I tend to pay attention to serendipity. So when I had two clients run into problems with well-meaning but misguided critiques within a week of each other, I figured I’d found my article for this month.
Of course, I edit for a living, so it’s hard for me to say anything about amateur editors without sounding a little self-serving. I do appreciate the efforts and, generally, the skills that amateur critiquers – critters – bring to the table. Professional editing is expensive, and not all writers are ready to make that kind of investment in their craft. I get that.
But . . .
Most amateur editors are writers themselves – writers trading editing back and forth is how critique groups work. This means they have their own preferred ways of crafting a plot, their own pet set of techniques for creating character, their own sense of what makes a story work. In trying to get your story to work, they often wind up telling you to write the story they would have written.
For instance (I’m using my clients as examples with their permission, by the way), one of the characters in one client’s work was a teenager who was raised by an incredibly abusive stepparent. We’re talking routine physical torture and threatening to kill the teens’ friends and random innocent strangers in order to compel obedience. The teenager spends much of the book fighting back despite the deep-seated psychological damage this upbringing left behind. He’s not always successful. He’s forced to keep key facts secret, even though the secrecy risks the lives of other characters. His attempts to fight back lead to two more characters getting killed. A poor decision leads to yet another character’s death. He himself lashes out at one point and kills someone who’s hunting him.
Some of my client’s critters found all of this too dark. One said the teenager’s “kill count was too high.” Others found it despicable that he kept secrets despite the risk to his friends. And, yes, judgements like these are a matter of taste. Some people prefer a lighter book with less fraught characters, and that’s fine.
But that’s not the book my client was trying to write. One of her main dramatic threads centered on the power struggle between the teenager and his stepfather. Lightening up on the stepfather’s threats would have robbed that thread of its drama. Keeping the father’s torture and coercion without having it twist the teenager’s personality would have been unrealistic. The darkness was at the core of their relationship and of the teen’s struggle through the story. My client couldn’t change it without writing a different sort of book.
A professional editor probably wouldn’t have made this mistake. Over my four decades in the business, I’ve helped writers who had a lot of different approaches to storytelling, so I’m not locked into one in particular. And that enables me – and other professional editors — to see the story a client is trying to write and help them to write it more effectively.
My other client ran into a problem that shows up with amateur and professional editors both – being told to tailor his story to fit the market.
I’ve written about the dangers of this approach before. Briefly, when you make mechanical changes to your story just to please a given market, your story might superficially mimic other successful books, but it loses the spark that brings it to life. The people who do write widely successful stories do so, I suspect, because these are the sorts of stories they love. If you love something else, it’s better to have an offbeat, less mainstream but more authentic story than to have a paint-by-numbers production shaped by whatever’s popular at the moment.
My other client’s story centered on a woman who was up against a genetically engineered monster that (among other things) secreted pheromones that caused fear, then used the scent of fear to track their prey. She was able to defeat the creature in part because she meditated to deal with some of her psychological problems. This inward focus led her to be able to control her fear when crunch time came. But in the interests of writing to the market, her critter wanted the author to move the character away from her internal life and make her more of a “steel-jawed Hollywood action hero.”
Again, not the book my client wanted to write. And while there is a market for steeled-jawed action heroes, it is mostly filled up by the Marvel and DC comic universes, mostly written by people who love that kind of story. My client’s book may have had a less obvious market, but its inward-leaning action hero also helps separate it from the pack and may make it more marketable in the end.
Whenever anyone tells you to change something about your precious manuscript, it’s probably going to raise your hackles, at least at first. So how do you tell the difference between someone suggesting changes you need to make and someone just telling you to abandon your book and write something else?
Repetition is one thing to watch for. If one critter objects to something, that might just be personal preference. If several tell you the same thing, then you should at least consider it. It’s still possible you’re looking at groupthink, but it’s more likely they’re spotting something real.
But the real key is inspiration. If the suggestions help you to see problems that you suspected were there but couldn’t pinpoint, if they leave you itching to start rewriting once the initial shock has passed, then you’ve got a good one. Listen, dig in, and get to work.
So what are your horror stories about critters?
Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.