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At any given moment I can focus on one activity among many, e. g.

  • improving my craft,
  • finding a publisher, or
  • building a platform for self-publishing.

The latter two options only make sense, if the quality of my storytelling is already good enough (nobody can sell a poorly written book, neither a publisher nor me; nobody will read a poorly written book, even if they can get it for free).

How can I get valuable feedback regarding whether or not my storytelling is good enough?

Known options:

  • Writing groups like Scribophile. There are several problems with this. First, you can only get feedback on the quality of the text (how well individual chapters are written), and not on such things as plot or emotional changes throughout the novel. Second, I am not sure that I can trust the feedback I get. I don't know those people and have no idea about their qualification (a good writer isn't necessarily a good editor). Third, in order to get feedback on one chapter of your book, you need to write three critiques of other people's works. On average, it takes at least an hour to write a good critique, so I have to spend 3 hours of my time to get my chapter reviewed. For a novel of 120 000 words with 2000 words in every chapter this amounts to 60 * 3 = 180 hours. In other words, in order to have my novel reviewed on Scribophile I would need to work for more than a month, full-time to write reviews for other people. That's not an option, if you (like me) have a full-time job.
  • Coverage services. These are companies, which evaluate your writing for a fee and tell you whether or not it is good enough (incl. whether or not this movie may be produced). However, they only work with screenplays (if you know a coverage service that does this for novels and is not a scam, please tell me).
  • Sending my book to publishers. In case the book is not good enough I won't receive any feedback at all. If they don't respond, I only will know that the quality is poor, but won't know what exactly is my biggest problem. Also, they may reject the book for non-literary reasons (e. g. because it may hurt someone's feelings).
  • 1
    Also, read and emulate the best qualities of stories you enjoy! (To clarify - I assume you do this?) – DPT Mar 24 '18 at 13:46
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    @DPT To a degree -- yes. Sometimes I read a work that I truly love, but understand that you cannot write like this today. Example: "Brothers Karamazov" by F. M. Dostoyevski. Great story, great characters. But there is too many useless words which a modern editor would delete. Also too many and too detailed descriptions of details nobody cares about (like descriptions of religious rituals). – Franz Drollig Mar 24 '18 at 17:35
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I love critique groups. I have belonged to a number of them. I have good friends I met because of them. But if you are concerned about your storytelling, it is vital to realize what they can and can't do for you in regards to storytelling. To state it briefly, they can't help you with your story, but they may be able to help you with your telling.

Telling is the hardest part of the craft of writing, and it is made harder by the fact that most aspiring writers don't know that it is a problem. We worry that our story may not be interesting. We worry that our grammar or spelling may not be good. But it does not occur to us that the things we have chosen to write down may not be the things we need to say in order to give the reader the impression we want.

There is a reason for this, a cognitive bias called The Curse of Knowledge. It means that we forget very quickly what it is like not to know something and thus we can't figure out what we need to say to convey that information. This is a problem in non-fiction, but it is actually a worse problem in fiction, because the world and the people you are describing exist only in your head and if you do not tell the reader everything they need to know in order to see that world for themselves, then you are not going to get your story across to them. It might be the greatest story ever conceived, but if half of it stays in your head, it isn't going to work.

A critique group, a good one that is actually willing to critique, not just prise or edit, can help you figure out if you are telling well, not so much by what they say directly as by the difference between the impression they get from your story and the impression you expected them to get. But this is not actually where you will learn the most. You will learn the most from doing critiques of other people's work, providing you do them well.

When you critique someone's work you actually read through and think about a manuscript that you would drop out of boredom if you weren't critiquing. You will know pretty soon that you are not getting much from this MS, but you will be forced to read on and try to figure out why. This is where you start to sharpen your skill at detecting the curse of knowledge at work, the inability of the person to say the things that would engage you, that would let you enter into the waking dream of story.

Sharpening that ability to detect when the waking dream collapses is what you are after in a critique group. You get it partially from the critiques you get from others and partly (I think mostly) from the critiques you do of other people's work. This is where the time you invest in critiquing pays off. It's not just about paying for critiques, is actually where you learn to better detect the faults of your telling.

But here's the rub: This works much much better in person. It works much better if you can see the faces of the people who are critiquing you or receiving critiques, if you can ask questions and discuss what you or they are saying. You are much less likely to learn any of this in an online critique group.

But what this process will not tell you is whether your story is any good. The process is too spaced out for that. There is a chance that beta readers may tell you, but it can be very difficult to analyse why a flat story feels flat. We can talk about the shape of stories all we like, and it is all good valid stuff, but the impact of a shapeless narrative is merely boredom and disinterest. Rescuing a flacid story is a job for a story doctor, which is a very specific skill set you are not likely to find in your average beta reader.

In short, you can learn to improve your telling by learning what you need to say (and what you don't need to say) to get your vision into people's heads and a good in-person critique group can help you refine that skill (as can learning to read like a writer). But you go to the critique groups to learn to refine that faculty, not to improve individual works, and you learn it as much by critiquing as by being critiqued.

But the only way to know for sure that you have a good story is to publish it and see how many people buy. Good stories sell. In the end, that is the only measure that counts.

