A friend at a niche publishing company asked me to read a novel and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. Not a full review or critique, just "Do you want to see more like this?" There are few novels written about this sphere, and I'd like to write some someday. I'm at 25% and so far, I'd love to see more like this, but this book's writing style is driving me nuts. First person, lots of rumination, slightly self-conscious/dated voice.
How do I respond? "I love the idea and want to see more like it but could it please be completely rewritten?"
I see this more than I wish when a query is meh and the concept is terrific. Or something about the novel (setting, time period, new take on old trope) is enticing but the writing just isn't up to scratch.
In fact, I just had a requested full go back to the author with "I love everything about this novel except X" and we then had a discussion about next steps. (This is where a paid professional editor comes in VERY handy)
When faced with this kind of situation, you start with the things you like. Then you mention the things that don't work for you.
And if you're like me, you say "this is my personal reading preference and not everyone may agree."
My latest analogy is a beautiful couture dress (probably made by Christian Siriano) that doesn't hang on me in a flattering way. There's nothing wrong with the dress at all. And I am what I am. I'm not going to be six inches taller just cause I want to be.
Not all beautiful dresses are suited for all beautiful sharks.
Same for books.
And how flattering that your friend asked for your opinion!
I remember the days I could pull off a plunging neckline...not so much any more.
How do I respond? "I love the idea and want to see more like it but could it please be completely rewritten?"
For me? I would respond exactly that way. Not telling them what you really felt while reading it is a disservice to the author and publishing company. If they're concerned, they'll ask for more information as to what it needs. If they aren't, they're going to publish it regardless, but your conscience will be clear.
I don't always know that it's personal reading preferences either. One can read something that isn't their preference and still see the beauty in the writing. Or the utter mess. But that's just me...
Some writers are idea driven without the chops to deliver in the way best suited for some/most/all readers. Does that make the writer a failure?
You just have to try on dresses until you find the perfect one to suit your frame. Some look like crap no matter what. That’s why I wear jeans. That’s why I write short form.
JR's comments today emphasize how important it is for writers who are getting started in fiction to get professional feedback on a few things. A *real* editor is worth a thousand pearls for a writer. Save up, sell your eldest child, or mug an innocent stranger, but find a way to pay for a professional edit on your first few chapters. Than apply what you learn from that edit throughout your book.
Writing current fiction is so different from the writing most of us learned in school or have done in our work. A great idea and good basic writing skills aren't nearly enough to write amazing fiction. STUDY THE CRAFT or end up being that "concept is so good, but" writer.
Sorry, rant over. I was just asked to read a friend's opening chapter. She hasn't studied fiction writing, hasn't studied the market, and doesn't intend to. The entire chapter was passive when it could have been SO active, but she doesn't even know what passive/active is. This post reminded me so much of that.
Guidance needed: What does it mean here to have a 'dated' voice? Is it a 25 year old character that is sounding more like a middle-age person? Or using words/phrases from the 80s, i.e. 'you rankin' on me?' rather than current words like 'shade'?
As an aside, one of the finest first person books I've read was The Hunger Games.
It's all about how you sell it. Surround it in honey (the positives) and then suggest ways they can make it a cracker of a novel (because you want to see it succeed).
As JR said, stress this is just your lone pov. Like I tell my CPs... Take the comments you like and toss the rest.
Although you don't say your friend wrote it. They work at a publishing company, which suggests to me they are thinking of publishing it? In which case, surely you can be more honest about it, because the friend doesn't have the emotional connection the author does.
You could wear that dress, Janet. All you need are those shark shoes I showed you. They'll add another 5 inches to your sharkly physique.
OP, I have to agree with Janet. Give them what works, then be truthful and tell them what doesn't. Your friend asked for your honest opinion, not a sugar-coated version of it. We don't have to tell you to just be tactful.
Kae - I'm not sure if this shows my age, or what, but rankin' and shade, used in your sentence... I've never heard of, and I was "clubbing it" back in the 80's. :)
I'm also having deja vu. I know I've read this before, i.e. this dilemma posited as today's topic. Was it in the comments last week? (btw, this is just me thinking out loud)
Either way, I think like others have said, the OP does need to be honest about their opinion of the work. We used to have what we called "the sandwich method," back during my corporate days. It was an HR term when giving feedback to an employee. Start with good, then the bad, end with the good.
I agree with Sherry 110%. Paying a professional editor is worth every single penny you can scrape up. If it weren't for the editor I had to help guide me along, show me some things (Caroline Upcher) DIXIE DUPREE would still be sitting on a very old laptop which has likely been crushed by now.
Lordy. I should have had more coffee before commenting.
The editor comment isn't meant for the OP, obviously. It's a general statement for any of those out here who have ever wondered if there is any real value in spending the money. It is.
Donnaeve, yup, the question started in the comments section last week (or the week before).
"(This is where a paid professional editor comes in VERY handy)"
Is it possible, that because of heavy editing, a book can become an editor's work, instead of the writers?
I've often heard authors express how much better their books are after and editor's input.
I realize the importance of copy editing but when is the line crossed?
Do editors ever feel as if their name should be on the title page instead of the authors?
I also agree with Sherry. If you can't answer a quick quiz on passive voice, tense, or POV, then you need more time studying your craft. Keep writing, just allot time to studying what you like to read, not for pleasure but for guidance. Take courses. Read blogs. Hand over a few pages for critique, not the whole book.
Now I have to go and read what I missed last week. No doubt a lot of stuff that I'll have an opinion on and not be able to vent it. Sigh.
