Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 3, 2022

Who’s in Charge Of Your Story?

by James Preston

Remember that great scene in “Jaws” 1 -– no, not “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” -- where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss are showing each other their scars? Well, I’m going to do that in this essay. (Forge on, gentle reader, to see how I’ve taken my lumps and lived to tell the tale.) Hopefully, my adventures will help illustrate who, in the final analysis, is responsible for your work.

I wrote the back cover “blurb” for my new book and I was really happy with it. It was funny, it described the story accurately, and I thought it would make people want to read the book. Hey, I got my start writing advertising copy while I was in college. I can do this stuff. Sure, I can. Then my publisher sent it out for comments.

More on that later. 

Let’s talk about feedback. 

When should you solicit it? 

Who should you ask to comment?

What should you do with the comments?

Creating a book-length story is a lot of work, a long process that can be lonely and discouraging. Getting feedback can be important — but...

When in the process should you solicit opinions? 

At the Concept stage. 

Talking about a story before it’s on paper comes in two forms. You can be doing the talking or you can be listening.

If you have been writing for any length of time you’ve probably had the following experience: somebody comes up to you and says, “I’ve got this great idea for a story . . .” They probably want you to do the actual writing.

It is not harsh to say that you should try very hard to discourage this individual, for two reasons.

  • First, you have your own work and almost certainly don’t need another idea. Let them down gently but let them down.
  • Second, and way more serious, if you do listen to their idea, decline the offer and years later the concept turns up even in a mutated form in your work, you are open to serious charges of, “You stole my idea!”

The other side of the equation is even worse.

Talking about an idea before you have worked it out in your head can cripple the poor thing. Get something down on paper first. I’ve done it (talked before writing) and the story survived but only because I chose the individuals to tell my idea to very carefully.

You can kill an idea by talking about it too early or — just as bad — you can get encouragement for an idea that you will be reluctant to change.

My advice: don’t talk.  

What about after your First Draft?

Probably not. Your readers can get distracted by nonessential features like misplaced commas. At the very least carefully proofread the manuscript before handing it out. 

Happy with it? Yes.

Then it's time! Which leads us to our next question. 

Who do you send it to?

The answer to “Who” falls into three main groups.

1.  A Critique Group

Very early in my writing career, I read all of the Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton.

Side note: the novels are excellent, on a par with Fleming, and must never be confused with the silly, practically-unwatchable Dean Martin movies. Don’t believe me? He’s a singing spy.

In the novels, Matt Helm is a writer and when a young woman asks him to read her story he thinks, “Why do they do it? When I was starting out, I never asked for opinions from anybody who wasn’t in a position to buy the work.”2

That’s a bit extreme but you get the idea. Assuming you want feedback from other sources, the first is probably a critique group, other writers that share their work and comments.

I am not part of such a group at present, but my advice would be to choose carefully. Blanket approval is as useless as blanket criticism. If you are uncomfortable do not hesitate to leave the group. You can turn to . . . 

2. Beta Readers

Before my experience with my new book, I might well have said to choose carefully, but now I say widen the net of readers.

Other writers are your first source. They will look carefully at the story for characterization, plot holes, and ping-pong dialog. Now, about widening that net — try for some pure readers. They will look for different things and may well surprise you. Remember, they are your audience, not other professionals.

3.  Editors

The types of editors you might send to:

Editors you pay.

I use an editing group that is based in Great Britain. It’s not cheap, but for me it’s worth it. My particular editor is very good, likes my work, and provides detailed, insightful comments. The good news is that no feelings will be hurt over comments that you choose not to incorporate.

Then there is, of course, the cost, and the effort on your part. You need to very clearly explain the kind of edit you are looking for, and after the edits arrive you need to process them. 

An editor who is offering to buy the book.

Try to negotiate out of any changes you don’t like. If that fails, do it. For an example of this process, see the Introduction to the revised edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet (1949).3

The editor, a lady named Alice Dalgliesh, took exception to parts of the book, like girls carrying guns. "Girls don’t do that!"

Side note: my mother was a Heinlein contemporary who grew up on a farm in Texas and I assure you she could handle weapons.

And Ms. Dalgliesh didn’t like the weird alien sleeping in the hero’s bed.

Heinlein didn’t like it but he made the changes. A writer of his stature made changes that are to my mind poor at best. Nevertheless, Red Planet was published, was a success, and is still read today (in Heinlein’s original version in some editions).

