Debts of My Fathers goes to Beta

I sent Debts of My Fathers out to my beta readers today.  I’m poking a few other folks to try to line up one additional reader, but it’s in motion.  I’ve asked them for a quick turnaround and hope to be fixing any problems they found in late February.

Which means, in theory at least, I should get started on the sequel tomorrow.  I like to get the N+1 book drafted before the Nth book is finalized, so that means getting it written during the beta-read period.  Of course, since I’ve asked for a fast beta-read turnaround, that means I have to get this next one written fast. For what it’s worth, it’s tentatively titled Oaths of My Fathers and will be the midpoint of the Father Chessman saga.

So, the next four weeks or so are going to be like a double-time NaNoWriMo.  I’ll have about four weeks to write about 80-100,000 words.  Crossing my fingers…  No, that’s not for luck.  I’m just saying that typing that much that fast… well, I’m bound to get my fingers jammed up somewhere along the way.

Beta Readers

In my self-publishing process, I don’t hire story editors or developmental editors. I do hire a copyeditor, but that’s for after the story is already fine-tuned. Instead of these earlier editors, I use beta readers.

As I explained in an earlier post, I do my own alpha reading and fix up what I can, but then I reach a point where I need an outside perspective. That’s when I turn to my beta readers. They don’t provide everything that a professional story editor – particularly one in a publishing house – would provide, but in some ways, they provide more.

But first, who do I pick as my beta readers?

The common wisdom going around is that these should not be your friends and family. The logic behind that is that these people won’t understand what is required to make a story work, and besides, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they won’t speak up about your book’s problems. While I think that can be true, I don’t think it’s always true. Certainly not all of my friends and family are qualified, but a few of them are quite qualified. And some of those qualified few are also emotionally invested in my success. They actually read the damn thing, make notes, and give me good feedback.

What makes them qualified? Well, ideally, I’d love to three or four uncles who have spent a lifetime as professional editors in my genre of publishing, but that hasn’t happened. I think the key though, is that my beta readers need to be well-read in the genres that I’m writing in. If all they read is chick-lit, they won’t be able to give me good feedback on my space opera. And when I say well-read, I don’t mean half a dozen books. I mean hundreds of books.

Also, they should know what they like and why they like it. It’s not enough that they really enjoyed Old Man’s War by Scalzi. They should be able to talk about what parts really thrilled them, what parts were only okay, and why they reacted that way. When the end of my book doesn’t work for them, they can have some idea why, whether it be plausibility, character motivation, or emotional satisfaction. This kind of feedback is easier to get if the beta reader is also a writer, because writers think about these things a lot, but it’s not a requirement. I’ve also gotten this kind of quality feedback from people who never write fiction.

And finally, they need to show a track history of giving me honest feedback, especially when that feedback is bad. I may not know this until I first try them as a beta reader. They may come back and simply tell me it’s wonderful. That’s nice and all, but it didn’t get me any further down the path. If they come back and tell me it was great until page 212 when the navy showed up and solved everyone’s problems, then I’ve gotten some great feedback about my ending. These are the kind of people who will say, “Yes, those jeans actually do make you look fat.”

Some good feedback I have gotten from my beta readers have been things like:

  • You’re telegraphing the main conflict in chapter one. I would have enjoyed it more if it had developed over time.
  • Hank is a real dick at the beginning, and you never explain why.
  • I really liked Walter until 2/3 of the way through, and then he just went nuts for no clear reason.
  • Bob reacts to everything by being angry, and that got a little annoying. Is that all he can do?
  • The scenes with Susan were kind of boring to me. I didn’t stop reading, but I wanted to skip ahead.

These were great because they were specific, they reflected how they reacted as readers, and they were not suggesting radical changes like, “I think Frank should be a vampire.” They were giving me a measurement on whether or not I invoked the kind of emotional response in readers that I was attempting. Did I make you cry, or did you blow a great big raspberry at the page?

Of course, beta readers are not a complete replacement for a story editor or a development editor. They won’t tell me that New Adult is a big thing right now, and this story could be redone with the protagonist five years older or five years younger to fit that market. They won’t tell me that the paranormal horror market is oversaturated and showing signs of shrinking. And I doubt they’ll tell me that my mystery-horror crossover will be hard to market.

