not long after.

Did this happen because I was open to feedback and made the requisite changes? Or would I have landed the agent offers anyway if I kept shopping the book the way I originally wrote it and intended?

Who the hell knows. But sometimes I hear the ghosts of that entire city of dead darlings cry out and I wonder. Still, it seems more likely that by taking criticism on board, I improved the writing. Some writerly folk contend that reading reviews will lead to madness. You can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, and it’s awfully easy to forget the six good reviews you got in a row and fixate on the lousy one. But if you are discerning and open, who knows, maybe you’ll identify a trend in some reviews, a critical refrain. And if so, it might be worth reexamining your stuff and at least considering the validity of the criticism, weighing it against your own estimation of what you thought worked or didn’t.

So I can’t say any reader comments or criticism created pressure to write Book 2 a certain way, but it probably informed the writing a little bit, especially when I heard a few critiques crop up more than once. Of course every writer wants raves and stars and swooning readers. But the idea is to continue growing, and while that might happen naturally just pounding away at the keys, I think being aware of how your work is perceived, how readers respond, can be useful. In moderation anyway. Which I suck at. But hey.

M.L. Brennan: Oh, absolutely. If something like 90% of your readers noted that your main character acts like a doormat for the first two-thirds of the book *cough* *cough*, that'll definitely stick in your mind, even if it was a deliberate choice. The question of whether or not to address that criticism in the next book comes down more to whether what was pointed out was something that was deliberate and necessary (like your character getting mugged by Bruins fans, say) and part of your overall plan, or if it was unintentional and something that can be adjusted. Or perhaps just something that you were surprised was an issue.

Criticism is a necessary part of the writing process -- after all, otherwise editors wouldn't exist, and believe me, when my editor tells me that something is a problem I definitely get right to work on it. But at the same time an attempt to write to please everyone can be a very dangerous impulse. I'm the product of an MFA program, and I loved my time there. But I saw more than a few novels die horrible deaths as their authors responded to workshops by trying to make every individual reader happy -- and in the process lost all sight of their own project. So I try to really weigh whether a criticism should be addressed.

I ended up sticking to my guns for the most part on my character's slow growth, but here's an area where comments and reviews helped me notice a gap -- I was very committed in my series to making sure that there was good representation of gender and ethnicity -- but there wasn't a single openly LGBT character in the first book. It was pointed out, and it was a valid point -- I'd had plans for a specific character to appear in Book 3, but I moved his introduction into Book 2 to address the lack of representation. I thought that was a useful critique, and it helped me as a writer.

Jay Posey: Not sure I'll have much to add that hasn't already been covered, but I won't let that stop me from talking anyway!

Qualified feedback can be very useful, and I would count "qualified" as meaning either a) from someone I think of as a Trusted Ally (e.g., an editor, another writer with a good sense of craft, etc.) or b) from a trend across multiple readers.

I've found for me personally it's not especially healthy to read every single review of my work out there. But if I see a trend developing across multiple reviews, then it's definitely helpful to look at the big picture and make adjustments; if, for example, even positive reviews are saying they wish there'd been more backstory for a character, or that the action scenes had been more tightly written, or whatever, that's good information to keep in mind.

I do have a handful of readers whose individual opinions I trust because I know that they've got good instincts, and generally when something doesn't sit right with them it's likely that something will also affect many other readers. But that's a pretty select group of folks who tend to be insightful about books whether they're writers or not; people who may not agree with my opinions, but who always bring interesting thoughts and perspectives to the table.

So coming from either of those sources, yes definitely feedback on initial works can affect my approach to later works. I think the big trick is discerning when your own particular voice might suffer for requested changes; sometimes I've had suggestions that seemed fine at an intellectual level that ultimately just didn't work for me at a gut level, and I think you have to be able to find that line when changing might start to encroach on personal style. But it's a learning process, and you can't find that line if you don't start by listening to feedback.