Who the feedback is from can be important. Once upon a time, my cat threw up on a manuscript I was editing. What does he know?

So now you have the comments from those you submitted to. Hopefully, the wounds are not too deep and will provide material for interesting stories like Richard Dreyfuss and the moray eel. Hopefully, you are continuing with the project. The next question is...  

What do you do with those comments?

There are some suggestions I can make. 

When two or more readers say the same thing

Take it seriously.

Do you remember that sparkling, witty, back cover copy that my publisher sent out for comments? I think nine individuals responded with thoughtful edits. 

They hated it.

  • It was too long
  • It gave away too much of the story
  • It failed to communicate the nature of the book
  • It wasn’t interesting

(At this point I wondered if the McPherson Driveline Dynamometer that I wrote about extolling the virtues of so many years ago ever sold.)

The writing rule is this:

If more than one person says the same thing, you should probably do it. 

Examine the nature of the comment 

A real comment from a beta reader on my new book was, “I had to read this three times to be sure who was talking.” Yikes! That has to be fixed. If a reader says they don’t understand something — fix it!

Your writer's mind fills in blank spots. You know more about your characters, what they are doing, where they are standing in a particular scene, and why they act the way they do. That’s a problem I have in action scenes. I tend to know where everybody is and what they are doing and neglect to spell it out on paper.

And in the End . . .

We can now answer the question we started with. Who’s in charge? You are. It’s your story. If you feel a comment from anybody at any time, regardless of what it is, is wrong, it’s up to you. Make the change or don’t and take the consequences.

I hope these guidelines help. Good luck!

How many beta readers do you have? How do you deal with their comments? Do you use a paid editing service? Have you ever talked about a story at the concept stage and did it work? C’mon, we’re all in this together - please share your experience in the comments.

Notes

1 “Jaws” (1975) Steven Spielberg.

2 Donald Hamilton, Death of a Citizen, 1960.

3 Robert A. Heinlein, Red Planet. Look for the Baen edition that restores the parts his editor removed. I have also seen references to an essay called “Red Planet Blue Pencil” but I have not tracked down a copy. It apparently tells the whole story of the revisions.

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries and two historical novellas set in the swingin' sixties. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill, one of the historicals, "a historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten." The hat isRobicheaux's Dock & Bait Shop, New Iberia, LA. It was captured at Bouchercon Chicago.

 James' web page is www.jamesrpreston.com

Top image via Shutterstock.

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24 comments on “Who’s in Charge Of Your Story?”

  1. I have 2 critique partners, both published authors, who see each chapter as I finish writing it. We've been together about 15 years, and I value their feedback, but ultimately, as you say, it's MY book. I pay a professional editor to give me the final feedback. I don't use all of her suggestions, but we discuss anything I don't agree with.

    1. 15 years! That's great, Terry. And you let them read each chapter as you finish it. In my case nobody reads the work until it's "done." (As we all know there are varying definitions for that word.) Question: if you get a comment on Chapter 3 that requires a change to Chapter 1, do you do it immediately, or when the ms is complete? And do you send out the revised Chapter 1 to the readers again? In my case my readers were kind enough to go through the book twice. Thanks for sharing with us!

      1. I'd have to say "it depends" on when I make changes, but usually before I get more than 3 chapters behind. Unless there's a major plot change, we don't re-sub. It's easier to give feedback on chapters than have ask them to read 90,000 words, although one of my partners and I do swap the completed first draft, usually while our editors are doing their thing, to see what we might catch that the editors miss, and vice-versa. I try to have the ms fixed as I go, so yes, if a valid point is made about chapter 3 that contradicts something in chapter 1, I want ti fix it rather than worry about having to make changes in 30 chapters rather than 1. By the time I finish the first draft, it's more like a third draft.

        1. Thanks, Terry! That's a detailed, thoughtful response. I have struggled with that issue on the rare occasions when I have allowed someone to read a chapter before there's a full draft. I think you have helped the WITS community. If you are not familiar with her work, check out her page on Amazon Prime or her web page for book notes and blogs.

  2. Fantastic suggestions, James.

    I am a fan of critique groups, beta readers, as well as editors. Finding the right match can be tricky and sometimes the advice doesn't fit, but extra eyes-on is a good thing.

