A Theory on Self-Publishing Success

Here I am, wondering, as one does, just what it would take to make a living from writing novels, from self-published novels, and whether it is a goal I could possibly attain. The odds are bad, we all know that. And it’s premature, seeing as how I’m still struggling to get a decent draft of first book completed. But, you know, I like to dream, and I love to analyse, so here goes.

Oh, hang on, here’s the caveat: this analysis is based on no actual data whatsoever. Don’t believe it, don’t trust it, this is no prescription. What I’m trying to do is only this: to illustrate for myself (and anyone else who’s interested) how I think it might work. This is the contents of my head, transferred to the screen. Don’t stress on the numbers, consider it art.

So, here’s the secret to my imaginary success, and it’s oh so boring:

  1. Quality of product
  2. New product launches
  3. Marketing

And, without going into the detail of the modelling, here’s how these imaginary factors affect imaginary sales:

  1. Quality of product

Thinking wishfully, my books would be so knock-your-socks-off fantastic that every ten readers would generate a new reader through word-of-mouth. For such a book series, success is almost guaranteed. See my snowball factor at work in this wonderful, swooping, exponential curve:

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But let’s not obsess on that. This is a self-published book we’re talking about – not good enough to land a publishing deal, and rather lacking in editorial input and development. What are the odds of a one-man back-yard electronics start-up developing the next breakthrough smartphone? It’s not going to happen.

What if the book is, let’s say quirky and misunderstood, and only one in a hundred readers generates a new reader. Then we get this:

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See those spikes? Each of those is a new book launch, but even with four books published, we’re going nowhere. Time for a re-think of our life plan.

But let’s not dwell on that, either, let’s pretend this couldn’t happen to us, that our books are at least going to be mediocre. And why not? That sounds perfectly achievable.

Here’s where the surprise comes in. The numbers are telling me that even with a pretty ordinary kind of book, one in which you have to reach twenty readers just to pick up another one, it might be possible to make a few bucks.

  1. New Product Launches

The important thing is to have a whole series of books, ready to launch, one after another. Quantity counts. Here’s what I get with the second book launch six months after the first, and another book every year (ignoring the odd dip where I couldn’t be bothered refining things):

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No way am I going to make any money on the first book. In fact, if you look at the figures and ignore the scales, the number of sales of my first mediocre book is the same as those of my first misunderstood book. Virtually exactly the same.

It makes me wonder if this is where people come unstuck. Maybe they self-publish a book, get no interest in it, think it’s a disaster and give up? Whereas really, there’s this beautiful compounding effect going on. With three years of perseverance and four mediocre books under our belt, we could be earning enough to pay the rent, at least.

Being only mediocre, we do need to keep going, churning out book after book, year after year, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We get to do what we love, for a living.

Time is a critical factor here. Suppose you only publish a book every 2 years. Here’s what you get (data courtesy of my entirely hypothetical model):

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Within the same three-year period, you’ve got half as many books published, and only a quarter the monthly sales. It might take six years before you can give up your day job. Conclusion: we’ve just got to keep the books coming, one after another.

And there’s one more thing to consider:

  1. Marketing

I’m not going to talk about how to market a book, because right now I’m basically clueless. But what I can show you is how my model reacts to the number of readers you can get each book to on its launch.

If you were wondering what the ‘200’ meant in the title of the graphs, this is my assumption that you could reach 200 readers on your book launch. (If you’re really nitpicky, you’ll see that I’ve spread these as 100 readers in the first month and 50 in months two and three, just for argument’s sake). And no, I don’t have any advice on how to reach those readers – look, I haven’t actually attempted this yet.

So what happens if you get your book out to only (ha!) 60 readers instead of 200? This:

graph5

Basically, three years in, we’ve published 4 books, but total sales are no more than in our ‘two years between books’ model. And no, the royalties are not going to cover the rent. Mediocrity means we have to work a bit harder on marketing.

