First drafts of anything—novel, screenplay, children’s book—are rarely ready for the prime-time of literary agents’ or editors’ in-boxes. For that reason, it’s advisable to get feedback on your novel, to vet it and revise it before you send it out into the world for potential representation by a literary agent or potential sale to a book publisher.
Of course, for those going the self-publishing route, getting constructive reader feedback now can mean that your novel appeals to more readers when it’s out in the marketplace, so it advisable for DIY novelists, too.
How to get constructive, actionable feedback on your novel
Writers like to ask friends and acquaintances to read their work, and they like to be told things like, “I really liked it!” or, even better, “I loved it!” (C’mon, admit it.)
“Liked” and “loved” are actually vague and subjective opinion and, while nice to hear, that’s actually very useful to you right now.
What is useful—what you want—is for people to be thoughtful and constructive and honest enough to tell you what’s not working in your novel. Notice I didn’t write “what’s wrong” —that, too, is subjective. The answers to the question “What’s not working for you?” is feedback you can use to improve your story.
Tell your readers that you welcome their “like” and “love,” but you can really use some specifics about what they liked and loved. And what they did not. Some prompts you might give readers before they read your work:
• Did you have difficulty understanding anything?
• Were you able to follow the plot?
• Did you stumble over anything? Did you have difficulty getting beyond a certain plot point or passage?
• Did any passages strike you as slow-moving or boring?
• What did you think about the characters?
• Did any characters behave in a way that seemed “out-of-character,” as they’d behaved previously in the story?
There are many more questions you can ask, depending on the specifics of your book, but the general idea is to get your reader talking about what might ultimately need clarification.
Use the feedback to improve your story.
Now you need to seriously use the feedback you’ve been so generously given. Try to listen to what people are not saying.
When a reader says to you “I didn’t understand,” “I was confused,” “What exactly was happening with...?” even “The part about the apocalypse seemed really long” pay close attention. If a person mentions to you any sort of dissatisfaction about a certain passage (or plot point or chapter or character) in any context, it indicates that there is a sticking point for readers, something that bugs them. If more than one person stumbles over that same passage—even if the feedback is slightly different—you have a plot (or tone or character or pacing...) problem you need to address.
Instead of excusing away the writing (“But I want to keep the readers off balance,” “But the villain is meant to be complex and confusing,” “But it’s my own personal artistic vision that I can’t compromise,” “But the apocalypse will be pretty long, I’m sure”) look deeply into the part that’s not sitting well with others and ask for honest, thoughtful, constructive feedback from another writer who you trust. Honor the time and effort it takes to read and give feedback by taking it very seriously.
Note that you might get suggestions: “You should make her kill the intruder, not just maim him.” “He should get set up on a double-date with her grandmother.” “It would be funnier if the character had Tourettes Syndrome.” Of course, you’re the author—you can absolutely ignore these suggestions—or choose not to.
But the bottom line is that you need to resolve the sticking point and you can do it in a way that satisfies you and honors your creative vision. (And, by the way, doing so takes skill and craft and if you don’t have that yet, you need to work on it.)
If you ignore early, thoughtful feedback, you do so at the peril of engaging other readers—readers who might be agents or editors or others who are critical to your getting that book published.
And when you’re ready to send out the novel, learn how to find a literary agent for your book.