Writing Your Book. Step Four: Early Returns
So you've written the rough draft of your manuscript, selected a small group of people to help critique the work as a whole, handed each of them a copy and are awaiting their annotated returns.
The waiting part is hard, but you have to keep calm. And as said in the previous post, resist the urge to beta read your own book alongside your helpers! The reason for this should become abundantly after reading this article.
Sometimes people will read your work in a day or two and hand it back in, like the good students in high school or the even better ones in college. Be thankful for their punctuality, but don't expect this every time. Try to find a reward for such prompt assistance, however, since it is a pretty big deal for someone to do you this favor (special mention in the foreword is always appreciated, and naming a character in the book for them is also a nice thing to do - unless it's a loathsome character, of course).
But more than likely you'll be waiting for a couple weeks to get everyone's input to process. Once you have that input, you need to compile it to make sense of their comments.
Shameless Plug, dept. v2.0
I specifically built the editing program at the heart of this website for the purpose of helping with this particular step in the process. Going through fifteen or twenty sets of variously collected and transmitted notes is a mind-numbing process, and worse than that you end up missing things no matter how careful you are.
At the very moment I am writing this article, I have used the program in its alpha-level incarnation to edit my brother's fifth novel in his Spineward Sectors series, Admiral's Revenge. While there were many flaws in that initial run-through, I was able to correct them and streamline the process even further. Even with those flaws, however, I cut down my editing time by 80% and managed to produce a superior quality effort compared to the previous novels. I expect the next use, which will likely be with my first self-published series titled Joined at The Hilt, sometime this month. I fully expect to cut the amount of time I spent collating notes to decrease by half again, cutting the amount of time required to edit a manuscript to 10% what it would have taken me before.
There may be other ways of doing precisely this, but the entire purpose of this website is to help authors and encourage creativity, not to stymie it with services and features which are either too difficult to learn, or to expensive to use.
Back To Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
Ok, so using whatever method you like - either one of your own design, another program's features, or the resources available for free on this website - you've collected the feedback and you're ready to go through it. This is a stressful time - much like baring your body to another person for the first time. In fact, that is almost precisely what you're doing, except it's not your flesh you're exposing, but rather your mind. That's even scarier for most people, and trust me when I say that whatever trepidation you're feeling is not only shared, but expected.
You need to separate the feedback into a few piles. Here's how I break it down, in general terms:
Story/Character Critiques: These are issues pertaining to the idea portion of your work, or, if not the actual idea itself, then with your presentation of the idea. We are all guilty of writing things which make perfect sense to us, and literally no one else; this is normal. These critiques are sometimes tough to swallow, but they are also the most fundamentally crucial to producing a story which will resonate with your readers.
This is an example where you let the crowd decide for you; if you have half your beta readers tell you there is a problem with a character's response to a given situation, or an inconsistency somewhere within the story, timeline, or consistency of your world, you need to take a long, hard look at it. Usually there's something you can do about it, and sometimes there isn't, but always address these concerns! Even if it's just a throwaway line tacked on to the end of the offending paragraph explaining away the inconsistency, that's acceptable most of the time. If the inconsistency or error is one that is central to your story, obviously more consideration must be given to explaining the issue or, in rare cases, actually reworking it so that it fits better.
But in all, these are the most important, because they affect the quality of the story you're telling. The next items on this list are generally less important, but still require addressing for the reasons laid out below.
I give this one its own pile, and for good reason. I usually only receive a few complaints about the pacing of a given section of a book but when I do, I treat them as absolute emergencies. There is nothing worse you can do than convince a reader to delve into your story and then bore said reader into putting the book down. I don't know the numbers yet, but I suspect that once someone puts your book down out of boredom with the story, the chance they will pick it up again is incredibly slim. Think about your own experience with books and how many you've put down simply because you felt like it was going nowhere. You're probably more persistent since you're an avid book lover; most of your readers won't be so forgiving.
Pacing issues are tricky, because you don't want to upend your entire story just because the second act gets a little stale. You've told the story you wanted to tell, and changing that story at its fundamental level is almost never a good idea. So here's where some fellow authors can help out.
In my brother's first and second books, we had a few acts which we thought were a little slow. The story was advanced well during these sections, but there was less entertainment value to be had so we talked about the other events going on in the story at or around the time of these slow points. Eventually we came up with ideas for new characters to introduce, or existing characters to examine more closely, and some of our favorite scenes came about as a result of this collaborative process.
I can't even take much of the credit for the creation of these scenes since my brother already had the whole story in his head. But I can lay claim to providing encouragement and confirmation of the ideas' merits. As a writer, sometimes all you need is a little positive reinforcement - but be careful not to go seeking too much affirmation, because as mentioned earlier in this series of articles, it's all-too-easy to get discourage by even the slightest criticism.
So find someone you know and trust not to give you negative feedback and bounce a few ideas off of them if you've found some sections of your book which are going slowly enough that you get even one complaint. This is the exception to the 'crowdsourcing' rule of applying changes; pacing issues will turn people off faster than offensive content, in my experience.
The Nits: Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, Tense Changes, etc..
This is by far the biggest pile of comments whenever I work through a manuscript. Nobody has all 1,000 light bulbs on when it comes to compositional skill, so no matter how many times you run spellcheck or look at it with your own eyes, you're going to end up with a laundry list of these items. The good news is that these are the easiest to stomach as a writer - they're just a little embarrassing to look at.
But this is a super important part of the story as well, since your art is transmitted in such a narrow medium: written words. All you have are your words, which places a huge premium on the quality of their presentation. When reading a comic book, you're likely to forgive a given spelling or grammatical error because there are plenty of pictures to look at, and the story is told in two different ways: visually and linguistically. A movie is even easier; you don't mind a poorly constructed bit of dialog or incorrect grammar if there's something flashy or enticing taking place on screen. Even music has instruments to back the singer, so the words become just one of a dozen tools the artist uses to convey their story.
But we writers must clear a higher bar. Nobody's perfect, and your readers don't expect (or even want!) you to be perfect. No one wants to read a monotonous essay discussing events and characters; they want to hear your voice! So even though there are 'rules' which govern proper writing, always be aware of your own voice when making wholesale changes to your work. Extra commas (guilty!) or missing quotations are easy enough to correct, as are changing commas to question marks inside quotations, or any number of basic, fundamental corrections which are suggested. But the most important thing to remember is to be consistent!
I've spoken to readers who got into series where there were literally only commas and periods in the book they were reading. No question marks. No exclamation points. No em-dashes, parenthesis, apostrophes, semicolons, colons or even quotation marks. And you know what? They didn't mind it since the entire thing was consistent, and the story was engaging! Consistency is key when dealing with The Nits; make sure your story is told in your voice, and that the presentation is consistent, and your readers will likely forgive your eccentricities.
The above is obviously not the only way to break things down, but it is how I've done it, so if you don't have a system in place then give mine a try. Don't worry, this isn't like singing 'Happy Birthday' on camera; you don't need to send me royalties every time you use the system.
So you've separated the issues into their respective piles, and now you're ready to dive in and make the necessary changes. This brings us to Step Five: The Re-Write