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Posts Tagged beta readers
Scratch that; they weren’t just tricky. They were a forensic slog.
I’d already checked everything that affected the central plot events – journey times, important dates and so on. But that was months before. Not only that, there were countless niggles I hadn’t realised would alert an editor’s eye. It was amazing what I didn’t know about my own book. How many hours had passed since the hostages were taken? On what day did the characters meet the mysterious man? She questioned every plot beat, flashback and nightfall.
Sitting down to answer that exhaustive list, I felt like Arthur Dent when he lamented that he couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays.
Thankfully my timelines held, give or take a minor snag, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve been fastidious about them.
Timelines are mainly invisible
Unless you’re writing a time travel story or a novel with condensed action, timelines are mainly invisible to readers. Like plot and character arcs, they’re the unseen looms of the storyteller’s art. And this means writers often don’t realise they need to take control of them. Until they face an editor’s interrogation.
You’ll be astonished what editors – and readers – will call you on. Is it possible for Joe to have recovered from his broken leg enough to climb a ladder? Are those characters in two places at once? How can that scene be back story if the event hasn’t happened yet?
If you take control of your timeline, you’ll find it much easier to know if your plot is plausible, and to sort out the hiccups.
Here are my tips.
If the timeline drives the story, you might want to design it before you start writing, or sketch out the main markers – historical events, calendar landmarks. Some writers use year planners, but a sheet of A4 is just as good.
You might also want to verify possibilities that require precision – such as travel. (And if you’re writing time travel you need to be very precise.)
Otherwise, be casual. You can decide these details in revision. If you stop and fret every time you need to write ‘last night’ or ‘next June’ you’ll probably get paralysed by indecision. Write something magnificently vague such as ‘the other day’ or ‘soon’, and sail on.
Before you revise
Now get serious about time. Before I revise a manuscript I analyse the first draft with an exercise I call a beat sheet. Essentially it’s an at-a-glance summary of every scene. You can make it on paper or a spreadsheet, and one of your columns is reserved to record when the scene happens.
As you summarise each scene for the beat sheet, notice if you’ve made a point about the date, time or event, and record it in the timeline column. If you haven’t, leave it blank.
Also write in if a deadline has appeared – for instance, 20 minutes before the bomb detonates. If your plot includes a race against the clock, the timing often needs to be worked out to the minute. With the beat sheet it’s simplicity itself to write the timings against plot events and check they work.
Then fill the blanks, deciding what will be plausible for those sections of the story. Perhaps the precise date isn’t important and you can bracket them together as ‘summer’, to ensure your weather descriptions are consistent. Or you might decide you can enhance the action by setting it at Christmas or even a time that corresponds with a newsworthy world event – whatever suits you.
But when those editors and beta readers quiz you on your story’s plausibility, you’ll have the answers ready. Painlessly.
The beat sheet is my go-to method for revising my novels’ structure, plot and character arcs. It’s explained fully in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Do you have problems keeping track of time in your novels? Have you found a solution? Share in the comments
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There will be changes
Always. Even if you’ve had beta readers. Even if you’re a seasoned pro. Of the 14 or 15 full manuscripts I’ve submitted, there was only one where the editors didn’t want to change anything, beyond tiny niggles. Only one.
There are two kinds of feedback. In traditional publishing, agents – and editors in the initial stages – will tend to give brief, sweeping notes about character arcs, pacing, credibility and relatability. Even though these won’t be as detailed as the work an editor will do, they might keep you busy for a couple of months.
Moreover, an editor who does a detailed critique may have a different vision from those who have looked at it before. (Should you edit to fit another person’s tastes? A million-dollar question, which I’ll come back to.)
Anyway, most of us swallow hard when the detailed report arrives. This is what I do.
Critique report survival tips
Expect a large document that tackles your book in close detail. Sometimes very large – I’ve written 50 pages for a novice author (but there I’m also taking a tutoring role, so my commentary includes discussion of craft).
1 – Read the report without doing anything. Satisfy your curiosity. Don’t make to-do lists or open the manuscript. Just read.
2 – Set it aside. Yell, scream etc. Wait as long as your deadlines allow. This also lets you digest. When you’re even-tempered about it, start work.
3 – Some suggestions will be easy to fix. Some will be harder. Some will be praise and encouragement, though you might not have recognised them. Read through and mark the easy stuff – either highlight on a printout, or colour in the Word document. Tackle these immediately if it makes sense, and feel satisfied that you’re getting this under control.
4 – Now you’re limbered up – and are familiar with your manuscript again – you’re ready for the trickier suggestions. Separate out the ones you don’t agree with.
Often editors make suggestions that skew the book in a way you don’t want. But they may have identified a significant problem. Disregard their solution and delve deeper for the source.
For instance, an editor who saw an early draft of Life Form Three told me it needed another viewpoint character and that one of my story devices was confusing. I didn’t want another viewpoint character, so I made the original one more relatable. The confusing story device was also important to me, so I reworked it. Result? He was happy because the problems were fixed.
Of course, if you have a traditional publisher, an editor might ask for changes to fit their list and readership. Use your judgement, but remember this: if you are named as the author (ie it’s not work for hire) a publisher can’t change anything without your agreement. Dig your heels in if there is something you really disagree with. In a worst-case scenario they might decline to publish, but this rarely happens. (They also can’t make you agree to a cover or title you don’t like, BTW.)
If you’re indie, you of course have complete freedom to decide what to change. But consider whether an unsuitable suggestion is pointing to a problem you should tackle in a different way.
What, another stage of feedback? I’m afraid so. Copy edits are done after main developmental feedback. But they can still throw up enough problems to make you gnaw the desk.
Copy editors notice the tiny details that slipped by when everyone had bigger problems in mind. They also catch the errors that crept in as you went over the manuscript again and again. The murder victim’s hair might have changed colour. The timeline is impossible.
It’s better to be pre-emptive about this. Keep tight control of these details as you edit – especially the timeline. Although you can probably correct physical details such as characters’ ages and hair colour with a few inventive text searches, you can’t fix the timeline so easily and the whole plot might unravel if it’s wrong. (I map out the timeline when I make my beat sheet.)
The beat sheet is one of the tools described in my book Nail Your Novel … more about it here
Thanks for the pic Brainedge
Do you have any tips for tackling critique reports? Did you ever disagree with an editor’s suggestions and what was the outcome? Let’s share in the comments!
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I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.
Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.
But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?
Here’s a critical path.
1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.
2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.
3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.
Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.
4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.
What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…
5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.
Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.
With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.
Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).
Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.
Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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