The Only Creative Writing Feedback That Matters

My journey through publishing is a testament to the destructive power of other people's opinions.

Ten years ago, I foolishly set out on a journey to write a novel. I had a story in mind — one that excited me, with flawed, messy characters in an eerie little town haunted by ghosts. Inspired by my years of reading magic realism, fantasy, and dark romanticism, I put my life on hold to purge the voices from my head.

Even though I was a full-time student working towards a double major and paying my living expenses with meager earnings from three part time jobs, I couldn’t set aside the impulse to write. Some nights, I’d wake up at four in the morning and grope around the nightstand for my laptop. I’d plug away at the novel for hours, relentlessly, sometimes until dawn.

When I finally finished, exactly one year later, I had never been prouder. My other accomplishments paled in comparison to the joy and fulfillment I derived from finishing a novel. I printed it out and handed a copy to my mother — my biggest fan in every endeavor I pursued.

Oh, how naïve I was back then.

The Fall from Heaven is Steep

My mother never finished my book.

“It’s too fantastical,” she told me.

Fair enough, I thought. Magic realism wasn’t for everyone. On a youthful whim, I decided to pitch my novel to agents. I queried ten, maybe twenty, and received not a single response. In hindsight, I understand how foolish it was to think that I was ready, or that a dozen queries would yield anything but metaphorical crickets.

It was only after months of deafening silence that I decided I might need an editor. Since the gate-keeping in publishing is immense, the only option new authors have to get a sense of their work is to rely on freelance editors — a world which is so vast and varied in quality that it deserves a post of its own.

I vetted a few and wound up choosing the one that seemed most passionate about my project. She was so much more engaged than the others; she wanted to meet, to take notes on my goals and my vision of the novel. I was impressed by her dedication, and her hourly rate was reasonable.

But what followed was a nightmare I struggled to wake up from for five long years.

Hell is Other People

The manuscript I’d given this editor was not salvageable. The ethical choice for her would have been tell me the truth: that I had made a commendable effort, but the finished product would never yield the desired results. The book needed to be taken back to the drawing board and re-conceptualized from scratch. I needed to learn more about storytelling, no matter how good of a technical writer I was.

Unfortunately, she did not do this. Whether out of a misguided belief that we were on some collaborative journey together, or simply out of cold opportunism, this individual took advantage of my inexperience, my youth, and my aspirations. She began rewriting my work, using the template of my first draft to tell her own story. Whenever I objected to the changes she made to my manuscript, she wielded her professional opinion like a weapon to silence me.

Because I earned so little money, the process dragged out. It didn’t help that she too was financially unstable and relied on freelance work to get by. I don’t know how she managed this, but she’d succeeded in making me feel responsible for her survival. Several times I tried to end our not-so-professional relationship, and each time I walked away having failed, feeling guilt-ridden and crippled by shame.

Perhaps it was my upbringing. Perhaps it was my devastatingly low self-esteem, and the voice in the back of my head telling me that I was a bad person for abandoning a project that was keeping someone afloat.

Yet abuse can only go on for so long. Eventually, I ripped myself free, and it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. I had to block her on every form of communication imaginable, and I remember sitting in my apartment shaking like a leaf while I watched the voicemails rack up on my phone. As it turns out, you can block someone’s number, but not their ability to leave a voicemail.

Once the catharsis of konmari-ing this toxic relationship passed, I was hit by a wave of nausea that threw me right off my equilibrium. I stared at my manuscript and realized that it wasn’t actually mine. What I had with me was another person’s work — their story, their thoughts, their opinions — told by the ink of my pen. And that person was someone I hated.

I fell into despair when I realized I’d wasted five years paying someone to write their own book. My friends encouraged me to work with what I had; surely there was still some of me left in it.

I tried — I went through the manuscript line by line, deleting everything that reminded me of those five years. I rewrote most of the content, and when I was finished over a year later, I finally thought I had something that was my own.

(S)he Who Has a Why Can Bear Almost Any How

I began to query again, and immediately received a positive response from an agent in my own city. After reading the manuscript, he asked to meet. He told me that I had potential, and that with an overhaul, my manuscript could be great. Over the moon with joy and thinking that all my sacrifices had finally paid off, I began to incorporate the edits he suggested.

There was only one problem: he himself never read my edits. Instead they were given to his assistant — a girl younger than me and with a serious chip on shoulder. She took every opportunity to disparage my writing and offer her own suggestions for edits. I absorbed those as well, writing and re-writing in my attempts to make everyone happy.

After nearly a year of editing for this agent, his intern left, and my manuscript was thrown back into the slush pile. The agent ghosted me, and I was left with yet another manuscript I could barely recognize.

Now in the third year of my doctorate program — nearly eight years after I first began writing my novel— I felt utterly despondent. I still had a story I wanted to tell, yet no matter how hard I tried to humble myself and learn from those who supposedly knew better, I could not accomplish this one simple task.

I understood then that my problem wasn’t my unwillingness to learn; it was my lack of faith in my own abilities. Rather than telling my story the way I wanted to, I had allowed other people to write theirs through me. My book had become a grotesque amalgamation of three different people’s visions — none of which were mine.

