Feedback on my writing is my favourite. No, really – it is. There’s positive feedback, which makes you feel warm and fuzzy and lets you know you’re on the right track with your work. Negative feedback can be good motivation to make you work harder. But what about when feedback from different sources contradicts each other?
Example A. The opening of my novel, The Princess Murders, a murder mystery.
As writers, we’re told the best way to get the attention of an agent or publisher is by having a knockout first chapter. I’ve reworked and rewritten my first few chapters so many times that I could recite them. I’d been feeling pretty good about them.
Simply put, this is what happens in the first few chapters:
- The main character (MC), a private detective, is conducting surveillance on a teacher who lives in her hometown. She hasn’t been back in seven years and returned specifically for this case.
- A reunion with the MC and her former school friends.
- The morning after the reunion, the MC wakes up to find a text message from her friend, who is upset with her about something she said at the reunion.
- Unable to contact her friend to apologise, MC goes to her house and is horrified to find that she has been murdered.
The opening scene where the MC is conducting surveillance establishes her life before the inciting incident, the murder. The murder triggers her to act – she has a new task, which is to solve the murder of her friend.
In the first draft stages, I received feedback from a mentor (a professional, published author) who said I should get to the reunion scene as soon as possible. To achieve this, I cut a fair chunk of out of the beginning, which was mostly the MC’s thoughts and feelings about seeing her old friends again.
Since then, I was twice shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, a competition judged on the appeal of your first chapter and synopsis. I viewed this shortlisting as a good sign that my opening chapter was not too terrible.
Earlier this year, an agent read my opening chapters and provided me with encouraging feedback, and requested to see the rest of my manuscript.
More recently, I did an online self-editing course. The feedback I received from the tutor (a professional, published author) was that the murder happened too late in the story. She said the murder should happen as close to the start of the book as possible. She questioned what happened in the first few chapters, assuming it involved the MC moving back to town to set up her agency, and concerned that this might be too much backstory.
However, the following week I had a meeting with a publisher/editor at a writer’s conference about my first chapter and synopsis. Her thoughts were quite the opposite. She said that the beginning of the novel felt too rushed. She suggested I slow it down and start the story by introducing the MC before she returns to her hometown. Perhaps a scene where she is trying to decide if she should return to her hometown, and her thoughts and feelings about that. Ultimately, the publisher/editor was not interested in my manuscript.
In summary, the professional advice I’ve received so far in regards to the structure of the opening of my novel are as follows:
- It starts in a good place.
- Needs to start later by bringing the murder closer to the start of the book. Don’t have too much backstory!
- Should start earlier so we can get to know the MC better before we see her in action. Needs more backstory.
It seems like everyone is telling me to do something different, resulting in much confusion. It would be easy to get annoyed and frustrated and wonder if I should give up on this manuscript and start something new. But if I did that, I wouldn’t learn anything.
And even though the advice is different, what if they’re actually all correct?
Obviously I can’t start the book in three different places at the same time. But what if I look at the reasoning behind each suggestion? For example, I’ve been saying the murder is the inciting incident, but what if it’s not? Maybe the MC returning to her hometown is the inciting incident. And the publisher/editor suggested adding a new scene because she didn’t feel a connection with the MC in the opening action sequences and couldn’t understand why she was doing what she was doing. Evidently something is missing that needs to be looked at and reworked.
In the meantime, I’ve engaged a professional editor to review my manuscript and offer some guidance. There could be some major changes ahead and I’ll talk about these changes more in my next blog post.
Have you ever had conflicting feedback? What did you do? Please let me know in the comments below.