After NaNoWriMo Part 2: Getting Criticism

Yesterday, I discussed the process I use to get a novel from first draft to second, noting how important rewriting is to crafting a really great book. However, I also wrote that I don’t let anyone read my first drafts. What I didn’t mention is that, at some point, it has to get a wider read.

Today, I’ll look at the process of getting criticism for your novel.

Before we start, we need to establish two very important things. The first is that you must get criticism before you publish. Without it, you can’t improve your book. You have to have someone, preferably several someones, read your novel and give you an honest opinion of it. Without that, you don’t know if you’ve written gold or tripe.

Second, “criticism” doesn’t mean someone says, “This sucks.” Criticism is an honest review. Your readers should tell you more than whether they liked it or not. They need to tell you what works and what doesn’t. They should make suggestions for improving the things they didn’t like, and tell you what they did.

SoG Lo-res cover 2For example, before I wrote State of Grace, I penned a different Wolf Dasher novel that I ended up deciding not to publish. However, in the description of the hierarchy of the Shadow Service in that book, I wrote, “Wolf had been ‘promoted’ seventeen times. It was a dangerous job.” One of my readers was really struck by that phrase and told me how it really drove home the danger of Wolf’s career to her. So, when I wrote State of Grace, I made sure to keep those two sentences from the other book.

The first step to getting criticism is choosing your critics well. You don’t need to get someone with an English degree (although that helps) or a professional book doctor, at least not at this stage. What are you looking for is people who will read the book in a timely fashion and not be afraid to hurt your feelings. For that reason, it is often better to choose strangers than friends. Friends, no matter how well meaning, may be worried about being truly honest with you, and you need that honesty to craft the best novel you can.

Think about joining a writing group. There are a number of them available online, and many of them are genre-specific, so you can find someone who knows the kind of material you write. I’m a member of a Facebook group called Author’s Critique Group. We spend a lot of time promoting our books to each other on the group’s page, but it exists so that members can seek out other writers and editors who will volunteer to read an MS and give honest criticism.

If you do turn to friends and family, make sure you are clear about wanting their most honest opinion. Tell them you can take it if they don’t like it and that you want them them to tell you how to make the book better. Tell them too to tell you what works, so you also get positive feedback.

One of my primary readers is my fiancee. That clashes with the advice to get strangers to read your work, but I balance that with her unfamiliarity with my genre. She doesn’t read a lot of thrillers or fantasy books. She’s more of a sci-fi and litearary novel reader. The Wolf Dasher books are a marriage of James Bond style and Tolkienesque fantasy. As a result of her not usually reading the type of book I write, she asks a lot of hard questions about plot points, archetypes, and characters. She wants to know why someone would do some of the things I describe. That makes me question everything that happens in my novels. I have to justify it both to her and to myself. If I can’t, I make a change.

RD5 Hi-res coverFor example, in Red Dragon Five, there is a plot point of a stolen magical elixir. Wolf correctly guesses it is connected to the bad guys’ plan, but no one believes him. My fiancee said that didn’t make any sense. If he brought it up, she posited, it would be logical for his superiors to at least look into it. She was right, so I made a change.

The most important thing to remember about criticism, though, is that it isn’t personal (or shouldn’t be). If someone tells you your novel is broken or there are problems with your plot or characters, it does not mean you are horrible writer, who should quit immediately. It means your book isn’t ready for publication yet. That’s an altogether different thing.

I have a phrase I keep in mind when people tell me there is something wrong with a book: “Listen to your critics but don’t take them to heart.” In other words, listen to the criticism so the novel will improve, but don’t think it means I am a bad author. If you choose your critics well, they will be interested in helping make your book better. That’s a good, good thing, and you should thank them for it.

Criticism is an important part of writing your novel. You can’t author a good book without it. You should embrace it and remember it’s helping you become a better writer.

Once you’ve shaped and reshaped your novel following the criticism process, it’s time to start working with an editor to get it in publishable shape. I’ll discuss that step tomorrow.

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