A little update here on The Jack Hansard Series. Thanks again for sticking with me – we’re making steady progress! I know it’s proving to be a long wait, but I promise the end result will be worth it. I know it’s a bit dull to just hear ‘I’m editing’ over and over again, so I thought I’d give you all a little insight into what I’ve been working on, and exactly what ‘editing’ the series means in practice.
For a start it involves…
The original version of the series (still available to read for free on An Inspired Mess and on Wattpad) is written over 20 episodes. The final version will be just 15.
Wait! Don’t worry – nothing’s been cut, just condensed. The original episodes were written and published on a fortnightly basis, and realistically I could only churn out up to 5000 words in that time. This meant that several stories got split over separate episodes, and the episode lengths weren’t consistent. So you’d finish reading a satisfying 5000 word episode, to then stop short at the end of a 3000 word ep like: ‘Where’s the rest of it?’
So I’ve been working on evening out those word counts, and putting full stories into one episode wherever possible. For example, remember where Jack first meets Ang in Ironbridge? This was needlessly split into two episodes – there’s not even a proper cliff-hanger to lead from one to the other! So now they are joined together in one seamless story to be enjoyed without any interruption.
What this also means is I’m…
Adding New Content
Some of those stand-alone episodes are still too short, especially near the beginning of the series. You see, when I started out my episodes were only 2000-3000 words each, but as the series developed the characters found their voices and the plots became more rounded, demanding longer stories to see them through. You can see this in the explosive Phoenix finale, which took a whole five episodes to complete!
So I’ve been adding in extra details, and occasionally whole new scenes. Remember Episode 1, where Jack gets cornered by Scallet and makes a lucky and quick escape? The story no longer ends there. You now get to see a fraction of London’s underworld as Jack goes on to encounter an old ‘friend’ at the Black Friar and… I won’t spoil it for you.
A bizarrely shaped building, the Black Friar took up a corner of Queen Victoria Street and had a habit of playing tricks on the eyes. Viewed from the side, it appeared as a long, unrealistically thin building. From the front, a V that seemed to occupy more space than was possible. Rows upon rows of art nouveau windows gave the impression of crowded bedsits built for high society. And, naturally, there was a statue of a jolly black friar with his pudgy hands folded over his stomach, beaming down from his spot right above the front door.
You can also expect more interactions with characters like Ang, Officer Jo Neills, and Mark Demdike. Oh, and the lovely Devin Tracey gets a much-needed spot in the limelight as well. You might recall he’s the devilishly handsome Irish siren from episodes 8-10. It always bothered me that I never wrote him a proper purpose other than to act as a sounding board at the Market. Why have a siren if you don’t get to glimpse their ability in action? So you can expect just that – a glimpse.
But unfortunately, as well as adding I have also been…
Alas, it is necessary. But again, don’t get too concerned. The whole point of editing is to cut details that the reader won’t miss, like clunky, slow dialogue or a lengthy portion of exposition that would be better used later.
Perhaps one of the biggest chunks I’ve cut so far is from Episode 6: Cockermouth where Jack’s internal monologue became horribly clogged up with an explanation of his different types of customers. It was awfully long-winded and not really relevant to the situation at hand – so now it’s transformed into a much more enjoyable argument with Ang over the subject.
‘He falls into the ‘spurned lovers’ category of our demographic, Ang,’ I said knowingly. I ignored her mouthing ‘Demo-what?’ under the table. ‘Desperate people, angry people, these are our favourite customers. They have an axe to grind and I’m here to provide the grindstone.’
I should also say that if you’ve read the series’ most recent iteration on Wattpad (or here on An Inspired Mess after January 2017) then you’ve missed most of the drastic cuts already. The version currently published online is actually the second draft, which had an extensive overhaul of its own. So don’t worry – you won’t recognise what you don’t miss.
On a more cheerful note, editing also involves…
I suspect this is what a lot of people think editing is, while forgetting about the dirty work of necessary cuts and story structure. Technically all of editing is a refinement, but here I’m talking about the more enjoyable, low-level edits that are designed to just make the writing easier to read.
These are usually quite simple changes, a matter of phrasing and word choice to make a sentence read more smoothly. Also checking grammar and consistency – you won’t believe how long I agonised over what form my ellipsis should take. Google did not give me a straight answer.
