Who do you trust to critique your writing?

In my last blog I wrote about the writer’s conference I attended and the importance publishers place on building your online presence. There were a few other pieces of advice I picked up which might be beneficial to pass on. One of these was…..

Get your novel professionally reviewed. 

I was skeptical of some providers of this service (and I’m still skeptical of those services who also run a self-publishing arm because, I imagine, it would be in their interests to convince you your work was good and encourage you to spend money ‘self-publishing’ it with them). But I am a definite convert.

I got to the point with my novel where I needed to know whether or not it was worth my while spending more time on this mammoth project. I felt tied up in knots, as if I was losing direction and perspective. I’d let a few friends read some of what I’d written and received mainly good feedback, but one person, to whom I was very close, absolutely slated it and said they couldn’t comment on it as there was nothing they liked about it. This completely floored me. I began to doubt myself, my ability and my story. So I sent it off to a literary critique (one recommended at the conference) and waited with baited breath (and a much depleted bank balance – this wasn’t cheap!). I spent a good few weeks stealing myself for the eventuality I might need to take the decision to put down my laptop and save the world from my terrible writing.

When the in-depth critique came back I was so nervous my hands were shaking as I unfolded the letter. I know that sounds melodramatic, but I’d spent nearly 4 years on and off, mostly whilst working full-time (and long hours) getting as far as I had.

When I sent the piece off I was already aware of its major flaws; the novel, (which is in the fantasy genre) was massive. I’d cut and cut but couldn’t get it down. To aid the critic I’d included my synopsis of the ‘whole’ tale which included a great deal yet to be written and I asked for advice on what I should cull. I also knew there were gaps and I was worried about the main character’s likeability. What the critique told me was heaven sent.

The first paragraph read:

“There are some really good things to say about it; intriguing setting, well drawn characters and some unusual world building. Overall it was an enjoyable read.”

and later: “I think you have a potentially exciting and unusual work hiding in amongst the mass, but now you need to streamline the narrative, to unearth the story and make it truly readable.”

I also was relieved to read that I should ‘relax’ and accept that

“You don’t have one book here but a potentially satisfying trilogy.”

Excellent! She realised a lot of the disjointedness was due to me trying to cut three books into one. She told me definitely not to write less, because she wanted to know more – a great compliment.

What I found most inspiring was that someone I didn’t know had really engaged with the book and had, for a brief time, entered my world.

Her advice was at times very specific and at other points more general; things I had a tendency to do again and again that I needed to stop. As she advised, I took a break from it for three months and mulled things over. I’m now addressing all the gaps and bad sections of writing and getting a clearer idea of the central core of the narrative. I’ll tell you the second piece of advice from the conference that I took next time…

As an unpublished writer have you ever submitted your work for criticism (outside of friends and family)? How did you feel about the feedback?  If you’re published I’d love to know how you work with the suggestions/amends made by your publishers.

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9 thoughts on “Who do you trust to critique your writing?

  1. philnorris63 says:

    I’ve just recently finished editing a small anthology of my short stories that I plan to self publish. Last week I sent them out to a couple of writers I’d approached asking for feedback and critique. One of the writers is on twitter and the other I know from the SFX forum, this is the first time I’ve ever sent my work out to anyone for appraisal and being honest I’m nervous about what I might get back.

    I know I can do good work – had 3 short stories acceptances in last 6 months – but I am a big self doubter and am always judging what I write harshly. I hoping this outside insight will help be quell those doubts.