I think the reason for the difference between 200 and 60 is that the snowball effect needs a kick-start – we just have to get those early numbers of readers up, however we can. This is how discounts and free give-aways work – anything to build reader numbers in the early stages ought to pay off.

So, here we go, this is the graph for those who ‘get’ marketing and are going to nab a whopping 600 new readers over the three months after every book launch:

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It takes a lot of effort, but see the way we’re starting to get that exponential curve going? And the actual numbers are not too shabby at all. Even if, on publishing your second book, you give away your first for free to get those reader numbers up, you’ll recover your expenditure in as many months. Within two years you’ll be earning a basic income. How hard can it be, finding 600 willing readers?

Well, yeah, I suspect the answer is: very hard.

But that’s that, the numbers have spoken. As daunting as this all is for someone like me, who would love to just stick my head down and write and leave all that marketing stuff to someone else, the prescription is clear. (Did I say at the start this blog was no prescription? My imagination and a few graphs have convinced me that it is, after all.) Here it is:

  • Write the best novel you can, and then another, and another.
  • Market the hell out of each (and give your books away – in the hundreds).
  • Persevere – it might take three or four books before the gamble really starts paying off

Now if anyone out there has any REAL data on this, I’d love to hear from you.

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The Magical Realism of Raymond St. Elmo

In this post, I want to introduce you to self-published author Raymond St. Elmo (Raymond Holland). He writes ‘magical realism’, about which I have no idea, except to observe that his stories mindbendingly blur the boundaries between reality and dream.

He’s not afraid to play with the occasional metaphor, I like that, but what appeals most to me is the humour in his writing.

Read his books if you have a love of stories, especially stories of the kind which play games with reality. His writing references and extends literary traditions and he clearly revels in the magic of the written word.

Find out more about Raymond at his site here: http://raymondstelmobooks.com

And below are my Amazon reviews of his books – two books in two different styles, but with a solid thread of connection. Check them out here: https://www.amazon.com

Product Details

The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing

In which our hero, having worked hard to achieve a respectable degree of seriousity, discovers a clue to a lost manuscript written in the footprints of birds. A self-imposed quest to decipher its meaning sends him tumbling down a rabbit-hole of dreams within dreams, pitting wits against dead authors, human and ornithological.

A story about the transcribing of stories, told with wit, humour, and a touch of magic.

(Especially recommended for those of us who work in cubicles, neglect most of our emails, and are supposed to be in a meeting).

Product Details

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons

I have no idea how to describe this book. It’s the sort of fantasy in which you can get lost, escaping from this world to another.

In this other world is a doomed ship with a terrifying cargo, a crew of incompetents, and two mysterious books. There is a failed poet, dreaming of his girl left behind, arguing Blake with the murderous, conversing with gods, courting lightning and dancing with the undead. There are puzzles and mortal dangers and a quest, of sorts.
It’s a story within a story, with even the narrator of this tale a mystery. Is he the blind old man the unseen interviewer claims him to be?

Read this if you pine for love and adventure, if you enjoy the uncovering of sly deceptions and deeper truths, or need an injection of wit and humour. Great stuff.

A Holiday – Through the Lens of a Writer

I took the kids to Brisbane last week. Only for a few days, at the last minute, but it was our first holiday of any kind in years so we tried to pack in all the stuff we don’t normally get to do – theatre, museums, that kind of thing. It was family time, nothing to do with work or writing. Honest.

And I did try, but something changes after you start writing, something to do with the way you look at things. I found myself mentally picking apart every show and every film, analysing them for plot and dialogue. I was studying the things around me and wondering whether they’d fit in my novels.

So for those interested in, I don’t know, things that caught my interest and might catch yours too, here’s my travelogue, through the lens of a writer of SF:

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We saw Singin’ in the Rain

Now this was fun. What struck me was that the plot was so simple – it was obvious what would happen from the very first scene – and the dialogue, too, tended to state the obvious. But in a way, that was part of the charm – with no deep mystery to puzzle over we could just sit back and enjoy the show.