On the other hand, beta readers provide a diversity of feedback that no single editor will be able to match. If one beta reader complains about one of my favorite parts, I have to wonder if I’m on the right track or if I have to “kill my darlings” as the saying goes. But if the other readers all liked that particular point, I can safely set aside that single piece of feedback with the notion that I can’t please everyone all the time. On the other hand, if most of them complain about the same thing, I have to accept that the problem is real and haul that particular darling of mine off to the guillotine. With a single editor, I’d always struggle with whether or not to stick to my guns on things like that.

Would I like to have a developmental editor and a story editor as well? Possibly, but for now I’m making do with my beta readers. However, I will say that I’m looking for additional beta readers. Right now, I have a trio of ladies as my beta readers, and while I don’t want to throw down the gauntlet of gender inequality, I’d like another man’s perspective from time to time.

How about you folks… do you use beta readers? Have you ever been a beta reader?

Editing from First Draft to Final Draft

Folks often ask how many drafts are necessary, or how do you edit a novel, and so on. Like most things, I don’t believe there is One True Way, but I thought I’d share my own method. This is as much to point other people at later as it is to document my own process to help me remember when I get to this point on the next novel.

barfbucketI already wrote about how I draft a novel, which is mostly an exercise in flying by the seat of my pants with only my destination and a few waypoints in mind. What I end up with from that is a mess. It’s not so much that the plot wanders all over – at least not so far – but that it’s filled with bad grammar, sloppy spelling, and a bucket-full of notes that look like this: [so, is the mom dead or not? need to fix this back in act 1] Character motivations are sloppy, major revelations are either broadcast too early or come out of nowhere, and the climax depends on something critical that I forgot to include in chapter three.

Clearly, it’s not ready for publication. It’s not ready for any kind of professional submission. It’s not even ready for me to show it to a friend. I call it my first draft, but even that is being a little too kind.  Instead, I refer to it internally by a version number: version 0.9.

calendarpagesThe absolutely first thing I do is nothing. I wait, typically at least two to three months, preferably while working on a different project, perhaps writing another draft of something else. It’s very important to get some distance from that first draft, because if I dive back in right away, I can’t really see it for what’s on the page. I still see it for what was in my head.

So, after waiting a while, the first real action I take is to make an edit pass all on my own. This edit pass starts with me printing out a copy. I take it to the local copy shop and get them to print it out on 8.5 x 11 sheets, single-spaced, but printed on only one side. I go with a spiral binding because that works out better for me physically. They put a clear front cover on it, and the first page has the working title, and the version history so far (since the initial vomit-draft may have been built up in stages of 0.10, 0.11, and so forth). I also make sure each page has the title, the version number, and the page number.

draftprintcoverI then go through with a bright red pen. I’ve been using a Signo Uniball gel pen lately. Part of me still prefers the feel of the older Uniball Micro, but there’s a key difference that actually impacts the editing process. The Signo lets me open and close the pen simply by clicking on the end with my thumb, while the older Micro requires me to remove and replace the pen’s cap. I found that this simple change in the motion required both sped up my edits as well as got me to flag more items and make more notes.

So, what am I flagging and noting? Well, what I’m not doing is trying to fine tune the language and catch all the typos. Certainly, if I see something, I’ll flag it, but that’s not the focus of this editing pass. Mostly, I’m looking for story and character problems. Did a cool character show up too late in the book? Is the protagonist’s major shift too predictable? Is that subplot boring? Does the climax really work as is? Remember that I’m doing this all on paper, so I’m not actually fixing anything. I’m just spotting problems. Some of the notes will fit in the margin, but longer notes go on the blank facing page – remember, I only printed on one-side of the pages. I’ll even go back and scribble notes like “This would be a good place to introduce the jailer. Insert a scene here.”  Keeping it on paper forces me to look at the novel as a whole and doesn’t let me start making fixes before I’ve seen the entirety of the problems.

rededitsThen, once I’ve thoroughly bloodied the printout, I open up the document and start fixing things. Awkward sections get rewritten. New scenes are added. In my experience so far, the book grows about 5-10% during this stage. And while I’m not trying to make it perfect, I’ll at least make a pass through it with Word’s spelling and grammar checker. Most of the errors it flags are to be ignored (unusual names, unusual but not incorrect grammar, etc), but I try to fix any true errors it gives me.

