Balancing Changeability and Unchangeability in the Face of Critique

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

A friend of mine recently explained a quandary she was wrestling with. With two workshops under her belt, along with most of a third and four thesis meetings with her advisor over the summer, she’d received quite a bit of feedback on her writing from quite a variety of sources. Which is, of course, great. Unfortunately, when you get such a nice variety of opinions, you’re going to come up against some that contradict one another, and worse, that are both contradictory and valid, a scenario in which none seem to bear a stronger validity over the others, in which there is no clear winner. This being the case for my friend, it had brought her work on specific stories to a standstill, unsure of which feedback to heed.

I doubt any writer who hasn’t experienced this. It’s a tough question to answer — what’s the best way to identify which feedback to heed and which to discard?

To that, I would offer a slightly adjusted counter-question: To what degree should you be letting critique affect the narrative decisions you make in your story?

It’s a subtle pivot, but one I think cuts closer to the heart of the issue and puts us in a better position to tackle it.

For starters (and this should be obvious), if critiquers have a direct feed to your manuscript, in a way that every single critique from every single person causes a respective change to your pages, I think I can say without causing too much grief that you’re doing it wrong, that you’re too malleable, too changeable. Feedback must pass through some sort of Creator filter that insulates the pages from the critique.

However, on the flip side, if you’re getting a bunch of feedback from a bunch of different sources and you’re finding that none of it, not one iota, is useful enough to cause a change on the page, then — how does the saying go? …”If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole, but if you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole”? I promise you, someone is giving you feedback that will make your story better. For whatever reason, you’re just not listening. You’re being too unchangeable. As my professor said last class, “We, as writers, need to be constantly willing to change things, because the manuscript is developing organically and constantly going to be changing.” (Or something to that effect. Sorry for the butchery, Lewis.)

Both of these scenarios are extreme, and the vast majority of us fall somewhere in between, leaning this way or that, but this is the spectrum we’re dealing with.

First of all, there’s no magic point on the spectrum, no universal sweet spot for where a writer should be. There isn’t even one per person; a given person could have several sweet spots. In fact, it could change from submission to submission, story to story, critiquer to critiquer. So what do you do? You have to look for principles — to almost go as far as to design a mathematical equation to run the data of each bit of feedback through in order to pop out an answer. Pass or fail. Change the text or don’t change the text. (Also known as a filter…)

Second of all, while there’s no magic sweet spot, I do think most people lean toward the side that allows more of a direct feed from the critiquer to the page, especially at the current skill and confidence levels of novice writers. (I think the less confident you are in your writing, common among beginner writers, the more likely you are to be too changeable, and I think the more confident you are in your writing, as a successful writer or narcissist may be, the more likely you are to be too unchangeable. Since there are more beginner or aspiring or novice — whatever you want to call yourself — writers, the more common it is for writers to receive feedback with too much malleability.) Which means that most of my classmates need to start leaning toward the more resistant side of the spectrum in order to find their sweet spot. I encourage these people not to To these people, I would say: don’t be afraid to be unchangeable.

For example, I recently wrote a critique letter to a classmate whom I suspected, in his second submission, had either lost sight of or intentionally abandoned the challenging but intriguing conceit for his novel he had been building with his first submission. I won’t go into detail about his novel or the conceit because I don’t quite feel it’s my right to, but I felt disappointed by the possibility that he had abandoned it — which, as I would find out in class, he had indeed done — and was worried (though, even now, not convinced) that he had taken our many questions and critiques about it during his first workshop as an overwhelming sign that it was a broken, or simply bad, aspect of his novel — that the tribe had spoken and off the island his conceit should go. In my letter, I wanted to offer the possibility that we, the critiquers, although unanimous, were all wrong.

I wrote:

“I’m solidly neutral about whether [abandoning this conceit] is a positive move. On one hand, it could be a great way to see your novel with clarity. Simplifying it then slowly complicating it as you come to fully understand different aspects could allow you to move forward in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise been able. On the other hand, I hope you don’t abandon your original conceit […] before you’re sure it should be abandoned. If everyone, including your professor, is telling you the “1st person epistolary via an archivist” conceit (as an arbitrary example*) isn’t working and they’re all giving you suggestions on what you should do instead, it may mean it really isn’t working or it may mean you simply don’t have the 1st-person-epistolary-via-archivist conceit down yet. I mean, if you’ve never tried it before, what are the chances you’re going to get it right the first time? You might just need a few cracks at it to get it purring.”

[*the quite un-arbitrary example of my novel’s conceit]

All critiquers can comment on is what’s on the page and how it’s on the page. Intentions matter very little. So if they see a failed experiment in the text, it’s their job to say, “This isn’t working. What if you did this instead?” (The problem is, it sounds like their saying, “This is wrong, and you should change it.” But they’re really just operating on the information they have at hand.) It’s then your job, as the writer, to run it through your filter and ask, Is this technique wrong for my novel, or am I just not quite executing it correctly?

In my letter, I continued to elucidate my point with an example, writing:

“[…] your chronology seems to want to be linear; that is, what you have on the page seems to want to be told in the order that the events happen in the story. However, to hark back to my point about your conceit (maybe taking a few cracks at it before you decide to give up on it), you can either go with the flow or bend it to your will, either let the narrative do what it wants (be told linearly) or (if you have a specific, nonlinear authorial vision) go back and play with it, tune it, hone it until you get it the way you want. There’s no right or better answer here. Some writers need to loosen the reins and let the story breathe a little, others need to take a little more charge of their stories (and this could even be on a case by case basis, one story needing room to breathe, another story needing a firm hand). You just have to be aware that these are questions you need to ask of your writing. And, more importantly, [you need to take a step back and] understand the narrative effect of the technique you’re employing. In your case, what effect does telling it linearly or nonlinearly have on the story [and, by extension, the reader]? From my reading of this submission, alone, it really feels like a linear chronology is the best fit for your novel. But that’s based solely on the way you’ve written it. If you don’t want it told linearly and have explored the possibilities a nonlinear storyline (took a few more cracks at it), I might read [a later draft] and feel like yeah, now it wants to be nonlinear.”

So there’s an interpretation aspect to receiving feedback. You have to consider what they’re saying about the text, the text itself, and your grasp of craft. This is your filter. Obviously, you know you need a filter. What’s trickier is knowing what levels to dial it to. How do you know how changeable or unchangeable to approach your critiquer’s comments? Honestly, I have no magic answer. I’m still learning. And worse, I write, edit, critique, and digest critique lawlessly, with my gut. However, I can offer one useful, arguably universal principle. I’ve come to think of my workshops as a a sort of courtroom for the aspects and content of my novel. In true American spirit (if that’s a thing these days), these aspects are innocent until proven guilty. They’re all working until I’m convinced they’re not, and even in the face of unanimous agreement of they’re guilt, I know that I’m still expected to think for myself, to take that overwhelmingly popular opinion and challenge it one last time. And that’s how I find my balance.

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