by Jodie Renner, editor & author; @JodieRennerEd
(This article by Jodie Renner appeared on The Kill Zone blog on Mar. 8, 2014. Reposted here by the author. This is also a chapter in Captivate Your Readers - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction.)
So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.
To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don’t write. Or, to save paper, change the font and formatting, then put it on your tablet or e-reader and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer.
Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript for big-picture issues: logistics, characterization, plot, writing style, flow. Try to put some tension on every page, even if it’s just minor internal disagreement. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward. As you read, correct minor errors and typos that jump out at you and make notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.
Now it’s time to seek out about 3 to 6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It’s best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteer readers don’t need to be writers, but they should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre, and are willing to give you honest feedback.
So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.
To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.
1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.
– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?
– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?
– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?
– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?
– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?
– Which characters did you really connect to?
– Which characters need more development or focus?
Once you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers, it’s time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.
What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? And beta readers – do you have any questions you’d like authors to ask? I’d love to hear from all of you!
Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” on The Kill Zone.