by Hank Phillippi Ryan

The question for author Ben Mezrich came from an audience member high up in the amphitheater seating.

“What would be your advice for a beginning author?”

Ben (the author of The Accidental Billionaires which became the movie The Social Network and the new The Anti-Social Network which will soon be the movie Dumb Money)  thought about that, and then said: “You can write whatever you want, and that’s fine. But “writing what you want” may not be the point.  You need to think about whether anyone else would want to read it. You need to think about–will this SELL?”

And that brings up a dilemma every author has faced:  Whether to take someone else’s suggestions if they might put your book on the road to a sale.

Let’s agree that it’s always possible that someone other than you has a good idea. In fact, it’s likely, right?

On the other hand, your book is your book, and you want it to be the way you want it to be.

On the other hand, what if you were missing an opportunity to make your book better? Should you just do what the person says?

But what if you disagree with that? What if it’s not how you want the book to be at all?

Yes, but what if it’s a better book the way they think of it? Especially if  this is not a relative or dear pal giving us suggestions, this is a stone smart editor or a brilliant agent who knows their stuff. And they probably know more than we do, right?

But on the other hand…

And the bottom line is, we sit there, and look at the computer screen, absolutely baffled.

Because, and this is such a crazy question: How do we recognize a good idea? How do we recognize helpful and constructive suggestions?

Of course, there’s no easy answer, I regret to say, I wish there were.

But when deciding how to take constructive criticism, there is one critical element to remember. There are two parts to your work: the style and the craft.

And it’s instructive to remember which of those two categories your editor or beta-reader is critiquing.

Style is the more difficult one.

Look at all the marvelous original novels that have as many one-star reviews as they do five stars. People’s tastes are different, we know that, and frankly, we rely on it, don’t we?

And that taste is very personal. When I was a movie critic, years ago, I said in my very first review that I simply didn’t like westerns. And that I probably wouldn’t be reviewing any westerns, because I knew going in I wouldn’t enjoy them.

Same thing with reading. There are some books that we can pick up, open to page 1, and instantly think “no, that’s not for me.” Or  you read page 1 and think: I don’t like gory books. Funny books. Books with dialect. Books with unusual punctuation.  Books set in prehistoric times. It’s all a matter of taste.

So if someone says “Oh, gosh, your book is so violent, can you tone down the violence?” That can mean either your book is so grotesquely violent that no one will ever like it, or… that the particular reader’s taste does not lean that way.

If the beta-reader says  “Wow, I know this is supposed to be funny, but it is not funny to me. Could you make it funnier?” That could either mean well, you’re not very good at humor. Or it could mean–they don’t have the same sense of humor you do. Same with profanity. Same with sex. It might just be a matter of taste. Take the criticism for what it is: one person’s taste.

Important: If someone says: “This is offensive to me.” That might mean, yikes, you’re lucky to have such a wise friend, and you better check with other people sensitive or triggered by to the same issues. Or…it might be simply personal to them. (And even so, you might still want to change it.) In this case, you always say: “Tell me why.”

Might their style preferences  be applicable to other readers? Sure. And the more understanding your critiquer has of the marketplace and of the world, the more you might want to listen. But in the end, that’s your style decision.

(But remember what Ben said: Will it sell?)

On the other hand. In my opinion, craft is not a matter of taste.

“Craft” is the blueprint, the essentially technical blueprint, of how a novel must be. And even if you are going to break the usual craft rules–say, you decide not to have any chapters–you still need to understand that usually a book has chapters.

There has to be setting. There have to be characters. There has to be some sort of story –a reason to read the book. There has to be a style of punctuation that has continuity. And there has to be an unerringly perfect point of view.

So if an editor says: ” Your point of view is all over the place. You need to fix that.” The answer is not: “No I don’t, this is how I write.”
Your answer is:  “Thank you, great, I’m off to learn point of view.”

It’s a critiquer says: “I don’t know who your main character is,” you don’t say:  “I don’t care, that’s not how I write.”  You say “Thank you, great, I’m off to clarify.”

A good editor–not your best pal or a relative of course –is a knowledgeable person with deep understanding of not only writing but the publishing business. And someone who you trust to give advice that will make your book be a better book. Not their better book, but your better book.

When in doubt about style, keep an open mind. Nothing is set in stone until the book goes to press. So…try it another way. Do the pages  the way someone else suggests. See how you like it! Yes, it may be difficult, it may take a while, you may be frustrated at every turn. But who knows, at some point, you might realize —well, that was a good idea.

When in doubt about craft: fix it.

Every manuscript in progress–I’m pretty sure I’m safe in saying this–always needs editing. And truly, editing is the ball game. That’s where you tweak and polish and uncover themes and make your book shine. But keeping your style and proving your skill are two separate but intertwined elements.

Understanding that, and opening your heart and mind to knowledgeable commentary, can change your writing life.

What changes have your made to your manuscript as a result of someone’s good advice? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.  (And then, get writing.)

PS. I got the idea for this post after I read this one from Brian Andrews. Check it out.