As hard as it is, what Janet said. Praise the praiseworthy, and then get into what doesn't work. This is how I approach comments when I'm beta reading, and this sounds like a very similar situation. And if my opinion as a writer is being sought, then I wouldn't just say, "this doesn't work." I want to be able to tell the writer why I don't think it works. "I don't think this works in the 1st person because..." "Maybe you could cut back on the rumination here, something like..." Write the kind of comments you would like to read, Opie. Okay, maybe not like--who likes to get negative feedback? But if someone was to point out the problems in your novel, how would you like them to do it? I find constructive critiques are far more helpful than just, "you suck, man!"
On great ideas badly executed, yeah, I know that one. There are certain types of story I write better than others. So there are story ideas I automatically shelve because I know I won't do as good a job with them as someone else. Okay, I may not shelve them completely--perhaps get them out in flash fiction and be done with them. It can be hard setting a good idea aside, but I don't want to waste precious writing time with an idea that a) I won't execute as well as it deserves, and b) I'll probably get bored with because it's not what I write best.
Oh, and 2Ns' question! I've wondered that myself. It's like the translation question: When I read Tolstoy in English, how much of his voice is actually the translator?
Editors yes. Sherry had it just right - and I did just what she recommended. My first three chapters were meticulously edited and I applied what I learned to rest. Do tell author the truth, perhaps using Donna's method. Writers can't improve without honest feedback. No matter how painful it is to hear.
Aside from a rare maxi dress, almost no dress in existance suits me. I find them terribly uncomfortable which causes me to be awkward and fidgety making a perfectly good dress quite unattractive. So jeans all the way. Someone else will have to wear the pretty dress.
E.M's, "Do tell author the truth," is the only way to do. Anything else is a disservice to the effort the author has applied to his or her project.
And yes to Donna's "sandwich" method. (It refers to food so I like it.)
We do the same in management, the good, the bad. the good. Harkens to a spaghetti western. (Ha, food again.)
Hey Kae Bell, "harkens" is a dated word. Tells you I'm old enough to have experienced mid-century living first hand. Oh God, now I'm depressed. Too early for wine, I think I have some Rocky Road.
Third comment, I'm outta' here.
I'm guessing you're the target market for what you've been asked to read. That matters.
I didn't see what the big deal was about Meryl Streep. So she can cry in a bunch of accents. That was meh to me. Then I saw her as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (a role I'd love to play and may be a step closer to after getting a good review for Ouiser in Steel Magnolias). She was brilliant. I am not the target market for whiny victims. I am totally the target market for a hilarious yet profound Fish Out of Water piece.
I've heard of the sandwich method of feedback as well, but personally I dislike it. It makes the whole conversation feel predetermined, and it also requires that the editor like twice as much as they (singular they!) dislike. If the tone is 66% positive but the writing needs 50% more work, then your feedback is less effective then it needs to be.
I like the idea of starting and ending positive, and goodness knows writers can have eggshell egos (my motto is fragile: handle with care). Still, the sandwich method is like stuffing an extra chorus into a 3 minute song - not really necessary, and sometimes tedious.
Am I misreading the op? It sounded to me like the publisher was talking about a submission he was evaluating from an unknown (to the op) writer. Why not just answer the question straight out? ‘Love the concept, but the writing drives me nuts because, for a first person narration, there is too much rumination, and the voice is too self-conscious and dated.’
If I had to deliver the criticism direct to the author I’d go more along the lines of:
1. Deliver all the good news first.
2. Point out how subjective opinion is, but since asked, mention a few specific aspects of the novel and point out why they don’t work for me. ‘But sometimes your narrators introspection seems to be get in the way of my understanding of…’
3. Provide some very specific examples. ‘For example, in paragraph 5 your narrator is worried about…when I might understand things better if the narration were focused on…’
4. Point out again how subjective personal opinion is. I always point out here that I am certainly no expert.
Somehow I think honesty, even if blunted to avoid hurt feelings, is always the best policy.
Opie, as a writer still learning the craft (and I imagine that never stops), when I invite crit partners to take a gander at my chapters, I want the good, the bad, and the ugly. Of course, we've been vetting each others' ms for a year (or is it 2?) so we have relationships of trust. As the others have said, share the things you like. Share the things you did not like, but be specific about what it was that jarred you.
Dresses? I remember startling one young confirmation student when I asked her if I could switch legs with her. Hers were so lean and long. Mine? I've learned to live with. Short legs were handy for gymnastics. My adult daughter and my BFF help me buy clothes and tell me what works together. I keep my wardrobe limited and simple. The Project 333 blog helps.
I do recall this from the comments last week, though I can't remember who posted it.
As far as what Carolynn and Colin said about editors (and translators), there is a big difference between the input a good acquiring/developmental editor does for a book and what a copy editor does. A.S. King talked about working with her editor for I CRAWL THROUGH IT, and the level of trust required for the process, and how the editor asked the right questions to help develop the work into its best form. Copy editors are invaluable as well, but in a different way, because they're focused on the technical aspect of the writing, not the creative aspect: they make sure the plot is coherent, the style is consistent, and the character names don't change spellings halfway through.
I would argue a translator does have a tremendous amount of input, which is why they get their name on the cover. They're trying to not only convey meaning but also tone and style to a different audience in a different language.
Boy I hope I didn't just blather a bunch. And I used blather in a sentence, which shows that I am a child of the 80s.
Of course I'm going to disagree Bethany Elizabeth. :)
Just because you begin with the good, give the bad, and end with some good - doesn't really equate to the %'s argument. Actually, the editor I used did the sandwich thing with me ALL the time.