What could be more giggelacious than the nonsense song “Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously”? And the first efforts at movie sound recording and lip-synching were hilariously imagined. Modern movies could learn from this – it doesn’t have to be deep, dark, or dangerous, just make it playful.

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We went to the Queensland Museum (and it was free!)

So I was standing with my daughter at the fossilized Icthyosaur, and I’m kind of yawning because I’ve seen these things before, nothing new, but my daughter asks me why it has a bony ring in its eye and, dammit, she’s got me there, I don’t have a clue. Turns out it’s a sclerotic ring, which helped it see underwater and supported the eye against the pressures of the deep. So then I’m all excited because I’ve suddenly realised the Sanomi (one of my alien species) just have to have sclerotic rings.

Did you know this: modern-day whales and dolphins (mammals) resemble ichthyosaurs, which were reptiles, by the process of convergent evolution. This fact fills my little heart with joy because this is the same process I’m using to explain why some of my aliens are so very, well, human-ish. Why can’t we have convergent evolution on an interplanetary scale?

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We went to the Museum of Brisbane (also free!)

Beautiful building, and check out the chandelier hanging above for steampunk or dungeon styling.

What caught my imagination, though, was the exhibition of modern art from Taiwan. For fantastic images that warp urban imagery into traditional mountainscapes, you’ve got to see  “A Bowl of Taipei” by Yang Yongliang. Check out this link:

http://www.yangyongliang.com/Photography/105.html?a=3

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We continued the Chinese cultural theme with the Shaolin Warriors.

This was where my kids, who are are not remotely interested in martial arts, caught me out. “Mum, are you sure you’re not just doing research for your book?” And yes, I was, because how else am I supposed to write the temple fight scene in The Hidden Link? I’ve got staff-wielding, saffron-robed monks in there, for goodness sake.

And this was an eye-opener, but not quite in the way I expected. What I saw was how incredibly hard the guys worked to not hurt each other. From the carefully choreographed sparring to the bendy staffs and fake swords, this was a reality far removed from the editing and special effects of the movies. And I don’t mean these fellows were even remotely wuss-like – their fitness, skill and agility was outstanding. It was just a sobering reminder that in real life, getting hit hurts.

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And we went to the movies.

Not intentionally, really, but we didn’t fly back until evening and we’d seen as much of Brisbane as our legs could stand without a car (my daughter reckoned her feet had flat tyres). Have you noticed that Brisbane has this thing about weird and wonderful bridges? But after you’ve walked across three of them…

So, anyway, we saw this film which I presumed was about peculiar children. Living in a home. Run by Miss Peregrine. Which it was, but perhaps I shouldn’t have assumed that a film with “for children” in the title was necessarily “for children”. My youngest found it a little scary.

Personally, I loved it, even after recognising the tropes. I mean, we have a young man who struggles to fit in, who has no friends and fears he might be going mad. We have shapeshifting, eye-stealing bad guys out to become immortal. We have a group of weird kids who overcome their rivalries to work together to defeat said bad guys.

But any old tropes are fine with me, as long as they’re done well (in the words of Fun Boy Three: It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It) and this film tiptoes nicely along the line between the believable and the magical, leaning one way and the other but never losing its balance. There are moments of wonder and moments of fear, and none are overblown. There’s even a hint of a deeper question, a what if? choice between duty and love, but again, it’s not overblown. Nicely done.

The End.

So that was my holiday. It sounds better, somehow, written out, minus the confusion over tickets, the boring waity bits and the endless arguments over where to go to eat. I wonder if next time I could take out the airplanes and do it all by google…?

 

Exploring Story Mood: The Dark and the Light

Followers of my blog (Hi, Mum!) may remember a previous post in which I was thinking about branding and how to present what it is my writing and my blog are all about. What is my core message? And what is my point of differentiation that sets my work apart from anyone else’s?

