Friday, 22 May 2009

How soon is too soon?

Er, it's me again. Hot cocoa like my gran used to make this morning as there's a chill in the air – it might make you sleepy though.

I might be on my own on this one, but in the past I've been guilty of seeking a professional critique of my novels-in-progress long before they're finished. "It'll be good to know where/if I'm going wrong sooner rather than later," was my reasoning, "that way I can put things right before I get too far along." Perhaps not surprisingly those novels bit the dust soon after, and I realised that I wasn't so much looking for validation as confirmation of what I already knew – they weren't working.

I think if you submit your work at the three or four chapter stage, you're probably already having doubts about where it's heading ( the bin.) The danger too is that even if you ARE seeking constructive advice at an early stage the feedback is almost guaranteed to send you off on a different tangent, which may not be a good thing. If you're anything like me it's only when you're further along in your novel that you really get to know your characters and what motivates them, and you start to see for yourself what might need changing in those early chapters.

I now realise that when you know or feel instinctively that your novel's on the right tracks, the need for “proper” reassurance fades. I don't want anyone professional seeing my words until I've finished this time round – they might burst my little bubble and I don't want that because I'm having a whale of a time!

Have you ever sought an early critique and did it work for you, or do you not bother with them at all and trust your gut feeling instead?


Debs said...

Good morning, m'dear. Hot chocolate for me please.

I haven't sought an early critique, probably because they're quite expensive, but when I have had my work critiqued, I've usually had excellent feedback.

Usually, though it's telling me that I have to make changes that mean I'll pretty much need to redo the entire WIP.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I generally post each chapter to a select small number of readers on my livejournal (locked posts, obviously) and get feedback there. It can be quite handy, as their speculation will often add plot twists and subplots, and I can tell at an early stage if I've missed something out or written something confusing.

Flowerpot said...

Rooibosh tea for me please! I get feedback from a trusted writer friend whom I meet with most weeks, so we see our work in progress. I agree with Debs - I dont do it early because it's too expensive!

Lucy Diamond said...

I always get a critique or some kind of feedback after the first few chapters of a new novel - I need that initial bit of encouragement to keep me going, I think, otherwise I think I would worry the whole time that I was writing a complete stinker.
I show work at this stage to my agent and editor for a general 'yes we like it' (hopefully!)and a writing friend who gives more detailed feedback (thank you, lovely writing friend). My husband also reads the chapters at various stages and makes comments/encouraging noises (and pours me more wine).
I really don't think I could write a whole novel in a bubble without anyone seeing my work in progress - I know lots of authors do. I guess I'm a bit needier!

KeVin K. said...

So after a couple of weeks of silence I decide to respond with a comment I know will be of no use at all....
This is a tough question for me because no one -- not even my wife -- ever sees a work in progress. This has really hung me up on a couple of projects, but so far I haven't found a way around it. (It's been, what?, a year I've been saying I really need fresh eyes look at Coastal Carolina because I'm unsure of my handling/direction and I still haven't overcome my personality enough to actually ask someone.) I am very much a write-mail-repeat writer and adding steps feels like procrastination/avoidance (even though I know intellectually from the testimony of many writers that it is not).
I would not have anyone look at what you're writing until you've finished at least the first draft. They need to see the whole -- your sweep and objective -- before they can assess what you're doing. Critiquing a few random paragraphs with no sense of context would perforce be sentence- and word- level editing and have you focused on vagaries of tree bark instead of your vision of the forest.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I'm with Kevin on the first draft thing. All first drafts (unless you have a very rare talent) are crap, but they do give an overall picture of intent. Plus, they have the all important factor of proving to you as an author that you can actually write a novel. And enjoying what you are doing is also important.

I have posted stuff chapter by chapter and found that useful, but only because I was confident about the story and because it was a useful impetus to get the thing written. None of this has been professional critiquing (i.e., stuff I've paid for) as I've never been able to afford it, but always people I trust to be honest.

Overall I go with my gut. Mind you, I've never hit the best seller list, so what do I know ;-)

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello everyone.

Mmm interesting question. I think its a question of balance. I often think that sometimes its a mistake to spend a whole year finishing a book with no feedback at all, just incase some one else professional opinion could have saved you a lot of trouble early on. I've seen manuscripts that have taken the writer a long time and which just don't work. So in that respect I, like Lucy, like to get feedback early, to check I'm on the right track and that its working. My editor and agent are the only people who read my work before its finished. With the current WIP however no-ones seen it and probably won't til its done, I've talked about it alot so everyone who needs to know what its about does, but the simple fact is I haven't got time to show it. I have a bit of an imovable deadline!

Anonymous said...

Mmm, hot chocolate is just the ticket.

I've never got a professional assessment of my work, so far. My WiPs are in a constant state of flux, so any feedback could easily become out of date. Would you pay for a survey of a house you weren't all that sure about buying? I wouldn't. I'd want to get further into the decision making process before shelling out. Same goes for my writing, I suppose.

A lot of the discipline I (should) have was instilled into me when I worked in the software industry. There would have been little point in having my program code reviewed or tested if it wasn't finished, that would have been considered a waste of time. Okay, there's component and unit testing so the analogy breaks down a bit, but at least the module under test would have to have been completed before submitting it for review/test.

Scary though.

Fia said...

Great question, Karen.

Perhaps if I'd had a journalistic background, done a creative writing MA or just been a bit brilliant, I wouldn't seek feedback on the first three chapters. As I'm none of those things, I've begged, borrowed and paid for feedback over the past three years. For a novice writer - me - it's invaluable.