Example, you might say "I like the opening chapter, it really hooked me and I couldn't wait to read the rest. However, after that? The rest of the book meandered along and didn't grab me like that chapter! Sorry, but I'm afraid you really ought to re-write Chps 2-30. But - I know you can do it! You showed me you can in Chp 1."
If I had to use %'s? That's about 10% good, 80% bad, 10% good. There's nothing wrong with leaving the writer with encouraging words, just my opinion. We beat ourselves up enough as it is. Too much sometimes. It's a personal preference...I suppose.
As AJ said, we can't tell from this question whether OP's friend is the author asking whether she should WRITE more like this, or an editor/publisher asking whether she should PUBLISH more like this. In any case, though, it doesn't seem that the questioner is asking for specific feedback on this specific book, especially since you've been asked just for a simple thumbs up/thumbs down. So, OP, you can just answer the original question with a simple, "Yes, I'd like to see more like this." If you want to add a second sentence: "The execution of this example doesn't really work for me, but the general category is really interesting and I'd like to see more."
On the other main topic for today, I confess to being pretty much fashion blind. If all the important bits are covered and I can bend over and reach and nothing trips me or falls off, then I'm good to go. I had the opportunity years ago to move up from college faculty to administration by taking a position as Dean, and one factor that weighed in my choice to turn it down is that I'd have to start dressing like a professional. Ugh.
Going back to yesterday's week in review, I have never received a high-five from a shark before! Now that's an experience I'll never forget.
And thanks, everyone for your kind words and congratulations! :)
Wow. The "dated voice" reminds me of a suspense novel by a prolific author who was getting up in years. His latest was set in the present, yet his description of a lovely young woman evoked a cutie from, oh, 1958. I read it several times and there was nothing particularly vintage about his vocabulary. But his mind's eye was set for 50-plus years ago.
I don't know how an author avoids that, except to read lots of current works in his/her/their/argh genre.
Celia, I'm back again - third comment, so I'm outta here after this, BUT, I wanted to thank you for your comment last week! If you forgot, you said congrats on my "sneaky" little news drop about a rights sale for DIXIE DUPREE.
So, thank you!
As usual, the timing of this blog couldn't be better. I just received some very helpful critique from an editor only yesterday, and it's really giving me good thoughts on ways to improve.
And I really love what 2N's said: Some writers are idea driven without the chops to deliver in the way best suited for some/most/all readers. Does that make the writer a failure?
This is me all over, and the crafting problems I have exist across all my novels. Like pacing. I'm always too fast in the narrative. Many critiques have shown this, but fixing it is where the challenge lies. It might mean cutting things that don't belong (weeding away the chaff so the narrative doesn't jump around so much) or maybe adding more, staying in scene longer. (Scours blog archive for excel list of craft books).
The most important thing, though, is that I wouldn't know this without honest feedback. So yes, Opie. See where you're getting tripped up in the narrative. Chances are, other critiques of this author's work have shown the same thing.
I'm blessed to have some very good and very honest crit partners and we tend to use the "sandwich method".
As we're reading, we'll mark points that stood out to us as great dialogue, description, tension, or "Criminy, don't tell me that weasel is going to live to make everyone miserable again!" Sometimes it's a, "The tension is great to this point, then I started losing interest." An honest reader reaction helps us know when we're on track.
Noting honestly what doesn't work is just as important as knowing what does work. It's tough to find those crit partners. It's tough being a writer who can take those crits graciously and discuss them dispassionately as if you were dissecting a fish instead of your beloved.
I'm in a place right now with my writing I've never been before. I've been chunk writing The Rain Crow and I normally write linearly. I've begun to wonder if I can write. I'll pull through the morass, but it helps to have dedicated crit partners at hand when a person is floundering.
I hope the OP will be honest in their assessment for both good and ill. It's the only way you can really help. In the end your opinion really is just one person's judgment and it doesn't involve the gallows.
Julie: As a fellow flounderer in the morass, I can guarantee that you can write. Your blog comments constantly prove it.
I went to college to become an English teacher, but quickly switched my major during the second semester to straight English because I couldn't stand the politics. During my sophomore year, I got a job at the writing center helping students develop their papers and teaching ESL students basic grammar. Being a writer myself helped me intuitively understand what the students were trying to say and help them find a better way to say it--it's something I've since carried over into my own business (and in life, but that's another story).
Here's what I've learned from working with students and clients at a wide-range of levels:
- When you hire an editor (or look for a CP), you're entering into a partnership with an unwritten expectation of trust. The author has to trust the editor to remain objective (and know what the heck they're talking about), and the editor has to trust the author to accept their suggestions as just that--experienced suggestions with the goal of helping to make the book the best it can be.
- Honesty is vital--you can't get better if someone is only telling you what you want to hear. But, at the same time, if an author's completely bombarded with criticism after criticism, they can shut down and lose all faith in their work (says personal experience). A good editor will be as excited about your work as you are (or they shouldn't take you on as a client in the first place). They're the one that helps keep that fire lit when you want to throw your manuscript into a pile of mud.
- The best editors (and the best teachers) don't instruct or fix--they guide. This means keeping the author's vision and voice for the book, but also gently pushing them to stretch beyond their perceived limitations. If the editor does their job right, they will be the invisible strand beneath the prose that links all the pieces together.
Dr. Seuss said it best: "step with great care and great tact because life is a balancing act."
