During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I spent a few days in a condo in Oahu, Hawaii. There I planned and began writing Book 4. (Spoiler alert – In Book 4, Jen will spend a little time in Honolulu, and on Justice Island.)
After spending some time reviewing and editing the first three books, I’ve completed my final tweaks and passes on Book Four.
The next project I will tackle is to update all of the websites for the book series. They’re a few years old, and need an updated design.
You’ve completed your novel and then did your own editing. Before you send your novel to agents or publishers, you need feedback. Lots of feedback. You need critique partners.
About Critique Partners
A critique partner is typically a group of like-minded writers that work together and provide constructive feedback for one another’s work.
The following are common terms for people that read your work:
- Alpha Reader – This is a person that reads your work and provides feedback WHILE YOU ARE WRITING IT. Alpha readers aren’t necessary, though every pair of eyes on your work can be helpful. Your alpha reader is typically a trusted family member or best friend.
- Beta Reader – This is a person that reads your work after your first draft is complete. This person provides high-level plot and character feedback for your novel. They help you find plot holes and ask good questions about your characters. Again, your beta reader is usually someone is your circle of friends and family.
- Critique Partner – This is an author with whom you exchange writings. You act as their Alpha/Beta readers and they do the same for you. If you have a writing group that meets weekly, the group or a single author friend might serve as your critique partner while you’re writing, or after your draft is complete.
Finding Critique Partners
Yes partners, plural. You need more than one person to trade novels with. Don’t put your career in one person’s hand.
When you look for a critique partner, you should search for someone that writes the same genre as you. For example, if you write Young Adult (YA) fiction, choose a partner that also writes YA.
Also, make sure you’re familiar with your subgenre. For example, if you’re a YA author, do you write Paranormal YA, Steampunk YA, or Sci-Fi YA. For other examples of YA subgenres, see Novel Novice.
Look at Organizations
There are tons of online organizations that help writers connect with one another:
- Critique Circle – Join this online group and receive credits for providing good feedback. That shows that you’re a good partner and good people will work with you. This might not be ideal for a first-time critique.
- Google Group – You can join the Critique Partner Matchup Google Group.
- Ladies Who Critique – This is a female-only forum grouped by genre, interests, and experience.
- Meetup – Check Meetup for any local writer’s or critique groups in your area.
- NaNoWriMo Critique and Swap – NaNoWriMo is familiar to many writers and you submit your novel info by genre.
- Regional Writer’s Association – Join a regional community, such as the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association.
- Similar Author Blog – Find a popular author in your genre and check their blog for CP matches. For example, see Kim Chance.
- YALitChat – If you’re Twitter-savvy, you can follow #yalitchat and join the conversation. You can also find like-minded Twitter users, build your network, and find a critique partner.
Before you can GET a good critique partner, you need to BECOME a good critique partner.
After you join a couple of communities where you can find a critique partner, look for other authors that are searching for partners. Find around half a dozen authors with novels that sound interesting to you and provide feedback. Why?
- By reading lots of other works, you can learn about what makes a good or bad novel.
- You learn what feedback others ask for and how to look for it. This helps you to understand what feedback to ask for in return.
- You demonstrate your value as a partner.
Before you can provide good feedback, you must:
- Understand the type of feedback the author is requesting. Only deliver what they ask for. If they only want overall plot feedback, don’t point out typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors. Unless they add to confusion for the plot.
- Learn whether this is the first time the author has received feedback.
- Commit to a small set of feedback, like 2 chapters.
- Commit to a deadline.
- Agree on a file format with revision tracking, such as Microsoft Word.
When you work on your critique feedback, consider this Hardcore Critique Advice.
Here is a quick checklist that you can use:
- Plot – Does the action start at the right time? Is there too much or too little character development?
- Plot – Does the beginning of the story hook your interest?
- Plot – Does the author substitute coincidence for plot movement?
- Plot – Is much of the plot moved along using internal dialog?
- Plot – Is the ending satisfying and exciting? Does it intentionally or accidentally leave a story line open?
- Pace – How is the pace of the story?
- Story – Is there the proper balance of action, dramatization, and narrative?
- Story – Is the dialog clear without being repetitive of “he said” and “she said”?
- Story – Did the dialog sound natural or forced?
- Story – Does the author over-explain or under-explain concepts, situations, or surroundings?
- Story – Was anything unclear or confusing?
- Story – Were there any inconsistencies?
- Story – Did each part of the novel add to the story?
