Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Blame Game

As you may have read yesterday, I had a bit of a crisis where my editor came back and asked me to change the ending of one of my story segments. I spent a good part of the day pouting because it was one of the parts that I thought really worked.

But then I reminded myself that I am a professional writer, which means that I am NOT ALLOWED to fall back on that idea that if a reader doesn't think something works, then it must be the reader's fault. I'm sorry, but that thinking is for amateurs.

Let me repeat that, because I think it is a critical idea that separates good writers from bad:

If your reader doesn't understand something in your story, it is YOUR fault as the writer, not their fault as the reader.

If you reader doesn't think something works, it means you have failed to communicate motivation, action, something. Just to make things complicated, sometimes what a reader says doesn't work isn't always the problem. They just know something is wrong, but can't put their finger on it and may give vague feedback that doesn't always make sense. This is where having savvy critique partners (who are writers, not just readers) who can put it in the language of the craft is essential.

For example, a reader may say "I didn't like it when Jane jumped out of the car." What didn't your reader like? The action? The timing? What Jane said when she threw herself out? Your knee-jerk reaction might be "But I can't cut that scene! It's critical to the action!"

When the problem is verbalized by a writer, it becomes clearer. "I don't think you've clearly shown Jane's motivation to jump out the car." Suddenly, you know how to fix the problem -- no, wait -- you know how to make your story BETTER. Your reader was right.

Remember, this is not the blame game. You cannot blame the reader for your mistakes as a writer.

The good news is that if you can accept this truth, it shows that you are a good enough writer to identify and fix your issues.


  1. Oh, but the Little Darlings can cause problems. Even in published books. So many times I've read a passage and said Huh?

    Thank you for a timely reminder to fix the problem and get on with it!

  2. Oh man. You have me scared. I am learning soooo much from those of you who are ahead of me in the process. Thank you for sharing so openly! I will remember this advise. I do agree, too. Of course, we all have very different filters we see life through. One reader could add their own interpretations, as such, but I do agree with taking responsibility and trying to make it more clear. I wish you the best on your journey! Keep believing in yourself! :) Janelle

  3. very good point. I read a rule somewhere where if more than one reader said something was good/funny/confusing/etc., you needed to address it. But I'd say if only one reader has a problem, it *could* be a reader issue, yes? (see what I'm sayin?)

    good stuff! :o)

  4. *ehrm... if it's good/funny, LEAVE it! :D (provided that's what you were going for--lol!)

  5. When I drafted this, I did have a line in there about how it is almost always the writer's fault, because there are exceptions. Like non-readers of a genre dissing something that is essential to the genre (like adult fiction readers complaining about Twilight not be literature -- hello?!)

    And if only one reader comments on something, it might just be them (but still worth a look because they might be right.) That's why it is a good idea to have more than one critique partner.

  6. This is very timely for me right now. I just got some feedback from a potential agent that was hard to swallow. But if I want to be published this is what it takes.

    Thanks Jenna! Well said.

  7. Well said, Jenna. I think a prime example comes from the Twilight series ("Breaking Dawn"). When I first read the Bella was preggers, I was jerked right out of the Twilight world with "huh?". Meyers doesn't yet have Rowling's gift for giving us plot twists so cleverly that there was never one we hadn't been prepared for when we went back to reread the series. It made me wonder that no one had raised that with her because I know many fans of the series who were taken back by that.

    It's one of my questions I ask my beta readers. Did you buy it.

    Good luck with your rewrite! And thanks for sharing.

  8. Jumping off what LTM said, learning to discern which voices to heed is also an essential part of, as you call it, "going pro." As much as I agree it's amateurish to refuse to revise, one can also destroy a project by trying to contort the story to please everyone. Advice that makes your story coherent and more powerful is great, but beware of others foisting their stylistic preferences on you--and it takes time to discern when a critiquer is doing that.

  9. congratulations Matthew, and Jenna this is so true ah the joys of writing, nice post

  10. Matthew, sorry the feedback wasn't what you wanted to hear, but you should celebrate that you GOT FEEDBACK! Hooray!

    Laurel, I definitely agree. I've made that mistake, too, trying to change a story to please one person and it definitely hurt my project. I think the key is having the maturity/experience not to say "They just don't get me" and say instead "Why are they saying that and is there validity in it?".