Slightly self-conscious/dated voice might be declarations of This is just my opinion, I'm just guessing, in whatever variation, letting the reader know that you are but a mere mortal, just like them, and not a prophet come to guide them to comfy furry paradise. I could be wrong, of course, and therefore throwing myself into the thought which was not part of the thought. That would be self-conscious but also dated since we've been reading texts other than religious instructions from you know who for gosh centuries now, and we are all very aware that whatever the author is giving the reader is only his opinion and she could be wrong. Thanks, Janet, now I need to rewrite everything AGAIN. You're the best.
Okay, comment number four, can't resist.
When someone wants me to read, ah-la critique, I squirm. I know when something smells of dirty socks but who the hell am I to know anything other than use water and detergent. I struggle with my own stuff so what the hell gives me the right to advise?
Years ago a guy gave me a story to read. I was the only person published he knew, he wanted my help. The story was intriguing but written horribly. It had good bones but that was about it. (I was so full of myself), I laid a list of writing to dos on him, which was enough to choke one of Julies horses.
That I may have destroyed a writers dream still haunts me to this day.
To be on the reading and feedback end is hard. Tread lightly and with conviction, only if you know that of which you speak.
You well educated editor types out here on the reef, I applaud you, and for those touting the importance of continual learning, here-here. Learning is writer's food.
To those of us who are a bit behind on the actual learning end, because at the beginning we were doing something else, time, and the perception that we have less looking forward:
Do not let your age, young, old or lack of learning, hold you back. Keep at it every single day until the stinky socks are bright white and smell of that which can only be described as clean and without yuck.
Back at the dawn of the era in which I promised to become a writer I had someone tell me that I should find a co-writer. I had some spectacular ideas but was disconnected with what it takes to garner and succor an audience of readers.
Finding a co-writer didn't pan out so I followed the Queen's advice and started reading critically. That led to me critiquing my decisions in writing and finally to a lot of growth as a writer. I might yet finish the journey begun a few years ago.
If you can be honest with yourself you can do self help in your writing style. If you are prone to self delusion it would be good to find some help. It is almost as hard to find competent and honest critique partners as it is to find the love of your life. If is often quicker and easier to hire an editor. Do not just hire the first editor you come across. Make sure you are comfortable in both their personal presence and their professional presence.
2N's has a good point. I just started writing last November. I sent a few queries out on Friday to test the waters. If someone asked me to critique their work, I can only give them my reaction as a reader, no more, no less.
I am not an editor, nor do I know the first thing about what makes a good editor. All of this talk about critiquing and editing and beta reading has me questioning things.
Janet, maybe I should send this question as an email, but I figure since I am here and everyone else is here I will ask here.
So I am a member of a long standing critique group here in Clearwater,Fl. Each member gets a turn and we critique what was read. I am a natural voice actor and so when I read, I read as if I was reading for audible.
So having said all that, here is my question.
Only two people of the 37 in my group are published and make a living writing, the others are all aspiring.
If my group says that my material is good and exciting, can I expect that an agent will think so as well?
Is my vocal delivery covering up what might be bad writing?
And is it wrong to ask for beta readers on your blog? Wait did I just ask if it was okay to ask something while sneakily asking for something in the same sentence. :-)
Hey Colin, better get ready for company I might get exiled for this one.
Love ya Janet, wear what ever ya want, your shark enough to rock anything. Besides, Somers would just tell ya to lose the pants and raise your glass, because dresses rock and pants are overrated.
Jason: Did I get exiled again? I didn't notice if I did. Is this Carkoon...? As to your question, I suggest you weigh the advice. Any genuine positive reader reaction is a good thing, regardless of the reader's publishing status. After all, you're looking to sell your books to readers, not just to fellow writers and publishing pros. IMO, if you're wanting to know whether it will sell to an agent, ask an agent. Even a published writer isn't going to be able to speak to that other than from their own personal experience with getting their agent. In other words, relish, enjoy, weigh, and consider all comments on your work. But if you want to know what agents are looking for, ask an agent.
That's what I think, for what it's worth. :)
How am I gonna ask an agent? Janet is the only one I know. Janet doesn't represent novels about: a teleporting magic user whose stuck in the middle of a Fire Born races fight against a sun fearing race who has found immunity to the sun, all the while a man pulling the strings is spreading blight across a world that is not only alive, its life is being stolen by the man pulling the strings.
What I am going to do?
Because of the thumb-oriented question, my response was, "I love the idea and I want more shark-centered novels, but I do think this needs some work. I would read another like this if it were less ruminative, and if the specific plot and writing style resonated with me. Also, the slut-shaming incident in chapter X is extremely problematic and not resolved to my satisfaction."
What I would have said over a glass of scotch is, "Boy howdy can the author can turn a phrase, but there's no plot! Also, chapter X is enough to make me a sworn enemy of the book and all who bring it to print. The world desperately needs more shark novels, but good ones. I'd like to see this author succeed, so please prevent him from putting this on the market with his name attached."
Re dated voice: Kae Bell, that's it exactly. The protagonist is within spitting distance of my husband's age and it's set today, but I'd have guessed either 20 years older or 20 years ago. It's not quite the slang, it's the mindset. And honestly, I would not mind if the characters were older, or if it were set in the past. Neither would hurt the story. Strained credibility does.
AJ Blythe and Robert Ceres: Ah. There's the rub. My friend at the publishing company did not write it, and the publishing company just wants feedback on which direction to move in the future. But through pure coincidence, I do know the author. I very much want to see them succeed. Which in this case means waving my arms and shouting "Please not this book, not this way, you can do better than this!"
Kae, I've been wondering what a "dated" voice is myself. (Which is extra-layered, because for some months now I have been sort of informally studying what that means in spoken linguistics; the generational differences in pronunciation, specifically.) It must be word choices and phrasing, and I have NO doubt my voice is dated. But I also write histfic, so I can get away with it!
