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.

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