When you finish your novel, you may think it’s time to start sending out queries by the hundreds. It’s possible that the story is ready for publication, but it’s also possible that you’ve missed a glaring problem in the text, and you’re blind to it because you’re too close to the work. It’s time to turn to others and ask for a critique.
Family members don’t make the best critiquers. They love you, and they’re impressed that you’ve accomplished something as mammoth as writing an entire novel. Most likely, they’re going to love it. Every word shines, the plot is believable, the characters are lovable, and you are most definitely the next Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or James Patterson.
(That’s Stephen King, by the way. I’m not anywhere as good at writing as he is. But I’m closing in. Watch your back, Mr. King…)
It’s fine to ask your family members to read your story, but they can’t give you the kind of critique you really need. You need someone who understands what a novel is supposed to be, how the pieces fit together, how scenes and plot and structure and character come together seamlessly. You need another writer.
My favorite method is to find a critique partner. My very first critique partner was a friend who happened to be a writer. She was gracious in pointing out the flaws in my writing, but she was gentle, and she held back some of her comments because we were so close. It didn’t take me long to figure out she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. So I went and found a stranger to be my critique partner. I met Melody at a writer’s conference. When I heard that she wrote in the same genre as me, I boldly asked her if she’d like to swap stories and critique each other’s work. I was amazed when she agreed, and we’ve been great friends ever since, but she’s not afraid to give it to me straight. When something doesn’t work, she points it out, knowing that I’ll do the same with her work. There are several ways of working out this kind of partnership, but what worked best for me was to email a single chapter of my work to her, and she’d send me a chapter of her work. We’d read each other’s work and type our comments into the text using Track Changes, then send the chapter back. We worked our way through multiple novels that way.
I found another critique partner in an on-line forum of writers. Cyndi posted that she was interested in a critique partner, and I responded. We did the chapter-swap thing through several books, then a timing issue caught me by surprise and I sent her an entire manuscript to critique as fast as she could. She got it back to me within days (bless her heart!) and I reciprocated when she finished her NaNoWriMo efforts and sent the entire story to me. I didn’t do it nearly as fast as she did mine, so I probably owe her a coffee or something.
I’ve had dozens of critique partners over the years (they come and go as they finish their novel and have nothing else to share, or they opt out for personal reasons, or they don’t like my critiquing style–it happens) but I’ve only met up with two of my critique partners in person. All my other partners are just a name attached to an email message (or a Facebook page). With technology at our fingertips, the entire writing world is available, so don’t be afraid to send feelers out. Finding critique partners is easy. When you find a great one, hold on tight.
Another method is critique groups. This is a group of local authors who regularly meet in person to critique each other’s work. I’ve never participated, but I’ve spoken to people who have. It’s a lot of work–you have to read what everyone submits ahead of time, collect your thoughts, and share them with the group at the meeting. It can be immensely useful. It can also be a whine-fest, or an exercise is writer arrogance (“my work is the best thing ever, so you’d better not have any negative comments”), or a socializing event where little if any editing gets done. But when it’s done correctly, a critique group can be extremely valuable. The best critique groups have newbies who are still learning the ropes, more experienced writers who are in the middle of their writing journey, and at least one published author who knows all the ropes. Finding this variety can be difficult, but it’s worth it.
Those first two options contain a time investment–you agree to critique their work as they critique yours. If you don’t want to invest the time (or don’t have the time) to critique someone else’s writing, you can pay a professional to edit your work. You can find them on the internet, or meet them at writer’s conferences. You can pay to have only the first ten pages critiqued, or have the entire work critiqued. You can do it a chapter at a time, or send the entire manuscript at once. You can also ask the professional to focus on some aspect: character, plot, subtext, dialogue, etc. You get to choose. But choose wisely. You need someone who understands your genre, has a good reputation as an honest professional, and can give you comments without destroying your confidence. Honesty is good. Cruelty is not. Also keep in mind that professionals earn their living by doing this, and they charge enough to pay the bills. It’s an investment on your part, so keep in mind that this will probably be a significant financial lay-out for you. Shop around–rates vary, but they’re going to be around the same per-hour rate. Before you send your manuscript to anyone, get references. The last thing you want to do is shell out a mountain of cash and get a shoddy product.
The biggest benefit of using a professional is getting high-quality comments that will push you to a new level of writing that you wouldn’t get from a non-published critique partner. I’ve used professional editors in the past, and I’ve always gotten excellent results. But whatever path you choose (partner, group, or professional), you need to choose a path. Writer’s who don’t need outside feedback are rare. Give it a shot.
I’m available, if you’re interested in giving it a try. My genres of interest are fantasy, mystery, and suspense. I can also do horror, dystopia, humor, and YA. Please don’t come to me with a romance, Amish, erotica, or literary work because I’d be completely lost and probably bored. I could probably handle a historical, if it’s not a romance at the core.
Any comments? Questions? Stories to share about critique partners that didn’t work out? I’d love to hear from you.