Donna, I remember rankin', it was less clubbin' than street or redneck.
Robert C, that's how I read it too. The "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" would leave me just saying "thumbs-down" because (a) that's what you deserve for asking extremely reductive questions, Unknown Small Publisher, and (b) I just wouldn't be able to commit to thumbs-upping something with fundamental problems. I also wouldn't really be able to commit to critique, honestly. You want a yes/no response and nothing else, "no" is what you'll get, period.
Jumping back in to talk about the sandwich, because. . . well, I can. I'm with Bethany, only maybe with a stronger feeling about it.
When I'm working with a young writer feeling their way along, I'll empty the bread box! They need encouragement, and I'm happy to give it. Four pieces of bread, lots of mayo and thin sliced-turkey. Young writers do best changing one or two elements at a time.
But for a grown @$$ adult I don't understand why we need to do this. If you don't tell me an element is bad I'll assume that element is fine. Skip the bread and spend your time on the meat. I want to know what to fix, and most mature, secure writers I know feel the same way. Yeah, I sandwich most feedback, but feel like it's a collosal waste of time. I do think critique should be given very kindly. I use a lot of I wonder questions. I wonder how this would work if you. . . Or, have you thought about. . .
Maybe I'm old and cranky ( : but I don't like working with what I feel is an artificial construct for critique. Donnaeve's blog post today talks about having thick skin as a writer, and she's so right. (BTW, Donna, I couldn't find a way to comment on your post.)
Things I've learned from critiquing others' work:
Use examples from the text
That goes for both the good and the bad. And keep an open mind--the author might be trying for an effect they just haven't mastered yet.
Just a slight word of caution here, pandering to style is a trap and that's because it's so much easier to satisfy those tastes than create content. What happens though, is that there is scale of diminishing returns that takes effect, style will become worn with familiarity and when readers tire of it, you're pretty much stuffed. You know the kind of thing, the third season of that TV show that was just so cutting edge when it first hit airwaves? True, the effect is not quite so brutal with literature and there are a few authors who've trundled along in that manner but the key word there is: few.
I'm not really sure what, 'rumination' means in this context, I take it to mean reflection upon events through that inner monologue that causes such offence. I'm also guessing it's not effective because it interferes with narrative flow or maybe even, it's just padding to get the word count up. I don't really see that as pertaining to style but without better insight, that's just another guess.
It just goes to show that all people critique differently! I'm not a fan of the sandwich technique because I feel like it can lead to artificial praise. I've also gotten a lot of practice with constructive criticism (sans praise) with my job. But I also tend to end any critique I give on a good note. I also try to meet writers where they are.
If I have a friend who is new to writing, I praise the good parts of the novel because she may not have the context to understand what's good or not. I also limit my negative feedback to broader things that are easily fixable. I don't do line edits for new writers, unless it's a recurring grammar error that is truly distracting. Then, if it's for a good friend, I'll edit the story again later.
Also, for Jason - yes, only hearing a story can give a different impression of how good it is. I know this from my own experience, where a scene I read aloud needed a lot of work, but my 'reader' didn't know it. Also, writing groups are great, but they're mostly great for encouragement. It's hard to critique one chapter of a novel without context.
It sounds like what you need are beta readers. Love them. Cherish them. Beta readers have the full context of your story. And after a few beta readers, you'll have a much better idea of if your story is ready to go.
I was ticked-off frustrated at three early readers of my draft. I kept asking them where it got boring, where it got good, etc. They all said everything was wonderful. If I’d ask specifically about something I was concerned about, they’d say they liked how I did it.
I believed them because it was written the way I liked it, too.
Later after I realized a flawed basic approach, I asked them why they didn’t tell me. One said she liked what I had, but the one who had been writing for fifty years said, “I wanted to be encouraging.” Encouraging and supportive are nice but not when it’s misleading. It cost me year of my writing life.
Two later readers (Julie Weathers and my Brazilian (former) student) made some helpful comments (Julie's comments caused me to rethink and rewrite my first ten or eleven chapters, which I'm still doing). Both held back I’m sure, but as I revise I refer to both set of comments.
I probably will need a professional editor just to tell me what I’m overlooking or where I made a wrong choice.
Back to the basement for me (I’ve set up my basement in Spartan style perfect for writing).
My two cents on critiquing:
Avoid critique that is a matter of opinion. I have a dear friend who is a very successful writer. I would love to get her opinion, but she hates first person present tense with a passion. My current WIP is in first person present, so why burden her with trying to figure out what needs to change over what she genuinely doesn't like?
If a new writer is super green and needs a LOT of work on the craft side, I try to pick the biggest thing they can work on instead of overwhelming them with a list of craft issues to tackle. I try to say something like "in your next draft I'd focus on pacing and tense agreement, then reevaluate where you are."
I'm trying to decide what project to start on now that I'm done with my R&R. I have a 50k (!!!) draft of another book and I'm worried I don't have the skill to pull off a complex, thriller -lite kinda plot. I always have these big ideas and find my ability to pull them off is ... questionable. Like a mini dress/skirt. It just doesn't work on my 5'9 curvy frame.
Sherry Howard, at the risk of interjecting myself, regarding Donna's blog: comments are before you read, up top, last on the list.
I'm gone, again.
