Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Building a Book: Post Beta Reader Revisions

(Sorry I'm late on this week's blog post. I had a whole idea half-written up then decided against it and it took me a day to do up this one. Enjoy!)

So you've sent your manuscript out to Beta Readers, waited anxiously for their replies, and were so excited to see what they thought.

The responses are Good! Everyone likes it. They care about the characters, the story makes sense and there were moments that made them jump out of their seats! Except...

The little details that need fixing, character motivations that need a bit more explanation, and scenes which don't strike quite as hard as you would like. These are all the things you would be unlikely to catch on your own, especially after being so deeply entrenched in the story as your wrote it. After a short break away though, and having things pointed out to you, it shouldn't be too hard to see the truth in some of their statements.

That being said, you are the master of your book. If you look as hard as you can and just can't see what they're talking about, it's your choice to listen or not. There's an old saying that I like to use though, (among many, many others). "If one person calls you a horse, ignore it. If three people call you a horse, get yourself a saddle." Basically, if one person out of five says something needs work, by all means look at it, but keep in mind that is only one person's opinion. If three or four out of five all point out the same thing though, you should probably listen. After all, you did ask for their opinion.

Of course, making those changes is a bit harder than simple cut, copy, and paste. This particular revision is probably only second to the second draft as far as difficulty goes. Mostly because depending on who your Beta Readers are and how skilled they are, they may not be able to give you suggestions on how to fix the problems they find.

So you'll have a list of things like "Why does Character A go down the hall and turn left?". Things where you not only have to explain, but figure out where in the book it will be acceptable to explain. And like the second draft, you have to do it carefully, without breaking any continuity already set or stifling the story's pace.

(This is how you may feel during this process.)

The easiest things to change from the beta readers will be continuity issues. Like maybe the mom's hair changed color from page 22 to page 27, and repetitions where you manage to put the exact same sentence in two subsequent paragraphs. A quick cut here, a word change there, and your done. 

Character background can be much harder, especially if you have a minor character that gets none of their own screen time, and yet is important enough that the readers will need to understand the relationship between the minor character and the main. The checklist for such a change reads thus. 
  • Don't break continuity
  • Don't break pace
  • Don't make the addition an info dump
  • Explain the relationship so it's obvious and makes sense for the reader
  • Explain the relationship from the main character's point of view
  • Explain the relationship only with information the main character has

That's a pretty fair checklist for a change which may only need a line or two. And, to be fair, if you happen to break something, well, that's what the revisions further down the road are there for. If you can manage it though, it's always better to try to get something right the first time than to just let it be sloppy with the idea that you can come back and clean it up later. Sure, your dog is covered in mud, and you don't see the point in hosing and drying him down since he might still get dirty again before it's time to head inside. You regret waiting the instant someone accidentally leaves the door open and he heads in before you're ready though.

Even harder than character background, are story background issues. After all, it's really not that hard to deal with a character issue. You're pretty limited to chapters where that character is present, and discussing background is acceptable, not in the middle of an action scene, for example. Story background though, can theoretically be plugged in just about anywhere. This is where you really run the risk of finding yourself with an info dump, or accidentally break the tension. To show how hard this can be and how even the best can have trouble with it, I have the example of one of my favorite short stories by Stephen King, The Mangler. 

Close to the end, the main characters have figured out the machine is demonically possessed and they think they have figured out how it happened out of the two main possibilities. They collect their equipment and set out to face the evil. At this point, King literally has a "But what they didn't know was..." moment. It breaks the tension, is a huge info dump for a short story, and all but gives away the ending.

So implanting story background into an otherwise already finished work is probably one of the most difficult things an author can do, and it's commonly one of the reasons a work can end up going through six, eight, twelve, twenty revisions or more until it's done right. As authors who want to put out the best work we can do though, stories which work without unnecessary distractions, it's all part of the job. 

What are you doing? It's REVISING time!

~ Shaun


  1. Sounds like you got some good feedback to work with from your beta experience! Maybe as you revise you can give us some before and after teasers...yes, I'm shameless. I'm still asking.

    1. To be honest, I don't know that I really have anything which needs a big enough change to have a before and after teaser. :-P