When you’ve finished writing your manuscript and have edited it to the best of your ability, you need to make a judgement call about whether it’s ready to submit to publishers/agents. This is a particular challenge for writers because it’s very difficult to be objective about your own work. We can all use some critique to give us perspective. Fresh eyes can pick out things we’d easily miss, particularly when we’re so close to the story.
WHO TO ASK: This is important. Don’t trust just anyone with your manuscript. There are other writers out there who will savage your work so they can feel better about their own, and they don’t even realise what they’re doing. Make sure you know and trust the writers you give your baby to. Also don’t ask family/friends who have a vested interest in making you happy (or miserable as the case may be). They can’t be objective, and in many cases aren’t even readers of the genre you’re writing in, so their opinions might muddy the water. If you want to impress them, wait till you have a finished product to put in their hands!
Writing support/critique groups can be fabulous (either face to face or online) in developing a support network. Wait a while before you ask for critique – that gives you time to find other members who are writing the same genre as you, and also allows you time to see if they’re going to be able to take their ego out of the equation. Try trusting them with a chapter to critique first, and see if you feel that they’re being objective.
WHAT TO ASK FOR: Being critiqued isn’t a passive exercise. You don’t just hand over your baby and hope for the best. You have to work out what you want to achieve from the process and ask for the sort of feedback that will most suit you at that time. If you’ve just written a rough first draft and aren’t even sure if it’s working, you can ask for generalised comment on the interest level of the plot, whether there were any boring bits, and if there were any characters / situations that weren’t engaging and interesting. It’s also helpful to ask for the critiquer to specify what they loved about the story, so you’ve got something emotional to hang onto while you embark on your edits (“At least I know I got that right!”). You might have a particular area you feel weak in (perhaps dialogue or characterisation), and you might want them to particularly hone in on those areas in their critique. If you’re pretty sure you have the structure right and want line/copy edits (grammar, punctuation etc) perhaps in preparation for submitting to a competition or agent/publisher, be specific about that, giving the critiquer permission to point out ‘every little thing’ that’s a glitch for them.
HOW TO RECEIVE IT: It’s easy to feel defensive when someone is telling you that your baby is ugly! Resist the urge. This isn’t a suggestion. This is a commandment. If you start pointing out why you wrote it that way and why the person critiquing didn’t understand what you meant, you’ve negated the whole point of critiquing. When your book is published you can’t run after each copy and wait until the reader gets to page 94 so you can lean over their shoulder and say “What I was trying to do here was…”. The book must speak for itself. So if a crit buddy didn’t get what you were trying to do, it’s your job to say “Thanks so much for pointing that out” and then when you get home look at how they might have misunderstood what you were doing and how you can fix that. If you’re convinced that 99% of readers would be fine with it, then leave it. But don’t be precious. You asked for crit, so listen and be grateful! Don’t justify yourself, just keep saying “Thanks so much for pointing that out.”
HOW TO GIVE IT: Make sure when it’s your turn to critique someone’s work that you understand exactly what sort of critique they want (see above), and do only that. You might mention in passing that you think the viewpoint needs looking at too, but if they didn’t ask for comment on that, don’t detail it! Also, frame your critique as ‘areas for improvement’ rather than ‘things that are wrong’. Remember, this is just your opinion, and many books that were rejected by influential editors have gone on to make millions. You are not an expert. You are just another writer trying to be helpful. Above all, praise what’s working. I can’t reiterate enough how helpful it is to get ‘positive strokes’ when you’re learning your craft. If a particular line of dialogue sparkled or you had an emotion surge through you while you were reading a section, mark that on the manuscript. Let the author know they moved you. They need to find out what’s working beautifully, as well as the areas for improvement.
THE BENEFITS OF CRITIQUING: 1: It’s free! 2: Picking areas for improvement in someone else’s manuscript will hone your editors eye so you can see those problems in your own work. 3: You form emotional support networks with other writers which will help you through the submission / rejection / acceptance process.
THE DOWNSIDE OF CRITIQUING: If your crit buddy doesn’t know any more about the craft of writing than you do, it could end up being ‘the blind leading the blind’. So if your crit group have done the best they can and you’re still not finaling in competitions or are still receiving form rejection letters from publishers, it might be time to bite the bullet and invest some cash in your writing career with a manuscript assessment or mentoring.
BETA READERS: If you know readers (non-writers) who adore books in the genre you’re writing, ask them if they’ll give you feedback on your manuscript. They notice completely different things to crit buddies and might say things like “This is where I thought he was the killer,” or “I got such a shock here, I didn’t see this coming,” which is really helpful in gauging the success of your plotting.
Well that’s my advice for this week on how to move towards publication. We’ll be back to Workshop Wednesday next week with best-selling crime author and multiple Davitt Award winner Katherine Howell who will be discussing how to create suspense. See you then!
There are more Getting Published blogs to read, and if you’d like to share your experience of being critiqued or critiquing, please drop that in as a comment below!