When I realized how much I hated my own book, the world fell back into place. I didn’t have to work with it. I could just throw it out and start over. I could do what I had done eight years ago and enjoy it once again. And I could do it with far more skill, experience, and knowledge.

It took me eight months to write a new draft from scratch. It was monstrously long and had problems, but it was finally my own work. It was something I could be proud of again and seek to improve on my own terms.

The Perils of Subjectivity

I wish that were the end of it, but unfortunately, we are creatures of habit, and making the same mistake more than once is not uncommon. Although I’d been burned badly enough not to let anyone take advantage of me so blatantly again, I still struggled deciding what feedback to accept, and what to ignore. I began looking for beta readers — much less pricey than editors — and taking feedback where I could get it.

This process was immensely frustrating, because when I looked back at the feedback I received, it was almost entirely contradictory and unhelpful. One reader would love my vulgar protagonist. Another would find him so off-putting they’d put the book down. Some people found the magic realism enthralling and beautifully written; others would find it confusing and difficult to understand. There were some comments that truly shocked me — unanswered plot questions that I knew, for a fact, had been answered. It didn’t help that I’m a teacher in the humanities; when I see signs of bad reading comprehension, I’m tempted to dismiss a reader’s comments as the fault of their own incompetence.

Then again, what if the average reader does have poor comprehension? What if I’m just a poor storyteller? I tried including more nuance and less overt exposition, only to be told that I was too heavy-handed, and treating the reader as though they were dense.

No matter what I did, my readers would continue to thrust criticism upon criticism my way, until I realized I was doing exactly what I’d done before: writing for everyone but myself.

Only on rare occasions did I encounter feedback that actually made sense to me — that seemed thoughtful, engaged with the content I’d written, and took into consideration what I, as the author, may have been trying to convey.

I recently received three beta reading reports. Two were quite positive; both individuals immensely enjoyed the novel, but for entirely opposite reasons. This was new and eye-opening for me. Up until that point, I’d only received conflicting criticism. Now I was receiving conflicting praise — something I didn’t realize was possible. I’d assumed that if I did something right, people would agree on the qualities that made it so.

The third reader, however, was nightmarishly confused. They didn’t have a single positive thing to say about my manuscript, and instead reiterated their confusion over the course of three typed pages. Their comments lacked any semblance of self-reflexivity, and I balefully decided that they had agreed to read the wrong book.

Responses from agents and publishers have been equally contradictory. One fantasy press told me that my novel was “too light and fluffy,” while another called it “too dark”. Some agents have enjoyed the eerie atmosphere of the novel, while others feel I rely on it too much.

All of these experiences have led me to conclude that there are only two types of feedback that should matter to a writer:

1. The Kind that Resonates

I used to think I struggled accepting negative feedback. At times I would grow defensive and try to discredit the reader’s opinion, meanwhile convincing myself that everyone around me felt as the reader did: that my work was boring, too vulgar, confusing, or all together absurd. Comments that don’t resonate are confusing and irksome. Nonetheless, I tried to make space for them, only to find that they hardly ever improved my work.

The problem, I found, is that when you listen to feedback that doesn’t personally resonate, you end up writing content that doesn’t feel like your own. The only time it is worth implementing someone’s suggestion is if that suggestion excites you and makes you think, “That’ll make my story even better!” Only when someone’s suggestion lines up with your intent as an author should you give it serious consideration.

However, if someone thinks your protagonist is too vulgar when you had no intention of writing a Mary Poppins, there is no sense in changing your vision to appease their delicate sensibilities. If you’ve built an eerie, fantastical world because you want to channel Lovecraft or Poe, then there is no sense in grounding that world in something mundane just because your reader lacks the neural pathways to feel the uncanniness you’ve imbued in the text. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a creative writer is that the only feedback that matters is the feedback that brings your work closer to what you want it to be.

2. The Kind that Doesn’t Resonate, but Keeps Coming Back to Haunt You

This is the sort of advice people find difficult to accept. Sometimes, we’ll hear feedback we don’t like — comments that don’t resonate or suggestions we may not want to implement. We’re protective of what we’ve created, and we don’t want to see it change.

But when we hear a particular piece of feedback over and over again, it may be time to listen. For me, this was when I kept hearing that the first half of my novel was too slow. There was a lot happening, but because I was writing multiple POV magic realism, the main conflict needed quite a bit of set up. The result was that the first seventy or eighty pages were difficult to connect to a broader story, and even though I thought I was writing as tightly as I could, I was wrong.

The fix required quite a lot of brain storming, and a significant amount of cutting. At first, I was attached to the content being deleted, but once it was gone, I forgot that it had ever existed, because what I’d been left with was much more succinct and powerful.

Love is An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom

It is maddening to think that it took nearly a decade trying to write a novel that someone would find worth publishing. Although the journey has been filled with bitter experiences, and I feel sufficiently jaded even now, I don’t regret what I’ve been through. There are aspects of this journey I would have rather not experienced, but the sum total of it all is the only result I could have hoped for:

I’ve finally written my story. I’ve birthed characters I love and built a world I want to dream about when I go to sleep at night. I’ve expressed my inner life in a way that is finally authentic and meaningful to me. And if that isn’t enough to sustain my love of writing, then the oasis will wither, and I will perish alone in the desert.

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