Jason: Aside from Query Shark, and other agents who offer query critiques (e.g., Jessica Faust) and occasionally page critiques, all you can go on is reader feedback. I've had beta readers tell me my work is wonderful and query ready, only for it to fall flat with agents. This is what turns us into woodland creatures. And this is why Janet touts the benefits of agent/editor page critiques. You'll find these offered at many writing conferences (for a few extra $$), and occasionally agents/editors will offer them as contest prizes. Other than that, listen to your readers, read plenty of agent tips, and do your best. I don't know what else to tell you. But what do I know? Maybe Janet will have better advice for you. :)
So anyone like to read fantasy?
You've given me some great advice over the last six months and I have taken it and made significant changes to my novel because of things you and Janet have told me. I just don't seem to be able to find Readers that actually read books. So many people listen to audio books now days.
I need beta readers like Colin said. I going into the forest now and see if I can find any woodland creatures looking for a good book to read that hasn't been published yet.
As others have said above, the usefulness of feedback, be it positive or negative, is directly related to how specific it is. Specificity also makes it clear that the feedback is not an overarching comment on the author's capabilities and prospects.
I want my feedback unvarnished -- or so I tell myself in the abstract -- but it is helpful to know the parts that are working as well as the parts that are not. I got extremely helpful comments from my brother yesterday on my WIP. It was especially useful to hear from him which were the "boring parts." These turned out to be the parts that were boring to write as well. (Feeling "blocked" when I am writing seems to mean I am at one of these boring parts and should go in a different direction.) It was also helpful to hear from him which parts carried him along effortlessly and enthusiastically.
So fascinating to read the comments and such different beliefs and opinions. Not right and wrong, just different.
At one end, we have people who tout nothing but honesty even if that's filled with bad news. Why waste time on complimenting me, that doesn't help.
At the other end, we don't want to discourage someone so much that we risk deflating them so much that it might ruin their career and they'll never try writing again.
I like to believe I'm in the former camp, but if you want to lie and tell me you liked something I wrote, I'll suck it up like a Dyson and repeat it in my head the rest of the day.
"I can live for two months on a good compliment." -- Mark Twain
Brigid, I think you handled the situation as well as you could given the constraints you had. I'm not sure about the ethics of the situation because I don't know all the facts, but if I was your writer friend, I'd love to hear your reaction. Even if I'd hate to hear your reaction for the first 24 hours, I'd love it in perpetuity after that. Just not sure if that would be kosher with the publisher since they might know of your relationship.
Hey John, your manuscript is the best thing I've never read!
John: I have been known to allow some spam comments on my blog that tell me what a wonderful writer I am, and how insightful and brilliant my articles are. ;)
One of my screen names is Spam, and I was being honest -- that article was both insightful and brilliant. Don't delete me.
For the record, I'm not the Spam that has a rich uncle in Zimbabwe looking to make you rich. That's a relative I don't speak with anymore.
I'm trying to make it a better manuscript that you haven't read. If I learn from all my mistakes, it should be brilliant and I should be a genius by the time I'm finished.
Most writers want more than anything for their writing to succeed and resonate with others. If it's not going to do that, they're going to find out one way or another. So why not now, before they're published, and while your advice is being directly solicited. There are always ways to be diplomatic about it.
Jason - maybe get everyone to read someone else's writing out loud? That might point out some passages or ideas that might make readers stumble. Conferences also seem like a great idea - a concentrated mass of agents and writers.
Jason and for OP author as well,
This is based on my own journey so feel free to ignore, but this will get honest feedback and perhaps spare our OP from having to be overly harsh with the writer by simply suggesting this process, especially if the writer has a good story.
1. Revise past your first draft.
2. Put draft through a workshop similar or exactly like this online workshop http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/ . This workshop specializes in fantasy and science fiction and allows you to have 1 chapter at a time critiqued for every 3 chapters/short stories that you critique. This workshop will give you a varying degree of feedback, some useless but a lot of painfully honest feedback. Quite a few established writers use this workshop. I even happened upon a young editor at a well-known publisher who helped me remove some of the more glaring errors that make agents and editors vomit. I think there are other folks in the reef that have done that workshop.
3. Once you have a hearty revision from workshop feedback, get an editor – a real one (avoid scam artists) – one that doesn’t know you or like you – to give the book a once over. This advice is often echoed throughout the reef. It’s good advice. Even if it is just for the first few chapters.
4. Print out the entire book. Proof it on paper. There is a lot your eyes miss with online copies.
5. Clean up the book once more, print it out, front and back pages, bind it and distribute it to beta readers with a red pen for each of them. Some will disregard the red pen. Others will mark up your book so that it looks like it is bleeding.
6. Revise, rinse, and hit the query trenches. If you can pull it off, attend a conference or two. Rinse and repeat with next book.
Follow these steps and your craft will improve exponentially as long as you are open to the feedback. Yes, you have to be discerning. Some people will give you criticism that you should ignore because it would hurt your story or what have you – like taste in dresses, but if lots of readers are saying same things, then time to take note.
Another anecdote. After my first comment today I remembered a professional editor did review a chapter of mine. I sat at the same lunch table with her at a conference in 2014,and she ask me to send her a chapter. We settled on one that wss mostly dialogue (and a fight.
About the same time agents were rejecting my manuscript she wrote me this nice email (Note: I sent her a chapter from midway through the book. The agents rejected the book long before they reached this chapter. I can easily see in retrospect why agents rejected it and the editor was positive about it.)
Wow! What an interesting story. I have all kinds of questions about the plot, which means I want to read the whole book. That's an ultimate compliment for me.
The only criticisms I have are: 1) The first couple of pages the text was very Joe Friday staccato. I have a tendency to avoid compound-complex sentences myself, but interspersing the short sentences with a compound or complex sentence occasionally would make it flow better, and 2) I'm not sure about waiting so long to disclose this little multiple personality issue the girl has. However, I'd have to read the beginning to see for sure. It might be fine or you might want to consider breaking the news just a little sooner.
