Sunday 23 June 2019

Writers’ Questions: How / When / Why should I get feedback on my writing?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in 2020, my own novel, based on the lives of the Brontes, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). Writing a novel can be a lonely process so, over the next year, I’m using this series, Writers’ Questions, to share some thoughts and advice about the writing and publication process. Today, we talk feedback—when should you get it and how do you ensure it’s useful?

The setting for my group's latest Writing Retreat
Writers are a disparate bunch but there are two broad groups I see them fall into when it comes to feedback. Unfortunately both face problems!

First, there are those who seek feedback too early and too often. The issue here is that showing your work too soon can lead to you losing the storytelling impulse (why write your ending if you’ve already rhapsodised about it at length when drinking with your friends?) and negative feedback too early (even if it’s constructive) can leave you feeling disheartened and/or unmotivated when you should be in a generative and creative ‘honeymoon period’ with your novel.

Those in the second group don’t seek feedback at all and merrily send their manuscripts off to agents and publishers (or publish them in e-book form if self-publishing) without ever gauging how readers are responding. This is a bad idea. However intelligent or talented you are, writing is about connecting with those who are reading. Do you want your first feedback to be in the form of a rejection email or a 1-star Amazon review? I didn’t think so.

So, if these are the pitfalls, how can feedback be done well? I’ll share some ideas based on my own experiences.
Writing Groups
Writing groups can be an amazing (free) resource for getting feedback on your novel, but you need to give as much as you hope to get, and offer your fellow writers support. I’m a member of two groups (one general, one historical fiction specific). In each case we share chapters of our works-in-progress a week before our fortnightly (or, for Americans, biweekly) meetings and come to the group ready to share our comments and discuss our overall notes.

Some writers use writing groups to motivate them to write more as it creates a regular deadline. I prefer to have a little more emotional distance and share chapters I’ve written weeks or months rather than days before.

People often ask about how to find writing groups. If you’re in a big city it’s definitely an advantage (I found one group via the Meetup app, the other through the Center for Fiction in New York City), but smaller towns may well have groups too. Search online, visit your local library to ask for advice, and, if you have literary minded friends or acquaintances, consider forming your own.

Critique Partners
Another idea, especially if you’re struggling to find a local group, is to buddy up with another writer, even if they’re in a different location, to act as your critique partner. I’ve typically exchanged longer sections of my manuscripts via email with remote critique partners (especially the first 50 pages as this is what most literary agents and editors will ask to see first). Visit writing forums (such as r/Writing on Reddit) or genre-specific Facebook groups to try to find a good candidate.

A word of caution about the feedback you’ll receive and give either from/as CPs or in writing groups: as writers it’s very tempting to try to rewrite others’ books and tell people how you would have written it. Try not to do this yourself and, if the feedback you’re receiving is too directive, ask writers about the problems they’re seeing which are leading them to this conclusion vs. their proposed solutions.

Beta Readers
Beta readers are those who read your completed, self-edited, manuscript imaginary cover-to-imaginary cover, mimicking the experience of a real consumer. Don’t send your book to betas too soon, only when the manuscript is as good as you can make it alone.

My criteria for beta readers is as follows: they should be 1) reliable (i.e. they’ll meet the deadline I set for completion), 2) honest (this isn’t an exercise in flattery), 3) readers of fiction (I try to avoid having too many writers as beta readers, for the reasons mentioned above).

I use a discussion guide/questionnaire to garner consistent feedback from beta readers (which I’ll share in a future post) and I treat them to a drink or dinner to show them my appreciation for their hard work.

There is some disagreement in the writing community about how well you should know your beta readers. You can try to source strangers online, by frequenting some of the forums mentioned above and other services. But I find a mix of friends and acquaintances works well. Again, honesty is key. This means, it’s ok to have your parent or your partner act as one of your beta readers (if you think your relationship can take it), but they shouldn’t be your only beta reader.

Paid Services
If you’re going the traditional publishing route (i.e. trying to get a literary agent and then selling your manuscript to a major publishing house), you don’t need to hire editors of any kind to review and/or correct your manuscript, prior to querying. I have never done this and didn’t spend a penny on editorial to secure a deal. But, if you’re stuck, you’ve exhausted free feedback and you have the money, there are reputable services out there that can help. Just be clear in your mind about the kind of feedback you need. Are you looking for someone to help with structure? Then search for developmental editors. Does your grammar and spelling need to be checked? That’s copyediting. Do you just want someone else to read it and tell you what they think? Look into paid beta reading services.

So, any feedback on my thoughts on feedback? I’d love to answer any questions you have and hear about your experiences. If you have comments or questions, or ideas for future posts, comment below, contact me on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist.

1 comment:

  1. I'm quite encouraged to hear about your luck finding in-person groups in NYC; so far I have only found online groups, but I will keep the Center for Fiction and Meetup in mind. I had an awkward critiquing experience with someone who was writing in the same genre, but only wrote/read contemporaries, questioning every little detail. I was taken to task because I didn't conform to one of the things everyone thinks they know about the Victorian period, but which isn't really true. I'm currently feeling more than a little bit cautious . . . .