- Characters – Did you feel an emotionally connected to the main character (MC)?
- Characters – Are the characters likeable and believable?
- Characters – Do the characters have consistent personalities and behavior?
- Characters – Do they grow throughout the novel?
- Characters – Does the dialog of each character sound unique?
- Characters – Are the character names distinguishable and consistent with the character behavior?
- Characters – Does the dialog of each character match their personality?
- Characters – Are physical descriptions subtle and appropriate?
- Characters – Do the characters behave in age-appropriate manner? For example, if an YA character behaves mature and selfless all the time…
- Point of view – Is the novel consistent? First-person present, first-person past, third-person past, etc. The verbs should be consistent throughout
- Point of view – If the novel is third-person, is there too much character-hopping?
- Point of view – Should the author have used a different POV?
- Tone – Is the tone appropriate? For example, does the author try to be too funny in a serious plot?
- Grammar – Are there repetitive sentences that repeat the same information over and over?
- Grammar – Are there long run-on sentences that could be better communicated using multiples?
- Grammar – Is there too much use of the passive voice? (See what I did there?)
- Grammar – Did you notice overused words or phrases?
- Grammar – Were there too many adverbs or was there poor use of verbs?
You will typically provide feedback two ways. First, you will provide comments and feedback directly in the writing sample. You can print the copy, use a red pen, and scan the copy. Or you can use change tracking in software, such as Microsoft Word. When you’ve finished, you will email or chat with your author, and provide high-level feedback and specific notes by email.
Provide Email Feedback Gently
Most authors pour their heart and soul into their pages. Be kind. Deliver the Feedback Sandwich.
Provide a disclaimer. Let the author know that your feedback is based on your opinion and that they are welcome to use or discard any of your suggestions.
Help them find your feedback. If the author is not familiar with the software that you used to provide feedback, help them to understand it. For example, “I have provided feedback for your text in Microsoft Word using comments and change tracking. For details about viewing that feedback, see Track Changes (Microsoft Office). Please let me know if you require a different format, such as PDF.”
Begin your feedback with things that you loved about the writing sample. Be specific. For example, “Thanks for trusting me with your first two chapters. I instantly connected with your MC. You did a good job of making me feel that she was frightened, yet strong by showing it rather than stating it. Your characters descriptions were spot-on. You provided enough information to allow me to create distinct characters in my mind without over-describing them.” Continue with as much specific good feedback as you can.
Add items for improvement in the middle of the feedback. Again, be specific. For example, “There are some areas that you could improve. In the second scene, your MC shifts from first-person point-of-view to third. The story started out with a small amount of character development and moved into action, which was great. However, after that, there was a lot of character development. Try to spread that out further in the book, among the action for those characters. The characters names Kirk and Kent were too similar and I kept getting the characters confused.”
Finish with your good feelings about the sample, and requests for future work. Be more general here. And be honest about whether you’d like to read future works by this author. For example, “I really liked your main characters and the beginning of your plot was exciting. I’d be happy to critique any rewrites and future chapters. I’m excited to see what happens to your character next.”
Working with a New Critique Partner
Ultimately, by providing feedback to strangers, you’re looking for a critique partner. It’s not easy to find a critique partner that you sync with. You need to find someone that enjoys your work, but also provides good feedback. At the same time, you have to enjoy their work and provide valuable feedback to them.
When you find someone that wants to try the relationship with you, consider the following suggestions:
Before you commit to reading or sending an entire novel, commit to one or two chapters. Exchange feedback. See if it’s a good fit for your both. If not, move on and find another partnership that’s mutually beneficial.
Set a Deadline
You both need to agree on a deadline and stick with it. For example, if you send two chapters, set a deadline of 10 days. Everyone is busy, and if you can’t set a deadline and stick with it, then maybe you shouldn’t be working together.
After you find critique partners or readers, you have to review the feedback. Brace yourself. This could be painful. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you read feedback from others:
- Feedback is that person’s OPINION.
- Some feedback might help you. The best feedback asks good questions, like “Why did your MC do that action?” and “Where did this object come from.”
- Ignore generic and hateful comments like “Your novel/character/plot sucks.” Seriously, that’s not helpful at all.
- KEEP YOUR VOICE – Don’t let feedback change the way you write. However, do learn from it. For example, if you receive feedback that your character isn’t relevant in today’s society, forget it. But if you receive feedback that your dialog isn’t smooth, then practice saying it out loud and see if it feels natural.
