Novel Critique


Many of you are writing long forms of story: novels, full length screenplays, even series. While there are some great critique groups out there, most of them deal in a limited number of words per session. If you are looking for critique of short pieces of writing, may I suggest Scribophile. If you write Sci Fi, Fantasy or Horror, consider coming to the Speculative Fiction Critique Group Meetup posted on our calendar. Or contact us about hosting a critique group in another genre.

These options work great for short stories and poems but critique of novel length work done chapter by chapter doesn’t always give the long form writer what they need. Perfecting a sentence in a chapter that will get the ax before the piece goes to an agent is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Chapter by chapter or scene by scene approach doesn’t give you much feedback about the story structure, character arcs, or backstory introduction. All those things are critical to the long form story.

So this page is about exchanging your long form story with another writer to get feedback about the whole of your story.

Before You Exchange

  • Make sure that you have completed your story. The person who reads your story won’t read the story again after you made changes. 
  • Read the story to yourself at least once OUT LOUD. You’ll catch clunky sentences, unnatural-sounding dialogue, missing and repetitive words, and spelling errors by reading your work aloud.
  • Spell check at least once. 
  • Decide how in-depth the reader should critique.

  • Scratch the Surface: Big-picture feedback on Plot and Character Arcs. Why correct sentence structure or punctuation on a scene that might need to be completely rewritten or tossed? Leave the grammar and spelling issues for later.
Instead, answer the question, “Does this story work?” This critique is geared to catch glaring mistakes in plot, weak areas in structure, and character development. Perhaps even assess the genre expectations of the reader and whether the work satisfies those expectations. 
  • Mid Level: Developmental Critique assessing all the elements of the writing without getting down to the chapter or sentence level. Plot, Character, POV, Dialogue, Backstory Introduction, Setting, Voice, Writing Style and Themes are addressed. First drafts may have many technical errors that will be caught by the writer in subsequent revisions. Consistent grammatical or technique problems can be highlighted in just one or two places, then summarized rather than corrected throughout a document.
  • The Whole Enchilada: A Mid Level with Chapter by Chapter markup. This includes specific suggestions for changes to the actual text: Correct spelling and grammar, rewrite sentences, notes on formatting, mark the actual point in the text where you had a problem, or where you really enjoyed a phrase. Expect this depth of critique to take a couple of months, and you’ll have to do likewise for someone else’s work. CAUTION: Are you really ready for someone to red ink your piece sentence by sentence? Are you sure you have the time to commit the same level of effort to someone else’s work?
If you’re ready to show your work to someone else, put a comment below this post asking for exchange. Be sure to include:

  • The Format: Screenplay, Web Series, or Novel.
  • The Genre.
  • A Blurb to let people know in general what your story is about. This is where you attract readers, so try and make it exciting.
  • The Word Count.
  • Depth of Critique you are requesting.
  • Any questions you would like addressed.
Alternatively, scan the comments and reply to a writer who is requesting the same depth of help with a work similar in length to yours.

While You are Reading Your Critique


Critique as you would have others critique unto you.

Remember, this is not a waste of your time. In fact, this is how you learn to self-edit. Because you are so close to your own story, it’s hard to learn to edit on something you’ve written yourself. But when you have a little distance, you can see in someone else's work why something you’ve been doing doesn’t work for the reader. Doing a good critique for another writer is all part of learning craft.
  • Make margin notes of what worked for you. 
  • Parts of the story swept that you away so you forgot you were supposed to be taking notes for a critique.
  • Any phrases or word choices that really shined. 
  • Note where the characters seemed real and multidimensional or the writer really got you to sympathize with the character’s plight.
  • Also make margin notes of what just plain didn’t work. 
  • Areas of the book where you felt you were slogging through the swamps.
  • Areas that you could not see the action or setting clearly. Where you got confused.
  • Areas where you unexpectedly found yourself bumped out of the story world and back in your own world. What do you think made you lose the story trance at that point?
  • Wording that was distracting instead of enjoyable.

The Aftermath of the Critique


THANK THE PERSON WHO DID THE CRITIQUE. Even if you didn't find the critique useful do it anyway. This took a long time and they did their best.

DON'T try to explain yourself to the critiquer. You won't get the opportunity to explain yourself to the reader.

DO ask questions if you are unclear about something. DON'T use a question to explain yourself to the critiquer. See above.

Before you dive in, try to summarize your perfect version of your story, and what about your story excited you enough to write the tale in the first place. That will help you make sure you don’t lose your story to another person’s vision.

Keep your eyes on your goal. The purpose of a critique is to get input that will make the story you set out to write, your story, better. It is not a referendum on you as a person. It is not suppose to boost your ego with praise.

Don’t try to incorporate every suggestion, or even every good suggestion. Some suggestions will move the story away from the tale you wanted to tell. Keep in mind, this critique is one person’s opinion. Not all opinions are correct. Some opinions identify a problem correctly, but then the advice given to fix the problem is wrong for your story.

Once a problem is identified by a reader, ask yourself why the reader had the problem with your story in the first place. If you think the reader just didn’t get your story, ask yourself why? True, your story might have been outside of the reader’s typical reading experience. But then again, perhaps you didn’t paint the picture of the setting or action well enough for them to “see” your story. Can you fix the problem the reader had?

If you think the reader simply didn’t understand something in the story, try showing just that part to another reader. If another reader runs into the same problem, and another … As painful as it might be, you probably need to address this problem.


Even if only one out of five readers didn’t understand one crucial aspect of the story, should you make it clearer anyway? Maybe so. If 20% of your readers don’t get the story due to this crucial factor, then that is 20% of your future fans your alienating right up front. Whether to ignore a problem a single reader expressed, or to make changes to fix a problem identified by a specific reader depends on how likely that one reader is to being in your target audience (or similar to the agent or editor considering your submission), how big a change you would have to make, and how critical understanding that one fact is to making the story work.

Sometimes the reader will make suggestions. Sometimes these suggestions will work and other times they won’t. That’s the second thing you have to address. A reader’s suggestion might sound great, but is it true to the character, the voice, the plot that you have set up in the rest of the story? Will it require you to make changes in many other places … which may raise new issues which will require more changes … which may lead to even more changes?

Above all, learn and have fun. I’m looking forward to seeing all your novels and movies in the making.

Examples of Critique Templates:

Feel free to use these examples, modify them to fit your style, or share them with your friends.

Brief Novel Structure Critique
Complete Novel Critique
Chapter Line Edit Critique
Plot Graph

2 comments:

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  2. Hello,

    I'm looking for a 'Whole Enchilada' critique, as well. I like how Kate has written her request. I'm open to both beta-readers and chapter-by-chapter exchanges. I've written a Young Adult novel about a girl torn between what her parents expect and the future she wants. Is it worth making your dreams a reality if that means losing your family.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    You can read the summary here: http://authormjpatrick.com/portfolio/veiled-horizons/

    Thanks for your consideration.
    Mary

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