Would you believe that in publishing it’s usually a matter of house preference? Some publishers will put the ellipsis in the middle of words like this … while others will join it on, like this…
Yet others will use a spaced out ellipsis like this . . . which was always my favourite until I discovered it caused no end of formatting problems online. A comically simple, but frustratingly time-consuming issue to overcome.
This is always the most important part of any editing process, and it feeds into everything I’ve outlined above. A lot of self-published authors apparently pay for professional editors to proof read and critique their work – but I’m afraid I cannot even slightly afford such services. So I did the next best thing: assembled a pool of people I trust to give me real honest feedback and help pick the series to pieces. They played a large part in shaping that initial, harsh edit.
This second round of editing is largely influenced by the voice of genuine readers; that is, people who came to read the series because they wanted to, not because I asked. If you’ve ever left a comment or shot me a private message about an episode – whether it contained praise or criticism – you can guarantee that I’ve considered carefully how it should impact on the writing.
On this note, a general tip for other writers out there: heeding feedback is not the same as always following feedback. As your spidey senses develop, you begin to learn how to differentiate – when to follow the advice of others, and when to follow your own instinct. But don’t throw out criticism just because you disagree with it. First, try to understand where that criticism is coming from, why you disagree, and then why you might be wrong.
So that’s where we’re at, guys. I think I’m about two thirds of the way through this process, and I’ll let you know when we’re close to publication. If you’ve been wondering, the series will be available through Amazon Kindle as an e-book later this year.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this post you might also enjoy:
In The Easy Cut: Editing Tips Part 2 we looked at quick and easy ways of improving your writing by making small aesthetic cuts. The reason these cuts were quick and easy was because they were largely superficial – they tightened up your work without making you lose anything you’d really miss. The Easy Cut was all about polishing the writing. The Hard Cut is all about polishing the story, and that means cutting where it hurts.
Unlike last time, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut without reading your work: every piece will need a different kind of editing. Instead, I can give you a series of checks you should make – questions you need to ask – to highlight where your work needs alteration.
So get your scissors out; we’re going deeper this time.
1. Check your driving
In the Hard Cut we’re looking for problems in our story’s structure and composition: do all the parts fit together and do they tell a coherent, entertaining story? One of the first questions you can ask is: “How are the events in my story driven?”
Does stuff just happen to your protagonist, or do they make it happen? Do they have a habit of escaping bad situations through sheer luck, or by the agency of another character rather than by their own skills and cunning? Exactly how many decisions does your main character make, and do their decisions affect the progression of the story?
If you answered ‘no’ to that last one in particular, then you’re in a heap of trouble. A main character who doesn’t drive the story with their decisions is barely a character at all. Why would I want to read about a protagonist who just bounces from one random event to the next? Your story might as well be called ‘A List of Stuff That Happens to Some Guy’.
There are ways to make a character vulnerable to the influence of others while firmly rooting them at the steering wheel of your story. I’ll point out Discworld’s Rincewind as a good example. Here’s a very cowardly character who appears to be bounced between unfortunate incidents as if the universe has something against him, but in fact it’s usually his own bad decisions that place him in these situations. He decides to run away, and ironically runs head first into another dangerous predicament and thus advances the plot. He also makes plenty of decisions – who to side with, how to escape, and, on the odd occasion, when to face his fears – which ultimately lead to the story’s conclusion.
So bear in mind that a little bit of luck to save the day isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only ace up your character’s sleeve.
2. Check your conflict
This is an easy way to make sure your story has a sensible structure: ask yourself “What is the central conflict?”
The vast majority of stories follow a similar structure: we begin with a status quo, a conflict is introduced, the main character/s go through ups and downs to try to resolve the conflict, and finally the conflict is resolved.
That conflict is what ties your story together – it’s the core of the plot. To see how well your conflict is written, try this experiment: ask your Beta Readers to sum up your story in 15 seconds. If they can’t, then it’s possible your central conflict isn’t clear enough.
Sure, you can argue against this by shouting about your ‘multi-faceted conflict’ and ‘diverging sub-plots’ and whatnot, but what’s the glue that holds it all together?