Well, apologies in advance for the personal and subjective nature of this post, but I’m going to explore this a little – it’s something I feel the need to go through to gain a better sense of direction. My idea is to deconstruct recent books and films in my current genre that have captured my imagination – not ones that I enjoyed as a child but those that appeal to the adult me – to see what it is that I liked. With a bit of luck, there may be something of interest to others in my thoughts, too.

I’m going to start with these, as examples of “my kind of sci fi”:

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The book is Planetfall by Emma Newman and the film is Ex_Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland. If you haven’t yet read / viewed these and think you might want to, I suggest you don’t read on – I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there’ll inevitably be plot hints.

Anyone still here?

So, neither of these are stories I’m going to forget in a hurry, I found them to be very powerful, and to do them justice might take more than one blog post. For now, I’m going to discuss one common feature: they’re both rather dark.

What do I mean by dark?

Well, they both feature a protagonist who is under heavy psychological pressure.

In Planetfall, Ren has been hiding a terrible secret for so long that it has affected her mental health. The book starts with a stranger arriving in her extra-terrestrial community, one who is likely to reveal that secret. It doesn’t help that the stranger is the grandson of her former lover, bringing back painful memories. Immediately the reader can see that Ren is in serious trouble, though we are not sure of the details – we don’t know what the secret is – but we need to read on to see how Ren fares.

The picture is drawn from snippets like this, in Chapter 1:

“Ren. What if he’s here to ruin everything we’ve done here?”

 “We’ve done?” It comes out like  croak.

   “Yes, we.” His voice hardens. “Should I shoot him and make sure he-”

    “Oh for fuck’s sake, Mack, I’m an engineer! Not your conscience!”

     His mouth drops open at my outburst and I regret the words. He just doesn’t want to be the       only load-bearing object in this messy structure.   

In Ex_Machina, Caleb has been brought to billionaire Nathan’s claustrophobic retreat to test whether an artificial intelligence, constructed in the form of a young woman, has consciousness. From the mood of the film, it is immediately clear that Nathan has another agenda and Caleb may be in trouble. The viewer knows no more about this hidden agenda than Caleb does, but we can foresee the conflict between what Nathan is asking Caleb to do and what he feels to be right.

Nathan: This building isn’t a house. It’s a research facility. Buried in these walls is enough fibre optic cable to reach the moon and lasso it. And I want to talk to you about what I’m researching. I want to share it with you. In fact, I wanna share it with you so much, it’s eating me up inside. But there’s something I need you to do for me first.

Caleb: [reading contract] “Blue Book non-disclosure agreement.”

Nathan: Take your time. Read it over.

Caleb: [continues reading] “The signee agrees to regular data audit with unlimited access, to confirm that no disclosure of information has taken place in public or private forums, using any means of communication, including but not limited to that which is disclosed orally or in written or electronic form.”

[frightened]

Caleb: I think I need a lawyer.

Nathan: It’s standard.

Caleb: It doesn’t feel very standard.

Nathan: Okay, it’s not standard. What can I tell you, Caleb? You don’t have to sign it. You know, we can spend the next few days just shooting pool, getting drunk together, bonding. And when you discover what you’ve missed out on, in about a year, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.

The psychological pressure is so extreme that in Planetfall, it has pushed Ren to mental illness, while in Ex_Machina, after only a few days in Nathan’s house, Caleb starts to question his own humanity.

Nathan: Buddy, your head’s been *so* fucked with.

Caleb: I don’t think it’s me whose head is fucked.

Nathan: I don’t know, man. I woke this morning to a tape of you slicing your arm open and punching the mirror. You seem pretty fucked up to me.

Caleb: You’re a bastard.

Nathan: Yeah, well, I understand why you’d think that. But believe it or not, I’m actually the guy that’s on your side.

Another way in which these works have a dark edge is that the protagonist is faced with a moral dilemma.

