Here’s some feedback I’ve received from editors, agents, and marketing managers in response to my work over the years:
“This is just a jumble of words.”
“I think this suffers from a failure of the imagination.”
“This is sorta too emotional.”
One of the most difficult skills a writer must learn – whether writing novels, screenplays, marketing copy, or news articles – is how to receive, process, and incorporate editorial feedback.
By far, novelists have it the easiest, here. As the lead creative producer of a work, we can take or discard most editorial suggestions without losing our contracts (within limits. If you turn in something unpublishable, it’s an editor’s job to make it publishable). Those writing in other media are often held to account by several – or dozens! – of stakeholders, some of whose opinions matter more to the final outcome than others.
There is also a huge variance in the quality of editorial and stakeholder feedback. Sometimes you get notes that make it clear that the person making them was reading (or wants to read) an entirely different book than the one you’ve written.
So how do you determine which notes to take to heart, and which to ignore?
For me, it all comes back to understanding my novel and the story I want to tell. The feedback I get that gets me closer to refining and communicating that story is the feedback I take. The notes I get that that are clearly moving off into a direction that takes me away from the story I want to tell are the ones I toss.
Even professional novelists who’ve written multiple books for decades struggle with this issue. They argue with editors in the manuscript comments. They wring their hands over copyeditors who rewrite prose or remove whole plot lines.
I do none of these things. When someone makes a comment or suggestion, I take it or I reject it. It’s exceedingly rare that I feel the need to even justify my decision in a comment.
Once a novel is accepted for publication, you pretty much have to turn in something wildly unpublishable in order for the house to justify cancelling your contract. I remember the afterward of a science fiction novel where the author went on a rant about how much he hated his publisher and all of the problems they had caused during the editing and launch of his book. And, you know, they published it! This is not Hollywood. Once you’ve sold the work, it’s pretty well sold, and even if they cancel it for inhouse corporate reshuffling issues, there should be something in your contract to ensure you’ll still get paid.
Be confident in the story you’re telling.
My agent’s feedback is spot on in many cases, but I remember an instance where she said she wanted more politics early on in a book and I was like, “Nah, I want to get straight to the stuff that interests me.” It was only later, on re-read, that she said, “You were right. It didn’t need the politics.”
The politics wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. The story I wanted to tell was about two broken women taking control of their own autonomy and reinventing themselves into who they wanted to be. A whole chapter about world politics wouldn’t have added anything to that story.
Having a firm grasp on the shape of your book and your story is vital. Your work probably isn’t ready for deep feedback until you have this, because what inevitably happens is that if you don’t know what the book is, then every comment you get about it will send you spinning off into some new direction. And if you have multiple editors with multiple ideas about the book you’re writing, this can send you into a tailspin.
I had this issue early in my career with a short story I workshopped at Clarion West. When the group read the first draft, I got searing feedback about how it was too violent, offensive, unimaginative, and how the plot rambled. In obsessing over the negative feedback, I forgot all the positive feedback I’d gotten, about how the world was richly drawn and the characters were compelling. In the second draft of the story – having no idea what my story was actually about and not wanting to offend anyone – I stripped away everything even remotely violent or intense from the story, removing every single one of the hard edges.
This time the feedback was unanimous: this was a boring milquetoast story that didn’t appeal to a single person in class.
I’d fallen into the trap of reacting to every note, instead of picking and choosing only those that supported my core story – because I didn’t know what the story was about.
On an episode of the Ditch Diggers podcast with Mur Lafferty & Matt Wallace, author and screenwriter Margaret Dunlap shared an anecdote from screenwriter Drew Goddard, who adapted the novel The Martian for film. Goddard said that when he read The Martian he realized it was about “smart people helping each other.” So when adapting the novel into a screenplay he simply cut out everything that wasn’t supporting that story.
This is similar to what I recommend to novel writers: figure out what your story is about, and cut out anything that isn’t that – and add only bits that are in support of that story.
Discovering what your story is about may be easier said than done, of course. I know I have to write a significant number of words before I figure this out. But the moment I have it, the book becomes much easier to write, because I can apply this question to every scene: does this scene support the core emotional theme of the story I’m trying to tell?
When I first began to study writing, all everyone wanted to teach me was how to string sentences together. We’d talk about turns of phrase and metaphor and imagery. That’s all very well and good, but stringing together pretty sentences does not a story make. What makes a story is a series of interconnected events that force a protagonist to make tough emotional decisions that uncover who they really are and what they really want. There are many exceptions to this, but thinking about plot and character as interconnected instead of separate transformed the way that I viewed the heart of what makes a good story.
A good editor will work with you to refine your story so that everything that’s in it will support its emotional core, but again, that means ensuring you are both on the same page about what the story you’re trying to write is really about.
As writers, we receive a great deal of professional feedback about our work (and goodness knows a lot of not-so-professional “feedback”!), and learning what to address and what to discard is a much a skill as learning how to craft a sentence.
Understand the story you are trying to tell, however, and this process becomes much less anxiety-inducing. The clearer you are about the destination you want to arrive at, the easier it is to sift through all the different directions and suggestions you get from people along the way.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and the award-winning essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, Locus Award, BFA Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.
This article and more like it in the August 2021 issue of Locus.
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