CAN VOICE BE TAUGHT?

The commonly expressed notion that voice can't be taught raises a complex question about the role of a teacher in creative writing or other fields of endeavor. In my view, a teacher isn't just someone who imparts a set of rules that students can then follow to success. Certainly, that approach works for some things (and I use that approach to teach specific craft-based techniques) and for some vocations a teacher isn't really called upon to provide more. But voice is a critical component of fiction and to say "it can't be taught" is a dodge.

Let's think for a moment about the role of the teacher/mentor in myth. Joseph Campbell and other scholars in cultural anthropology, as well as philosopher-psychologists such as Carl Jung, have identified the archetype of the guide/mentor in quest stories and myths. The role of the mentor in quest stories isn't limited to teaching the hero specific technical skills needed to fulfill the quest. Though that may be involved, the mentor also helps the hero understand her true heroic nature, convincing her that she's destined or ready to fulfill the quest. In some stories, the mentor weighs in at key moments to offer more than advice.

A creative writing teacher should teach students specific technical skills, but should also serve as a guide to help the writer find within herself the components she'll need to complete her quest, and those components won't always be purely technical. Many of my lectures in workshop are intended to help writers connect with their subconscious, which is where most writers will find the answers to most of their deeper creative problems.

In one sense, the adage that you can't teach voice is correct. No one can impart voice to a writer in the same way one might a set of technical instructions. But a teacher should know how to listen, and what to listen for, and then to tell the writer where the voice sounds strong and true. This is much harder than it might appear at first glance. Rather than teaching voice, a teacher helps a writer identify her voice when she hears it, and then waits to see how the writer then develops that voice.

Backstory and the Reflective Pause

Writing backstory isn’t a sin. It’s part of the creative process. Writers at all levels of development often explore their story by writing reams of backstory. They learn about their their story by writing each character’s history in scenes that will never make the final cut, creating a comprehensive view of that character through time. The pages of a novel are the tip of the story’s iceberg, the writer having imagined a weighty mass of dramatic material supporting those few pages she decides make up the part of the story she shows. At some point, the writer must decide what part of the story she wants to show, and this then shapes the writer’s approach to how she uses backstory in the overall plot. Does this mean that the pages and pages of backstory a writer generates are doomed to be lost? Certainly, much of it sinks below the water line, supporting the primary plot but unseen by the reader. But some of it remains above the surface, in the form of backstory that gives the primary plot context and depth.

How can a writer determine when it’s dramatically effective to venture into a character’s backstory? The most certain way is to design the action to provide a dramatic prompt for the playing of that particular backstory at that specific time, and then to do what writers do best: tell a story. A writer can pen pages of backstory about a character, but if those pages aren’t prompted by the action, and the pages don’t tell a story, then the backstory will have little dramatic impact. A dramatic prompt gives the reader a reason to care about the backstory at that moment in the story or scene. A man in mourning sees a woman who looks from behind just like his dead wife, and this prompts a memory that’s key to the story. A woman being sexually harassed on the street remembers the last time a stranger called her a bitch, the surprised look on his face when he fell back onto the pavement, his nose broken. If the backstory is relevant to the action in the scene, then it’s more likely to work.

Another important technique is to explore backstory when the action in a scene or story pauses naturally. Stories have a pulse, or breathing pattern. At least, living stories do, and we want to write living stories. Writers can use this pattern to identify when to jaunt back to the past. Usually, something happens that creates a need in the character to remember, and then when the story rests for a moment, that memory dissolves/cuts into view. This technique avoids the problem of stopping the action to relate extended backstory, because the action is at rest for a moment, and the character’s need to remember something serves as the prompt to flow into the past. I call this concept the reflective pause, the moment for contemplation between bursts of action. In opera, the protagonist sings an aria during the reflective pause. In fiction, the character contemplates something from the past, something that serves the needs of the character in the primary story as it’s unfolding.

 

Never Borrow, Always Steal

This quote has been attributed to many different artists, from Igor Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso and who knows, Yogi Berra probably even said something like it once, in regard to base stealing. But T.S. Elliot was among the first to deliver more than a one-line quote. What does it mean, to steal? Here's how T.S. Elliot defines it: One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

The idea, then, is to transform the literary ideas you take from others into something completely new.

