Saturday 26 October 2013

Constructive Peer Appraisal in Independent Publishing

These days I am asked frequently to give an opinion on someone’s else's completed novel. 

Completing a whole novel is very hard work.
Firstly I have to say that to actually complete an 80, 000 word novel with joined up words, chapters, and narrative is a great achievement in itself. It is a long haul, both intellectually and emotionally demanding. So many aspiring writers start off with high hopes and great confidence and don’t quite get to finish. 

So what we are dealing with here is a completed novel anywhere between eighty and a hundred thousand words. A big job.

In these days of more independent and autonomous publishing we need to delay the  enticing rush to publish through such facilitating processes such as Amazon CreateSpace, great as they are. This popular, enabling atmosphere  sidesteps the commissioning and editorial departments of mainstream publishers so there is still an emerging need for a very high level of self editing (see my previous post) and rigorous peer-review.  

I am fortunate in having three very different peer/friend reviewers whose views on my manuscripts have had subtle and enhancing effects. Of course I  return the favour for them.

You will possibly know whom, among your own peers and friends,   you could turn to for this great favour.

Entering one of the many national and international competitions is one way to get your manuscript out there among your unknown peers. You could seek out people who have a level of achievement and ask them politely to review your manuscript. 

You could, of course, use one of the commercial manuscript appraisal services. A warning here that this is a growth industry and the people who will advise you are not necessarily your peers. Check them out.

I have spotted a very good service that has emerged from this situation, being offered by the author and academic Paul Magrs who is currently charging £50 for a 500 word critique offering ‘constructive, practical  feedback  on characterisation, plotting, structure and further suggestions for development and reading.’ He firmly asserts that he is not offering proofreading and copy editing. ‘This is about pointers for developing your work in your next draft.’ A fine offer from this much praised teacher, much admired writer and writing coach.

But what if you are asked to appraise a fellow writer’s completed novel?

My advice is not to agree to do this for unless you are prepared to do a thorough job. You will do them no favours if you skim through and say ‘it’s very nice’ or ‘it doesn’t work for me.’

So, having worked with some talented editors for twenty years and consulted editors in the wider field such as my own Debora, I have developed a set of my own idiosyncratic guidelines which might be useful for writing peers in this newly independent publishing world. Here they are:


vI'm with  Paul Magrs: tell your peer/friend that you are not offering to proof or line edit the manuscript. Insist on having a manuscript that is thoroughly proofed and line edited by someone else.
Hard copy is the best to work with ...

v You need a hard copy manuscript to work on. Editing on-screen copy can be sloppy and superficial – more akin to Open and Other University ‘marking’ which is alien to an in-depth creative read.

v  Know what kind of writer this writer is and what kind of novel they see themselves as writing. Remember it is not your story: it is theirs. You can’t always like what you edit so you will need to know something about what’s in their field.

vAsk for a summary or a blurb  that will give you a take on what kind of novel the writer sees it as.  (Don’t ask for the dreaded, often egregious,  synopsis. They're for busy commercial editors and agents who need to skip a stage. You will read the whole novel so you won’t need a synopsis.)

The Process

v First read the manuscript very quickly without making notes. Get the shape in your head. You need to see the book as a whole. (See my previous post.) How will the reader see the book? 

v Read with a keen, critical eye, keeping the writer’s own vision of the novel in mind.

v Look for originality, consistency and conviction in terms of plot, structure and characters.

Your Response

v If the novel is perfect or near perfect make sure to say just that, with a great hoorah!

v  Make a note of what you think really works in this manuscript: what makes it interesting or original? What will any reader like about it?

v Make a clear and specific note of inconsistencies or implausibility in the plot.

v Make constructive suggestions for further developments in plot, structure and characters. Often good to couch these as questions; this acknowledges that the real authority regarding this manuscript is the writer her or himself.

v Suggest books or sources that may help with any development of the  novel. (Be careful here. It’s not always useful at this point to recommend work by other novelists…)

It would be great to hear of your experiences in helping your peers
 in this brave new world of independent publishing. WX

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