The Process: Part Two – Beta Readers

When I’ve edited a piece and polished it to shiny brilliance, I send it to my beta readers. Some are selected for their linguistic skills, some for their knowledge of genre, all for their love of words and story. And all are trusted individuals. Deeply, deeply trusted.

My beta readers can only read the book for the first time once. I need to use that to best effect. The version they see is usually something I feel ready to send to an agent or publisher. By the time my books reach my beta readers, there shouldn’t be many minor edits left. There also shouldn’t be major plot holes, characterization issues, or head jumping (problems with POV). Finding and fixing those is my job.

A book reads very differently as a document on a computer screen. Because of that, I usually ask my beta readers to read my books on their phone. If they’ll be reading it on a tablet, I’ll sometimes even format the document to look like an eBook.

I want their experience to be as close as possible to what my readers will see when the book is published. I include a title page, dedication, the works. There’s a back-jacket blurb, table of contents, I even put in a dedication. In some pieces, there’s a teaser page. Not only does this make it more fun for them to read, it is a great reward to see what the book would look like “on the shelf.”

We meet for dinner or coffee and then I think over their comments and decide on my next steps. It could be back to the editing board or I might dive right into the synopsis. In the end, I’ve at least had the fun of sharing my work with someone else and hopefully a helpful boost in getting it ready to query.

The Process: Part One – Editing

Talking to other writers about their process is always a treat for me. Whether our techniques are similar or vastly different, I find the experience illuminating and invigorating. I’ve seen people asking about editing lately, so that’s where I’m going to start. To kick off my “Process” posts, there will be a special bonus post Friday that follows up this one!

I prefer to set aside first drafts for at least a month once they’re finished. During that time, I busy myself with writing something new to cleanse the finished draft from my mental palate. The important thing is to come back to the piece with fresh eyes. My writing is usually pretty clean in terms of grammar issues and spelling. Any time spent on improving these skills serve writers well over a lifetime!

When I’m ready to edit in earnest, I do the first read-through. This is the freshest my brain will be and I take advantage of that. Primarily, I look for plot holes to fix or fill, but I’ll also fix any spelling or grammar issues that slipped past me. I’ll watch my comma use during this pass and tighten up any sentences or paragraphs I can. I also watch to be sure everyone is acting in character and that my point of view is consistent. If I struggle over reading a sentence or paragraph, I’ll make a note to come back and fix it later. The important thing in the first pass is to maintain the flow and make my experience of reading the piece as close to my readers’ as I can while not losing the benefit of fresh perspective.

After the first read-through, I roll up my sleeves and start fixing things. My personal rule is: plot first, then polish. I might add in an entire scene that will need to be polished along with the rest of the work. If I polish a piece before I fix the plot-holes, I’m creating extra work. I need to be as efficient as possible throughout my writing process, because there is always another piece waiting to be written.

When the plot is fixed, I’ll go through the draft several more times to make sure everything is tight, clear, and gripping. I want each piece to be as good as I can make it.

Finally, I polish up the piece by checking my list of common and not-so-common word choice errors. I do a global search on the document for “that,” “really,” “so,” and “just.” If any specific words stuck out while I did my read-through, I search for those as well. I remove unnecessary instances of these words and figure out if I can use a stronger word instead when I need to leave them.

In the most recent piece, I noticed the word “moment” everywhere. I have no idea how it crept into the rough draft and propagated itself all over my pages. After removing all of the “moments” that I could, I changed the remaining ones to more specific words wherever possible, and made sure that “moment” didn’t appear more often than every ten pages (did I mention that it insidiously propagated all over my pages? It really did.)

Editing is a long, challenging, and rewarding process. My stories deserve the time and attention necessary to make them as good as I can.

What about your editing process? Do you have specific words that creep in to your text or face other challenges in editing?

Writing about Writing

Writing about the writing process is more difficult than writing stories. I never have a dearth of ideas when it comes to stories. I have the opposite problem when blogging. I know the pieces will be very short, so it’s easy to sit down to write them. But when I face that blank screen, my mind echoes a similar emptiness.

The act of writing changes so quickly, it would be impossible for me to document a consistent writing practice. Sometimes I jump from scene to scene, writing whatever is most present in my mind. Other times, I go through a story chronologically, letting each moment unfold and flow into the next. The process depends on the piece and what it needs to be created.

When you’re writing a story, you need to keep track of each moment and the characters’ reactions to those moments. Blogging is much more “in the now.” So I will keep writing what I’m thinking about at the moment, watching how things change over time, then cycling back. And I’ll keep hoping that what I write here helps others with their own creativity.

Patience

Writing teaches patience, whether it happens when you’re staring at the blank screen and trying to figure out what happens next or watching the words slowly build to a completed piece. It’s like going to an amusement park. You can’t sleep the night before, waiting for that new adventure to begin. Once you’re there, the long lines test you, but the promise of the fun ride at the end of the wait keeps you moving forward, one word, one sentence, one chapter at a time. Then you’ve finished your piece, the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and you fall into bed that night, happy and exhausted.

And if you’re trying to get published, that is only the beginning. The patience we learn from finishing a piece serves us well during the long wait for replies when sending in submissions. We can remember that things unfold in their own time, as long as we keep showing up at the page in a receptive and respectful manner. We learn to keep trying, to come at things from different angles, to consider alternatives. This is a creative lifestyle. Patience is our ally on the journey to the life we create for ourselves.

Fear of Authenticity

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about my writing and I came to a horrifying realization. I was no longer having fun. The change was slow and insidious. I had stories I enjoyed, ideas I liked, and characters I loved. But the balance was off. I was focusing too heavily on some aspects of the story to make it fit into a specific sub-genre. In the editing stage, maybe I could get away with some of that, but not while creating a rough draft, when my muse wants free rein to do whatever she pleases. And she was not pleased. It took that conversation for me to hear what my writing-heart had been telling me for weeks. “This is not the right story.”

I put this to you fellow writers. The next time you pause in the middle of writing a sentence, pay attention to what your mind is saying. If your block is coupled with thoughts like, “I don’t like this,” or “This isn’t fun,” those are some serious red flags. This doesn’t apply to those incredibly intense scenes that turn us inside-out. I’m talking about the basic scenes that make up the bulk of your story. If you don’t like what you’re writing, why are you spending time with it? Do you really think your readers are going to like it any more than you do? As writers, our emotions come through in the works we create. If we aren’t having fun or wanting something desperately for the characters in our story, our readers won’t be, either.

Then there are those times when we’re blocked by self-doubt. The words flowing out of our fingers and the scenes coming up in our minds are too raw, too intense, too authentic. The emotion we’re creating is so deep, we shy away from it. Those are the green flag moments, when you need to rein in your critic and keep riding through the story, getting it down as fast as you can, outrunning the doubts at your heels. My shield is this: I can always edit it out later, or tone it down, or whatever I think it will need. And most often? It doesn’t need to be cut or tamed. Those wild creative times are when my writing is at its best, and more often than not, when I’m at my best as a person.

When things become too real, too authentic, it can be frightening. What we’ve created seems to have a life unto itself. But those are the moments, the scenes, the characters that are most powerful. Those are the stories we need to tell.