The Myth of Show Don't Tell

If you take enough writing courses you'll hear the phrase, "Show, don't tell." Most writers probably hear this phrase quoted as the gospel truth in the first course they take. The idea that stories are shown and not told is misleading. Stories are told. Stories are told and shown, shown and told, told and shown. Narration, either in the form of a visible or invisible narrator, tells the story, contextualizing the characters, settings, and dramatic issues, allowing the reader to understand what’s going on when dropped into a scene. The primary level of narrative is not the scene, it's narration. It's someone telling us a story that (most often) includes scenes of action, but isn't strictly limited to scenes of action. So first comes the telling, then the showing. Writers get into trouble when they tell scenes, rather than show them, and when they fail to find an engaging narrative voice for telling. 

The Art and Craft of Revision

When approaching the next draft of a novel, it's important to read and reread the manuscript until you develop a vision of how to move forward. We often become so deeply engrossed in writing the first draft that we lose sight of how the story is being perceived by readers. When writing a first draft, it's important not to preordain too much of the action, to let the characters move and speak with a life of their own. When writing a second/third draft, the writer often must take more control, consciously shaping the story toward a vision of what it needs to read like.

When approaching a revision, it’s important for the writer to "re-envision" the plot, characters, and story. One of the primary reasons first books fail is because the writer has welded her vision to a flawed first draft so solidly that she can't see how to make significant changes, or is afraid to make significant changes. When this happens, a writer fiddles with a sentence here, or tweaks a scene there, but never sees or understands how to address the story's problems. Sometimes it requires great courage to change a story in order to make it work, because the writer is so familiar and comfortable with the existing version that the idea of making significant changes, and all the work and uncertainty required, is terrifying. The writer is afraid of taking the story apart and then putting it back together, because even though they know the story doesn't work well enough to be published, they're comfortable with its flaws, and worry that they won't be able to put it together any more effectively. But they've learned how to write a book, so when they launch into the next story, they aren't welded to a flawed way of seeing story and characters, and carry the energy of the new into the project. 

Several writers have brought flawed first drafts to my workshops, and after rewriting and revising and rewriting again, have published those stories. Others have gone on to publish their next manuscript. Every writer is different.

Prologues

Agents and editors often skip prologues because they see them as being backstory. In effect, the writer is either handing you a manual you’ll need in order to understand the primary story, or hoping to convince you to wade through a slow first few chapters by force-fitting an action-packed scene at the start. If you feel a prologue helps you get into telling your story, go for it. If you feel the prologue helps the reader get into the story, go for it. A prologue is easy enough to cut out or add at a later date. The first chapter is the tough one to figure out because it’s the true start of the novel, the opening moment from which all future moments flow. But keep in mind that in most manuscripts a prologue is little more than a way to write backstory that can more effectively be woven into the forward-moving story that begins with chapter one.

And because prologues are rarely key to first act structure, the writer can move on after having written one, with no negative consequences further on in the action.

Martin Landau Talks About Creating Character

Much of what I write about for this blog and teach in my workshops grew directly and indirectly from my early studies in directing actors at UCLA Film School, with the wonderful Delia Salvi of the Actors' Studio as my mentor. Though I became a writer instead of a director, I learned from Delia how to approach creating honest and dynamic fictional characters. Delia and Martin Landau were good friends, and she spoke with great admiration about his talents as an actor and teacher. In recognition of his passing this week, I'm quoting a brief snippet of his 1990 interview with Terri Gross, on her show, Fresh Air.

LANDAU: It's what motivates you unconsciously that drives you on. Characters reveal things inadvertently, very often, not purposefully. No one walks into a crowded room at a cocktail party filled with strangers and says, hello, everybody, I'm embarrassed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LANDAU: You know, that's not something people do.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: Therefore, what you - what people in that condition are trying to do is trying to convince themselves they're relaxed and trying to appear relaxed to other people when, in fact, what's going on is contrary to that. So the actor has to create the degree of unrest and then try to cover it.

