Friday, 29 January 2010

The Perils of Pro Crits

After taking some time off from work to concentrate on my writing, I decided I wanted to get some serious feedback on the current draft, as well as to test the water to see if it resonated or affected anyone else but me. I was at that stage where I had exhausted all my ideas for improving it, and needed some critical input while I tried to establish my own distance from the work. I felt that more needed to be done, I was just too close to see what it was.

I uploaded it to youwriteon and authonomy, and decided to invest in a 'professional' manuscript assessment. This wasn't a decision I came to lightly, I had already had a huge amount of feedback on previous drafts both from youwriteon and the IWW, as well as my local writers' group, Arvon writer's course etc. and I hoped that a professional assessment would give me a clear idea of what would need to be done with the draft to make it publishable, and I considered it to be the next logical step.

The Literary Consultancy had been on my radar for some time – a couple of published writers had recommended them in articles, most of the big publishing houses have links to them on their websites, I'd found an example review on a website, and Rebecca Swift from the consultancy had written an article in the 2010 Writers and Artists Handbook – so I felt reasonably confident that if I was going to do it, these would be the guys to go to.

I told myself that it would be a gamble, and that the review I received may be of no use to me, but it may also prove invaluable, and I decided to take that gamble, and fork out the 150 quid.

I tried to convince myself that I was under no illusions.

Trouble is, as I waited for that review, its significance increased with each passing day – I felt that I couldn't start re-writes until I'd received it, I couldn't really consider other 'amateur' feedback until I'd read it –etc, etc – until eventually my whole writing world hung on that assessment.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall. You cannot engage with The Literary Consultancy before submitting and paying for the review – they assign your work to a reader without discussion and only when they receive your cheque along with your manuscript – so it's more like applying for a job than paying for a service – a stance I assume they justify in that they consider themselves as 'scouts' for leading literary agents. I wouldn't pay blind for any other service, so why this one?

Responses take 4-8 weeks – and mine took nearly all of 8 weeks to arrive.

My heart sank when in the first paragraph the reviewer referred to the opening chapters of my novel as a short story – a mistake he quickly rectified later in the review, but a clear indication that this opening section had been cut and pasted from a previous review, and he hadn't even bothered to re-read what he'd written – not a clear indication of the thoroughness I'd hoped for, and laughable when considering that I'm paying for this guy to review my writing.

The review starts with an introduction, then two pages of general observations, then a page of specific observations giving line numbers, then a general summary.

The General comments come under the sections Structure and Narrative; Narrative and Style; Characters and Empathy, Writing and Dialogue.

Well, long story short, he panned it in all sections, with not one positive observation in any of them other than the general 'you've obviously worked hard' etc in the introduction and general summary.

So, to summarise, I need to re-plot the novel, change the voice, change the MC, and re-work the dialogue.

That may in fact all be true but the truth is, having had plenty of time to reflect, there is very little I can take from this review of practical use – some example solutions I'm advised to attempt: 'don't try too hard', 'go with the flow', etc.

While presumably there are some nuggets of truth buried within it, they are not clear to me, despite repeated attempts to derive them, and because the reviewer clearly disliked everything about the book and struggled to engage with it, I wouldn't be inclined to take his advice even if I could glean any to take.

To say I was despondent after finally receiving what I'd paid for is an understatement, but reading the one star reviews of my critics book on Amazon certainly helped me get over it.

Curiously the next day I felt wonderfully inspired and liberated - I came to realise that I couldn't look to anybody else to 'fix' my novel, it had to come from me alone – so perhaps it was worth the 150 quid to re-affirm that to myself.

Conclusion? You'll get far more useful advice for free elsewhere.


  1. Good stuff, James. As helpful to us as the review was unhelpful to you, apart from that liberating feeling of course!
    Simon (Back to Life on Autho)

  2. I think your penultimate paragraph says it all - much as I've benefited from advice on YWO and from fellow writers.