  2. plantageneta says:

    Hi Phil, I know exactly how you feel, but its also wonderful knowing someone has entered your world for a bit; especially if they ‘get it’.
    I believe almost all criticism is useful; the worst is when someone says they don’t like it (or even that they do) but can’t really put their finger on why – not helpful.
    Sometimes it’s illuminating because someone will say – I didn’t understand X, and you think its obvious. Then you read back and realise because the picture is so clear in your mind, you’ve assumed too much knowledge on the part of the reader.
    Some of the criticisms I got were so basic – concerning layout etc., I kicked myself afterwards but was useful all the same.
    Even if you get a really scathing response (which is very unlikely), if you can honestly see merit in any of their points and you can (after throwing a few things around) address them, then you’ve already become a better writer.
    I bet you’ll find the responses really motivational. Please let me know how it turns out 🙂

  3. jakiedwards says:

    Wow, I’m so glad I found your blog!!
    I am an unpublished urban fantasy freak, I mean writer. I have spent six years writing my tome. When I first finished Sassy she was 160,000 words long. People said ‘you need to cut this’ (check out writerscafe.org for shared critiquing btw). I said ‘but how?’ Every word was so very important, all information critical to understand the backdrop, character, etc.
    Three years later I’ve just (literally in the last few weeks) finished my FIFTH rewrite. Today Sassy is 85,000 words. Streamlined, better paced (scared that she might be a little anaemic) but healthier.
    I’ve considered paying for a critique and never committed. Mainly because it’s soooooo very expensive. Also it’s really hard to get a novel critqued by anyone who might know what they’re talking about. I’m still dubious that a paid critque can be impartial. After all if you continue to write then you’ll continue to need to need their services. It’s plain business sense.
    I shall be following your blog, if only because it’s so nice to no longer be alone…

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi Jaki, thanks for commenting. It is a bit of a lonely business, writing. I’ve felt a bit silly about even admitting to anyone that I do it – in 2012 I finally started to tell people, but not everyone!
      A professional critic is expensive, but I found it worth it – although I couldn’t do it over and over. You’re right though, you have to pick them carefully. The company I went (TLC) has a lot of authors on their books and they pair your work with the author they feel is best placed to comment on it. I still suspected I’d wasted my money until I got the feedback. The major plus is that they read the whole thing not just a few chapters. (they were recommended at the Writers & Artists Yearbook conference so I at least felt some security about going to them).
      Now I’m spending more money on this Arvon course, but I suppose I think once I gain skills I won’t lose them and they’ll be applicable to future work. The course I picked is a tutored retreat focussing purely on my novel, so its not a general course on writing or creativity. Again, not something I’ll be able to repeat for a long, long time. It had better be worth it!!!
      Thanks for the heads up re Writerscafe, I’ll have a look. I have sent some writing out to contacts I’ve made on twitter, but obviously people don’t have time to read the whole tome for free, so they’re only looking at sections. They also probably want to be nice.

      Keep me updated with the progress of Sassy, it sounds intriguing I’ll check out your blog too. 🙂

      • jakiedwards says:

        Will do. What type of fantasy do you write? I’m doing urban, werewolves, eventually vampires and faery… you can see how it hit 160,000 words… maybe we can do some swapsies????

        • plantageneta says:

          HI jaki., I write pseudo historical fantasy (lots of swords, battles, religious & political machinations & a bit of magic) book 1 is currently 128k. I’ve 2 sequels already part written (but currently on back burner) 130k & 110K – so you can imagine how big it was when I was trying to make it into one book! Yes def could do that. I can’t find you on twitter, was going to follow.

  4. I understand exactly how you felt submitting your book for criticism then waiting for the reply. The advice you received sounds positive and useful. So easy to slate things without thought. I belong to a very professional writing group and have, I’m ashamed to say, on occasions been too ready to cut to the quick on a piece I didn’t like. What I have learned is – whatever anyone else thinks about your work, nobody knows for sure whether it will appeal to a readership and that’s what really matters. Keep writing.

  5. plantageneta says:

    Hi Anne, thanks for commenting. You’re right everyone’s taste is very different, it’s also a bit of a skill in itself to give the right balance of criticism and encouragement. Plus everyone comes into this arena at different stages – I daresay if i’d sent my work off after the first or second draft I would have got a very different response!

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