So let’s try this with AGame of Thrones, a book written from several viewpoints and spanning a series of vastly interwoven political intrigues. What’s the main conflict of the story? Let’s see:
Game of Thrones is about a power struggle over the Iron Throne.
Right? Right. It’s right there in the title. Yes, the book is also about a lot of other stuff and foreshadows plenty more besides, but the central conflict is that power struggle: it ties in all those other sub-plots under its bloody, bloody wings.
Another exercise you can try is drafting a blurb for your story. How would you sum it up in, say 100 words? Now try 50. That. That’s your conflict.
3. Check your motivation
Next: What are the motivations of each of your characters?
It doesn’t matter how small a character they are, they will have some kind of motivation driving their thoughts, words and actions. That barista doesn’t politely serve you a cup of coffee because she is a barista by nature – she does so because she needs to pay her rent, and the desire to keep her job tends to stops her from spitting in the milk.
It’s important to know what your characters’ motivations are, because those motivations will help to drive the story. You should pay special attention your protagonist’s motivation, because this thread should wind through your entire plot and the way they try to resolve the central conflict. At every step, the reader should be clear on what your main character is trying to achieve – again, ask your Beta Readers what they think that character’s end goal is. If they can’t figure out why your character is doing what they’re doing, it’s time to consider a re-write.
You should also consider how your characters’ motivations might change over the course of a story, and this brings me onto…
4. Check your arc
I feel this is perhaps the most important question of all: is your main character exactly the same person by the end of the story as they were at the beginning?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have some major editing to do.
Generally, all stories follow one or more main characters – it is their story we are telling. If your character hasn’t changed by the end… then what was the purpose of the story in the first place?
This is something that has always bothered me with the structure of TV sitcoms. It’s always the same: status quo, conflict, character learns a humorous ‘lesson’, everything returns to the status quo . . . and the next episode proves the character never actually learned anything as they make the same mistakes over and over again. Consider How I Met Your Mother: how many times does Ted continue to make the same douche-baggy moves, fall for the same girl, despite professing to have learned otherwise?
That’s kind of OK in a TV show which has to run for 10 seasons of 20 episodes or something silly like that – but only because we’ve gotten used to that kind of poor writing and atrocious structure being the norm. On the flip side, there’s now plenty of episodic television out there with stellar writing and character development. The Walking Dead is a good example: every character is constantly changing over the course of the series in line with their harrowing experiences. There is no status quo.
I’m not suggesting your character needs some soul-searching, personality-changing inner transformation to occur. But it is necessary to understand that humans are subtly ever-changing creatures, and we are inexorably shaped by the events around us. So figure out how your story has shaped your protagonist, and you’ll have found the cornerstone to their character arc.
5. Check your purpose
This might be the quickest cut you can make, but also one of the hardest. Do all your side-characters serve a purpose? By which I mean, do they either advance the plot or add depth to your main cast?
You might find a couple of your favourite side-characters are just fluff, taking up unnecessary space if they don’t serve either of the above. You need to give them a reason to be in the story, or cut them completely.
An example where I’ve fallen into this trap myself: I once gave a teenage character a whole roster of pointless friends with too much page-time just because he was in high school and ‘ought’ to have friends. Each one had a personality, back story, and . . . next to zero impact on the plot. They were just decoration, an unnecessary detail in a story where the main character spent most of his time not-even-on-earth. All I actually needed to do was pick out one key friend to play the role of confidant and flesh out the protagonist at the start of the story, and drop the rest into the background, where they belonged.
So give your side-characters purpose, or get rid.
Taking this a step further, you can apply the same philosophy to actions as well as characters. It’s a hard rule to live by, but the majority of your words should be on the page for a reason. Consider a plot where a character called Bob gets up one morning to catch a train which will then crash on his way into work. How long do you describe his toast-making ritual? Do you go through every getting-dressed action before he leaves the house? Do you list every item in his fridge that morning, the way his wallpaper looks, the way the tap whines when he’s pouring water to boil for coffee?
