A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 3

I apologize for taking so long to get to part 3. Part 4 will be posted by Jan.30th or sooner.

In 1917 The Inland Press printed “Mark Twain’s 3 Rules For Writing.” The article said the first was write. The second was write and the third was write. One of the most well-known quotes on writing by Stephen King is this one. “If you want to be a good writer you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.”

This is good advice and a great foundation but it is practically impossible to become a great writer in a vacuum. At some point, we all need feedback on our writing because it’s difficult to look at our own work objectively.

Too many times I have read writers lamenting the difficulty of getting thorough, in-depth, thoughtful, and helpful reviews. Many of these writers send out copies of their manuscript to anyone that says they’ll take a look at it and the only direction they give to the potential critiquer is ‘tell me what you think of this.’ With this approach, 99.99% of the time they will be disappointed. If the percentage is lower than that, they just got damn lucky and they should take note of anyone that didn’t disappoint them for future reference.

I agree that it is difficult to get good critiques but it’s much easier if the writer accepts their share of the responsibility in this process and does the work required. The three primary tasks for the writer are:

  1. Finding the correct people to be your alpha readers, beta readers, and advanced readers that are willing to dedicate some of their time and energy to help.
  2. Letting these readers know specifically what feedback you would like from them with a mutually agreeable timetable. The feedback will change some at each stage in the process.
  3. Reciprocity is the typical currency between writers but some of your critiquers will not be writers. Small gifts for your alpha or beta readers are appropriate and not prohibited as long as the gifts are not dependent on them posting reviews. I’ll discuss advance readers in a later post.

 

In my last post, I listed the most popular points in the writing process for writers to seek critiques. The first one is early in the writing process before doing a line edit. Some writers do this with their first draft but I recommend doing at least one rewrite before getting your first readers or alpha readers. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on punctuation errors, typos, misspellings, etc. but you do want the draft you send to be intelligible. If it is difficult for your alpha readers to understand your writing, you will lose them.

The next step is to find 3-5 alpha readers that you know will give you thorough and helpful critiques. That number is just my suggestion. Some writers use more and some less. If you are lucky enough to know 3-5 thorough critiquers that will agree to be your alpha readers, cherish them and treat them well. If you don’t, then your search for alpha readers begins. Below is a list of recommended do’s and don’t’s and steps to take in your search. This list is very detailed and meant for writers that are new to the process so J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, you can stop reading at this point.

  1. Many new writers ask their close friends to be alpha readers. They are not likely to give you thorough and helpful reviews. If you don’t believe me, test it. When they come back and tell you it was wonderful, be thankful you have friends that didn’t want to hurt your feelings and move on.
  2. Family members are also not recommended. If your relationship is good, the result is the same as in #1. If the relationship is not so good, they are likely to shred you. That’s not useful.
  3. Join a few critique groups in your book’s genre or websites that have critique groups in several genres and get to know the members and their critiquing styles. Get involved and if you’ve never performed critiques, now is a good time to learn. You will be amazed at how much you learn about writing through critiquing. I recommend doing this well before you get to the point of needing alpha or beta readers. If you didn’t plan ahead, take this time to rewrite, edit and polish your first chapter. Then put your manuscript away and start working on your next project. Get involved with these groups, get to know the members, and learn and/or practice critiquing.
  4. After at least a month to six weeks (Don’t blow a gasket! The world is not going to end because you waited a few more weeks to start getting feedback on your manuscript. Well…it MIGHT end but it won’t have anything to do with you waiting and this time is well worth the investment. Having put your manuscript away and being focused on other things will also give you a fresh perspective on your novel.) you should be more familiar with the members. You should also have learned a lot about critiquing and understand how much work and time are involved. Hopefully, you will have begun to discover a new perspective on writing. Now you’re ready to take the next step.
  5. Now you’re ready to ask for people to critique your first chapter in each of the groups. Ideally, you would like to get as many people to volunteer as you can. One of the reasons for having them just critique your first chapter is so you can get these critiques back fairly quickly. Agree on a timetable and let them know that you have specific concerns that you would like them to assess and you will email that list to them with the first chapter. Also, let them know that you’re interested in any other suggestions or comments that they have.