The Art of Literary Misdirection

Writing and magic involve many similar concepts, perhaps chief among them the concept of creative misdirection. The magician seeks to direct the audience's attention away from the spot where the sleight of hand is being performed. A joke makes the audience laugh at a critical moment, or the magician gestures broadly with his right hand while his left is working the magic. In writing, you want to distract, or misdirect, your reader away from the plot turn you're about to make. If the reader knows the plot turn long before it happens, the reader will be bored. Although this concept applies to all types of fiction, in fiction involving detection the writer points supicion away from the character who will eventually be shown to be guilty.

All scenes – and comic scenes in particular – rely on the concept of misdirection, of leading the character/reader to thinking one thing, only to let the action surprise them, leading to a reversal or a revelation.

Kurt Vonnegut Talks About Plot and Character

In my workshops and private consultations, I talk extensively about the idea that character is structure, and plot is what happens when characters pursue their objectives. When I was a young man I read everything Vonnegut wrote, then read it all again. As usual, he speaks about craft better than nearly anyone else, and does it with the simplicity of a master. Here's an excerpt from an interview he did with himself (!) in The Paris Review.

"I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time...When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are [and what they want].

And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade."

Empathy and Writing Comic Fiction

The comic's sense of empathy must be different from the writer of drama. Humor, and particularly satire, get most of its impact from a lack of sensitivity. Writers (and comics) get a high percentage of their laughs from direct or indirect insult. Sometimes the audience itself is the target of ridicule. How is this possible?

 The writer and the reader (or comic and audience) form a pact with each other. The writer/comic vows to be funny, yes, but implicit in that vow is a shared humanity that makes it okay to laugh at someone, or at one's own self. The writer/comic can insult everyone in the audience, but once it become cruel or mean, people stop laughing. Why? Because when the work has too much spite and malice, the material generates far more tension that it releases.

Don Rickles is a master of the comic insult. It's clear going to one of his shows that anyone can become his target. And that's the point. He doesn't pick on one type of person. He picks on everyone. We all laugh at ourselves and each other. No one is left out.

I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about a group of therapists who discovered that schizophrenics who didn't respond to personal interaction came out of their shells when watching Larry David's character in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Why? Because the character reacts to life in a way that they feel true for themselves, that they empathize with. "Boy, I do that all the time!" A common comment watching one of this shows. The character in this show is venal, self-centered, lacks empathy himself, and he's always getting into trouble because of these same qualities. People (not just schizophrenics, me too) laugh at the show because it reveals the worst in us in a way that we can empathize with and laugh at, releasing our tension. "Hey, Larry does it, he's even worse than I am, maybe I'm not so bad."

And I think being insulted by Don Rickles may have been one of the greatest compliments of all.

 

The Concept of Story Set Up and Dramatic Pay Off

The pattern of story set up followed by dramatic pay off is one of the chief engines of forward motion in a story, pulling the reader along for the ride. One of the components of this forward motion is the element of surprise, when a dramatic element placed earlier in the story returns to complicate or complete a later action. Think for a moment about Chekhov’s gun. Imagine that we see it on the wall in the first act, and then the moment the audience sees it, a character pulls it down from the wall and shoots someone. End of story. Chekhov’s gun can be used to demonstrate many dramatic principles, one of them being the importance of letting an element placed early in a story generate suspense under the surface, the reader subconsciously wondering if it’s going to mean anything, then to return to that element later, paying it off. Dramatic spacing generates more suspense, and greater eventual power, when the story turns sharply on the dramatic event that fulfills the set up. 

When you pay off a story element, include another set up in the pay off, or cut immediately to another set up. This propels the reader through the text because each set up creates a mystery that the reader wants to see solved. The reader gets pleasure from anticipating the answers to these questions. If you solve the mystery the moment it's posed, it gives little pleasure to the reader. 

The Unreliable Narrator

Stories with unreliable narrators operate on three levels of truth and deception:

1. What the narrator says about himself and the world around him;

2. What others say about the narrator and events that involve him;

3. What the action reveals about the narrator and truth of his perceptions.

This multi-dimensional approach to truth/deception is one of the reasons unreliable narrator stories are so interesting; they construct and deconstruct truth with the layered complexity of a good mystery, no matter what genre the story.