Of course you don’t. You tell the reader just enough about Bob’s morning routine to show the reader something of his background and his personality. For example, you might point out the lack of creases in his suit to highlight his fastidious nature; you can tell us that he eats a few mouthfuls of unbuttered, burnt toast to show us he doesn’t look after himself well; and then you could mention the picture of his wife that he knocks over in his rush to get out the door. Each of those points is there to tell us something specific.
Cutting back to these purposeful details can greatly improve the punch of your story, allowing us to get into the meat of the conflict quicker and with more decisiveness in the storytelling.
6. Check your research
Here’s a fun question that every author hates asking: where did I go wrong?
Here you want to be actively searching for the plot holes in your story. Ask your Beta Readers to find reasons that your story wouldn’t work – and then explain to them why it does. If you don’t have an explanation, then you have a plot hole, my friend.
Sometimes these can be big plot holes; for example, if a jet engine is key to saving your character’s life, but you’ve misunderstood how a jet engine works, that’s a pretty massive hole that the reader will fall all the way into. Sometimes they can be quite small; the one that will always stick with me was not understanding how hard it would be for a driver to miss a flat tire in their own car. A hole not big enough to topple the entire plot, but certainly enough to make the reader trip over it.
You want to smooth as many of these holes over as possible, and sometimes it’s going to change how your character tackles the problem at hand. Jet engine won’t work? Well, is there another kind of engine that would work, in this scenario? If not an engine, a parachute?
Science isn’t the only thing you want to study for. If you’re writing in the ‘real world’, spend some time researching the locations in your story. Have you done something silly like describing Northumberland as flat? Have you done something even sillier like calling the Northumberland coast hilly? Because it’s not. It’s flat. Specific locations require specific knowledge.
Don’t think you’re off the hook just because you write high fantasy, either. Do you know what rocks your mountains are made of? I can guarantee your dwarven/gnomish/goblin miners are going to need that piece of information. How does your army’s trebuchet work? Is it possible that you’re actually describing a mangonel instead? When your hero starts life as a farmer, do you know as much about working the land as they should?
Proper research adds richness and depth to the storytelling, and if you’ve done it right then you’ll have sealed up those hole before the readers can get to them.
7. Cut and Paste
Time to apply a bandage, a final tip to make the pain of cutting a little more bearable: save your favourites.
I keep a document stowed away called ‘Bits and Pieces’, and it is literally bits and pieces of stories I have chopped up. From five lines of dialogue to 500 word paragraphs, down to an odd five-word phrase… I keep things that I can’t bear to lose forever, and I keep them for a rainy day when I might need them again. It’s my personal cure for Writer’s Block; if I’m having an off day I can browse this cutting-room floor and pick up a discarded remnant and buff it into a shine. Sometimes a line of dialogue, an odd word is all it takes to spark those neurons into a creative fire once again. And I find it dulls the pain of cutting out beautiful, but utterly pointless writing.
There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to editing. Some of these tips will work for you, and some won’t, and that’s OK. Editing, just like writing, is a skill that you develop with experience: you can’t just teach it in one go. If you want to hone your skills, then I highly suggest you join a writing group of some kind – an online forum, or a social writer’s circle – and I urge you to critique other people’s work.
We can always find faults with the work of others more readily than with our own, and we learn to identify faults that we can’t see in our own writing. Then, in providing constructive criticism for others we are forced to explain why we think something doesn’t work, and as we get better we can explain how to improve it. And gradually this translates into how we edit our own work. ‘Teaching is the best way of learning,’ and all that.
This wraps up our little mini-series on editing. You can find Parts 1 and 2 below, if you missed ’em. Excuse me while I go back to… more editing. I suspect most writers are masochists at heart, especially once we hit the point of enjoying our editing process. Good bye for now, and best of luck on your own road of pain!
Do you have burning desire to tell me how wrong I am about my approach to editing? Light it up in the comments! Are you in the middle of editing your work now? Come share your own tips, tricks, and bitter frustrations with the rest of us. Misery does love company 😉
Editing is a skill that you need as a writer, regardless of whether you intend to self-publish or not. The first draft will never be your best (it certainly isn’t for most great writers) because it’s the editing that makes it great. In this three-part series we’re looking at three keys elements of fiction editing, with some simple guidelines that will help you hone your work from first draft to final.