Listen to everything and the choose carefully what to implement.
Book One, Book Two, and now Book Three are all complete.
- Book One: 75,000
- Book Two: 93,000
- Book Three: 88,000
Next on the to-do list: Complete Book Four.
You’ve done it! You completed your novel and now you’re ready to publish it. But wait! Before you start sending manuscripts to publishers or contacting agents, you need to revise and edit your novel. You might be anxious to move things along, but you shouldn’t send your book proposal until it’s polished and complete.
AUTHOR NOTE: I pay the bills as a Senior Technical Writer at a Fortune 500 Top 20 Tech company. There, I regularly pass work to an editor before I publish it. I’ve been there for two years, and I know my stuff. But having an editor means another set of eyes to look for typos, spelling, or grammatical errors. He provides fresh perspective when we work on a complicated feature, so he can point out areas where I don’t explain something well enough. He helps me approach ideas from a different direction. He helps me be clear and only include information that is necessary. At this point, I haven’t been published as a novelist, but I already understand the value of editing passes.
Starting Your First Editing Pass
If you’ve just written your novel, you need to put it down. Everything is too fresh in your mind and you’re heavily invested in your plot and characters. How long you wait depends on how well you remember the events in your book. You want to be surprised by the dialog. You should think, “I don’t remember writing that. It’s AMAZING!” You might remember your overall plot, but not the details. That’s the goal. The most-recommended timeline across the internet is one month. It also depends on how recently you wrote your book.
For example, if you wrote the entire novel in three weeks, such as for NaNoWriMo, and you have a great memory, then you might need to wait longer to edit it. In that case, you should wait several months to read it again.
Alternatively, if you started the novel six months ago and have a terrible memory, then you haven’t seen the contents of chapter one in a long time, and you can start revising right away. Probably, you’re somewhere in the middle. So wait a month before starting your first editing pass.
Planning the Editing Pass
When you are ready to review your completed manuscript for the first time, consider your reading format.
- On Paper – For most people, it’s a good idea to print your book on paper to read it for the first time. First, it’s very satisfying. Use a hole punch and put it in a binder. Then hold the fruit of your labor. Feel its heft. You accomplished this. Now pick up a red pen, some colored highlighters, and get started.
- On Your Computer – For the few folks that are used to doing heavy work on a computer and abhor the thought of sitting with a ream of paper, you can do edits on the computer. Save your book to a software that supports change tracking, such as Microsoft Word. You can add comments and colored highlights and keep moving through your manuscript.
When you’ve decided on a format, plan what issues to look for. In this first pass, you must consider the big picture first.
- Plot – Does your plot build quickly enough? If you include multiple, simultaneous plot lines, are they all moving along without obvious gaps? Do you give your audience too many hints to give away the ending? Or do you give so little information that your audience might be confused? Do you introduce information and not follow up?
- Character – Do you provide enough character building, without being boring? Do you describe characters too much? Do you have too many characters or characters with similar names? Is the dialog repetitive or boring?
- Environment – Are there areas where you over- or under-describe the surroundings of your characters?
- Miscellaneous – Any other potential rewrites, such as confusing sentences, or voice/tone errors fall under this category.
- Typos and Grammar – If you spot an obvious typo, misspelling, or grammatical error, don’t try to fix it. Just make a note or highlight it.
Planning Your Edits
You have your novel, and you know what to look for. Now you need to decide how you’re going to evaluate your novel.
You should take notes and mark up your novel.
Make Chapter Breaks
Logically break up your novel by scene. In your novel (on paper or in your software), make a note of the location of each Chapter break. For example, “CH 1” and “CH 2”. In your notes (paper or software), keep a list of the chapters with their page numbers, and brief summary title. When you get to a good stopping point for the scene, add this information to your note. Use a summary title that makes sense to you, and if you’re writing it on paper, leave several lines between entries for notes later. You can rename the chapter later for your readers. For example, “CH 1, PG 1, Back to School”. You can use this later to evaluation your scene lengths and check the pace of your book. You can also use it to find the pages where something happens.
Highlighting Your Novel
You should highlight your pages to note areas that need changing. For example, you can use the following colors:
With the highlights in your novel, add comments to indicate what the issue is. For example, “Sue acts like she knows Bob, but there’s no explanation of how.” Or simply, “Rewrite sentence.”
In addition to making a Chapter outline of your book, you should take additional notes, depending on how complex your story line is. Sometimes, it’s necessary to note what information your character learns, and in what order. Depending on your novel, you know what the tricky points are. Make notes of them so you can keep track.
