Disclaimer: Guidance for writing fiction is tricky. All of it is situational; it is contextual to whatever writing the giver of the guidance had in mind at the moment. It is not science that can be applied across every patient. It is true that for every bit of guidance, there are a dozen examples that fly in the face of it.
Following the Tim O’Brien reading at Butler earlier this month, I was standing in a huddle with several other writers. One of them teaches creative writing and he was talking about one of his current classes. In doing so he told us a bit of guidance he gives them. I found the bit especially helpful and have been noodling on it ever since. There are two parts to the guidance. Here it is:
“If one of your readers says there is something wrong with your writing, they are always right.
If they tell you how to fix it, they are always wrong. Deconstruct what bothered them and fix it yourself.”
Assuming you have chosen your readers with some wisdom and criteria in mind*, you must trust them. They are an asset. They are your customer. This takes humility and a desire to collaborate. It is the turn where the writing stops and the focus group begins. If one of your readers says there is something wrong with your writing, then there is. Something has caused your reader to stop, and not only stop, but make the effort to tell you about it.
Listen to them. Ask questions for clarification. But once you receive the concern, once you understand what caused them to stumble, you are done. The purpose of the conversation has been served. Be thankful and stop listening.
While you were not qualified – were arguably incapable – of seeing what needed to be fixed, you are the only person on the planet qualified to fix it. They will tell you what you “should” do. They will be full of ideas. And if there are several of your readers in the room, they will feed off each other and create all manner of options for you. Know this: They will not hit on the best fix. They are not the author. They are smart and wonderful people, but they simply don’t know the piece as well as you. They don’t have the vision. The fix is up to you.
*Your readers should not be just someone who is willing to read. These people should be folks who read a lot and who understand what makes good writing good. Optimally, your reader understands at a high level what you are trying to do with the piece they are critiquing for you.