[Edited 17th November 2013] As I inch closer towards editing The Plains of Kallanash (Work #2), I realise I’m going to need other eyes to look over it, both at a low level (for typos and other errors) and at the structural level. That’s part of the reason for putting it out on this blog in the first place, but that’s rather a scattershot approach; maybe no one will read it? If they do, they may not provide any constructive criticism.
There are places, however, where even scribblers like me can get guaranteed feedback. There are face to face critique groups and writers’ workshops, but (even if I could find one anywhere close to where I live) there’s no way in hell I am ever going to stand up in public and read out pages of my own writing. Simply not going to happen. I’m congenitally unsuited to such practices. But nowadays there are plenty of online versions. They all work on the same principle: you earn credits by posting critiques of other people’s writing, and when you have enough credits, you can post something of your own and receive critiques in return.
All such groups suffer from the same weaknesses. Firstly, it’s quite time consuming to put the effort into critiquing in depth for other people whose writing may not much interest you. Those who can afford it might be better off paying for professional editing, and those who already have a network of writerly friends can put out for beta readers, but for most beginners the online groups are the best option, despite the time involved. Besides, there’s a theory that you improve your own writing by critiquing other people’s work.
Secondly, the quality of the feedback you receive is going to be variable. Everyone on such a group is, almost by definition, a beginning writer not a professional, and some of them won’t have the slightest clue about writing techniques or what makes a good story. Some will miss the point, some will criticise intentional aspects as mistakes, some will just be skimming to get their credits as fast as possible, some will not understand your genre, some will quote ‘rules’ as if they were the ten commandments. However, even a little good feedback is valuable.
I’ve signed up for Scribophile, which has a very well designed website and gets good reports by those who’ve tried it, but I had a look at a few others along the way. I tried out BookCountry a while back when it was in beta, but I never really got into it. There was no easy way to find work that might particularly interest you or work that had few (or no) critiques, there was no way to make direct contact with other members except by comments on a piece of work, and it was too focused on short pieces or opening chapters, which are easier to critique. There was also an uncomfortable back-scratching atmosphere – people would critique a piece in the expectation that that writer would then critique their own work.
More recently I looked at a few others. Authonomy is highly rated, but is owned by one of the big publishing companies (as is BookCountry), which immediately puts me off. There is a chance of being picked up for a traditional publishing deal, which would appeal to some people, but I’m in the ‘no way, Jose’ camp. If I ever publish, I’ll be self-publishing. Critters is aimed at sci-fi and fantasy (BookCountry is genre-based, too), but it has a horrible website, is email and text based, and is time constrained; you have to post at least one critique a week for four weeks before your work bubbles to the top of the queue. Miss a week and out you go. YouWriteOn seems like a good system; nice website, and critiques are randomly assigned, which loses any possibility of building a clique, but guarantees that you won’t fall into a ghetto of the same people critiquing you over and over. However, membership needs to be activated and my activation email never arrived and (to date) I’ve had no response to my request for help. [Edit 20/9/13: I’ve now had an email reply; no explanation, but the account has been activated. However, the random nature of critiquing at YouWriteOn puts me off a bit. I like being able to choose what I crit. And I’ve got used to Scribophile now. No time for two different sites!]
So what’s good about Scribophile? Firstly, the website is quite brilliant. Critiques are written online, but are very structured. You can write an inline critique, adding your comments into the text, for low-level editing. You can use a structured template, which gives you various aspects to comment on, like pacing, dialogue and so on. Or you can post freeform comments. Some writers ask you to fill in a ‘marks out of 10’ system for various aspects. If you don’t have enough to say for a full critique, you can just post a brief comment.
You get karma (credits) for every critique you write, and the karma increases with the number of words you write (yay! a reward for verbosity!). There’s no karma for brief comments, or critiques less than 125 words. You get two karma points for joining, a critique typically attracts 1-3 karma points, and you need 5 karma points to post one piece (typical length 2-5,000 words, although most are under 3,000). There are no time limits with karma, so you can write critiques as and when you want to.