    1. You are so, so right, Ellen! I signed up for a creative Writing class at a local college because the professor was a contributor to a series of thrillers that I followed. Talk about not a match! They were 19-year-olds completing a GenEd requirement; I was a published writer.
      And on top of that he didn't care for my WIP. I'm glad you found good ones! About the comment from Terry Odell -- do you share a chapter at a time or the whole story?
      Thanks!

        1. Best of both worlds. Comments as you create, and another set of comments on the whole thing. I like it.

  3. I love a good critique group. Knowing I have people waiting makes me work faster and stretch further during that drafting stage. I consider that a major benefit!

    1. Well, that's true, about folks waiting for your work. When I was in a Creative Writing class it was a powerful motivator to see a draft as an assignment. How did you find your group, Jenny?

  4. I agree about not sharing a story concept with others too early. I've learned the hard way that this 'brainstorming out loud" can lead to a lot of negative feedback. Once the idea is really formed, getting that sniff test to your "what if" can be informative. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Hi, Miffie! Good to hear from you! Hmmm, a less-than-positive experience sharing a concept. Yeah, I hear you. In my case I want comments on the story, not the idea. The latter may change along the way. (Side Note: the one idea I did share is still with me and intact.) I like the "sniff test" term & will probably steal -- borrow -- it.
      Thanks!

  5. I have been a member of a critique group for almost ten years, and I have to say, it's been INVALUABLE! I get my story to the best I point I can and then they help me take it further.

    1. Hi, Jessica - Sounds like you have found a good group! So, when you say, "best point you can . . " it sounds like you have a draft that you are relatively satisfied with. Or do you talk concepts?
      Anyway, thanks!

    1. Rose, thank you. I'm glad you liked the post. I had a good time writing it, even though I had to think back to my Creative Writing class and the less-than-stellar reaction I had to it. One facet of this I wanted to emphasize was that it's vitally important to select your early readers carefully. Learn from my mistakes.
      Thanks again.

  6. Good post, James. I use a crit group, beta readers and professional editors. I guess I need all the help I can get. I usually share my story idea at the outset because I'm so excited about it, but I don't share pages with my crit group until I have pretty good chapter drafts done. With the book I just finished, I sent an early draft to a developmental editor to see if I was on the right track (this is my first fantasy). I incorporated a lot of what she said--filled in plot holes, characterization, arcs, better world building, etc. Worked for a few months more refining and poking, then sent a decent draft to a different prof. editor who gave me fantastic feedback, as well as a few beta readers. I incorporated almost everything she and the readers recommended. Continued to poke and fuss until finally I said enough and queried some publishers. I recently signed a contract and now, guess what? I await my first round of edits! Is this going to be my book, or the village's? I think I'll claim it.

    1. Barb, thanks for the excellent comment. You are correct -- it's your book. In the Acknowledgements to his novel Amazonia the bestselling author James Rollins thanks no less than twenty individuals before going on to say that any errors are his alone. (Side Note: if any of you want to study pacing take a look at any of his works. Wow! Sandstorm -- the first of the Sigma series -- is a great example and a good place to start.)

      Congratulations on the contract! Good luck, and we'll look for your name on the NY Times list. My only criticism of your comment is that you did not include the title of your novel. C'mon, it's never too early and the WITS readers will be glad to keep an eye out for it so we can say, "We knew her when."

        1. I like the title! And thanks for letting us be an early part of your promotional effort. Ok, folks, you heard it here first.

  7. A good post. When I do a critique, I always add a comment to the writer to remember it's their work and to ignore anything that they don't think is right.

    1. Whoa, good catch! I think that could be the subject of an entire essay. What V. M. Sang has pointed out is the obligation of the reviewer to make clear to the author and to understand that the final decision to implement a comment or skip it is up to the author. If you read something and suggest a change remember that it is just that -- a suggestion. Don't get your feelings hurt if it doesn't get implemented.
      Thanks, V. M.

    1. Wow, another possible topic, or at least something that we need to remember: the trust that has to exist between the writer and someone who reads a draft. After all, you are exposing part of yourself and the possibility exists for damage to a relationship. A long time ago I was asked to read a first draft of a a romance by a friend. I took the blue pencil to it just as I would have any other document and, in hindsight, I should have been kinder and I should have taken into account where the writer was in her development. We stayed friends, but she never asked me to read anything again.
      Thanks, Ms Holcomb.

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