By this point, the story works and the characters are at least reasonable. I won’t say that this is the best I can make it, but it’s at least good enough to show it to someone. I call this version 1.0.

Then I go print out more copies of this one, just like the first one I printed. The history and version numbers are updated, but otherwise, it’s the exact same format. I pass these off to my beta readers.

I should say a thing or two about beta readers, but it would take up too much space. Suffice it to say, they know the genre, they know the difference between good stories and bad ones, and they’re not afraid to tell me something I won’t like. How you get those is probably another blog entry.

So anyway, I give the book to some beta readers. They get the physical copies of the book along with a brand new red pen. I make it clear to them that I want their reactions to the story, but they should feel free to mark up specific sections that need rework, identify typos, or simply jot down their immediate reactions in the margins. I give them a month.

After the month, I sit down and try to debrief them. I let them go through their copy page by page, and let their notes remind them of any thoughts they had. Meanwhile, I’m taking notes in a separate notebook. Afterwards, I’ll ask them for any other feedback, and when they are done I may ask them specific questions. Did the big reveal in chapter 12 surprise you, or had you figured it out already? I was trying to imply that Jake is Bill’s brother… did that get through? Did you believe in Sam’s redemption? At no time in all of this do I try to defend the work, tell them that they should have “gotten it”, or discredit their reactions. I just sit there and take notes.

CalendarObliqueThen I wait. Yes, again.  It doesn’t have to be three months, but I like to wait at least a few weeks. Why? I have to let their feedback sink in. When I first get that feedback, it’s my instinct to defend my book. After all, it makes perfect sense in my head. The characters are quite believable. Justice is sweet, not contrived. So I sit on their feedback for a while, and think it over. After a month or so, I begin to see that there’s some truth to what they said.

So then I open up the document again, update the version number to 1.10, and start editing. I array all of the marked-up beta copies around me, and I go page by page, reworking problems that they identified. Some problems are too big for this style of editing, but as I go through, I’m reading my work as well, trying to see the bigger issues they found. Still, I keep plugging through to the end, fixing up the page-by-page stuff that I can.

And those big issues? There’s a reason for putting them off just a bit. You see, when I go through that page-by-page pass, I’m reading the novel again, and all the while I’m thinking about those big issues that the beta readers identified. For a lot of them, I’m kicking myself for not having seeing such a huge problem on my own. For others, I’m realizing that this was probably more about that particular beta reader than about my book. The rest are somewhere in between, but by the time I’ve read the book again while thinking about those bigger problems, I have an idea not only of whether they’re real but also of how to fix them.

So then I start hopping around doing heavier lifting. I add scenes. I rewrite dialog. I reorder events. This can be big and bloody, carving out organs and slamming new ones in their place. Depending on just how bloody this is, I may have to make a second read/edit pass to make sure I caught all the consistency issues. If I’m changing Bob’s gender, yeah, that’s going to take an extra pass, just looking for all the him/her stuff.

Then I think about how much I changed. Was it only a little? If so, then I’m pretty much done. But if the changes were big, then it’s back to the beta readers to get their feedback on the new version, 1.10. And that might result in even bigger changes, which have to go back to the beta readers as 1.20, and so on. Eventually though, I’ll either give up, or the changes will be small enough that I don’t feel the need to go back to the beta readers again. Thus, the answer to the question, “how many drafts does it take?” is “as many as it needs!”

And that is what I call my “final draft”, typically version 1.1 or 1.2. God help me if it ever gets to 4.5.

But what about word crafting and copyediting? After all, I kept saying above that I wasn’t worried about that stuff. Well, I push that off to a second kind of editing job that I call polishing, not editing. Polishing takes me from “final draft” to “final text”, and from there it’s yet another set of tasks of formatting, cover design, etc. that I call publishing.  So, as I finish up polishing and publishing this next book, look for those to show up as entries of their own.