By Laura Nsafou
Writing a novel needs a critical mind. There’s a plot, some characters, a setting, and the actual words made into sentences and paragraphs need to have a certain style that brings the aforementioned pieces to life. Unfortunately, many times when agents receive manuscripts, there are a few things missing that make the manuscript less than desirable:
- Balance: the story’s rhythm is unequal. The plot doesn’t succeed in catching the readers’ attention until the end.
- Authenticity: characters seem like caricatures or are not fully developed. You don’t have to give the backstory to every character, but there needs to be hints that you, the author, know every character inside and out—we’re talking motivations here—so the reader has breadcrumbs to follow that help them create a full image of your characters in their mind.
- Polish: potential is not enough to get your story published. At Quill Shift Literary Agency, we receive many manuscripts with potential. What we’re looking for is a fully crafted tale without grammar mistakes, in the right format, and with a captivating story arc from beginning to end. Any author submitting a manuscript should have the feeling that it is in a state to be sold to an editor the next day.
How can you accomplish the above? Get feedback. Even though, as the author, you are your worst critic, your opinion won’t be as fresh and neutral as the one of a new reader.
Fear of Feedback
Let’s be honest, negative feedback hurts. When you receive it, it’s hard to separate the criticism of the work from personal criticism. Yet, it’s important to remember that readers aren’t judging who you are. It’s the state of what you produce that may need reworking and improvement.
The fear of feedback is natural, but it also proves your attachment to your comfort zone. As Graeme Shimmin explains in his article Getting feedback on your novel, hearing feedback is a part of your writing process, especially if your novel needs improvements:
…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 only want praise for your work, you probably aren’t writing for others, but for yourself. Including readers in your universe means they have the right to say something about it. You can’t expect them to open a book without having thoughts about what they read.
It’s okay to not be ready to share your story. Being confident about the work you’ve done is a long working process. And it’s also natural to feel offended when you receive negative feedback.
Just remember that your ego won’t improve your novel.
Where to Look for Feedback
Anyone can be a reader. For example, your friends and family are a good start for collecting feedback. It won’t give you a neutral look at your novel, though. In the same article, Shimmin explains how carefully choosing your entourage will lead to subjective feedback:
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.
No matter what, after receiving the first pieces of feedback you will slowly begin to learn how to hear and get used to it. Knowing there are readers out there waiting to experience what you have written will encourage you to be more cautious and specific in your writing.
Beyond your entourage, there are many ways to get feedback from unknown readers. For example, the website NowNovel explains the pro and cons for free or paid critiques.
Free critiques from peers are not necessarily inferior to critiques you pay for from professional editors. The first thing to decide when seeking free critiques is whether you would prefer to get them in person or online. Your local library or Meetup.com may be able to connect you with groups that meet in person. (…)
Paid critiques are also valuable although more caution is needed. When a free critique group doesn’t work out, the worst that can happen is that you lose some time and perhaps come away with a bruised ego. A bad paid critique can cost as much or more than a good one, and you have more to lose.
Finding readers to comment on your work is not difficult: forums, meet-up, blogs, etc. It’s up to you to choose what is most convenient for you based on your needs. You can start with the opinion of relatives, or you can hear the harsh ones first. In both ways, you choose the rhythm you want to follow to achieve the next step—reworking your novel.
Feedback on Diverse Issues and Characters
It’s great to include diversity in your novel, but it’s also another reason to be careful. Current discussions around diversity in literature provide myriad of articles to choose from in your search for portraying diversity in the right light. Even on the QSLA website in past blog posts you can find help on diverse elements in your novel.
We understand that writers are afraid of the reception of their stories, specifically when including inclusive elements. There are have been harsh outcries recently stemming from reactions of readers of color and otherwise. No one wants to be called racist or anti-feminist or homophobic and the list goes on. In her article Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books?, Roni Loren made an important point that we hope you’ll embrace.
Accept that you might get something wrong anyway – This is a work-related hazard for writers. Not just with diversity but with any subject we’re writing about. We may not always get it right. I can write a love story between two college guys (which I did in the New Adult anthology Fifty First Times) but I’ve never been gay–or a guy–so I could get something wrong. But, I think the risk is worth it. Because even with that short story, I got emails and comments from readers who told me they’d never read a male/male romance before and that they were surprised they liked it. And that they didn’t expect it to be as sweet and romantic as a m/f romance or that they thought they’d be “weirded out” but weren’t. If that little story makes one person look at a gay couple differently and see that love is love no matter the gender combination, I call that a win and worth the risk.
There is no shame in writing inclusive stories for the first time. There is shame, however, in not doing your due diligence to create a well-rounded tale and also not understanding that we live in a world where diversity is the norm and it is everyone’s responsibility to showcase that norm.
Writing inclusively means that you’re ready to hear the experiences of people who live these issues. You have to listen and not only selecting what is convenient for your plot. Feedback on the diversity in your story will help you to make your characters real.
How to Use Feedback
Now that you’ve collected enough feedback, it’s time to use it. Put some distance between you and your writing after you’ve read the feedback. It’s important to take time to process and breathe through the praise and criticism before reworking your novel. With this cleansing time also comes perspective and allows you to separate yourself from your writing. Once you’ve processed, it’s easier to immerse yourself in the next stage of writing where you’ll utilize the feedback.
As Gary Smailes explains in his article How to get feedback on your novel that will actually help, you need to filter the feedback you get:
The first step is to make sure you get enough feedback. One reader is not enough, you need at least three readers to have assessed your book before you go making major changes. If you get enough feedback then you can concentrate on looking for trends and patterns in the reader’s comments. If all the feedback says Chapter 1 is too short, then it’s time to revisit Chapter 1. However, if one of ten readers says Chapter 1 is too short, it’s probably best to ignore this comment and make no changes.
Feedback creates a strategic map of where you need to go next after you finish a draft of your story. Which chapters should you extend or cut? Which characters needs to evolve along the plot more and which ones aren’t necessary to the story? How is the rhythm of the story?
When you submit a novel to an agent, it means you think your work is in the best possible shape and is ready for publication. Feedback gives you the opportunity to have a clear idea of the pros and cons of your story and rework it multiple times until your voice is clear, characters are full, and plot is engrossing enough to entertain your target reader.
Let us know how you get feedback for your work. How do you work with it and how does it work for you?