It’s time to call the novel doctor. But how do you know which one
to choose? In case you don’t know,
I’m rather experienced at this,
so here’s the inside track
The novel is finished, or at least as far as you can tell. It’s time for critiques. Your beta readers may be enough; if they have sound critical sense and the ability to tell you about your blind spots. But if you think you need more help, you might want to use a critique service or novel doctor.
There are hundreds out there, both individuals and large consultancies. How do you choose a good one?
Look at publishing credentials Go for someone who is a published writer, or an experienced fiction editor or a literary agent. Not only have they earned their spurs in the market, they understand writing from the inside, and how to guide you from raw idea to a presentable manuscript.
When you contact them, notice what questions they ask you A good writing critique service will ask you a lot of questions before they agree to take on your novel. The most important are style and genre. If you’re writing a metafictional experiment with a literary form, this needs totally different critical sensibilities from a rip-roaring thriller. Kids’ and YA novels require their own experienced editors.
No consultant will be able to handle every single genre. Reputable independent consultants may turn away half the clients who approach them because they do not feel they can do justice to all the novels they are offered. Bigger consultancies will probably have a variety of readers and should be able to match you with a reader who is suitable for your genre.
From this another thing should be clear. Make sure you can talk about your novel’s style and subject – which you may never have had to do before.
They may ask to see a synopsis. Don’t panic – this doesn’t have to be the polished one-page you’ll send to an agent. Just send a summary of the story, condensed as much as you can. We consultants know how hard it is for you to give an accurate flavour of your novel’s direction and style, so looking at a synopsis will help us see what’s important to you about the novel’s events.
Even if a synopsis isn’t asked for at this stage, do write one as your consultant will need it. Don’t worry about a character list or location maps – the synopsis is usually enough.
The consultant may make some preliminary suggestions I might say to a client, ‘if I were critiquing this I’d suggest you make the MC less passive’ or suchlike – to make sure the client is happy with the kind of feedback I would give. But as far as I’m concerned, nothing is outright wrong until I’ve seen how it works in the text. If you have deliberately made the MC passive, we can discuss your aims at this stage, to make sure I understand what you’re aiming for. Or you may decide I’m not the critic for you and wave bye-bye.
You might want to ask to see a sample report This will give you an idea of the kinds of comments you might get and whether you will relate to the way the critic phrases their explanations. If I supply these, I send just an excerpt, with the specifics anonymised. Good consultants should respect the confidentiality of their clients.
So that’s how to make up your mind about whether the consultant is right for you. Next, there are some nuts and bolts to establish.
Timescale We know you’re gnawing your nails, but don’t expect you’ll get it back the following week! The consultant needs to read your novel, give its strengths and weaknesses proper consideration – which takes time. Most services quote about six weeks, because a reader is rarely available immediately and has to finish other projects etc.
Expect it is not going to be cheap. A critique of a 100,000-word novel might easily cost you £800 (GBP) or more than US$1000. To read a novel and give a thorough, considered critique can easily take two weeks’ solid work.
However, many consultants will critique a portion of the novel on a pro rata basis, or a submission package (letter, synopsis and first 50 pages). These offer good value as the consultant can often identify your work’s major strengths and weaknesses and you can then use this to guide your revisions of the whole manuscript.
What a critique service can and can’t do
The second part of finding a satisfactory critique is in making sure you know what a consultant can and can’t do for you.
They should give you a detailed report, highlighting your novel’s weaknesses and strengths, with plenty of examples that explain how to make the best novel you can out of your material. Where you need to understand certain techniques, such as show not tell, they should provide you with clear illustrations. They might recommend other websites or books.
They don’t usually solve plot problems, do actual rewrites, or correct your spelling, missed apostrophes and grammar mistakes – although they might as an enhanced package.
Some critique services have links with agents and if your novel is good enough, they will give you a fast-track introduction. They often take a small percentage for this.
Find out what aftercare your package includes.
Of course, when your report arrives you’re bound to have questions. And although we try to sound as encouraging as possible, you’re bound to focus just on the criticisms and the recommendations to change and rewrite. Before you fire off a horrified email and tell us we’ve totally misunderstood you, let the comments settle. After a few days you’ll be able to see the good points that are highlighted as well as the bad, and then you’ll be able to formulate the questions you really need answering.
Bear in mind that when your novel is no longer so fresh in our minds it’s easier for us to answer a long email with lots of questions, than dribs and drabs every few days.
Assessing rewrites isn’t usually part of the package. Some consultants will offer this, or offer an email mentoring service where you can submit multiple rewrites and ask as many questions as you want for a set time period, for instance, a month. Usually, though, this is more expensive than a straightforward critique. And it’s debatable whether such a service is necessary. We can hold your hand for some of the process, but ultimately the person who will make your novel work is you. A good critique will give you the tools to do that and to improve the ones you write afterwards.
But most essential, no matter how much time has passed, when you get good news about your novel, don’t forget we’d love to know.
Have you any tips to pass on about choosing or using critique services? Have you had good or bad experiences, and what was good or bad about them? Share in the comments!