In neither of these stories is there a clear way forward or an easy way out – whichever action they choose will have serious consequences for somebody. Behind both of them is a character of questionable morals, who has gradually forced them into an untenable situation. We feel for Ren and Caleb as they become ensnared in webs of lies and deceptions, hoping that they can find a way to extract themselves that does not harm others. Instead, the tension rises as the situation edges towards irretrievable disaster.

Snippets of dialogue reveal their inner tension. In Ex_Machina, Caleb is thrown off-kilter by the AI, Ava, asking him whether he considers himself a good person. In the end, he says that he is, but we can see the beginnings of doubt in his eyes.

In Planetfall, we have this:

I want to be the kind of person who would stand up now and declare that there is a better way, or that I’ll stand by my principles in this as all things and not do it. But what is the alternative? And I’m just as afraid of what will happen if the transition from lies to truth isn’t handled carefully. I should have spoken up over twenty years ago.

But if I had, I would be dead.

“You’d better show me how you do it, then,” I say, without bothering to hide the defeat in my voice. He isn’t the victor. Fear is. And cowardice.

Of course, I was hoping for happy endings. Unfortunately for me, with stories of this complexity and depth of moral ambiguity, “happily ever after” is not going to happen. What these stories did do, though, was present a twist towards the end, giving me that thrill of the unexpected. And with both stories, there is a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Personally, I don’t think I would have the stomach to write something quite as dark as these – I tend to adopt clearer-cut divides between good and bad, giving my protagonist a path that is more clearly “right”. I just like something a little easier on the emotions. But at least now I’m starting to get a feel for what makes stories like these so powerful.

It’s all about placing one’s protagonist in impossible situations, facing them with terrible moral dilemmas, and ultimately watching them make their choice and take the consequences.

There’s also power in the way the story is constructed, the timing of the reveals and the maintenance of tension and suspense – but I will save detailed discussion of these aspects for another post.

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If you remember the title of this post, you may be wondering where “the light” comes in.

To me, it’s all about balance. What I’m really aspiring to is this: to create a story with something of this dark, psychological edge, and to have my character come through that to a place beyond. What I’m looking for is not the shallow happy ending of character who has not been stretched, but the deep happy ending of a character who’s been through hell and made it back.

Maybe this is something in my own psyche, that I need to see a way of climbing from dark places and finding hope and redemption. Discussion of my minor personal demons, though, I will save for another post.

For now, I have food for thought – how to get the balance right? In how deep and dark a place can I place my characters, while still allowing them to find the light and escape?

Review of Harsh Lessons by LJ Kendall

Being Tamed or Growing Up?

I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.

This book continues the story of Leeth, groomed by her adopted Uncle Harmon to be an archetypical huntress, as she grows from teenager to young woman. Now she is being trained within the secure subterranean facilities of the Department, honing her fighting skills and being pushed to learn other, more difficult, lessons. How can this wild child be taught the social skills, not just to blend into normal society, but to take on the range of personas a mission might require? And what is the motivation behind the evil menace that stalks the streets, The Breaker? In this book, we see Leeth’s transformation from child to adult.

My first comment on this book has to be a warning: like the first in the series, it treads a thin line in its portrayal of violence and sexual abuse within a story intended as entertainment. For me, it hovered on the edge in places, but was saved towards the end by Leeth’s growth, and her budding sense of moral responsibility.

I also felt that more background to the characters and organisations would have helped to establish their motivations. For instance, what is the Department was trying to achieve? Why do they want Leeth badly enough to train her, on an individual basis, for more than a year? Perhaps my understanding of the socio-political situation was inadequate to fully grasp their goals.

The plot revolving around The Breaker felt underdeveloped, too. It was a little disappointing to finish this book with no greater understanding of this part of the plot than I had at the end of book 1.

Don’t let these perceived flaws put you off, though. Leeth is an interesting character tested by a variety of threats both mental and physical and I found her story an absorbing read.

