It’s a rule of thumb that a writer needs to be very careful about acting in response to feedback. Sometimes the things people blurt back at you make you wonder whether they actually read what you wrote. Often, for every “Great Caesar’s Salad, this is the greatest prose since Franklin W. Dixon!” there’s an equal (and opposite), “Meh, didn’t really work for me.” The general thumbs up/thumbs down tally can be weighed for any review and they very often cancel each other out. Specific complaints can be more useful though.
They can also be much more frustrating. Among the comments I love to hate are:
“He wouldn’t do that!” My usual response (whether voiced or not) is “But he did. So either you don’t know him as well as you think you do, or there’s something about what he did that you don’t know, or have misinterpreted.” This is not to say that there aren’t careless writers who let their characters run amok with the plot, but acting “out of character” is in fact something people do, and it’s nearly always a result of something the observer doesn’t know about yet. And yes, of course there are people who are just a mess and whose behavior is all over the place, but they’re too hard to write about. So ponder hard before you rewrite because your heroine does something that shocks a reader or two. (Then again, if she shocks most or all of her readers, they may have a point). But she might have a very good explanation for it – follow her around a bit and see.
“This word/phrase/sentence from the narrator (assuming a third person voice) is inappropriate to the story.” Here my response is simpler: “Huh?” I get this one occasionally since my third person voice is often close to my own and detached from what might be expected from my characters. Sometimes it’s a fair cop, especially in first drafts, when I might be snarkier or more sarcastic than the story needs. I especially love it though when someone who has in the past commented that this or that piece of narration (again, speaking of third person here) seemed more “bookish” or highfalutin’ than the milieu in which the story is contained (beggin’ yer pahd’n), then pops in with “Oh, this bit of narration is too slangy or colloquial.” So, what’s a literary lad to do then? A side issue to this is the question “Where is it written that a third person narrative voice can’t have a personality? An attitude? A comment on the proceedings being described in the text?” The only thing prohibiting such is, in fact, fashion, and the personal taste of the reader. And fashion is the last refuge of writers without style, and there’s no accounting for taste.
“This is confusing.” Well… perhaps it is. Things sometimes are. Sometimes they work themselves out and all becomes clear, and sometimes they don’t. Life is like that, people are like that, and fiction can be like that. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anyone to be confused EXCEPT when I want them to be confused, so any pointing out of unintended ambiguity is welcome. But the “too many details,” “too many characters to remember,” “don’t show me the picture just tell me what happened,” are all indicators to me that this reader came onstage wearing the red shirt, and is not likely to be a long-term fan.
I’m thinking it’s time for a Free-For-All session about feedback.