The Under Ground Writing Project

Making writers right since 2008.

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So You Think I Should Change My Setting, Characters, and Plot?

Posted by Shane on August 10, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Have you ever had a critique that seemed supremely unhelpful? Before you stab the offending reader in the parking lot (the only real benefit of which will be all that freed up time to write in jail), or throw the story in the trash, consider that the real problem might be one of translation. It's one thing for a reader to be able to identify an issue in a piece of writing; however, it's another thing entirely to always know the best way to fix a problem. Perhaps the reader didn't get engaged. Or perhaps the reader was genuinely confused. These are legitimate responses. And while their solution may be valid, it may not be best for that writer, or that piece of writing.


For example, if the critique on a particular story is that it doesn't explain enough, and there were pieces that didn't make sense, the reader might suggest adding more description, more pages, more words. I know I've said this almost verbatim in the past. Yet, when the writer looks back on that story, he or she should ask, "Are these details truly important to the story?" In some cases cutting can bring clarity to a work better than adding more.


Readers' reactions are often better taken as hints towards identifying real problems in a story, rather than as prescriptive answers on how to fix the story. It occurred to me recently that one of my critiques of a fellow writer had been far less helpful than I intended. In trying to articulate what was causing me problems in her story, I believe I pointed to how she should focus her rewrite. But what if I missed the point? What if the intention of the story was different than what I took away?


Even if I was off base, it should be helpful to a writer to see where I was focusing. If I’m not paying attention to what the writer wants me to pay attention, then that’s an issue that needs addressing. When I say, “Cut this part,” I am responding with my interpretation of what the piece should be. The section in question may need to be cut, but the writer needs to come to that conclusion because that decision serves the story, not because I told her to cut it.


Stories are like maps. Sure, maps allow us to get places, but they also have the ability to take you away from the known and to focus your attention on things you might not otherwise experience. If your only goal is to get to your destination, then a very utilitarian map may serve. But we rarely appreciate stories that follow this model. It’s like freeway driving: fast, but boring. So, we need stops to see that interesting rock formation, or to get a bite to eat at some unexpected dive with fabulous chili.


Ultimately, when I told the aforementioned writer that she should cut certain parts, what I was really saying was that her map had too many random stops, and that the final destination seemed too unclear. There were lots of elements to her story, but only some of them were grabbing my attention, and not all of them seemed to support one another. There’s a fine balance between a trip that is fast and boring, and one that makes you feel lost on random side streets.


Readers are naturally going to try and sort out the maps given them based on what they see. Writers have access to a lot more information about what went into making the map/story. Keeping this in mind might lessen some of the bristles I know I get when a reader tells me something I don’t like about mystory. A reader’s advice may be wrong, but it can still point a writer in the right direction.

Categories: Writing Groups, Advice

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