The Easy Cut is a simple first step you can take to tidy up your work. You’re looking specifically to cut bits out in order to streamline the text and make it flow more smoothly. The word I like to use is tight – you’re tightening up the writing.
So what kind of things should make the Easy Cut?
Cut the Unnecessary
A good rule of thumb is to remove words that are unnecessary, or redundant. See that sentence you just read? That’s a prime example. The words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘redundant’ essentially mean the same, why do I need both?
You don’t need to apply this rule to everything, but you’ll find most paragraphs read better once you have. A couple more examples:
Try saying ‘they gathered’ instead of ‘they gathered together.’
Because the ‘together’ is already implied by the verb of having gathered.
Try cutting words like ‘quite’. Eg: ‘He quite liked the look of it . . .’; ‘She was quite artistic . . .’
Ask yourself, why are you qualifying your statement with ‘quite’? Is your character artistic, or is she not?
I am so guilty of having too many ‘quites’ in my writing. I could argue that it’s part of my character’s voice, but really it’s my own creeping in. You can (quite!) often remove this word and end up with a punchier sentence.
Cut the Repetitive
Pay attention to where you may have repeated the same kind of word within a short space. Read the paragraph below and think about how easily you could improve it by changing the repeated word:
The wind was howling outside the bedroom windrow. Melissa shivered and pulled the covers up to her chest, stealing a glance at the clock. Almost time. When would he arrive? Would he come at all? Finally the clock struck midnight, and the wind howled louder. She couldn’t remember when the town had last been struck by such a howling gale.
That’s a very exaggerated example, but not uncommon: the writer is overly intent on creating atmosphere with the howling wind and can’t let go of the word. Do we need all those howls? If you are certain you have to describe the wind at those three points, perhaps you could vary your description? Instead of howling, perhaps the second time it roars. Instead of sound, perhaps you can show us the chill it pushes through the window. Maybe the shadows of tree branches clawing at the walls.
This is one of the easy jobs you can give your Beta Readers – ask them to highlight words they think you’ve used too often, or too close together.
Cut the Weak Action
Another way to make the Easy Cut is to get rid of some of your adverbs. Adverbs are often rather weak descriptors and can be replaced by a much more expressive verb. For example:
‘He walked slowly . . .’ could become ‘He ambled . . .’ ‘She said quietly . . .’ might be better as ‘She murmured . . .’ ‘He leaned forward quickly . . .’ becomes way more assertive as ‘He lunged . . .’
Here’s a nice little resource that might help you find the active verb you’re looking for to replace some of your duller adverbs.
And if in doubt, pick up a thesaurus! (Or search for synonyms on Google.)
Cut the Weak Description
Similar to above, look out for where your adjectives have words like ‘very’ in front of them. Is there a better, stronger adjective you could use – one that punches harder?
‘very hot’ could become ‘scorching’ ‘very small’ could be ‘minuscule’ ‘very angry’ could be ‘fuming’
There is a certain satisfaction to be gained from being precise with your phrasing. Why just be close to what you mean, when you could say exactly what you mean?
Cut the Dialogue Tags
Sometimes less is more, especially where dialogue is concerned – at least, where your dialogue tags are concerned. A dialogue tag is a word that attaches to dialogue primarily to identify the speaker, and sometimes to convey tone of voice. Words like: remarked, demanded, exclaimed, muttered . . . you know, all the ones your English teachers drilled into you to replace boring old ‘said’.
Thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Go pick up a book and flick to some dialogue. Read a page or so. I’ll wait.
Bets are that the section you just read included more ‘said’s than any other kind of tag. Also likely that it didn’t include many tags at all. There’s a simple reason for this: dialogue tags are distracting and can break up a nice flow of speech. Your eye is trained to slide right over ‘said’; it gets stuck on words like ‘shouted’. So this means that if you spend every other line telling the reader how she shouted then he exclaimed then she raged then he groused then she screamed . . . you don’t get an intense argument, you get a string of lumbering, clunky verbs.
An expressive tag carries a hell of a lot more weight if it occurs in isolation. Use them wisely to add impact at key moments in your characters’ conversations.
