#3: My novel must be pretty awesome—my significant other and friends certainly think so.
This is faulty thinking; with few exceptions (consider the amazing story behind The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans) significant others and friends could never replace industry professionals. Ask any established novelists, and they’ll tell you. Because spouses, family members, and friends have the relationship at stake and don’t want to hurt our feelings, we can’t expect them to provide an impartial evaluation that will deliver the goods we need as authors.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should cut them off from our projects if they want to be involved. For example, my wife, Kim, a voracious reader, is always the first reader of my books. She always gives me great feedback beyond “This is wonderful because my husband wrote it,” but her review has its limits.
Even someone who devours novels and is detail oriented isn’t going to look at your project the same way a publisher, literary agent, or established author would. Why? These people have studied the “craft” of novel writing for years and know what sells. Definitely recruit friends who are avid readers and can see detail problems; however, also recruit others who have studied novel writing (whether through education or books) and understand the techniques that make them work.
Novelists Helping Novelists
Where can wannabe novelists go to find this advice? That question isn’t too difficult to answer if we think about it. Other authors are marooned on the same island—they need someone to read their manuscript and provide constructive feedback as much as you do. Why not do a trade? “I’ll read your novel if you read mine. Then we can give each other advice.”
Why other authors? They’ve poured hundreds of hours into their work, so they can relate to the emotional and temporal investment. If they are seriously pursuing publication, they should have studied the novel craft. If they are already published, even better. At least one of their novels has passed through the publication door—a big achievement. This shows they have an eye for what makes a novel work. They’ve also worked with editors at a publishing house and should bring invaluable experience to the table.
My advice is to befriend as critique partners a few authors who are at least on the same level or are preferably more advanced than you. Otherwise you may find yourself in the bad situation of the blind leading the blind. Whoever you find needs to have at least read some of the important books about novel writing (this should be mandatory) and understand the craft well enough to give solid advice.
Or, if you can’t find another novelist, consider hiring an experienced fiction editor to provide a novel evaluation or copy edit. I provide this type of service through my home business. A good number of other novelists do as well.
A Spoonful of Sugar . . .
The honest but hard truth is that sometimes novels need to hurt before they can get better. If we remember that the advice is intended to help and not hurt—and that God intends this situation for our good—we should be able to receive feedback with maturity and the right spirit.
Do you remember those lyrics from Mary Poppins—”A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”? Pointing out flaws should never crush the spirit. Here’s some advice to help the “medicine” go down more easily:
Tips for Those Giving Feedback
1. Temper the criticism with praise. Before pointing out what doesn’t work in the story, take some time to point out what does. Here’s an example:
I think your characters are really strong, and I love how Mary has that sleep disorder. That really factors well into her lack of alertness during the day and how someone could steal her purse right from under her nose. Yet I’m not sure about the subplot about the ring . . . Is it really credible that her husband, Tom, would be the thief?
2. Ask questions. Sometimes asking questions is more effective than making declarative statements. Instead of saying, “Your POV is all wrong in this scene. You’ve head-hopped three times,” try this: “Have you thought through who would be the strongest POV character in that scene? At first I thought It was Mary, but then we seemed to be in Tom’s head, but then Theresa almost choked on her toast. So I was a little confused.”
3. Provide constructive criticism; that’s criticism that is balanced—not just “This part of your story doesn’t work at all” but rather, “I think this part of your story could be stronger; here’s what I think would improve it.” See the difference? If you’re like me, you want to know not only what’s wrong with your story but how to fix the problem. A negative statement by itself does little more than cause discouragement.
4. Admit that you could be wrong and don’t know everything. “I could be wrong, but on page 36 Brittany comes across to me as a tad too snarky with Dillon about his losing her cell phone. What do you think?”
5. Remember that the author may have spent thousands of hours and several years on this project, his or her “baby.” An emotional investment has been made. Tread with caution.
Tips for Those Receiving Feedback
1. Don’t defend yourself. Just listen. Some comments may be valid; some not so much. If you are tempted to respond emotionally, give yourself time to calm down before responding. (Back-and-forth e-mail feedback is ideal for this. You can always read the e-mail and reply later.) Then, after you’ve checked your pride at the door, take an honest look at what your critique partner said. Then respond with a thank you and get to work on your manuscript. Don’t defend yourself.
2. Remember that you see the story through your filter alone. You may be missing something important. That’s why other eyes are so important. If you’re like me, sometimes your mind inserts words that aren’t even on the page. Spare yourself some embarrassment. Rely on others and value their objectivity. As long as they understand about the “spoonful of sugar,” they may spare you a world of grief.
3. Remember that God has placed this person in your life for a reason—for your good.
Therefore, if you are a wannabe novelist, go beyond family and friends in pursuit of those who will give valuable, constructive feedback. In the long run, your novel will be so much better as a result.
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