When you post the first piece of your own work for members to critique, it goes straight into a new member ‘spotlight’ section. Work in a spotlight attracts more karma, so it’s more likely to get critiques quickly. Once three long critiques (more than 125 words) have been posted, it drops out of the spotlight. It can still attract critiques (although at reduced karma) for a further month, then it’s locked, and you need to pay another 5 karma to repost it.
After the first post, your posted works queue up to get into the main spotlight. There are different queues for different types of work (queries, poetry, novellas, short stories, etc). The queue for chapters of a novel is the longest, and it might take up to a month to reach the spotlight. You can still receive critiques before then, but if you get three then that piece will be taken out of the spotlight queue and go straight into the countdown to be locked. The main spotlight is just a safety net to guarantee that every posted piece receives at least 3 long critiques. There are other kinds of spotlight, including one for good critiquers (most words posted in a day) and a personal spotlight for Premium members, which is less public but gives you 6 long critiques at full karma. You can also pay bonus karma for critiques, to attract more.
One of the nice things about Scribophile is that you can post entire books, chapter by chapter. The free version only allows two submissions (chapters) to stay up at a time, but by paying $65 a year to get the Premium version, you can keep the whole book up, as well as having a personal spotlight and thereby getting more critiques. That makes it (in my view) far more valuable than some of the others. At BookCountry, I posted the first five chapters of The Incursors (work #1), and got some great feedback on those, but because multiple chapters are posted as one work, it gets longer and longer and becomes less attractive to prospective critiquers.
The other nice aspect to Scribophile is that it allows any kind of material, including erotica. Some of the others dance around the subject: yes, you can write about graphic sex but no erotica or porn. That leaves the onus on the writer to determine whether that steamy sex scene is erotica or merely graphic sex. Now, I don’t write porn, but my stories are about adults in realistic relationships. Sex is part of their lives, and to my mind if a couple have sex as part of the plot, then it should be described in some detail. The ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘why’. I’m really not a fade-to-black sort of writer. So Scribophile will allow me to post such material without worrying about it, I just have to label that chapter as ‘adult’.
Scribophile (like all such groups) has its own way of operating. There are numerous groups set up, and I’ve joined a few fantasy ones. This ensures that whatever work you post is also seen within the groups, by (presumably) like-minded people who will be more likely to critique it. From there you can build a following who will critique every chapter you post, and act in many ways like beta readers. They seem a friendly bunch so far.
Critiquing is not easy. Do you nit-pick every last typo? Or do you deal with broader issues? Some critiques I’ve read are relentlessly positive: ‘Great job, loved it, but you might want to tighten that one confusing paragraph in the middle.’ That’s not terribly helpful. On the other hand, relentlessly negative critiques are dispiriting and discouraging. I treat them as I would a review, writing both positive and negative comments, and trying not to repeat what previous critiquers have said.
After writing three critiques, I’d collected enough karma to post something of my own. I haven’t started editing The Plains of Kallanash (work #2), yet, so I put up the first chapter of The Fire Mages (work #3) instead, which is more or less first draft, tinkered with only to tighten up the opening paragraph and to add in a reference to magic relevant to later events. I posted it at 5pm on a Sunday evening, and by 7am Monday I had three critiques already, which is fantastically quick. Other work languishes on the new members’ spotlight for much longer, so I take it as a positive sign that so many people wanted to critique it so soon.
Overall, I got many good suggestions. Not all the advice was useful, or even relevant, but on balance it was mostly helpful. There’s really no substitute for a fresh pair of eyes running over a piece of writing, and that’s exactly what I got. So for me, Scribophile is working well. Now I shall concentrate on building karma for when I’m ready to post The Plains of Kallanash, and I’ll probably go for the paid-for version to be able to keep all the chapters posted, and get some cool statistics and better formatting.