Is My Book Any Good? A Critique Could Tell You

This is the first in a series of guest posts from authors talking about their experiences with writing, revising, and getting feedback on their manuscripts. 

Jack Bunker is a trial lawyer who splits his time between the home he shares in Northern Virginia with his wife and four children, and their family farm in Virginia's breathtaking Bluegrass Valley. His debut novel, TRUE GRIFT, was a critical success published by Brash Books.

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Finish a manuscript and you’ve earned that magical sensation. Millions (billions?) have said they’ll write a book, but you’ve done it. Your options now are to enjoy the afterglow, or to do what so many of us have done – fling that manuscript to the far corners of agentdom before competent eyes and cooler heads suggest maybe, just maybe, it could use a tweak.

Enjoy the afterglow.

Friends and family are only human. They don’t want to bruise your pride. They want to be supportive. They’re also busy. While you’re cataloging every sacrifice you made to complete your manuscript, they’re working and taking their kids to soccer or picking up in-laws at the airport. Yeah, it only takes you three hours and forty-nine minutes to read it, but you have your schedule, they have their own, and your impatience is not their problem.

Under a different title, I sent my novel, TRUE GRIFT, out to more agents than I’d like to confess. Most didn’t even bother to respond. Cricket Woodstock. Ultimately, when the publishers at the then-newly formed Brash Books got the manuscript they loved it. They wanted it. 

 Jack's book, published by Brash Books to rave reviews in Publishers Weekly.

Jack's book, published by Brash Books to rave reviews in Publishers Weekly.

They had a few notes.

They were great about the process. The suggested edits were mine to accept or reject. The publishers, Joel Goldman and Lee Goldberg, are writers themselves and their perspective from the writer’s end gave them an unusual empathy. Some of the notes I accepted without hesitation; others I politely declined. In the end, however, a book that more than 70 agents passed on received not one, but two separate starred reviews in Publishers Weekly.

Before I wrote TRUE GRIFT, I wrote another book, JUDGMENT PROOF, that agents had ignored as well. A couple of early readers had given me a few thoughts, some more useful than others. When I came across The Spun Yarn, I had nothing to lose, so I submitted it for review. Why not see if three unbiased readers thought my book was good? I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the feedback I received.

Some nagging doubts I had were confirmed, others were allayed completely. The readers’ ratings I took for what they were. Every book is not for every reader. (The movie Jaws somehow gets only a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes.) But when three independent adults with no stake in your personal happiness give you feedback it’s worth consideration.

Not every reader will see things the way you do. While you don’t have to accept a reader’s conclusions, if you have to point out the person’s errors, you’ve just told yourself something. One person, okay, he skimmed over that plot point. Three people saying the character’s not believable? That’s a problem. It's also an opportunity to make the next draft of the manuscript better.

A reader’s feedback on your novel may reinforce a suspicion you already held. A different opinion may point out incongruities or character traits you didn’t realize were seeping onto the page. When it comes to notes, I have to believe all writers would agree, in the end, only one thing matters:

Does it make the book better?

While workshops have their own utility, just as with friends and family, personalities may bear on what should really be a pure process. Intelligent, thoughtful, and motivated readers are the ideal audience. I’ve gone over my own Spun Yard feedback for JUDGMENT PROOF at least a dozen times. I found particularly useful the quarterly report card [Flash Feedback] – a snapshot of how a reader feels about the book at the one-quarter mark, the halfway mark, etc. This is great for isolating just where a story may start to sag, or where an injection of some kind (clarity, action, exposition) might help.

 An example of Flash Feedback in a Spun Yarn Manuscript Report

An example of Flash Feedback in a Spun Yarn Manuscript Report

I’ve worked my Spun Yarn feedback into edits. I’ll continue polishing the manuscript and float it back over the transoms of agentdom. Thoughtful suggestions clearly made my first book better. I think they’ll do the same for my next book.

Jack BunkerComment