  11. Hi Jenna,
    In my writing workshops, my mentors always remind us NOT to get too attached to our story. I've learned to dettach. If a character, scene, or dialogue is not working for my readers or editor, I axe it. If I don't listen to their feedback/comments then I won't learn. Great post!

  12. LOL I missed that post. But good for you in being the sensible, grown up professional writer! My philosophy? The editor knows best.

  13. I think it depends on who the reader is as well. I once had a reader that didn't understand anything. All my other readers (12 people) understood it and only her (1 person) didn't. I went with the majority.


  14. Well said. I've run into this problem in the past few weeks, when I let my sister read the first three chapters of my book. Essentially, she told me it "wasn't working," and that the product wasn't nearly as enticing as the picture I had painted when describing the story abstractly. Put me in a funk for a month, until I remembered that this is a rough draft, and she is a reader, not a writer. In the future, I'm going to wait to let people see a work until it is complete, and then take advice from people who can give me specifics. I guess my confidence is just too fragile otherwise!

  15. Hi Jenna, I think this is some of the best advice I've read in a long time. Sometimes I feel we forget about our readers - and really if we're writing just for ourselves then we wouldn't all be chasing a publishing deal. I read in another post that you should also have at least 12 of your friends read your story and critique and work their feedback into your edits.

    Well done you for getting on with it...after the pouting...thats allowed too, just not for too long. ;)

    Nice to meet you and thanks for following! ;)

  16. Yup, when someone says "They just don't get me" it does the writer, or artist, or those people who make those haaa-uuuuge cakes on that contest show, no good service. You're only hurting your manuscript/art/cake(laugh) and its chances of being Dang Good.

    That said, taking every bit of advice from everyone will have you running down the street screaming, so find a person or two you trust to read before sending to the editor, if you have time before deadlines, and if you are so inclined :-D

    I 99.9% of the time agree with my editor, but every so often I dig in my heels -but only when I really really feel strongly and know my ego is isn't speaking for me!

    Good post!

  17. Jenna, great post! I think it's hard not to have that reaction at first since our stories are our babies. In our mind, we know why Jane jumped when she did. But sometimes we don't take the readers all the way there with us so that they know. That is definitely our fault. Forget the customer always being right! The reader is always right!

  18. I'd have to agree with a lot of the comments. When a reader has an issue, I definitely think it is worth looking at. However, if you have a ton of others that have said nothing and that aren't confused, it very well might be the reader.

    It's best to get more than one opinion/critique. That's what's so great about my critique group. I get 5 awesome opinions, with all different types of comments. You are able to get the big picture of your mistakes.

  19. In my critique group three people had issues with how I wrote a scene. My MC had been running and when he burst into a clearing he stopped suddenly and jaw dropped at what he saw. I assumed the reader would fill in the 'stopping' part but apparently not. I still haven't gotten the rewrite working on that part, but obviously where I thought I could cut for flow was not where I should.

    New here - nice to meet you! :)

  20. definitely not a blame game. It's a guessing game: WHAT was it they didn't understand? HOW can I fix it? DOES it need fixing?

  21. Well-written.

    I recently let someone read the first 1/3 of my MS (basically everything I have so far) and I got some really good feedback. One of the things mentioned however was that one of my chapters was very confusing and the reader felt lost. I was like well you are supposed to feel lost and confused because the MC is lost and confused (internally) and it is a first person novel so you should feel what she does. The reader went back and read it again. It made much more sense for her the second time and she apologized to me. NOW, I didn't want an apology because I realized, that while you are supposed to be confused it shouldn't be THAT jarring or hard to understand and you shouldn't have to reread it in order to understand.

    It's very hard sometimes with readers who aren't writers because they can never pinpoint what it is exactly. All I needed to do was add a couple extra sentences in order it to not confuse on the first read. It took me ages to figure it out - why the second read worked but the first didn't - because there was no definite answer on where my improvements needed to be.

    I need to get some writer critique partners before I finish my MS or my edits will be even more painful then they have to be.

  22. These are all really great comments -- and I think one thing comes through loud and clear... you need a critique partner (actually, you need more than one). You need readers who understand the craft of writing so that they can communicate to you what isn't working and why. How you fix it, I'm afraid, is all up to you.

    Thanks everyone for visiting!