By and large, I really enjoyed the "taste" and thank you for letting me read it.
Jason, you might need a new critique group. Find one that is (maybe) smaller, but also full of serious aspiring authors. Consider networking with a local chapter of a relevant writers organization (Science fiction, mystery, SCBWI, etc) because some of those organizations have critique group coordinators that will link you up with other local writers.
My critique group has 7 people, and 5 are either published or have book contracts. It's a very different feel from my first group, which was helpful, but felt very different since it was all unpublished authors who loved writing and books but weren't trying to turn it into a career and/or taking it seriously professionally.
Don't be afraid to try out several groups and only stick with the group that fits your needs. Personally, I don't like groups that only review 5-10 pages at a time, so I started a full manuscript group. Having people read my WIP before its done messes with my momentum. Plus, getting feedback on the project as a whole is more valuable since the big picture stuff is harder for me than editing a single scene. Added bonus: we only meet when we have a project to discuss, which is easier for me to commit to than a standing meeting every two weeks.
E.M.'s right on the money, I think. :) I never thought of getting an editor to review a chapter or three before I came here. I just knew I was a broke college kid and couldn't afford a full-MS edit.
Now, of course, I'm a broke young adult who could probably afford a full-MS edit if she gave up pizza and video games for a month or two. (What? It could happen!)
Jason, I'm glad if I've been able to help even a little! But most of what I say I've learned here or from the reference section at B&N, so I can't claim any spectacular insight. I'm like a gumball machine without the gum. Or quarters. Like I said before - I'm broke! :)
Great ideas. I've saved your comment on my hard drive. Printing paper copies is expensive but I think it's worthwhile. I'll try it. I've also noticed if I reformat my margins to look more like the novel will look in print (1.15 spacing, block margins, right margin at 26 or 27) gives me a different idea how the book will read.
Joseph Snoe, great story on the agent response to your chapter. Inquiring minds wanna know ... what happened next?
Assuming you sent the full ms to this agent, what did they say about hooking up the full to the sample chapter?
It's always great to get a snippet of info here, so thanks if you're willing to share. Because if they rejected you, you'll have plenty of company here so no need to worry about judging!
Jason: I highly recommend the Online Writing Workshop, for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can get critiques and find beta readers there. It does cost a small amount of money though. If that's a problem, you can try Critter's Workshop - it's a good site, does the same thing as OWW, but there are more amateurs there (that happens with free sites).
I do think that reading out loud kind of defeats the purpose of a critique group. Some people like it, but I think it hides a lot of things. It takes more time than simply reading something ahead of time and commenting on it, and by reading it, it's easier to see what is right and wrong about a piece.
Regarding sandwich approach: There are no percentages, no fakeness, no dishonesty in the sandwich approach, done properly. You start with saying what you like about the piece, at least one thing, then give the meat of the critique, and end on an encouraging note. Nothing fake about it.
Definitely tell the author what is wrong, but don't forget to tell the author what is right. Not to help them feel better, but to help them improve. After all, if a writer isn't told what they're doing right, how do they know to build on that? To develop that skill further?
EM, Bethany, anf Janet are the only ones i know of that have read my work for the novel whether its been my query, or the first chapter of my book; thier advice, time and help has been invaluable.
I hope i can one day add them to the acknowledgedments in my published novel.
I think the most important part of being critiqued, or critiquing, is that the writer is ready to be critiqued. People will ask you to do it, but often aren't prepared to hear that their work isn't fabulous and that it needs work. So they ignore your critique. Or argue about every point you've made about the book. Or don't even respond when you return the manuscript you've spend five days working on for them.
Now when I offer to crit for someone, I do a sample chapter to test the waters, to make sure they're ready for critique and that they're ready to hear their work is not flawless. Because if they're not ready to hear that, I'm not going to waste time i could be writing to yell into a void.
The woman who read the chapter and wrote the nice note was a professional editor. She was not an agent. There's been no follow up with her except to thank her.
Four agents at the conference (this was in 2014) asked for pages - 2 full manuscripts and two of lesser number of pages. All four rejected it. I sent queries to a dozen more agents with no positive results (I'm a poor query writer.
I revised the manuscript in 2014-2015, and the darn thing was worse then before I started.
I'm currently doing a massive rewrite (revision), that's going really slow (but really well I think, but who knows). I did get some positive reinforcement in February (as I reported before) at a Chuck Sambuchino writing conference when he read the first page to four agents who didn't gong it before he finished. I'm happy with the first chapter, and really with what I've done since then. It's a good story, just not good enough yet.
Thank you for the answer, and my apologies for mis-reading your original post. That was lazy of me.
I do remember your positive reinforcement from Chuck at the conference. I wonder how many people enjoyed (or understood) your "gong" reference above like I did. Oh, Chuck Barriss (sp?) was a creative and funny guy.
Good luck with your story. It's a good feeling knowing your editing is working and making the story better. Tough work though, I feel for ya.
You said you were looking for something to put in your subheader. So here is something from a super-successful published writer you might like:
“I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.
– Mickey Spillane
Read more here:
Jason, good writing and a non-dreary, relatable story aren't antonyms. I promise. Even in non-fiction, one can have both.
It sounds like you have a fascinating plot. But thank you, no, I don't want to read it right now. You have asked for beta readers four times today, while dismissing the validity of the feedback from the readers and crit partners you currently have. A couple folks have suggested a writing workshop, and I think you should listen to them. Could be a great way to find potential longterm crit partners.
