Previously, I’ve covered what I’ve learned about pre-planning and writing the first draft of a novel. In this post I hope to cover some of what I learned about the post-first-draft days, including preliminary editing and beta readers.
As I said before, in your first draft you can allow yourself to be imperfect, because now you’re going to make it better. First draft in the bag, maybe you want to take a break. Most writers suggest you take a month off to see it with fresh eyes, and while that may be a good idea for a lot of people, I found the opposite to work better for me. Having the end of the novel fresh in my head, and the characters full arched out meant going back to chapter 1 I could make them more true to themselves, but this is entirely up to you.
Your second draft isn’t going to be the last either. In the first draft, you told yourself the story, in the second draft you are telling the beta readers your story. I can’t stress enough, you need beta readers. If I published my first draft it would flat out stink.
So, how do you get beta readers? And when you have them, what do you do with them?
Find some beta readers you can trust. I’ve been fortunate that I work in a storytelling field, so coworkers who I had befriended over the years became an absolute asset. Many of them are writing stories themselves. Since we all worked in the film industry, we understood story structure from a movie making standpoint. This translated well into the novel, and kept my pacing and arcs flowing nicely.
Besides coworkers, I reached out to avid readers, friends of friends who ran book clubs and read novels often. I told these people to be as brutal as possible, citing that I had been yelled at by directors in the past so my skin is pretty thick. They did fantastic, and didn’t hold back. Having one degree separation between us (friend of a friend and not just friend) helped take the edge off so they could really hammer me. I’ll get into why being hammered is awesome for this process soon.
I also had my mom take a crack at it. She’s not an avid reader of science fiction, but I knew that if I could keep it from getting confusing to her, then my concepts were clear enough for even the most avid scifi readers. I called this “the mom test.” and she had some great insight on helping keep things clear and concise. It passed.
Cast a wide net during this process. I have close friends who were jumping to sign up, only to dip out shortly after. I don’t blame them, asking people to read a second draft novel is a tall order. By casting a wide net, I caught a few great beta readers, and lost a few who didn’t rise to the challenge.
You can also search online for betas if you don’t have writer friends or coworkers that fit the bill. Twitter has #betareaders, fivver.com, and even Goodreads.com has groups for beta readers. I suggest you copyright your work, just for safety. It costs around $35-$50 and can be done within minutes. I did all my business oriented legal work through Legalzoom.com with little difficulty.
So, what do you do with the beta readers?
I have tried a few approaches to this process. The method that worked best for me I will call “the Freedom Method” and the one that didn’t I will call “the Constricted Method.” I will describe them both.
THE FREEDOM METHOD: in this method, you have your betas print a copy of your novel and use a pen to write anything they want while they read. The good ones will write their thoughts and reactions, as well as questions and point out inconsistencies. This is risky though, because there were a few betas who gave me close to zero input, but I have a feeling they would not have given me input if I constricted their workflow either. When they finish the novel, they may even write up a quick summary of all their thoughts. If they don’t; request that they do while the novel is still fresh. Even better, have a little one on one chat with them if you can. It may seem awkward at first, but if they liked your novel it can be very rewarding to hear their thoughts.
With this data, you can glean what is important, see how reactions line up to your expectations, and let the beta reader enjoy the full novel, just like a normal final reader would. This was the only method that got me success.
THE CONSTRICTED METHOD: this was my first attempt before moving onto the Freedom method. This method involves handing your betas one chapter at a time with a questionnaire to answer after each chapter, then waiting for each of them to finish before moving onto the next chapter. This process felt flawed for a number of reasons. It takes a long time, feels like homework, and baits the reader into thinking a specific way. When I had betas read chapter 1, then ask “what did you think of Eliana” then they would start to wonder why I asked about Eliana, instead of just naturally allowing the info to come to them. Also, my betas read bigger chunks than just one chapter at a time, so stalling them between each of them was a pain in the ass and didn’t allow anyone to enjoy the novel. I don’t recommend this method, but some authors have had success this way, so i figured I’d mention it.
Have your betas read and give their notes, then sift through them and learn what is worth applying. Also, if you have a lot of beta readers give the same note, then you know theres a major flaw. As I said before, I told my betas to be ruthless. My philosophy is that any critique I get I can fix, but any critique that was hidden from me will remain ingrained in the final product.
I had one beta reader say she almost put down my novel at one point and refuse to pick it back up due to something I had included. It was one of the most valuable pieces of feedback I received, because I never wanted to offend anyone and she had exposed something that was offensive. Telling me honestly about it allowed me to find the offensive section and strike it from the novel, creating something that wouldn’t repulse readers.
Another beta reader casually said, “I wish the novel started here, instead of where it currently does,” and I thought about that note for a long time. It would mean a complete rewrite of part 1 of the novel. I churned the pros and cons of starting the novel where he suggested and discovered that it would actually fix a lot of problems, and allow me to develop a totally different angle I wasn’t expecting. It was exciting, and I rewrote part 1 based on that casual note. I’m really happy with the flow of the novel now, and it cut out a lot of unnecessary shoe leather.
Take the notes seriously and apply them, no matter how daunting they seem. After this edit, you may be on version 3 or 4 of your novel, and it should be getting stronger each iteration.
On the next version of this series, I will go over hiring freelancers and the final editing phase.
I hope this helped any new writers out there like myself. I know I was frantically looking for information that had been through the trenches. On the next WHAT I’VE LEARNED, I’ll go over the post-writing process, such as beta readers, editors, and collaborators.
I hope you find these useful, and I’m happy to answer any questions. If you have any friends who need advice like this, follow along and share! If you have been through the writing process and have input feel free to comment below.