Cut the Stalling
If up to now you’ve been staring at your first draft wondering how you could possibly improve it, start with the simple cuts I’ve suggested here. By all means, don’t cut everything that falls under these guidelines – you have to learn to trust your gut, after all. But this should help you recognise the places where you can tighten up your writing, and hopefully I’ve helped you understand why some things will read more smoothly than others.
So what are you waiting for? While your Beta Readers are still plowing through your work, you can be getting on with your Easy Cut.
Save your tears for Part 3: The Hard Cut.
Are there any tips you’d like to add for other writers going through the Easy Cut? Share them in the comments!
If you want to be notified when Jack Hansard episodes have been updated with their final edits, you can follow the AIM Facebook Page to receive these updates, or check the An Inspired Mess homepage each Monday for a link to the most recent one. =)
I thoroughly believe this. The first draft from even the best of writers is likely to be a pile of crap – and that’s because they know the important thing is to get that first draft finished, not perfect. If you are constantly polishing and editing as you write, you run the risk of never being satisfied with what you’ve created, and in the end you create nothing.
You may have seen this video by Jake Parker doing the rounds; if not, watch it and get pumped.
This is why I think the second key to good writing is to let the first draft be crap. Just get it out there, in the open, onto that blank page. This is why exercises like NaNoWriMo are brilliant: it encourages you to pour your soul out and get something finished in a set time-frame, to a deadline.
That’s what I set out to do with the Jack Hansard Series, and I’ve now completed that first crucial step. Season 1 is finished, exposed, and ready for stage two. The Big Edit.
If you’re a regular reader or you follow my Facebook Page, you may have noticed that I’ve already begun this process. Every Monday I re-upload an episode with its final, truly polished edit: I’ve gone through four episodes so far, and Episode 5 will receive its facelift on Monday 19th. Over the next few blog posts I’d like to share some editing tips and observations which might help guide your own editing process, especially if you feel at a loss as to where to start. In this article we’ll be looking at what is possibly the single most important step towards editing your work: finding Beta Readers.
What should you look for in a Beta Reader?
Finding a group of Beta Readers to give feedback may sound like an eyebrow-raisingly obvious tip, but it might be harder to achieve than you think. What you need is a group – I suggest a minimum of four, but aim as high as you can – that will read your work in its entirety and provide meaningful feedback. Where do you find the people who will make up this select group?
First, Find An Author
A good way to do this is to join a writing community and find someone to exchange work with. You’ll (hopefully) get knowledgeable criticism from a fellow writer who understands the craft and can help you with sentence structure, grammar, tone and voice and so on. They will also be able to provide a totally detached viewpoint: they don’t know you personally, and they have no reason to hold back on the constructive criticism.
By reading their work in exchange, you’re likely to pick up editing skills you didn’t know you had. Evaluating someone else’s writing style is an easy way to learn what does and doesn’t work – and why. And because you have to explain that why to your fellow author, you end up with a deeper understanding of it. They say that to teach is the best way to learn.
What’s the downside? This internet stranger might not actually be enjoying your story – they may be more interested in what you have to say on their work, rather than providing meaningful input on yours. Furthermore, if they are not enjoying your story then you won’t get a true reader’s reaction from them, and it will lack the emotive response – they won’t be able to tell you how it makes them feel, and why – that a truly interested reader can provide. Thus I feel a read-for-read deal like this is best for picking up on technical issues in the writing, but might not inform well on how the actual story is received. I’d certainly suggest taking the time to find a fellow writer who is on a similar wavelength to yourself: make sure you are both clear as to what you are getting out of the arrangement, and that you are both genuinely interested in reading each other’s work (at the very least interested in the genre you write!).
If you can’t find someone to exchange work with, then participate publicly in a writing forum or similar community. Critique lots of people’s writing, learn how to evaluate a range of styles and voices, and occasionally offer up your own work for collective criticism.
However, be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort if this is your only group of Beta Readers, and remember that skill level and effort from others will vary. From my own point of view, I dabble in writing forums here and there but often find I don’t get out the same as I put in: where I might take two hours to write a thoughtful review spanning five hundred to a thousand words, in return I’d receive a short paragraph telling me to change a piece of phrasing and remove a comma. I don’t mean to gripe – I believe it still helps me to understand and improve my own writing techniques. By picking out the flaws of others, you begin to identify those same flaws in your own work, and you can heed the same advice you’ve given people before you.
