Posts Tagged critiques
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member Jon Duffy.
Here’s a glimpse of the green room before we went on air, with thoughtful shuffling of notes.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.
As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included atmospheric writing that doesn’t go anywhere, a character who seemed in the wrong age group, a voice that might be confusing the reader, a curious choice of second person for the narrator, obvious and unnecessary dumping of information, what voice is, what resonance is, and how to navigate the huge range of writing advice that’s now available.
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
I thoroughly enjoy the final stages of writing a critique for an author client. I’ve digested their novel, I know what’s ticking nicely and what isn’t. It’s even more exciting when I know they have the skill, the insight, the ear for language and the sensitivity for story and character. That if they solve the remaining problems, their novel will really set sail.
But often I know I’m going to get an email telling me, probably at great length, that I’m wrong. That the novel doesn’t need any more work. Even, wanting me to change my mind and agree with them.
I’m not talking about changes to make a work more commercial. I don’t tend to suggest those anyway; they are usually as much about fashion as craft. A novel takes so long to get right that by the time you submit it, boy wizards, time travel, vampires and vector botany will all be gone to the pulping machine in the sky. Yes, even vector botany, which as far as I know hasn’t happened yet.
And I’m not talking about perfectly understandable disappointment or sensitivity. While I’m always honest, I’m never brutal. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have heartfelt stories raked over. I get notes from agents and editors too.
And of course I check before I accept a client that I understand their aims as a writer, so I don’t give advice that’s way off kilter.
What I am talking about is a vibe from the client that makes me certain that when they open my report they’re going to shoot the messenger – with both barrels.
Now, though, I’ve learned to spot them, so I test them with the following questions.
1 – Have you allowed time for rewrites?
Often the writer is angry with me because they thought the book was fit to submit, give or take a few light edits. Or that they could hit self-publish.
The second question is more complex.
2 – Is your book based on traumatic events that happened to you?
Some people start writing a novel as therapy. That can be a recipe for a self-indulgent, unreadable book. But many writers produce works of astounding power from their own traumas.
If they have unresolved issues with some of the subject matter, or the rotters they are writing about, it often comes across as flaws in the book. I quite often find passages where the writer still needs to unravel more, to step back and examine. There are places that are stridently defensive, or characters who are treated with jarring harshness, whereas elsewhere the reader is allowed to make up their mind whether they like someone or approve of their behaviour. (I’m not saying this never works, indeed such blindness and fury can be heartbreaking. And if it is, I leave well alone…)
If a client is writing about personal traumas, I warn them that, in acting as the book’s advocate, I may make some criticisms that could touch a nerve. But I’m doing what they asked for, to help them make the book as good as it deserves to be.
Before you give a manuscript to a professional editor, obviously try to finish it and polish. But – here’s the conundrum – expect it probably isn’t finished at all. In particular, don’t make a deadline for sending it out afterwards. Expect that you might need to take a good few months to tweak, re-evaluate and rewrite.
When you ask for an editor’s help, they want you to write the best book you can. Allow the space and time to do that, mentally, temporally, physically and emotionally.
(Thank you, Bedford Street, for the picture)
Have you used editors? Do you offer this service yourself? Share your experiences in the comments!
Is your new year resolution to write your novel? Perhaps you’ve vowed to dust off your NaNoWriMo experiment and finish it properly, or to do justice to the idea you started a while ago and had to put aside. If so, I have something for you! Roxanne McHenry of Unruly Guides to epublishing invited me on their podcast show recently, and asked me for my advice on drafting, revising and seeking feedback.
In this podcast you can get advice on:
- planning your novel and filling in the plot holes
- revising your manuscript effectively and thoroughly
- keeping your motivation
- solving problems in your story
- finding a critique group that’s right for you
- when – and whether to hire a profesional editor – and how to find one who is a good fit for you.
Here’s a sample of our discussion: ‘If you’re going to go along to a critique group, take along a short story, where you don’t mind what they say, and just see how they deal with your writing before you unleash the novel that really matters.’
You can listen to or download the whole podcast here – hope to see you there!
First of all, apologies for this post being so late. We’ve had massive internet blackout chez Morris and no joy from the online help people. This post is being brought to you from a thin-walled internet cafe under a gurgly bathroom in which a gentleman appears to be having a very productive cough. But, like him, I feel so good to get it out at last.