There's a danger, though, in over-correcting if you allow those critiques to sit too far forward in your mind while writing, so I think it's important to absorb the feedback without obsessing over it.

Jeff Salyards: ML and Jay nailed it, both in trusting your own direction/voice/choices when evaluating reviews to see what makes sense, and in not over thinking or over-correcting based on feedback (well, unless it's your editor cracking the whip).

Even responding first I end up thinking other answers are better! The order doesn't matter for me at all!

M.L. Brennan: I like Jay's term Trusted Ally. I'm going to steal that from him. It has a delightfully Nixonian connotation to it. Soon I'll be dispatching hired goons to riffle through the desk drawers of select reviewers. (*significant look*)

Jay Posey: Yes, to be honest, the quickest way to achieve Trusted Ally status with me is by telling me exactly what I want to hear and/or offering substantial bribes. In fact, I should probably offer subscription opportunities on my website ... hmmm. :D

Jeff Salyards: I like the term "rifle through." I'm pretty sure it predates firearms (rifles, at least), but I'm too lazy to look it up. Regardless of the etymology, I always dug it.

Django Wexler: Looking back, I have to say I haven’t received a lot of actionable criticism from readers. Complaints about The Thousand Names in reviews and so on have pretty much fallen into three categories:

1.Non-specific negative comments, like “this was boring” or “I didn’t like the characters.”

2.People who didn’t like the basic nature of the book. For example, “It was all battles and fighting!” I may like or dislike those things, but I can’t disagree that the comment is true!

3.People who didn’t like specific elements I’d included in the book: the Sweet Polly Oliver story, the swearing, the gay characters. (Oddly, no one has complained about the horrific violence. I guess that goes with the territory these days.)

I don’t know what to change to address #1, can’t really address #2, and generally don’t care to address #3. (People are free to like or dislike elements, but I’d rather not let it affect me.) So I can’t say that reader response has been a big factor in changing the second book. (Obviously, that’s not including my own beta readers, who give me much more specific feedback and are always greatly appreciated!)

Douglas Hulick: As others have said, there's criticism, and then there's Criticism. I rely on my writer's group, beta readers, and my editor for the lion's share of the latter. As to the former, it depends on the reason behind it and the source.

Many of reviews you find online tend to be what I call "gut level", in that the person is basically explaining why the did or didn't like the book. The reasons for those reactions can vary widely. Among other things, I've had people love/hate: my use of first person POV; the pacing of the book; my world building; the swordplay & action; the criminal elements; the plot; characters names; and so on. And that's fine. If, as ML said, you get a lot of people loving/hating the same aspect of your work, then that can tell you something. It doesn't mean you have to act on it, of course, but its good feedback nonetheless. We're all of us writing to be read, so reader reaction can't be ignored.

Of course, some reviews/criticisms go beyond that: some dig just that much deeper or turn the lens at just the right angle and find something you didn't think of. Those are great reviews, whether you agree with them or not, because they get you thinking. I love that. But again, that doesn't mean I will necessarily listen to them. Hell, I don't always agree with the critiques from people in my writer's group, my beta readers, or my editor, and I have a professional relationship with them.

Each suggestion, each criticism, has to be weighed not only on its own merits, but against the rest of the work as well. Each has to improve the work in some way. Is it possible that a reader comment or on-line review will meet that criteria? Of course. Never say never and all that. But usually I will tend to stick with the Trusted Ally that Jay mentioned above. At the end of the day it's my name on the spine of the book: if for that reason alone, I can't bend to every wind that blows.

Jay Posey: I think Django's word choice there is excellent - criticism has to have actionable components, and very often general feedback is mostly personal opinion. Even in writing groups sometimes feedback can be of the "I would have done such and such differently," or "I didn't like so-and-so" variety, and isn't actually much help in knowing why something isn't working or how to fix it, if it does in fact need fixing. That's the key to the Trusted Ally for me; these are people who know how to give specific, constructive, actionable critiques, who understand structure and can help you identify both the source of the problem and possible solutions.

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