When we read a story, we make a decision to trust the writer and continue reading, or not to trust the writer and to stop reading. This does not mean that readers trust the character or the truth of the character’s narration. Readers trust that the story and characters will entertain them (intellectually and viscerally), while adhering to a set of rules that the writer has set for the narrative. If the rules the author sets for the narrative are consistently applied, and the work entertains, readers will be swept along, ripe for the surprising twists and turns the writer prepares for them.

The general concept, then, is to present the inconsistencies in the unreliable narrator's account with a rational explanation. Facts may be facts, but unreliable narrators are usually adept at spinning those facts to suit their stories. Readers will note the inconsistency but read on, and thus have a pleasurable aha moment when other characters and events reveal that reality is not what the narrator wants it to seem. Other characters might express views of events that contradict those of the narrator, and the events themselves might play out in a way that’s inconsistent with the narrator’s story.

For example, a narrator might present himself to be the innocent victim of speculation in his wife’s disappearance, a view that others don’t share, and that events as they develop don’t precisely support. For these revelations to work dramatically, the narrator must seem credible at the start, or at least compelling enough as a character for readers to suspend their sense of disbelief, and to be convinced, for a while, by the narrator’s version of the story. 

The Key Scene Approach to Outlining

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  E.L. Doctorow

Whether or not to outline a novel before writing it, or how much to outline before beginning, depends on the individual needs of the writer, and the story. In fiction, outlining is more common in plot-driven genres because of the complexities of the twists and turns required by the story. Some writers need to outline no matter what the genre, and some refuse to outline, even in plot-driven stories, preferring instead to let the subconscious plot the story as they write.

If you chose not to outline, I recommend meditating on three or more key scenes in the story early in the process of writing. The key scenes will usually contain the delivery of major turns in the plot. The first key scene will be the one that launches the dramatic action, the inciting incident. The second key scene will be the climax of the first set of dramatic implications of that inciting incident. The third key scene will be near the end, and this can be as vague as a feeling for where you want the characters to end. This approach gives writers a target (the next key scene) and a trajectory, while allowing the subconscious to move the plot. When you reach the second key scene, think about the next key scene that involves a major change in the characters/plot, then write toward that scene.

The Focal Points of Narrative Consciousness

One of the first issues to resolve in approaching an extended narrative is the focal points of story consciousness. The original story consciousness always resides outside the narrative, springing from the author writing the text. Some writers don't conceal this, presenting themselves as the teller of the tale, but most writers construct a fiction about who is telling the story, which we’ll call the primary story consciousness. The story is filtered through one or more of the characters, or being told by a witness to events, or being narrated by a central consciousness that knows all. Because events rise from this storytelling consciousness, it's important to figure out the source of the story at the very start. Begin by asking yourself who is telling the story. In first person narratives, the answer to this question is usually straightforward: the story is being told by the first person narrator. Third person narration is not as clear cut, springing from one or more characters; from a narrator who knows enough of the story to explore it but doesn’t know everything; or from a God-like narrator, who may be visible or invisible.

Once you’ve established who is telling the story, figure out the rules that the story consciousness must obey. The narration has access to the thoughts of this and that character, for example, but not those characters. The narrator knows the past but not the future. The narrator knows how everything will work out, or knows nothing. Define the limits of the narration and you'll see this eliminates problems with perspective shifts, because you'll build the range of narration into those first pages and not stray from that range for reasons of convenience.

The Scene is Over When Your Protagonist Cries II

Last night I watched the final episode of the first season of "True Detective" (I'm slow getting around to some things) and noticed that the creators of the program designed Matthew McConaughey's character to repress his emotions through the entire series, until the last scene, when he finally loses control and cries. The creators – and I'm counting Mr. McConaughey as chief among them – build the tension in the character to nearly unbearable levels, never allowing him to release it through tears or even rage, waiting until the character rises from the dead at the very end, having faced both evil and the void. They do not allow the character any easy tears. When he cries at the end, those tears are hard fought, and lead to catharsis for the character. "True Detective" is one of the best crime dramas I've watched in any form, and a great example of how to sustain tension in a character by repressing emotion, rather than venting it.

