Trust your instincts when you revise

Faced with conflicting feedback, what’s a writer to do? My answer is simple but not easy: Trust your instincts and be willing to revise your work.

My former agent Laurie Harper consults with authors to help them shape their books and their careers. She recently asked me a question: “What do you do if you get conflicting feedback from editors – or agents – about your work?”

Perhaps one editor loves the book’s opening but thinks the ending falls flat. The other’s feedback is exactly the reverse – she loves your ending – don’t you dare change a word – but the opening needs more work.

What is the beleaguered writer to do?

When faced with conflicting feedback from respected sources, the temptation is to knuckle under and do what you think the market wants, or “what will sell.”

Remember that anyone with an actual or potential economic interest in your work is no more objective – and likely less so – than Joe or Jane reader. My touchstones while writing Swimming with Maya were my writing partner and my writing group. I trust reader feedback. But even then, you may get conflicting responses.

This often happens in writing groups. One reader loves a character, another thinks the character is underdeveloped or just not likeable. What to do?

My answer: It depends. How far along are you in the project? If you are already on the second or third revision, but you think the feedback has merit, then I think it’s a good idea to listen. But sometimes we ask for feedback before we’re ready for it.

I’ve made the tragic mistake of showing someone my work way too early in the process, asking for critical feedback, and then when I get it – even if it’s valid – becoming so discouraged I drop the project.

This happened with my first attempt to write a screenplay version of Swimming with Maya. Making the transition from narrative nonfiction to film is daunting, especially when the work you’re trying to adapt is your own. In a film the “eye” of the camera describes the action, not the narrator as in a memoir. And films must take place in a very compressed time frame with rigid plot conventions. When I first attempted an adaptation in 2007, the learning curve was too steep.

But several months ago, I reconnected with the dream of making a movie out of my book. This time, instead of writing an entire screenplay, I decided to write a treatment, an 8 to 10 page summary of the film I envision. This is no easy task either, but at least it’s more manageable than a 120-page screenplay.

Sensibly, I took a course in treatment writing from Screenwriters University. My instructor, George Yanok, gave me honest but encouraging feedback. I’m still working on revising the treatment, particularly ironing out the opening scenes of the film, and George is still prodding me to compress further.

If I think a piece of feedback makes sense, even if I don’t totally agree, I’ll experiment by rewriting in a way that answers the question or overcomes the objection. In the process of revision, I often discover something new or not fully developed in the work.

That has been the case with the treatment. Going deeper into the main character’s motivation and character growth is causing me to make new decisions about the film’s opening. Thankfully, I also have a writing buddy, Karen, who was in a screenwriting class I took through the Writing Salon back in 2006. She’s been nudging me forward with ideas, structuring techniques, and encouraging words whenever I feel like giving up and retreating to the safety of what I know – writing memoir.

A wise person once said, “Writing is rewriting.” My willingness to revise and dive deeper into the work, helps me find buried treasure. The end product may not match the original feedback, but when I feel that inner “click,” I know I’m on the right path.

I have to remind myself that I’m never going to please everyone. Much of our response to a piece of writing is a matter of taste.

So be flexible enough to listen to feedback, respond in a way that improves the work, and then trust your inner voice to guide you.

Laurie gives her clients much the same advice, encouraging them to revise while staying true to their stories. Ultimately, the reader decides what’s good by seeing the story through her own lens, and filling in the gaps. That’s the magic of writing.