Before I go to next step I want to point out why you only want to send the first chapter. You want to get these reviews back quickly so you will have the information you need to choose your 3-5 alpha readers. You will hopefully be able to assess which of the critiquers give the most thorough and helpful feedback and which ones stick to the agreed-upon timetable. The latter is not nearly as important as the former but it is important.

The second reason for only sending out just the first chapter is that once your little band of alpha readers has reviewed your entire manuscript you’re going to rewrite the novel. You are probably going to cut, add, shred and possibly stand on your head. And when you’re finished with the pulling out hair and gnashing of teeth, you are going to need beta readers that have never seen the original form of your manuscript. You want fresh eyes and you may want to get some volunteers from the groups to which you belong. Let’s face it. No one wants to read the same book again just after they finished it. Not voluntarily…for free! Now back to getting your first chapter critiqued.

  1. When you email your revised, rewritten, spit-polished, and edited chapter 1, in the agreed upon format (typically pdf), you want to attach it to an email thanking your reader for their time and agreeing to help you. Reiterate that you are including a list of specific concerns that you have but this list is not meant to be restrictive. Any and all feedback, suggestions, and comments are appreciated. Here is my suggested list of topics/questions for first chapters:

 

  • Hook – Does the opening have something that keeps the reader from putting the book down? If so, is it introduced quickly enough?
  • Characters – Are they well rounded? Is the Main Character likable, sympathetic, or do they inspire respect? Are there enough facets of the character revealed to give them depth and give the reader a clear picture of who they are?
  • Plot – Do you think the first chapter gives the reader a clear picture of the primary conflict or at least a good idea of what it is? Can you detect foreshadowing of the conflict to come? Too much? Too little? Does it cross the boundaries into telegraphing?
  • Pace – Does the story feel like it’s going somewhere? Is the story moving too fast or too slowly?
  • Language and voice – Did you “feel” the story? Is the narrative clear?
  • Setting – Is the reader grounded in real scenes? Is there sufficient description of the setting? Is there too much?
  • Themes – Is the theme apparent at this point in the story? Is it original? Appropriate for the times? Or some astounding new philosophy that can change the reader’s perspectives?

 

These questions can be adjusted based on your manuscript but you do want to include all 7 topics. Now you can send off your first chapter and you should get a lot of helpful feedback on this chapter along with the information I mentioned earlier. While you’re waiting for your critiques, go back to working on your next project and leave your critiquers alone.

 

In Part 4 I’ll discuss chapter 1 critiques, the 4 types of critiquers, the hunt for the elusive alpha reader, suggested questions for the successfully captured alpha readers when reviewing your manuscript, and other such fun things guaranteed to cure insomnia. Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Your comments, suggestions, and feedback are always welcome.

Thanks to everyone that read, liked, commented on, and reblogged parts 1 and 2.  I deeply appreciate it. Thank you, KC Redding-Gonzalez for posting the link to your Horror/Dark Fiction/Poetry critique group in the comments on Part 2. If anyone else would like to share links to critique groups they like, please feel free to post them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 thoughts on “A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 3”

    1. Thank you! With a name like Cow Pasture Chronicles, how could I resist. I grew up on a farm. My sisters and I learned how to dive through barbed wire fence going as fast as our little legs could carry us. Upset bulls were not something we wanted to deal with.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Excellent advice. I never asked a friend to review my writing. I asked published authors, established book reviewers, and readers that were the best in what I was writing. Best thing I ever did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment. You were way ahead of the crowd! This is nice validation of the major points I’m trying to make. Move to the head of the class “Teacher.” LOL. I think you’ve already graduated. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My only question is: And you’ve accomplished this for one or more of your manuscripts?

    • I like the concept of skipping friends and family (They suck as critics anyway. Most don’t even reply. (or I have horrible friends and family…?))
    • I like sending out just Chapter 1. (Or the first 1000 words.) Reducing the burden on readers is critical, it seems.
    • And that thought on providing some gratuity to readers… Nice touch. Something personal? A box of chocolate covered ants?
    (Does it mean I suck as a writer when I can’t even pay people to read my work?)

    http://www.Scribophile.com can help — if you’re willing to endure the slings and arrows of the writer snobs there.
    And Meetup.com has a ton of folks in most cities who congregate to beat each other over the head with reams of manuscripts. (I, for the life of me, can’t figure out why I have to GO somewhere to read digital material.)

    If there was only a BetaReadersAnonymous.com that would allow you to join, trust and share.

