Yesterday I said that when readers tell us something is wrong in what we write, then by definition something is wrong and we have to listen. However, not everything readers say about our writing is true. How do we tell the difference?
What readers can’t do. Readers may be flawless at identifying problems, but they aren’t very good at identifying what caused the problems or how to fix them. If a reader tells you that a character’s behavior was unconvincing, it is a definite problem that needs to be fixed. If the reader goes on to say the problem is that the character’s back story has not been fully developed and you need to give a particular piece of information in a particular way, this suggestion gets a tentative “maybe.” Yes, there’s a problem, but why it’s a problem or what to do about it is not so clear.
I have to take a side step into cognitive psychology to explain what’s going on here. Most of our mental processes actually take place well outside of our conscious awareness. We know the end result of these processes, but not how those results were arrived at. This is so pervasive, cognitive psychologists call it the introspection illusion: the belief that we can look into our own heads and understand what’s going on in there. This illusion has been demonstrated in a number of scientific studies, but one that is especially relevant for authors involved the novel Rabbit, Run by John Updike. Researchers asked people to read a scene from the book that triggered a strong emotional response. Participants agreed on the emotion triggered by the scene, and consistently identified a specific passage, about a baby’s crib being very messy, as the primary source of their emotional response. The researchers then asked other people to read that same scene except with the key passage about the crib removed. What happened? These people reported the same emotional response as the original people. The original folks knew how the scene affected them, but they were wrong when they attributed it to the crib passage, since removing the passage did not change the response. They knew what they experienced, but not why. Readers are like that.
Here’s an example from my own current work in progress. I read the first chapter to a local writers’ group, including a section where my main character, who was about to run away from a scary situation, turned instead and walked into danger because another person was threatened. A few folks indicated that her change of heart didn’t ring true. The character had been established as someone who tends to run away from difficult things, and the primary feeling she had expressed to that point about the other individual was annoyance. Why suddenly decide to take such an unusual risk for someone she didn’t even like? They offered two suggestions for fixing the problem: show that the main character actually cares about the threatened person, or have her act impulsively,without thinking it through.
How to solve this problem? First, I took it for granted that the change of heart was not well motivated. (Remember, when readers point out a problem, the problem is real.) However, I worked on developing my own fix for the problem, not necessarily taking their suggestions. Instead, I asked a larger question: Do I really need for this change of heart to occur at all? I revised the scene so that my main character tried to escape but got dragged into the situation against her will. See what I did there? Instead of better motivating her change of heart, I got rid of it entirely. My readers told me faithfully what needed fixing, but I had to figure out how.
Readers are always right when they point out a problem, but you, the author, need to make your own reasoned decision about what caused the problem and how to fix it. Then you hand the revised material to new readers, who will find new problems. Repeat this process until no more problems are found (ha!) or until you decide that the remaining problems are inherent in the bones of the story and any fix will turn it into a different book.
Then you submit, and start on the next book. And when this one is published, remember to thank your readers.