The Scene is Over WHEN YOUR PROTAGONIST Cries

The filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once conducted an interesting experiment. He cut together strips of film showing an old woman with various objects, then asked test subjects what they thought. When the image of a woman’s face cut to a loaf of bread, the subjects thought she was expressing hunger. When the image of her face cut to a picture of a dead child, the subjects said she was expressing grief. Her expression never shifted, but the interpretation changed with the accompanying image. In practical terms, this suggests that readers often interpret emotional reactions based on context. You don’t always need to show a character crying to suggest grief. If you show action, and that action is tragic, then the reader will assume that the character is in pain.

As a general rule, a scene is over once a character begins crying. Why? Because once a character cries, the scene can’t easily progress to a more intense emotional value. The writer has already played the peak emotion. The scene flounders because the fiftieth tear isn’t more meaningful than the first one. Remember, the task is to move your reader, and if the character is doing all the crying, it doesn’t leave much room for the reader to feel much except sorry.

Here’s another concept: you can keep scenes moving by encouraging your primary character to resist the pain, rather than by yielding to it. Why? Because resisting the pain creates tension within the character, and tension within the character creates tension in the scene. Yielding to the pain releases the tension in the character and in the scene.

If the character moves from tears to some specific action that's stronger than crying, then the scene doesn't have to be over at the first tear. For example, the character moves from crying to throwing things, or some other kind of violence. Rather than releasing the tension, the character’s tears build to the expression of a stronger action.

The same principle applies to sequences of scenes, though not as strictly. For example, if a character cries in the first scene of a sequence, what's left? If the character simply cries again, it won't turn the scene or sequence in a new direction. It simply repeats. And emotions that repeat without progression quickly become tiresome.

It's often more effective to build strong emotion in a character but not to release it at the first opportunity, because once you release it, you're faced with the law of diminishing returns; every time you return to play that same emotion, the effect on the reader will generally decrease if the level of emotion is the same. If you want your character to cry, then you must build to it, and realize that once that character cries, then either the character must progress to a stronger emotion, or the scene/sequence has effectively peaked.

DOES STUDYING AN ART FORM IMPROVE ITS PRACTICE?

"I was told that if I didn’t learn technique, I would be in trouble later on when the inspiration had gone and the technique was needed to compensate. If I hadn’t learned that in time, I would not now be able to outline a structure in advance." – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paris Review Interview

A student of mine recently articulated in workshop one of the central dilemmas of a creative writing pedagogy, or any arts pedagogy: Does the conscious study of an art form contribute to the improvement of  a largely subconscious creative process? It seems clear that the study of concepts underlying dramatic composition will not necessary lead a writer to penning a brilliant novel. It also seems clear to me that the conscious mind is capable of paralyzing the subconscious mind for extended periods of time, if the writer is not aware of its sometimes dictatorial powers.

I believe in the primacy of the subconscious mind when writing. Robert Olen Butler notes that you can't think your way to great novel, or even a particularly good one. Only the subconscious mind is capable of making the indirect connections that surprise, so necessary to literary composition. If you find that the process of studying creative writing interferes with your subconscious creative process, then put aside your studies for a time and just write.

The study of dramatic structure is most effective when a writer internalizes the concepts and then mostly forgets them when writing a first draft. Don't think too much when composing fiction. Instead, find your writing zone and lose yourself in the delight of creating worlds. The next day, review what you wrote the day before, and apply some of the concepts you’ve been studying. The first draft belongs mostly to the subconscious. In revisions, the lead in the pas-de-deux between the conscious and subconscious minds shifts to the editorial mind. Much of what you consciously learn will help you to become a better editor. Writers need good editors, and the study of literary and dramatic construction helps a writer become her own best editor. 

Method Writing and Sense Memory

Scientists recently staged an experiment that recorded individual brain cells in the process of remembering a specific event, revealing not just where experiences are stored, but how the brain recreates them in memory. In the experiment, scientists recorded the brain activity of subjects who watched a series of film clips, and then asked them questions about what they’d seen. In each case, the neurons that showed activity when a particular film clip played fired again when researchers asked the subject to remember the clip. The memory of an event, then, is stored in the same cells that first experienced that event. Though summary memory most likely follows a different mechanism, encapsulating the rich panoply of sensory details under a headline (“Bitten by a Dog,” for example), the neurological link between experiencing an event and the brain’s memory of the event is firmly established: Direct memory is stored in the same brain cells that experience the event.

