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Getting Feedback on Your Novel

So, look at you – you’ve finished your novel!

Or should I say you’ve finished the first draft? Because there’s an old saying: books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. And rewriting your book is going to involve you asking for feedback.

Do you Really Want Feedback?

The first thing you need to decide is: do you actually want feedback  on your novel, or is what you really want praise ?

If what you really want is praise, then the best thing to do is use a print-on-demand service like Lulu  or Createspace  to make up some nice copies and give them to your friends and family. Your friends and family will then praise your achievement in writing the book, and everyone will be happy.

But, if you want to get commercially published (or sell many copies if you self-publish), your first draft is just one step in the process. You are going to have to:

  1. Get feedback.
  2. Really listen to the feedback.
  3. Change the novel based on the feedback.

If you are not seriously committed to improvement, then you are looking for praise, not feedback.

But let’s assume you are committed to listening, improving and working towards publication. Where do you get feedback?

Keep Your Friends Close

From convenience, the first people that many authors turn to for an opinion are their friends and family.

Unfortunately getting feedback on your novel from your friends and family is not very useful, because they:

  • Don’t want to hurt you.
  • May not like the kind of story you’ve written and can’t disassociate critiquing work from liking it.
  • Can’t articulate what it is they like or dislike about your writing.
  • Have no experience of critiquing people’s writing.

A lot of my friends and family have read my work. The most common feedback is:

Oh… er… yes… I… er… haven’t finished it yet… er… I’ve been very busy… er… it’s really good though… er… did you see Game of Thrones?

Second most common is:

It was good… er… I enjoyed it… er… did you see Game of Thrones?

Neither of these reactions are much help.

Give it to me straight, Doc

So, if you do want people to give you feedback and critique your work, first you’re going to have to look beyond your friends and family.

Second, if you are getting strangers to review your work then you have to prepare yourself for the fact that some of them aren’t going to like your work. In fact, some of them are going to hate it.

Getting feedback is not for the faint hearted, reviewers can be brutally honest, and of course no one can write something that everyone loves. You have to be thick-skinned.

However if you learn to deal with criticism, feedback can be invaluable.

Dealing with Criticism

The first thing to remember is that people are trying to help you, however much it seems as if they are just ripping you to shreds. The second is that if more than one reviewer is saying the same thing, they almost certainly have a point. So:

Do:

Encourage them with smiles and nods.

Ask for clarification if necessary.

Write down what they say.

Think about how you can use the feedback.

Thank them.

Don’t:

Interrupt or argue.

Dismiss the feedback.

Blame the reviewer for ‘not getting it’.

Insult the reviewer’s taste or intelligence.

Confuse criticism of your book for criticism of you.

Feedback Options

The options for feedback that I’ve tried are:

  1. Using automated critique software.
  2. Posting the manuscript on a fiction website.
  3. Joining a writing group and submitting the manuscript a bit at a time.
  4. Posting the manuscript on a critique website.
  5. Doing a writing course, such as a Creative Writing MA.

There is also the option of getting paid-for critique from a professional editor or ‘book doctor’, but as I’ve never tried that option I can’t comment.

Critique Software

Critique software automatically scans your work for writing that, though grammatically correct, might be poor style. For example:

  • Too many adverbs
  • Overused words
  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Clichés
  • Over-complex words and excessively long sentences
  • Vague words and homonyms
  • Alliteration

My prefered critique software is  Pro Writing Aid . I find the repeated words report particularly useful. The integration into Microsoft Word (an add-on) makes i.

The main issue with automated critique is it sometimes highlights things that are not really problems. You should not slavishly follow the advice of the critique software, but use it as a guide.

Overall, I would recommend running your work through critique software before getting human feedback, as it can help remove sentence level errors and leave the humans free to concentrate on story and style issues.

Fiction Websites

These are sites where people post writing, normally on a particular theme (fan fiction sites are one type). Quality is usually ‘variable’ so it isn’t hard to stand out. When I’m writing the first draft of a story sometimes I post a chapter a week on AlternateHistory.com

There isn’t much formal critique on fiction websites, but you can at least judge from the numbers following the story whether it is working for them. I’ve had failures, where the number of followers dwindled to almost nothing (better to know straight away than later), and I’ve had successes where the audience posted enthusiastic comments – it’s a great morale boost when people are demanding the next instalment.

Writing Groups

Usually writing groups either circulate work and then discuss it during a meeting, or people read out their work at the meeting and get instant feedback on it.

How useful writing groups are is dependent on the people who go to them. I’ve attended three so far, two of which have been useful and one not. They can suffer from the same issues that giving work to friends has – being too gentle. At the other extreme, some groups become cliquey or develop a ‘house style’ that they expect all work to be written in. People can also get touchy and relationships can break down, at which point the only option is to leave and find a new group.

But when they work, critique groups are great. One advantage is that a good one becomes a support network – just being around other writers is encouraging.

Critique websites

Critique sites usually operate on a reciprocal basis: you review someone else’s work and get credits that mean that other people review your work.

The one I’ve used is YouWriteOn , which I do recommend, although with some caveats.

Critique Websites: Good Points

People aren’t afraid to say what they really think.

You get a sense of what works for the bulk of readers.

Reviewing the occasional gem from someone else.

Lots of eyes on your work.

Varied opinions.

Critique Websites: Bad Points

Eye-wateringly harsh criticism at times.

Limited ability to discuss criticism.

Occasional reviews with no real thought behind them.

You have to review some poor writing.

If you want to see the critiques an old draft of the first three chapters of A Kill in the Morning got, then they are here .

Warning: those reviews are about as glowing as they get. A Kill in the Morning has been rewritten and polished for years resulting in it being one of the top rated pieces on the site. An early draft will be likely to get much less positive reviews.

Writing Courses

I did a Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University. I recommend a good MA (MFA in some countries) to any serious writer.

Similar to a writing group, the other MA students and the tutors become a support network. If possible I’d advise doing a traditional course rather than online, as it is harder to form relationships online. The MA critique was probably somewhat better than that online, though not as much as you’d imagine. University Creative Writing courses do tend to admire literary work and look down on genre pieces.

Some people claim a Creative Writing MA acts as a mark of quality that will improve your chances of getting published. There is probably some truth in this, but it’s no panacea.

It works!

After I wrote the first draft of A Kill in the Morning , I tried all the ideas above to get feedback on it. Then I rewrote it several times. Each draft got better and the feedback got more and more positive. Eventually I decided to submit the novel to the Terry Pratchett Prize and it was shortlisted. That lead to an offer from Transworld to publish the novel. And now it’s coming out in June.

Pre-order A Kill in the Morning from Amazon

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Getting better all the time

A professional attitude to feedback was a critical part of my success and it can be part of yours. Remember the five great options for getting feedback on your novel:

  1. Using automated critique software
  2. Posting the manuscript on a fiction website.
  3. Joining a writing group and submitting the manuscript a bit at a time.
  4. Posting the manuscript on a critique website.
  5. Doing a writing course, such as a Creative Writing MA.

Now all you need to do is get out there, get that feedback and rewrite your novel based on it. You will see the benefits. And remember:

Books aren't written they're rewritten - Michael Crichton quote

Agree? Disagree?

If you’d like to dis­cuss the ideas in the art­icle, please email me . Otherwise feel free to share it using the but­tons below.

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