 

 

Musings on Finding My Tribe

These are some thoughts on finding and connecting with potential readers, which arose from a local writing workshop. We were fortunate to have the wonderful Lauren Sherritt from the equally wonderful Queensland Writers Centre (http://www.qwc.asn.au/) come up from Brisbane. Her workshop was about developing an effective on-line author platform.

As she spoke about the importance of having an author website and a blog, of using Twitter and Facebook, it all made sense. I can’t say I’m fond of anything related to marketing, promotion, or having to speak to strangers, but I can see that my personal combination of social ineptitude and introversion is something I will need to adjust if I’m to find people to read my books.

So, one of the things that Lauren asked us to think about for our websites or blogs was how we wanted to brand ourselves. We have to present, immediately, just what it is we are all about. We don’t want to present an image that fails to attract the people we want on our site or (even worse) attracts the sort of people we don’t want. Harking back to an earlier blog post of mine, in which I said our book pitch has to be true to the kind of story we’re trying to tell, https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/the-pitch-part-1-the-importance-of-managing-expectations/ I believe our on-line image has to true to the person we are trying to be.

What, Lauren asked the class, was our core message? And what is our point of differentiation that sets our work apart from anyone else’s?

This was where I felt myself slipping and sliding like a cyborg on an ice-rink. In my hazy thinking, I had assumed that, as a writer of sci fi and fantasy, I could just blog about writing and SF. But that’s not a core message, is it? That’s not a point of differentiation. Somehow, I needed to go deeper. What type of SF do I like reading and why? What am I myself trying to write? In essence, what is Kay Want Cheung the Writer all about?

Not so easy, is it?

It’s something I got half-way towards in a previous post. I tried breaking my work down by genre in https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/the-pitch-part-2-dispelling-genre-myths/ and ended up with this:

May I present my New Adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

In Lauren’s class, given only a couple of minutes to think about it, I came up with this:

What I do is I combine the classic science fiction tropes of portals between worlds, cyborgs and artificial intelligence, and I add a little modern realism: ‘What would it really be like…?’

Now I’m finding myself wanting to go further, to get past the aliens and the cyborgs and reach for the heart of what I’m trying to achieve. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to market my books as comic-book style adventures of heroes vs villains, because that’s not what they’re all about.

And now I see that ultimately the only thing that matters to me is that my characters are real people, that they love and laugh and hurt and make mistakes. That they do what they believe to be right and when they get knocked down they get back up again and keep fighting. They’re about doing something for a cause that is greater than oneself, about survival and persistence through adversity.

And suddenly I’m realising that, while there’s nothing wrong with the stories I’ve written in terms of providing light entertainment, adventures with a futuristic slant, that’s not enough for me anymore. I want to go deeper into my characters’ motivations, their inner struggles, their joys and sorrows. I need to write a different kind of book.

So now I have a lot to think about, because when I started this blog post I had no idea that this was where it was going to end. Have I found my tribe? No, but perhaps I’ve found something more valuable at this stage in my writing development: finally, a better sense of direction in my re-writing.

 

The Perilous Art of Critique

Well, you’d better know from the start that I’m no expert in the art of critiquing others’ works. I’ve only studied English up to O Level (that’s like grade 10 or 11 in Australianese, I think) so I’m not about to win any prizes with the depth of my literary knowledge. My only qualification is that I’ve read quite a lot of commercial fiction.

What I can say is that somehow, in the course of all that reading, I do seem to have picked up a basic sense of the elements that a good story ought to have and to recognise when one of those elements might be missing. Writing that down in the form of a critique is something I learnt by trial and error on the website Authonomy (now sadly defunct). I’d also recommend Scribophile as a particularly good website for those learning how to critique.

On places like Amazon’s ‘writeon’, critiques tend to be based only on the first chapter or three (on Scribophile it’s limited to a chapter at a time), so my experience at critiquing full novels is more limited. The basic rule is that, regardless of what I may have rashly promised, I’ll only critique an entire novel if I’m enjoying the read, otherwise it just gets too painful. I’m sure any writers reading this will know what I mean.