Read Your Novel
Set aside a significant amount of time to read your novel. Find a place where you can spread out without being disturbed. You need to focus. If you can read your novel in one day, do it. Otherwise, make sure that you have large chunks within several days set aside to read.
Move quickly through your novel. Don’t stop and ponder how to rewrite a sentence. Make a note of anything odd you discover and keep going. You need to get a feel for the pace of your novel.
Make chapter breaks, highlight, add comments, and take notes using the methods that you have planned. If you run into an exception, deal with it quickly (mix highlighter colors?) and move on.
Review Your Notes
You’ve read your novel from beginning to end. How was it? Were you excited to turn the page? Were you impressed with your previous cleverness? Did you realize that you left gaping plot holes and your characters were inconsistent? Or, most likely, was it all of the above?
When you’re ready to review your notes, start with the following tasks:
- Look at your Chapter outline. Is your story in a logical order?
- Evaluate your notes and make a visual pass through your manuscript and look for plot and character issues.
- View your Chapter outline again and make notes within that outline for major plot issues. For example, does Chapter 6 need to come after Chapter 9? Perhaps the character was kidnapped in Chapter 12, and that’s when they need to find the special ITEM.
- Use your Chapter outline as a to-do list for what needs to be changed. Add all of your important notes there, starting at the top of the list: plot, character, environment, miscellaneous, and typos. Add the same color-coding.
Implement Your Edits
Finally, implement the changes that you noted in the review. Start with the plot. Sometimes, when you fix your plot, you delete changes with other areas you needed to fix. The plot is always the most important, followed quickly by characters.
When you finish with your edits, put down your manuscript. (Now’s a good time to work on the outline for the sequel!) Then do another editing pass. And another. Until you’re happy enough with it that you’re willing to let others see it. But do set a time limit, like 6 months. It’ll never be perfect, but you can improve it every time you read it.
Next Steps: Getting Feedback
After you implement all of your edits, you’re ready to pass your manuscript to others to read. For more information, see Getting Feedback for your Novel.
Book Three History
I wrote Book Three during NaNoWriMo 2013. I used a method called “pantsing”. NaNo-ers align with one of two writing methods:
- Planning – If you’re a planner, you create a plot outline for your novel before November 1. Then, during NaNoWriMo, you write your novel based on your outline. You use the outline to keep your novel moving.
- Pantsing – If you’re a pantser, you write by the seat of your pants, with no planning.
I’m a planner by nature, but in 2013, I decided to try “pantsing” Book Three. It was an interesting experience, but at the end of the month, I had a book full of character development and very little plot movement.
Lesson learned! Whether you are a planner or a pantser, be true to yourself.
At the end of 2013, I had completed Book Three, but really wasn’t happy with it.
The Time Gap
From 2013 – 2017, I didn’t work much on my novel. In 2013 I began working as a Technical Writer at a Fortune 500 Top 20 company that shall remain nameless. When you do something you love for your day job, you don’t spend nearly as much time doing it at home. Instead of working on my novels, I developed my professional writing career.
In 2016, I moved to Seattle and started working for a different Fortune 500 Top 20 company, that shall also remain nameless. As a Senior Technical Writer, my job was even more demanding. After a very busy first year at AWS, I finally got my work under control, and am ready to concentrate on my novels again.
November 2017: Hawaii! I’m taking a few days of vacation to get away. Here in Oahu (see the photo for the view from my writing spot), I will outline and rewrite Book Three. I’m using most of the character development that I wrote in 2013 in Book Three AND Book Four. I’m spreading it out and adding action and plot development to both books. Basically, I’m writing half of Book Three and half of Book Four for NaNoWriMo 2017.
January 2018: In January, I’m making a self-editing pass on Book One and Book Two.
February 2018: In February, I’m making a self-editing pass on Book Three and Book Four, looking for plot gaps. I’m also handing Book One and Book Two to my daughter for a high-level review. Her due date is the end of March.
April 2018: My goal by the end of April is to do a complete editing pass through Book One through Book Three. I’ll implement feedback from my daughter and get fresh eyes on all three books.
May 2018: My goal by the end of May is to complete all of Book Four. Part of that includes planning for future books, so that I can introduce necessary topics early in the series. My other goal by the end of May is to make a content pass on all of the websites.
June 2018: In June, I’m going hunting for Beta readers.