Anyway, on with the post. I’ve had a great question from Tara Benwell: How do you know when to stop editing your novel, especially when you hear different advice from different editors and readers?
Novel-writing must be the ultimate artform for editors and perfectionists. Unlike painting, where too much tinkering might turn a strong piece to mush, most books – fiction or non-fiction – only get better with repeated attention.
Indeed, getting a novel right is such a complex job you could edit for ever and some writers would if the writing universe would let them. So how do we tell when it’s safe to stop tweaking?
Is it your first?
If it’s your first novel, it’s particularly hard to know when to stop. Your first novel is the book that teaches you to write. Baby steps turn to giant leaps and by the time you have a polished draft you’re eager to see if it’s a contender. But many first-time writers query before the manuscript is really ready.
If you have edited until you can’t think of anything more to do, and you feel the story is sharp and sparkling, don’t send it to an agent or publisher. Give it to a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be an industry professional, but it does have to be someone whose literary judgement you trust and who will give you an honest opinion. Then digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off and edit again.
Time to stop being solitary
Writing is primarily a solitary activity – at least while we’re doing it. But all the writers I know reach a point where they need feedback from their trusted readers. Finishing is something we all have trouble with and no writer I know can do it without help.
Tara’s obviously gone through these stages and has discovered a new joy in critical feedback – conflicting suggestions. Make it a thriller, no, make it a romantic suspense. Make chapter seven the prologue; no, get rid of all that material in chapter 7. Put the parrot centre stage; no, get rid of the infernal parrot. There’s clearly something wrong in the manuscript, but which advice do you follow?
To make sense of conflicting advice, you have to delve a little deeper into your critics’ expectations. What kind of book did they think they were reading? Is it what they usually like to read? Were they comparing it to one that is already on the market? If you know that, you can see why they made their suggestions – and can decide if that is the way you want your book to go.
Conflicting advice from agents and publishers
Sometimes this kind of feedback comes from agents or publishers. As above, this might indicate there is a flaw that needs fixing – in which case, work out which advice fits best with the kind of book you want to write. But wildly conflicting advice might also be an indication that the publisher wants to slot it into a spot in the market that it doesn’t yet fit. Your book may be perfectly good as it is, but these days a quality book doesn’t automatically earn a deal.
So should you make those changes? It’s worth considering if there is a guarantee that they will publish – but there isn’t always and you could do all that work for nothing. Should you carry on looking for a home where your book fits better? After all, fashions change. Every case is different and it’s a tough call.
Great novels aren’t finished, they’re pushed out of the nest
I’m going to let you in on a secret. None of us published writers ever think we’ve finished our novels. Allow any of us to pick up our work again six months after finishing and we’ll find things to change, think of better ways to skin the cat or save it. We’ll read favourite passages and suck our teeth. Editing is kind of anxiety habit for not doing it all perfectly the first time. We all have a feeling that we could do this novel just a teensy bit better with one more pass.
But at some stage the sand runs out of the hourglass, the imperfections we notice get smaller and smaller, our inner circle of readers are happy and we push it nervously out of the nest.
Finished is a relative term
And then there are degrees of finished. When the manuscript reaches an agent or publishing house, it comes back with queries and notes. Just like your beta readers, your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible – and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one.
In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.
If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?
There are people who refine the same book for ever, but maybe they’re not doing any good. Perhaps they’re polishing so far it’s down to the bare metal. Or they’re constantly reinventing their style by redoing the same story when they should start a new one.
As writers we’re learning and changing all the time. If I’d started my current WIP five years ago I wouldn’t do it the way I’m doing it now. We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. Some tricks and devices I thought were smart five years ago I wouldn’t use now. To me they’re obvious, although readers may not mind them at all. They only matter to me as I develop my art. I’m not interested in the same themes, problems and types of character as I was half a decade ago. So I do the book as well as I can at the moment, make sure it works on its own terms and for the people who will read it, and move onto a new phase of my writing life.
Is the book finished?
In the end, all we can do is build our trust in the book and let it go.
Thank you, Pinkmoose on Flickr, for the photo.
How do you know when your book is finished? Share in the comments – I may not get to them immediately, but I love a good discussion and I’ll reply as quickly as possible
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!