So, for anyone still interested after all those caveats, here are my highly subjective (and quite possibly totally misconceived) views on the Perilous Art of Critique:

  1. Why are you here?

Let’s face it, none of us are saints. Generally we’re critiquing someone’s work because we’re hoping they’ll reciprocate in some way. (Incidentally, most won’t – expect one return critique for every three you give out).

You can see the temptation, can’t you? Why not ignore all the faults of the piece and only offer praise? The writer will be happy, will return the favour, and then we’ll be happy. And we’ve made a new friend into the bargain.

Except that the empty praise we get in return, while stroking our egos nicely, is going to do absolutely nothing to help improve our writing.

So ask yourself why you’re here. If your aim is to make a new writer pal and get a confidence boost, don’t do a critique, do a flattering review – that’s what they’re for. If you want honest, constructive feedback on your writing, look for someone who might appreciate the same and give their work a decent critique.

  1. Proceed at your own risk

You’re going to make enemies.

I probably ruffle feathers with about a third of my critiques. If you’re more diplomatic than me (which is likely), you might limit the casualty rate to one in five or so, but basically if you do enough critiques it’s going to happen.

Accept that some fall-out is inevitable – critique by its nature is criticism. You can make it as gentle and constructive as you can, but in essence you’re telling someone that there is a problem with their baby and not everyone’s going to be able to handle that.

  1. Everyone else likes it so why don’t I?

What you’re critiquing may be something outside your normal genre, not the sort of thing you normally read. My opinion on this is that it’s still okay to give a critique as long as you tell the writer that you’re not within their target readership and they might want to put less weight on your comments. Most writers value ‘outside opinions’.

  1. Good news before bad

I think this ought to be a rule set in stone – it reflects something ingrained in the human psyche. People are only receptive to criticism once they are satisfied that we like them, we like their work, and basically we’re on their side. So always start the critique with what you liked about the work.

I’m a shocker for forgetting this and just diving straight into the negatives. The worst thing is, I do it to the best writers, assuming that they already know how good their work is. But of course they don’t, they’re aspiring writers like me, full of the same devastating doubts and insecurities.

We know that writers are often too close to their own work to see the problems with it, but they might also be too close to recognise the positives. We need to tell them what they’ve done well.

  1. Big picture before small

What do you do if you’re reading someone’s work and you see a grammatical error? I know what I do, I pounce on it like a particularly enthusiastic English teacher. It’s like scratching an itch, I long to correct every perceived error (preferably with a flourish of red ink).

I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A surprising number of people consider a thorough correction of grammar and spelling to comprise a critique.

Now suppose you’ve gone through three chapters nit-picking on grammar and you suddenly realise the story has a massive problem. Maybe the plot has a hole big enough to put a foot through, or the main character inexpicably changes personality to keep the story going, and it’s just not going to work.

What I try to do (and occasionally I manage it) is to read through the whole piece once without making any comment at all, just to get the gist of where it’s going. Then I comment on the big picture issues. Biggest for me are probably interesting characters, a novel or exciting plot, and enjoyment of the story. Second most important are things like believable dialogue, flow of the language, and evocative descriptions. Right at the bottom of the list is grammar.

Of course, there are exceptions – those unfortunate times when you get stuck about two pages in because the writing has too many mistakes to ignore. On these, I’ll let my inner English teacher out of her box.

(So if you receive a critique from me with only grammar corrections and no comment on characters or plot, what can I say? You’re either a great writer or a terrible one. I’ll let you work out which.)

  1. The Stop Test

What’s the ultimate test of a piece of fiction? For me it’s that “unputdownability”, the wrench I feel when I have to stop reading, the sense of being pulled out of another world, and the dinner burnt on the stove because I was too busy wondering what was going to happen next.

So the most useful feedback you can give a writer is to tell them where it was you decided to stop reading and why. Give it a good shot, read three or four chapters, and decide at which point the book became too putdownable. What was missing?

I reckon that’s about it. Happy critiquing!