    Or better yet: ALANN – Automated Literary Analysis Neural Network, let Google read and critique your work…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading my post and for commenting. It’s great to interact with readers and you have provided some nice feedback and posed some great questions. The answer to your first question is yes I have. This is information I’ve learned through experimentation. I suppose some would call it trial and error but I’ve spent decades as a research scientist. A nice gift for any reader that isn’t a writer is a gift card you can buy and send electronically. eBay cards are nice and versatile. I’d steer away from Amazon cards if you plan to publish there just because they’re very careful about their rules when it comes to who can post reviews and your reader might eventually want to post a review. For your readers that are writers, offering to critique their work in return is usually the most valuable thing you could offer them.

      I’m not sure about your question: (Does it mean I suck as a writer when I can’t even pay people to read my work?) If that means you’re having trouble finding readers, perhaps you just haven’t found the right audience for your work.

      No matter where you go for critiques and reviews, especially public forums, you have to develop the ability to deal with jerks and people that just want to insult your work. The world is full of these people. There was a group I belonged to where there was one guy that on some occasions would give great critiques. The next day he might tell another writer he should give up writing forever and go learn to make fries at McDonald’s or other such comments. When you get negative feedback, apart from the frycook type comment, I suggest reading through it very carefully rather than dismissing it out of hand. There MIGHT be useful information in there. You have to put your emotions in your pocket and read objectively. It’s easier said than done. There writing groups online where writers go by handles rather than using their real names. If you want to discuss that send me an email using the contact button which should be at the top of the screen. Thanks again for your interest and your great feedback.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. A research scientist — cool.
        I’ve spent decades writing software code, tech specs and informational documents, which are nothing like narrative prose. I’m sure you can commiserate, critiquing for technical accuracy is nothing like bending one’s mind around prose fiction.
        I was being self-effacing, re: suck as a writer…
        Finding a good beta reader is like finding a secret path through the jungle, one to covet, protect and curate. Lose them and you’re lost and have to whack the weeds to fine a new one.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Thanks! And you’re right. It’s VERY different.
        “Secret path through the jungle…” that’s a great description. Don’t underestimate the value of your analytical and critical thinking skills in writing fiction. They’re beneficial to the process and regardless of what others say they actually give you an advantage. I was told by a popular blogger that scientists basically could be artists (including writers). I refrained from arguing with him but I so wanted to point out all the historical contradictions to his attitude, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Asimov etc. If you run into people like that, just realize that they are probably young and ignorant (not stupid). They still have a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing with me! Stop being self-effacing. I used to do that a lot. There are enough people out there that will beat up on you without you joining in on it , LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As the administrator of a writing group I can tell you that a lot of writers make the mistake of just joining a group anywhere…it’s more like dating. You need to find like minds and folk who know your genre. Then you must be willing to accept that there WILL be flaws in your writing, and having them found out does not turn you into a pumpkin. Fix them if it is clear they are errors. And don’t join a group only to fade away if you don’t feel adequately worshipped… working writers work, and professional editors will not coddle you either. You need deadlines and accountability. In my APA, rudeness in critiques is not acceptable. We are here to help each other. We are Greater Rocky Mountain Horror Writers, and our site is here on WordPress. We don’t don’t charge, and you will write. And read. And critique. No free rides!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with the comparison with dating. Sometimes the only way to find out if you want to date someone, is go on a date. I joined a number of groups that didn’t fit. I can’t recall if I discussed this in a comment or in the text of one of my posts. I think it was in the comments. There was one fellow that would sometimes give thorough and thoughtful critiques. There were other times where I read comments from him to other writers when he suggested that they stop writing forever and go learn to make french fries at McDonalds. The fact that they allowed this man to stay in the group told me it wasn’t the group for me. It sounds like your writing group is run the way every one of them should. You posted the link in the comments on my Part 2 post. I visited the site. I’ve tried my hand at some dark fiction and horror but it’s quite different than writing the suspense and sci-fi that I write. It takes a unique skill that I have never worked at developing but I can certainly appreciate it. I don’t think any writer ever reaches the point where there writing can’t be improved. We also have to continue learning this craft. Not only because there is always room for improvement but because we are aiming at a moving target. The readers today are not the readers of yesterday nor are they the readers of tomorrow. Thank you so much for reading and your insightful comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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