  • Thanks for your answer. You mentioned a story doctor. Is this an editor? – Franz Drollig Mar 24 '18 at 17:27
  • A story doctor is someone who helps you fix the shape of your story. It is a kind of editor, but most editors are not story doctors. Story doctor is a real career in Hollywood where often studios have spent millions on the development of a picture only to realize halfway through production that the story is not working. At that point is it worth a lot of money to get someone in who can take what you already have and fix the story. Publishing does not work like that, though. The publisher does not take on any development costs and so has no investment to protect. They buy finished stories. – user16226 Mar 24 '18 at 17:32
4

Not receiving feedback from publishers, or receiving a rejection, does not tell you anything about the quality of your work at all. Publishers reject good books because they don't fit their catalogue or because they don't see a market for that kind of book currently, and sometimes out of error (see the many rejections Rowling received for Harry Potter). So basically the reply (or lack thereof) of a publisher is meaningless.

I have no experience with coverage services, but what I found extremely useful for myself was joining several critique groups on Facebook. There are also forums that have critique sections, sometimes they are non-public. I don't see the same problems you see with this option.

  1. "you can only get feedback on the quality of the text (how well individual chapters are written), and not on such things as plot or emotional changes throughout the novel"

    When you post a request for feedback in a critique forum you can request feedback on specific aspects of your work. I have both given and asked for (and received) feedback on plot and characterization. Many authors submit rough drafts to their beta readers, asking them to ignore the quality of the writing and to only consider the plot. This is a common practice (in the groups that I'm a member of).

    It's important that you explicitly tell your beta readers what you want them to give feedback on.

  2. "I am not sure that I can trust the feedback I get. I don't know those people and have no idea about their qualification"

    I always try to get feedback from at least three to five people. If they agree (without communicating among each other), I know that there must be some truth to what they say.

    Even if you have a professional editor, never trust the feedback of only one single person. Get a sample of your target audience, if you can.

  3. "in order to get feedback on one chapter of your book, you need to write three critiques of other people's works"

    While I think that you should give for what you get, there is no requirement like this in all critique communities. But I do offer critiques, just because I think it's fair. I do have a full time job, too, but I do give some of my writing time back in return for the time others (who often have full time jobs, too) have given me.

3

What you're looking for is beta readers. Beta readers would read all your work, and look at exactly the things you are unsure about: general flow, plot holes, etc.

Who can be beta readers? Friends, if they are the kind of people who could point a finger at something and say "this doesn't work at all". (Some people are comfortable doing that, others are not.) Friends of friends. Acquaintances. You can post on Facebook that you're looking for beta readers.

Giving your work to people for beta-reading isn't, however, as simple as dumping your whole manuscript on them, and waiting for feedback. That's too big a task - one most people wouldn't know how to approach. So you need to break it up into smaller tasks. You can send your beta-readers your manuscript chapter by chapter, and ask them to answer some questions after each chapter. Questions like:

  • Which characters you like? Which characters you don't like? Why?
  • What do you expect would happen next?
  • What parts did you enjoy? Were there parts you wished to skip over?

Etc. You know your story, so you can tweak your questions accordingly. And of course, there should be a catch-all "do you have any other comments" question. An additional advantage of giving the manuscript chapter by chapter is that if you have an unresponsive beta reader, they don't get any more of your story.

While we're on the subject of beta readers, it might be a good idea to get beta readers from different age groups, genders, etc. People who see the world not quite like you do might see things in your story that you haven't noticed.

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    Perhaps in addition to "what do you expect happens next?" is the related and similarly important "what do you want to know next?" along with "what do you wish you knew while reading this chapter?" These may of course be things that get revealed later and have been hidden or limited to hints for story purposes, but unless you want people to not understand something, the storytelling can be made better by including more of it. – Nij Mar 25 '18 at 4:50
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There are already good answers here, and you mention the idea of writing groups, but it sounds like we're not thinking of the same thing.

It won't work for everyone (particularly people with difficulty travelling or living in isolated areas), but my first thought was a physical writing group - people sitting on folding chairs in a school hall or around tables in the back room of a local pub. There are more of these than people think, and they can be found by an internet search and sometimes by flyers left in local bookshops and libraries.

You might find a local college offers evening classes, which would be a good place to start - I've been a member of groups that have formed when an evening class ended.

A physical group has the advantage that you'll see immediately what people thought of your story - especially the ones who don't offer a comment. You'll also find people with different ways of telling a story. It's true that you're stuck with the same problem of reading sections, but from a storytelling perspective it's no worse than watching a television series rather than a film, and since the same people will be hearing each section they'll build the story in their own minds in a way that strangers on the internet probably wouldn't.

  • Thanks for your answer. How would you find (or found) a writing group, if you a) write in English and b) live in a country with a different (i. e. non-English) official language? – Franz Drollig Mar 24 '18 at 17:31
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    @FranzDrollig - It's going to make it more difficult unless you live in a big University town (in which case a flyer in the Students' Union might work). If it's the storytelling you're looking to work on, perhaps you could try it in the local language and translate afterwards? You might still get lucky with local bookshops and libraries if you specify writing in English - if you're thinking of Austria, some of the locals will speak better English than many people do in England. Alternatively, start with an English Conversation group, and see if they'd include reading from a story. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Mar 25 '18 at 9:47

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