Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?
So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.
My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.
On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.
So what do you do with this conflicting advice?
First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.
That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”
But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.
Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.
But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.
The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.
Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.
So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.
Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.