The beauty of subjectivity

Last week, I posted about my lack of motivation to make changes to my work-in-progress The Big Smoke based on my beta readers’ feedback. I’m pleased to report that I spent quite a number of hours on the weekend reading through all of the feedback and deciding what to take on board.

I received feedback from seven beta readers and overall the comments were amazingly positive and encouraging. But one of the most fascinating things about the feedback was the huge variance in readers’ opinions. Each person enjoyed a different aspect of the plot, preferred different characters, and took something different from the story overall.

Here’s some of the feedback to show what you mean.

About Ceara’s story line

“There’s a lot going on in her story but you’ve set it all up well so it’s very believable and not at all difficult to follow.”

“Right now there are a lot of underlying plot threads, and I’m not sure how they contribute to the overall character arc.”

About Seb

“It seemed like you took a little while to settle comfortably into Seb. His first scene at the dam felt a little clunky and forced.”

“I really enjoyed the scene with Seb and his dad at the dam because it was so well described and well written. The reader gets a really good understanding of their relationship. Love it.”

“I enjoyed EVERY MOMENT of Seb’s narration. You did an amazing job narrating as Seb. He was witty, and very realistic.”

Who is your favourite character so far and why?

“I love Seb. He just seems so… tortured. Trying to be adult, but kind of sucking at it.”

“I like Ceara because I can relate to her.”

“Seb. He’s a bit of alright and I’m female so I should like the hero. He is a bit of an underdog and I’ll always barrack for an underdog.”

“This might surprise you, but Ceara by far.”

About a passage comparing two girls

“Wow, this is really good. Such an imaginatively descriptive passage.”

“Love this comparison.”

“I would cut this, it’s a little too insulting.”

Is there anything you would cut from what you’ve read so far?

“Not at all”

“Nope!”

“No, keep it all as it is.”

“I feel like some subplots need to be cut, and others expanded.”

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As you can see, there’s a LOT of varying opinions there. Originally, I found this really confusing. I mean, how was I supposed to know what changes to make if all of the feedback I got was conflicting? GAH!

But then I realized something: I was looking at it entirely the wrong way. The fact that everybody took something different from my story demonstrates that it’s complex and multi-layered (which I want it to be), and also shows that each person brought their individual perspective to the reading experience. And really, isn’t that one of the coolest parts about reading? i.e. finishing a book then discussing it – maybe even arguing about it – with friends who’ve read it too? That’s the beauty of the reading experience: the beauty of subjectivity. If everyone had the same taste and opinions, there wouldn’t be such an amazing variety of genres and plot lines out there for us to choose from. So really, if I only wanted one opinion, I should’ve only asked one person, and that wouldn’t have been nearly as enlightening in the long run.

And on another note, as I sifted through the feedback, I realised there was very little about the story that more than one reader didn’t like. Meaning, while most readers provided feedback about parts of the novel that didn’t totally blow them away, their criticisms didn’t overlap much (with one notable exception – corresponding dreams, anyone? ;)). So, looking at that from a positive angle, I think it means there’s very little about the story that completely doesn’t work – and that’s got to be a good thing, right?

While my beta readers may not have provided me with definitive solutions about what changes I need to make, they’ve definitely helped me see the novel in new ways and given me a multitude of suggestions to mull over.

So how will I decide what to take on board? Good old fashioned instinct. I’m going back to what I set out to achieve with this novel – if a suggestion helps me take it in that direction, then I’ll adopt it. If not, I’ll respectfully put the suggestion aside. I know I won’t please everyone with my final version, but what book does? And, really, as if we’d want that. Because that would take away the beauty of the individual reading experience: the beauty of subjectivity.

Your turn

Have you received contradictory feedback from beta readers? Or, have you read a book and had a completely different take on it than a friend? Please, regale me with your experiences! 🙂

15 Comments

Filed under Beta readers, Editing, Writing

15 Responses to The beauty of subjectivity

  1. I’d never thought to see contradicting critiques that way. I received a lot of different views on a project of mine and it was completely confusing, although I think one of the people might have been a little mean-spirited in their critique. After wondering and scratching my head for a long time, I had to get down to business and choose what advice to take and what advice to let go. It wasn’t easy, and I had to trust my own judgment. And that kind of sucked, actually, since I was hoping my betas would be the answer to all my questions!

    • I know exactly what you mean about hoping your betas will provide the answers! Eventually, like you said, you’ve just got to back yourself and follow your instincts. Fingers crossed it results in a good outcome for The Big Smoke!

  2. I admire your ability to think your way throughout this, Cally! I think all those conflicting comments might have sent me over the edge 🙂 You are looking at it exactly the right way, and I have learned something about how to approach novel feedback!

  3. I’ll be getting some beta reader feedback on my second novel very soon, and from the looks of it, I will have quite a bit to address. I’m looking forward to tackling that.

  4. Where did you find all of these Beta readers? Yes, yes, yes, I’ve had this experience. In the end, you just have to go with your gut.

    • A few of them are from my novel writers group and the others I got through this very blog. Was good having a combination of people I know personally and people I only know through the blogosphere. Also got feedback from Australians and Americans, which was also really interesting to see the differences that came through in that respect!

  5. Hi Cally! Yep, it gets tricky when we get conflicting feedback. I had 2 CPs totally disagree about a character in one of my stories. One LOVED her, another thought I should give her the ax. lol
    In the end, we just go with out gut and do what we feel is best. No way to please everyone, so we take the best of what we get and disregard the rest. It’s why there are so many agents out there… what one agent tosses aside, another one falls in love with… sure wish i could find the one who falls in love with it… we have to get thru the agent slush just like they have to get thru the ms slush. 😉

    • It’s an interesting experience, isn’t it? Sometimes it hard to know what your gut is telling you (apart from ‘feed me!’), but you get there eventually! What did you end up doing with your character – keep her or axe her?

      There are definitely a few points of feedback that I need to think long and hard about – because I agree they need to be addressed, but I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do that. Fun times… 🙂

  6. The Golden Eagle

    One of the interesting things about blogging is that I’ll read reviews of books I thought something in particular about, and find the reviewer is saying the total opposite. That certainly opens up your mind to how other people see things. 🙂

  7. That must have been so confusing! And you must have had a good laugh at some of the contradictory feedback. Especially:
    “Wow, this is really good. Such an imaginatively descriptive passage.”
    “Love this comparison.”
    “I would cut this, it’s a little too insulting.”
    Hehe 😉
    But well done for taking all of that and seeing the positive side of it. And good luck with your “instincts” in picking out the right things to change!

    • Thanks, Rachel! I did have a few giggles about the variety of feedback. In terms of following my instincts, it can be tricky to work out whether it’s my instincts telling me to leave something as is or whether it’s actually just that I can’t be bothered to change it. Hehehehe….

  8. paulinewiles

    Thanks for pointing me to this piece: I absolutely agree, that where opinions differ, the author’s instinct is our strongest ally.
    In my case, I think the feedback I’ve found least helpful / most hurtful is not from my beta readers, rather from those who’ve sampled only a couple of chapters, who would not normally gravitate to my kind of writing… In other words, they just don’t “get it” because this isn’t a genre they enjoy. I’m moving (gradually) to feeling okay with that and being able to let some of their unkind comments flow off my shoulders.
    I can feel my skin thickening daily!

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