For the writer, the implication is clear. Memory is neurologically linked to the actual experience of the event. A writer can exploit this neurological link through the technique of sense memory, unlocking place details about a past event, and visceral emotions that can animate your characters. Sense memory can help you recapture direct experience, from the color of the sky when you first glimpsed the ocean to the sensation of the first ocean breeze that brushed across your face.

Once you drill closer to the original memory, you’ll likely notice emotions that you thought you’d lost long ago. That emotional memory will help you connect with characters experiencing a similar emotion. A writer who imbues her characters with genuine emotion will generally avoid stereotype and cliché because she’s writing from her own emotional center, rather than from a stale idea. If, for example, you’re writing about a character who has just come face to face with a velociraptor, you don’t have to fall back on abstraction and summary with lines like, “John was terrified by the long fangs and slashing claws of the beast.” Instead, settle into your place of writing, close your eyes, and let your mind relax. Don’t think about anything for a few minutes. Imagine you’re on a raft in the middle of a warm pool, if that helps you relax. Then let your mind drift toward that time when, as a nine year old child, you came face to face with the neighbor’s growling dog. Don’t think in words. Don’t think at all.

Your first emotional memory will probably be a summary of the event, such as, “Wow, was I scared.” Most memories are filed under summaries like this, similar to a headline. Summary memories are the way you learned to tell the story of an event. It’s not direct memory. Move past this summary memory. Look at the ground where you were standing when you first faced the dog. What did it look like? Move your eye from side to side. Where are you? Is it cloudy or sunny? What does the day smell like? Can you hear anything? Now, what does the dog look like?

This isn’t a precise script for accessing affective memory. Instead, use it as a guide to get deep inside your memories and improvise as necessary. When you remember what you were feeling as you were watching the dog, you should be fully in the moment, and the memory should resonate with rich emotional and physical detail. You’ve just remembered, with clarity, what it’s like to face a creature capable of ripping out your throat. Use the emotions you’ve uncovered to write the scene from the perspective of the character experiencing the same emotion.

When using sense memory, remember that if you can’t see, smell, hear, taste, feel, or touch it, you’re probably in abstract memory and haven’t gone deeply enough.

 

Coping with Critiques from Readers

It's easy to feel overwhelmed after a critique. We write a story feeling that we've communicated something vital, hoping that readers will connect with every word that we've written. When we discover that readers are confused, or that they’re less than enthusiastic about the work we've submitted, despair often follows. This is normal. I can't recall ever feeling particularly good about any critique I've ever received. I'll fight the critique in my head. I’ll question the judgment of the person who delivered it. Then, after a couple of days, I'll realize that the story I want to tell may still be powerful, but that my mastery of the craft has failed.

If readers aren't following, it's because you haven't led them. Every now and then you encounter a reader who won't be led, but most often, readers want to be led through a good story. If they aren't following, it's because you haven't yet discovered the way to lead them. Our primary responsibility is to guide readers through the complex world of our story. We do this by finding the right word/sentence/detail at the right time, the right path through the woods of story. Sometimes, we know exactly how to guide the reader; other times, it takes trial and error. Don't despair over the trial and error part; it's the nature of the process.

When reading the comments readers have penned about your story, it's important to remember that you don't need to act on every criticism or suggestion. Look for common threads in the comments. You've probably noticed (tearing your hair, screaming, banging your head against your desk) that some of the comments contradict each other. This is when paying attention to consensus helps. If a couple of readers object to something, it's a good idea to take a serious look at it.

Remember, however, that the changes you make don't have to be the ones the readers recommend. Often, when an editor tells me a particular scene isn't working, I'll decide that the problem isn't in the scene but in the setup to the scene, which happened a few pages earlier. Sometimes readers will make comments about your work that might apply to what they want to see developed in future chapters, not in the chapters you've just presented. For example, someone might complain that they don't know enough about one of your secondary characters. This doesn't mean you should stop the scene to drop in a detailed passage of back story about that character. Instead, you might insert the character in an earlier scene, or focus on developing that character a little more in a subsequent scene.

You will find that some readers know what you're trying to do and are helpful to your efforts to get there. Those are YOUR readers. Remember though, not all readers are your readers. Give serious consideration to those whose comments make sense to you, and put the rest aside.