"I'm at a bit of a loss because [my critiquers] disagree so much about one particular section. [Some] love the section and say that that’s where things really start to pick up, while [others] say it drags."
"It makes it really hard to figure out if I really didn't make it clear, or their perception is off in some way."
My answer to both: collect more data.
I don't simply mean "seek more critiques," but also, collect more data about the critiquer. Everyone's opinion is valid insofar as the demographic they represent.
For example, I paid for a professional critique on my last draft. It was absolutely fantastic, and for the most part, I weigh Chris' opinion much more heavily than others, because:
- He has three extremely well-reviewed books out with Penguin and therefore has a more valid professional opinion about what will and won't sell in the traditional publishing industry than a random volunteer on the internet.
- I personally think he has a masterful command of the English language, in the same grandiose, archaic style I am fond of.
- I know he's a history buff (everyone who I've met working at Renaissance Faires is at least a little bit) so if I didn't make something clear, I can't say "well, that's cause you don't read historical fiction."
A perfect example of conflicting information and what I did with it is the varying reaction he and other critiquers have had to my prose. That is, the words I choose and the way I actually phrase things. Chris said it was almost boggling how some individual lines were so stunning and others were such honkers. He accurately identified a common habit of mid-level Faire performers such as myself: mixing Early Modern English (aka "Shakespearean" English) with modern colloquialism. This can be used purposefully - he does it to very good comedic end in his Faire act - but often, it's just a lazy actor saying nonsensical shit. I do it a little in my Faire act as well, but mostly I'm in the latter camp of "uncontrolled bad habit," and he made a point of singling out cases in my manuscript where I'd been grandiloquent in an obvious designed, rhythmic and appreciable way, versus where I'd just spewed some senseless anachronistic crap and never fixed it.
Incidentally, everyone one of the lines he picked out as stunning (with the advice "now make the whole book like this) has been HATED by about 5% of my other critiquers. And I mean all the same ones. If one person hates a line Chris loved... that same person will usually single out every other line Chris loved and hate them, too.
It's not a coincidence, I've realised, nor is it conflicting information. It's information about how readers have consistent preferences. Chris is a Shakespearean actor, and frankly, much better than me. He is extremely comfortable with grandiose sentence structure and archaic vocabulary, and can discern when it is or is not done well. The lines he loved were all convoluted 40+ word monsters, bent over backwards and tied in knots of metaphor like a goddamn Cirque du Soliel contortionist. Most had at least three clauses and several featured a cameo appearance by a semicolon.
Needless to say, readers who like contemporary minimalism HATE THAT SHIT.
Is that conflicting information? NOT AT ALL. Especially once I get enough of it, and take the time to dig into the critiquer's background and preferences. If the first and only critique I'd gotten was from a minimalist, and they'd destroyed my sentence-de-resistance, demanding I make it simpler, I would have shared in the frustration of "Is it ME, or do they just not get it?" With enough data, however, I can see the pattern. This is not to say I suggest burying your head under a pillow and throwing a tantrum about how SOMEDAY you will find someone who understands your artistry. It's a struggle to figure out the difference between laughing off bad advice and actually refusing to learn.
The question comes down to: to whom do you plan to sell it? Whom do you want to impress?
Find critiquers who represent that in some capacity, and that's whose advice to take.
I know that there are theatre and history nerds who go OMGWTFBBQ!!!!KFDJHJKDD over well-delivered Shakespeare with me. They are a large and rabid audience, and I've got a plenty high goal to try to impress them, without worrying about making any minimalists who wouldn't sit through "The Hollow Crown" with me happy. But the key thing is that I now know whom I am trying to impress. Whom I theoretically want to buy my book and rave over it. So I now know whose negative opinions I take the most seriously in terms of poor word choice and what constitutes a 'clean' and 'comprehensible' sentence.
You may need to find several groups of critiquers who care for different aspects of your work. with rare exceptions, I don't recommend latching onto only one good critiquer. There's a foil to all of Chris' value - he doesn't like romantic subplots. That's a bit of a mismatch when my whole book is like a historical soap opera about political manoeuvring, marriages and betrayal, "sit(ting) upon the ground and telling sad stories of the death of kings."
At one point, he said in the margin notes: "OH MY FUCKING GOD. I seriously don't give a shit about who he sleeps with." He said it during a scene that almost 90% of my other critiquers adored. One person, an English lit teacher and also highly qualified opinion, told me to hurry up and publish so he could incorporate the book into his curriculum on gender roles, feminism and sexuality.
Key difference? All of the people who liked that scene like love-triangle type plots.
Both types of feedback have been excellent, and it's what I recommend for everyone. Find multiple qualified critters to represent different facets of your target audience. They don't have to be Shakespearean actors and English lit teachers - people who would buy you genre count as "qualified" readers. My work straddles the line between fantasy and historical, and only by getting reviews from multiple people who read one genre but not the other have I been able to learn what goes over well with whom, and to which markets I should pitch the final product. They all had no special qualification other than being the kind of person who might possibly buy a book of that nature. Consumer research, if you will. Corporations spend millions on it all the time.
Almost every feeling of "I don't know which opinion to take!" can be solved by collecting more data.