For me it's not the first draft that's crap, it's the second, third, fourth...and then onto the next book without having the first published.

I'm an apprentice and I'll be pleased if it only takes five years to get to a publishable stage

sheepish said...

Hi excellent question and dear to my heart as I am halfway through my wip and no-one has seen any of it. I am pleased to hear that this is not considered unusual. I am also a very novice writer who is definitely on a learning curve and I think I want to finish the first draft before considering letting other people see my attempt. I think any negative criticism at this point in time would probably set me back decades so I will keep putting off the inevitable for a while yet.
Actually what I really need to do at the moment is write, not worry about what I'm writing so that is what I shall try to do.

KayJay said...

No hot chocolate for me, thanks. It's climbing up to 90 degrees today (or 32 if you're that way inclined), so I think I need something with a few ice cubes. Great weather for swimming; not so good for writing my next chapter. I'll be shutting the blinds and turning on the air con...

When I was starting out it was really important to me to stick with my own instincts and write in a bit of a bubble. (I was always the kind of kid back in school who didn't want to show my stuff until I was finished.) Now I've written a couple of books I'm more confident and happier to share, but I do think you should make a decent start on the first draft before you seek the opinion of others, or it could be detrimental.

I have a great writing group for my kids' stuff - we meet once a fortnight and crit each others work and they have been hugely helpful, especially as I'm a Brit trying to write in the USA. However, I have been part of groups in the past where there have been problems with ego, politics and personal agendas that have muddied the waters. So you have to keep perspective. I'm a little nervous of online crit groups for this reason, although some folks here have obviously found them really helpful.

I would never consider getting a paid-for crit until I thought my book was submission-ready. It's just not worth it.

Overall, I think you should have courage of your own convictions; ultimately it's probably possible to make any idea work, depending on how you do it, so I'd never trash a book because someone told me they didn't buy the concept. (Well, unless a few people told me the same thing...and I really trusted them...and they were my future agent/editor!)

Calistro said...

Hot honey and lemon for me as I'm coming down with the lurgy (oh okay, add a splash of whisky too!)

Lucy & Rowan's comments have given me the fear a tad as I'm now 80% of the way through novel 2 and I haven't show it to ANYONE! Not agent, not editor. It's a risk because they might hate the finished novel & then what do I do? (Hope for a deadline extension and have a small heart attack probably!).

I'm relying on gut feeling with this novel, as I did with novel 1 and at the moment that gut feeling says there's a lot that works and a lot that needs fixing (roll on the edit!). When I started the previous version of book 2 I knew, 20k in, that it wasn't working (I found my MC a bit annoying which is a BAD sign) and when my agent reviewed the first few chapters she wasn't bursting with enthusiasm either and we both agreed I should drop it and start again.

With novel 1 I waited until I'd edited the first 5 chapters and then posted them in my online writing group for feedback - will probably do the same with this novel too.

I've never had a professional critique but might consider one if I knew my novel wasn't working but wasn't sure why.

Lane said...

Interesting question Karen. Thanks.

If cost wasn't a concern, I'd probably seek a crit in the early stages, just to gain a few pointers and to get an opinion from someone who doesn't know me. It's just advice and as with all advice, it can be taken on board but not necessarily acted upon. If your gut feeling is strong enough, you'll follow it through anyway.

I really don't think I'm making much sense as it's late. Maybe time for that hot chocolate.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

I go with my gut. And I never show anyone anything until the first draft is done.

But that's just me; different methods work for different people and part of the trick is finding what works for you.

liz fenwick said...

I have sent off a truly dirty first draft for a professional crit and it was well worth it but then the story was out. It took me a year then to digest the information and let the story grow again in my head.

I haven't let anyone see more than the first chapter of anything new that I am writing because I know that it is beginning life quite broken and with gaping holes. Having said that I know that this is normal for me. I will fill and fix in following drafts and that is when it is brilliant to have other eyes read it as they pick up the things I don't/can't/won't see.

At this stage I am still learning so much and the process of just finsihing complete first drafts is vital so I plod on and then bring on the help!

Emma Darwin said...

I don't show anyone anything till I've taken it as far as I can alone. The problem with feedback is that when you get it, you have three possibilities: accept it, adapt it, ignore it. Until I really know what the novel is, I won't know which of those I should do: what will make it its own best self, what would turn it into something it isn't, and what is just fine-tunign. And I won't know what it is until I'm at least two or three drafts in.

Having said that, my first novel was written on an MPhil, so that was workshopped in stages. But I still got a chapter to third-draft stage before it was looked at. And my second was part of a PhD, but as it was under contract my supervisor was fairly hands off. If there was a Winston Churchill prize for the number of times you can say 'Keep Calm and Carry On,' and really sound as if you mean it, she'd win it!

But this new one is definitely not going to be seen by anyone till it's third draft, at least.

Emma Darwin said...

"But this new one is definitely not going to be seen by anyone till it's third draft, at least."

That's 'it's' as in it is, of course. Not as in belonging to it...

Annieye said...

Hot chocolate would be lovely, but as I've just booked our holiday I am on the green tea in a desperate attempt to lose weight before 22nd August!

I find readers are helpful, although it's horrible knowing that people are reading your work. I did seek a critique for my first novel (now split into a trilogy) and it was useful and definitely well worth the money.

My daughter read my latest book as it was written and her comments were very useful in that very first edit of the raw material.