Beta Readers; Handing Over Your Baby

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?










Final Draft? Patience is the key…

Last Friday I finally finished the final draft of my YA novel The Tree Of Rebels. Yes, yes, yes, it is done! It is finished at last! Or is it? I’ve lost count of how many drafts and rewrites it has been through now. I’ve blogged about a fair few of them! I decided to change the tense from present to past, and I also added some new scenes. Then I went through it all again, with what felt like a very gentle and enjoyable edit. Correcting typos here and there.Small corrections. Nothing major. And I finally liked it!

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this novel since I first got the idea for it. I ignored the idea for a while because it would mean writing a book way out of my comfort zone. When I finally started it, I suddenly got another really good and important idea for another book, which wanted to interrupt this one. I didn’t let it, and forced myself on, which in hindsight, was probably the wrong thing to do. I do wonder if I ought to have listened to the loudest voice, put Tree of Rebels to one side and gone with Elliot Pie when he was at his most demanding…

But anyway, I didn’t. I wrote this book, and then started a second draft, sent to beta-readers, drafted again, hated it, drafted again, loved it, left it for ages while I wrote Elliot Pie…drafted it again, hated it even more and so on, and so on. It was like having a constant argument with myself. This book is brilliant! No, it’s not, it’s a total waste of time!

I’m pleased to report that during this last, final, never to be messed with again, draft, I really and truly fell in love with this book. I got the feeling I had been waiting for. Everything clicked. I knew what it was and I was proud of it. Changing the tense worked wonders, and the extra scenes I added seem to work really well too. I was so into this book by the time I finished it, I even carried on and drafted the synopsis of the sequel, and wrote the first two chapters of this!

So when will I be releasing it then?

Hmm, not yet. Because I still don’t think it is finished! I decided that after so much doubt, it would be worth sending it back to my top beta reader/editor for a final read through. I know she will be honest and scathing if she needs to be. I am curious to see what she thinks of the change in tense and the extra scenes. Waiting for her to read it will give me some head space from it, and a chance for the book to breathe. I thought this was a sensible idea. If there are any lingering typos or things that don’t make sense, they will be picked up and sorted and being patient will help me decide if it really is finished.

The problem is, I am already getting more ideas. Just little bits here and there. Just bits of dialogue, and brief scenes or moments that have suddenly popped into my head. I really didn’t think this would happen! I really did think I was done…

But I’m glad that it has, even if this does mean once it comes back, it will be getting another going over by me. You see, it’s all too easy these days to write something, do a few more drafts and then self-publish it and move onto the next one. Believe me, it is very, very tempting to do this. I have so many other books to write, but I have to resist the temptation to rush things. Patience is the key. A book is done when it is done, and not a moment before. I could release this book now and see if you like it, or I could wait to see what my favourite critic says first. I could release it after that, after any last lingering mistakes have been mopped up, or I could wait a bit longer, see if it can be any better. It’s surprising how you feel about a piece of writing if you leave it alone for a while. You might think its the best it can be, but give it a few months, during which hopefully your writing skills would have improved even more, and quite often you can already see that it can be made better. And if it can, then it should.

So, apologies folks. The Tree Of Rebels is done…but not done.

The really good news is that I have finally fallen in love with it, which is how it should be in my opinion. I’ve had a strange relationship with this book, and I’ve nearly given up on it several times. It never felt quite the same as my other books, like the connection was not quite right. But this feeling has well and truly gone now. I’m even writing some more of the sequel tonight!