Now, Find A Reader
So you’ve got your outside perspective from someone completely detached from your writing; good job. Now you need an inside perspective.
This is the section of your Beta Reading group that should be made up of people who have a genuine interest in what you write. I’m going to say something controversial here: Don’t automatically pass off friends and family as being unable to give honest critiques.
I know the standard line is that ‘your friends will lie to make you feel good’, but if that’s always true then I feel you have shitty friends. The thing to remember is that they need guidance: you need to start by teaching them how to be good Beta Reader. As with anything, you need to invest a little time in them in order to expect a good return.
You should be able to explain to your Beta Readers the sheer importance of honest feedback, that they shouldn’t feel obligated to only mention the good stuff, and that criticism is generally the most helpful kind of feedback – challenge them to find the flaws, to search for the things they’re unsure of. If they point out something in a vague way, question them until they make it specific.
And . . . allow them to give you good feedback too! Good feedback isn’t bad, and it can equally inform you how to improve. Instruct your readers to think deeply about why they might like a particular part of the story; why they are responding so well to this character; why they smiled at that sentence. It will help you understand what you are doing right, and what elements you should pay more attention to.
So reach out to friends and family who genuinely want to support you, and reach out to current fans of your work – if you explain things properly, they should be able to find something to criticise. In fact, I believe they are more likely to go out of their way to help you improve, because they are already invested in you and your writing. The key is helping them understand what they need to identify, and that you aren’t going to get all teary-eyed over an ill-received chapter. They are likely to surprise you with the things they pick up, and the additional knowledge they can provide.
Every one of my Jack Hansard episodes went through a single, reliable Beta Reader before being published for the first time on An Inspired Mess: my husband (did I mention I got married last week? News! =D) He’s great at pointing out plot holes and errors in my reasoning, and isn’t afraid to tell me he doesn’t like some of the more surreal aspects of my story-telling. Here’s a great example of where a Beta reader can pick up on something the writer missed:
In Episode 12: Shadows, Hansard’s car suffers from a flat tire at a dangerous time. In the unpublished draft, I wrote that they had been driving on the flat for some time without noticing it, until suddenly the car couldn’t effectively drive any more and that was that.
“How could they not notice it?” said Husband, in response to this. “You bloody well know if you’re driving on a flat tire. And even if Jack has realised and was trying to keep it quiet, there’s no way that his passenger wouldn’t notice it as well. The wheel would make a sort of thumping noise. You’d be an idiot to keep going.”
“Oh,” said I. “Oops.”
That outside perspective is truly crucial for picking up on little details like this. Someone simply asking: “But why did he do that, if it would have been simpler to go the other way?” can make you totally re-think part of the story. It might not change the plot, but it might add a motivation you hadn’t considered, or define more accurate details.
Now that I’m on Round Two: The Big Edit, I reached out to friends and readers of the series to act as my main Beta group. There is an interesting variety in the feedback I’ve received. One reader tends to splurge enthusiastic praise for virtually everything – but she’s brilliant in expanding on the reasoning of why she likes things, and the criticisms she does point out tend to make me pause for thought. Another has very little to say, but what is said is always poignant and useful, and will pick up on character traits I hadn’t considered. Yet another likes to make comparisons with other works in the urban fantasy genre, and has helped me think about the bigger picture where my little world is concerned.
The one thing they all have in common is that they enjoy reading the series – they are a part of my actual reader base, and that makes their reactions the truest reflections of my audience. Think of it as a kind of market research: you focus on gathering information from the audience you are trying to sell to. I’m not trying to impress a fellow writer who prefers sci-fi and knows a lot about sentence composition (though they were very helpful in my early growth as a writer) – I’m writing for the people who want to read this kind of story, therefore their feedback is now the most valuable to me.
This concludes my advice for searching out and utilising your Beta Reading group. Stay tuned for Editing Tips Part Two: The Easy Cut, where we take a look at some quick and simple techniques for editing your work, and Part Three: The Hard Cut, where the soul-wrenching edits happen. Take care y’all!
Was this helpful to you? Do you agree or disagree with how I approach Beta Reading? Let me know in the comments!