I’m a great advocate of writers’ critique groups, either face to face or online, but every person you show your writing to will have a different opinion:
“I don’t understand X, could you unpack it a little more?”
“The opening is bogged down in too much detail.”
“I think you could develop the world a little more in the first few paragraphs.”
“I love the way the characters develop.”
“Your main character is two-dimensional.”
That doesn’t mean to say you have to ignore all those contradictory opinions, but it’s up to you to decide which ones to accept and which to reject.
Listen to good advice.
If you can find a good writing group, face-to-face or online, make use of it. This is especially important for writers working towards first time publication, or maybe for writers of short stories who are working towards novel publication. Make sure it’s the right kind of group. Are you looking for a general writers’ group or a genre specific one. (I’ve found that general writers’ groups don’t always work well for science fiction and fantasy, but your experience may vary.) Avoid those supportive social groups that exist to pat their members on the back. Look for a group that is composed of published writers and/or writers seriously working towards publication. Find a group that will dissect your stories, point out ways in which they could be made better. Paul Cornell said: ‘It’s your job as a writer to seek out the harshest criticism–and learn from it.’ That’s pretty good advice. (Though there is a difference between constructive critique and cruel criticism.)
It probably helps if you know your critique group. Fred always wants everything to roll past at breakneck speed. Suzie likes so much detail she’d prefer to read the world-building notes to the actual story. You can usually take on board all the comments and then find your own way through the maze that is your story. Balance what people say with your own common sense and your intuition and experience.
I have been very lucky to find, first, a small email critique group set up by a bunch of ten writers from the online usenet newsgroup rec.arts.SF.composition. That group nurtured me through the very early days of my writing, before I’d even sold one short story. Then, with only one short story sale to my credit, I was introduced to the Milford SF Writers’ Conference for published SF writers. Milford manifests annually as a week of face-to-face critiquing and workshopping in a rural haven in North Wales and I’ve been a regular since 1998 when I qualified to attend (with that first short story sale).The friends I made at Milford not only helped to improve my writing (critiquing teaches you as much if not more than being critiqued) but ultimately connected me with my publisher via a personal recommendation.
More recently a bunch of writers within reach of Yorkshire have formed a small critique group, Northwrite, which meets face to face once a quarter. Most of these writers are Milford alumni, so the set-up and standards are very similar. Both at Milford and Northwrite we encourage thorough, but constructive critique delivered supportively. It’s the writing that’s being critiqued and not the author. There’s no place for destructive critique, cruel comments or personal jibes
Trust your own Instincts
Always remember, however, that advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. It’s up to you as a writer to decide whether the advice you receive from other writers, readers, agents, editors and your mum is apposite for your story. I once cut a 190,000 word novel by almost half at the request of my first agent. I understand why she made that request because a 190,000 word manuscript is a very hard sell for a first time novelist, however I knew, deep down, that I’d thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Even though I had a finished novel at 115,000 words, I’d lost a lot of characterisation and world building. When I parted company from that agent (not over that specific issue, I hasten to add), I added back a few thousand words and ended up with a compromise at 123,000 words, which was the manuscript that eventually sold to DAW. However my very insightful editor at DAW, not frightened by large word-count novels, encouraged me to add more and more depth. I’ve ended up with a novel of 171,000 words and much of what I excised in that original surgical strike has gone back in, albeit in an altered form.
The Advice You are Obliged to Take
Despite the fact that my original agent’s advice (to cut my book) turned out to be ultimately wrong, I do advise that you listen to your agent. Her advice was in line with the perceived wisdom, that a first-time novelist will generally find it more difficult to sell a huge book. And, of course, though I did cut the book as requested, I kept the original version in the hopes that if the book did sell I would be able to add in at least some of what was removed in the subsequent editing process, and this proved to be the case.
It’s an agent’s job to sell your book and many hands-on agents will offer useful editorial advice to an unpublished but promising author. (It’s one of the things you need to ask a potential agent if that’s what you want, because some do offer editorial advice and some don’t.) My second agent helped tremendously with the book that actually (after we’d parted company) got me my first book deal.
At the next stage of the game, when your book is sold your editor is the person to listen to. An editor’s advice is based on extensive experience in the book trade. If your editor requests changes, suggests you need to spice up your opening or deepen your characters, or add more worldbuilding detail (or remove some of it), then you’d better take notice. If you have something that you fundamentally disagree on, then you might try to argue the toss, but don’t contest every little detail. Pick your battles. Having a good working relationship with your editor makes life easier for both of you. I’m extremely lucky in my editor at DAW. Her editorial comments haver always been spot on and I’ve had no battles to fight.
Remember that it’s an editor’s job to push you to deliver your best work and to make sure your book is as good as it can be. But at the end of the day it’s your book. Take all the advice you can at every stage of your career and learn from it, but write from the heart. Your story, your heart. Your name on the cover.