Sunday, 7 June 2015

On writing groups and literary consultancies

Is my novel finished? Is it good enough? Am I ready to send it out to agents or publishers?

Such questions are like a zen koan for most writers, whether experienced or not. The trouble is, if you publish prematurely (including self-publishing), then all those thousands of hours you've poured into a novel can end up for nothing, or very little. If you send off your labour of love to agents and there are still flaws in the characterization, plot, or style, then you may just get form replies that say 'thanks, but no thanks' (assuming they reply at all).

Fiction is a tough world.

Trialling it with readers is never enough, because usually they are people you know, and so even if they are being honest, they will be biased in your favor. Besides, they are not writers, and won't see flaws in point-of-view issues or a whole host of other pitfalls that can sink your novel with an agent or publisher.

Writing groups - whether real or virtual (i.e. online) are a more robust way of testing your work, especially if they are prepared to give clear (aka brutal) feedback and tell you what (they think) is wrong with it. I attend a writing group (there are six of us, all writers) every few weeks and we critique each others' latest chapters. Occasionally, we read an entire manuscript, to see if it holds together. I believe that writing groups are very valuable, as long as they give honest feedback (unfortunately we all tend to learn more from negative feedback - what needs fixing). They set you on the right path, and can get your novel into a good position.

But they don't necessarily get you all the way, i.e. ready to submit to agents. Why?

For a start, your writing group colleagues have probably seen the novel evolve over a period of a year or more - they have lived through the novel with you, rather than reading it cover-to-cover in a matter of days or weeks. Your characterization has probably changed (improved) during that process. You may have gone back and re-written chapters without taking them back to the group. Your writing group themselves have invested a good deal of their time in your writing and editing, and want to feel it was all worth it, that it is now ready. Conversely, they may actually be too finicky for you, trying to impose their writing style onto yours, which can be a particular problem if you are writing genre fiction. This can actually delay you pushing it out when you should (at the end of the day it is your book not theirs). All of these and other issues mean that writing groups are not the best candidate as the final arbiter to say if it is ready or not.

This is why I usually send my finished manuscript to literary consultancies. They use not only published authors (in the same genre as the one in which you are writing), but also seasoned editors who have worked in publishing.

I use two outfits, both based in the UK: Writers Workshop and Cornerstones, as I've found their feedback invaluable, and their services and approach very professional.  For a general review, usually costing anywhere between 350 and 500 pounds, depending on the size of my manuscript, I get back a detailed 8-12 page report discussing the merits of the novel and areas where I could improve it, particular weaknesses, as well as where it is working well. My writing group is naturally very interested in what the review has to say, to see whether it agrees with some of their concerns or noticed something they did not. Often the latter happens, with a good reviewer, who produces a neat idea which can transform the novel. This happened with my second book, where aside from comments about style etc., the reviewer noted that after I killed off a particular villain, tension suffered throughout the rest of the novel. It took some considerable re-working to keep her alive, but it transformed the entire book (if not the entire series).

For my last book, Eden's Endgame, I didn't use this approach. It was the fourth and final book in a series, and I felt I had enough experience to go it alone, and thought a reviewer would be hard pushed to comment sensibly on the fourth book in a series, with character/plot arcs going all the way back to the first book.

But my latest book is a new venture in a new genre: a contemporary thriller called Sixty-Six Metres, which involves one of my other passions, scuba-diving. For this one I feel sufficiently unsure that I've actually sent it to both lit consultancies, to gain two reports and professional opinions. It will be interesting to compare the reports, and for sure there will be plenty of work (re-editing) for me to do.

A positive side-effect of sending off a manuscript to such a consultancy or agency is that you get to put down the book for 4-6 weeks. You can (and should) resist the temptation to keep tinkering with it. This is important because you get some emotional distance between you and your manuscript. When the feedback does come, you can take it more objectively, and it is easier to see what they are getting at. And in the meantime you can write something else, or just take time off for those other things in you life that matter, including spending more time reading...

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