It is work to identify a book's problems. It's hard work to find a digestible, efficient way to convey what you've noticed and point to a solution. Even assuming you're right, if you're too harsh or longwinded, nobody listens. If you pull your punches, there's nothing for them to listen to. This is why agents and editors get paid. As it happens, I do a lot of critiquing and editing. But I work only for rewards. That can mean cash, islay malts, or investments in longterm relationships. Otherwise I'm going to the library, where I can read for free and nobody asks me to work.
By the way, it sounds like what your reader is saying is not so much that it wasn't realistic as that it wasn't believable. Different thing entirely. If you get that feedback from multiple people, sit with the idea for a while. I hope this makes sense and is useful to you.
Jason: There are several great online resources for finding critique partners, including Maggie Stiefvater's annual Critique Partner Love Connection, the periodic #CPMatch on Twitter, and plenty of blogs that host critique partner matchups. If you're looking for straight beta-readers (ie people that will read your stuff but not expect you to read theirs in return) you may have more of a challenge. It has been my experience that without some reciprocity, these things are doomed to failure. And that it can take several tries to find a good match.
As far as meeting agents/editors, I second (third?) going to a writers conference. Hands-down the best, most rewarding experience I've had as a writer was last year's Midwest Writers Workshop. Great sessions and lots of fun hanging out with other writers and a great chance to meet industry professionals (including her Sharkiness), both for normal human interactions and for critiques that you can sign up for. (I cannot stress enough that it's important to know when each of these interactions are appropriate.)
Also, I'm pretty sure Janet or someone posted this link before, but it probably bears reposting—it's from Jane Fridman's blog, and it's one of the best things about critiquing I've ever read. https://janefriedman.com/dangers-of-writing-groups/
I've been on babysitting duty today, so I'm behind, and I'll be getting farther behind. I was reading The Hobbit while watching Wee One and it stirred the Creative Humours.
Everyone needs their own type of critique. I read Virginia Woolf's critique of Hemingway and thought it told more about her writing than it did hers, mainly it just proved how much she depended on a stellar editor. She pretty much eviscerated Hemingway. Were her views honest? I'm sure they were. Were they universal? I happen to be a fan of his writing, so I disagree with her opinion.
"but I don't like working with what I feel is an artificial construct for critique"
Therein lies the rub. Pointing out what works in someone's novel isn't artificial. It's an honest assessment of something you're doing right.
When we decided to let Will start showing horses we bought an old horse who had been shown in several events. We were outhouse poor, but I thought it would be good for him to join 4H and at least get involved. He enjoyed riding John and this would give him something different to do. Now Will could ride, but he had no idea what western pleasure was.
We went to the arena and Will went out there with the rest of the kids going through the paces. This goes on a couple of times and with the instructor screaming at him every time he does something wrong. Then one day she screeches at him. Holds up the whole class while she comes over to adjust something and tell him about what he's doing wrong. He finishes the class and refuses to ever go back.
I realize it's a kid, but when all you see is that red ink staring back at you, yelling what you're doing wrong, it starts beating you down. You start wondering if you do anything right.
Cowgirls Wanted starts out with a scene from a Sankey rodeo school where Kaila Mussell is attending. I was going to start out at a school in Kansas, but when I was interviewing Lyle Sankey, he suggested I do the school where Kaila was because she was the real deal. Kaila is the first woman saddle bronc rider to become get her card in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The thing I like about the Sankey's is they video tape everything and point out where the rider are doing it right and where they start going wrong. It reinforces the positive and helps correct the problems without busting the desire.
Miss Janet sent back some an R&R once with the following. I hope she doesn't mind me sharing.
"He was nearly two heads taller than Trelaine and thin as a peddler's promise. A bright purple silk scarf around his head left tufts of hair sticking out like straw under a setting hen."
"A youngster, who looked like a puppet made of twigs, yelped when the firefly darted past his shield and dove into his shoulder."
She pointed them out as great description and much better than the abstract I had used before on another character. This has always stuck with me in later years as I describe characters. Yes, I put on my big girl panties when I write, but those brief comments about description pop in each time and push me to do better.
Maybe something positive you point out in your critique will have a lasting effect on a writer.
Brigid thanks for the advice and all who have given theirs I will absolutely follow up on those resources they are just what I need right now. And Brigid every time I see your name I can't help but think of Kevin Hearne's description of the goddess of Poetry and the Forge. Awesome Irish name!!
I love critiques, because they show me what I am doing wrong or right. I am so invested in improving my writing, I am attending college at forty years old, to sharpen my craft.
Thanks to all for their help and advice.
EM, Bethany, anf Janet are the only ones i know of that have read my work for the novel whether its been my query, or the first chapter of my book; thier advice, time and help has been invaluable.
I hope i can one day add them to the acknowledgedments in my published novel.
The comments I gave you were honest. Were they the same as I give my inner circle? Not quite. We have been reading each others' works for years. We know the styles as well as we know our own. I say this even though Rain Crow has a different style than Far Rider did and Cowgirls Wanted will be different still because the writing, vocabulary, dialogue will be as much a part of the stories as the plot.
So, we can tell each other honestly, "I think 'shamble' might work better here." Or we might say, "This sentence will be more powerful if you shuffle these words around."
We are mature enough in our relationship to give and take advice without affecting our styles or voice.
With people I don't know well, I'm not going to suggest word changes most of the time unless the word they're using is obviously wrong. I'm not going to do anything that will might affect their style.
Jason, I write high and epic fantasy, but my plate is pretty full. I wish you well finding a good crit partner. They are worth their weight in gold.
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