Drawing by Jamie Hansen.
When I started writing, I wanted to figure out for myself what I was missing and what I was doing wrong. I figured a good writer shouldn’t always need to rely on feedback from others to get the story right. Not that feedback isn’t extremely helpful, sometimes you really need outside objectivity. The problem was in relying too much on outside feedback.
How do you know when you have it right? You don’t always. And you won’t please everyone. If you try to, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your readers. The first key is to know what you are writing about and why you want to write it (which by the way develops and can change as you come to know your story better). Then when the story is finished, it will be the story you wanted to write.
The second key is to understand the audience you are writing to. John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Nelson DeMille, James Patterson–all understand who they are writing to and they write to that audience. James Patterson and John Grisham have more than one audience, although Grisham is sometimes criticized when he writes the stories he wants to write as opposed to the stories his audience has come to expect.
Finding “North” for your story is a matter of focusing and asking yourself repeatedly throughout the writing process:
What is this story about?
Who am I writing it for?
Why do I want to write this story?
At first your answers will be very general, but as you work on your story they should become clearer and more focused. As they become clearer, and as you go through the development stages, everything you write, everything the characters do will begin to have a purpose that makes the story tighter and should make it stronger.
When you are clear on what your story is about and why you are writing it, when you get feedback it will be easier to sort through the critiques and figure out what is based on bias, what is based on someone else’s direction for your story, and what is truly helpful. You’ll also see when you’ve missed the mark because others aren’t getting what you are trying to say.
Listen to the feedback you get, analyze whether there is a kernel of truth to it, or whether the person giving the critique is clear enough to be helpful. Then listen to your gut instinct. Does this critique improve your story or take you away from your true north?