Sometimes I try and work out what the toughest part of writing a book is. Is it the first draft where everything is at its freshest, but also most fragile? Is it the second draft when you realise how much work your first draft needs? Or is it when you are edging closer to the finish line? When you are swinging between self-doubt and elation? I’m not sure, but I think handing it over to someone else to read for the first time has got to be up there as well.
Last Friday I finished the second draft of Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. This second draft took less time than I had anticipated and went surprisingly well. To be honest, it was more of a read-through than a rewrite. I’d left the book for some time while I focused on other things, so I needed to familiarise myself with the story and the characters. I found myself smiling whilst reading it. I genuinely love these characters and it was enjoyable and comforting to be back in their company again. Obviously I cut out words here and there, picked up on some minor plot holes and corrected any glaring typos. But generally, I have to say, this time around it was a pleasant second draft. I like this book a lot. I feel good about it. I feel like I had a clear and concise goal before I started it, and I feel like I have so far achieved it.
Of course, I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be major rewrites and frustration further down the line. If my other books are anything to go by there will be! But right now it all sits nicely with me.
Only now I’ve got to let someone else in on the secret. I’ve got to hand it over to beta readers and see what they think. Now it’s obviously up to the writer to decide when their book needs to be picked apart by betas, and with a lot of my other books it has been much further down the line. But handing Elliot Pie over now feels right. The basic plot is all there. I just need to know if it works. If it is believable. If they see the ‘twist’ coming. If the characters ring true. I need to know if it makes them laugh or cry. The structure of the book is also rather different this time around, and I might be completely wrong about it. I can’t say too much at the moment, but I have been slightly experimental in terms of point of view and tense. For me, right now, it works, but I am bracing myself for my beta readers thinking otherwise!
They are so important in this process though, so vital as the first set of readers to dive into this fictional world I have created. Will they see it the same way I do, or will they see plot holes and inconsistencies I’ve been blind to? Now feels like the right time, because if the particular layout and structure of the book doesn’t work for them, then I will need to do some serious thinking.
Handing your novel over to your betas is a strange and disconcerting feeling. It’s a bit like handing over a piece of your soul. When you write that first draft, you are writing just for you. You have no idea if it’s going to work or not. You just start and see what happens. Sometimes it’s a flop, other times it’s spectacular, but no matter how good you feel about the finished product, you can’t just rely on your own opinion. Handing it over to betas is the first step in what Stephen King so wonderfully describes as ‘killing your darlings’. Hopefully, if they are doing their job correctly, the betas will send it back to you with a long list of thoughts, feelings, corrections and criticisms. Of course you want to hear positive things about the book, but it’s the negative things you really need right now. What doesn’t work needs to be changed or cut out. Subsequent drafts after the beta response ought to set the culling in motion. If it’s not adding anything to the story, it has to go. Cut out the fluff, tighten it up and be ruthless. I don’t think I could enter this phase comfortably without waiting for the response from my trusted betas. It’s like once I’ve heard the good the bad and the ugly from them, I can start swinging my axe with confidence.
Having said that, I already have a rather long list of things I made not of while going through it. Things I need to amend or add or pay more attention to on the next draft. It will be interesting to see what else my betas pick up on. I’m so curious to know what they think of the book in general. I feel a mix of emotions right now. Impatience and excitement; will they love the characters as much as I already do? I feel anxious and nervous at the thought of them casting their critical eye over something I am rather in love with. I know I will have to brace myself for anything scathing that may come my way, and remember how much better it makes a book to have early critiques like this before you unleash it on the public. I’m also sure there will be things we disagree on!
It’s exciting though because it is all part of the process of writing and finishing a book. That first draft. The elation and pride when it’s done, when it’s written, when this thing that was once just inside of you, is now out and in story form! That second draft. You’re moving on, starting to get critical, cutting bits out, polishing it up. Sending it to first betas is another significant stage in the life of a novel. They are the first readers to tentatively enter the world you have created. They are part of the process of making it all the best it can be.
It’s a bit like this book is my baby and I’m watching it grow before my eyes. It’s taking it’s first steps and changing! It’s got so many more stages to go through and I know from experience that the road ahead is nearly always a bumpy one. Some of my books have had major rewrites at later stages, leaving them almost unrecognisable to what went before! It’s satisfying to have set it on it’s path though. I’ve given birth to it and set it on its wobbly way towards maturity! I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Please add your comments below! When do you feel the time is right to hand your work over to beta readers? Does it feel a bit like giving your baby away? What do you think is the toughest part of writing a book?