Some authors feel self-conscious sharing their work, because they fully understand how deeply their novel is part of them and reflects their inner self. Other authors might be perfectionists, and want to get everything just right, every period and comma in place, before letting another soul read.
For whatever cause, many of us who write find it difficult to take that next step and send a work-in-progress off to someone else for a once-over. Or a deep read. Or even something else.
Today’s post is timely for me, because I have been sitting on/developing my draft from NaNoWriMo 2012 since November of that year. I have taken long breaks, and am trying to figure out how to develop the story’s action into a series that will extend beyond the ending I’ve written. Because of that, I’m not quite ready to find beta readers…. even though I’ve spent so much time on this piece.
This begs the question…. How do you know when it’s time to find beta readers or an editor? What are the clues that you genuinely have more work to do first, rather than signs that you are dragging your feet and procrastinating?
The answer will be different for every author, because honestly, we all write differently. We all have a unique combination of steps that form our particular approach and process. Because of that, my signs might not be exactly the same as anyone else’s.
Still, there are some definite tendencies you can look out for. These are hints that it might be time to get outside input, because you’ve done all you can at this point without such feedback.
I say “might” because, again, everyone is different. But if you’re like me, you’ll know it’s time to send your work away when:
1. YOU SEE-SAW EDIT.
You might know a see-saw as a teeter-totter. I’m from New Orleans, and I grew up calling a toy that lifts one person and brings another down, and then switches positions as the person who’s down pushes up, a see-saw.
See-saw editing is when you change a small something–maybe the wording of a passage, or the punctuation of a sentence–to something else. Then, in the next editing pass, you change it back. You may do this one or two more times after the initial back and forth.
This is always a big signal that I need to send off to betas. I try to figure out why neither option has me completely happy. Something must be off…. sometimes nothing felt right because the passage in question doesn’t need to be as long as I have it. I can cut a fair bit of material and improve the manuscript.
Other times I’m being overly critical and a bit too hard on myself. Whether I cut what I keep changing or not, though, before involving other people, see-saw editing implies I’ve done all I can with my work as it is. I can’t do more on my own.
2. YOU ARE AGONIZING OVER POSSIBLY MAKING A BIG CHANGE
Character choices drive novels. Sometimes, after writing and editing a draft, we begin to doubt one or two of the choices our characters have made. Maybe we are regretting killing off a character. Maybe something stops making as much sense to us as it originally did.
At this point, it can be a great idea to let beta readers in on the story. That way, you can relax and destress knowing you are getting outside opinions. You can ask beta readers after they finish–perhaps put the questions at the end of the novel-
- What did you think about X/Y/Z?
- Do you think X/Y/Z was believable? If not, why not?
- Would A/B/C have made more sense to you than X/Y/Z?
This approach gets you concrete, honest feedback from as many sources as you would like (assuming you can find enough betas to fit your preference. And they are easy to find in the blogosphere and on social media.)
Just as important, this approach prevents you from tinkering with your novel and making a big, unnecessary change too early. If you don’t need the change after consulting betas, you can leave things be and not have taken time to rewrite what doesn’t need rewriting.
If you do need changes, you can make them with more confidence and self-assurance, because your betas agreed that they were good ones. You will know that you know what you’re doing, and that makes rewriting much easier on a psychological level.
Of course, sending off your work to betas because of reasons 1 and 2 implies that:
3. YOU HAVE EDITED YOUR WORK MULTIPLE TIMES AND PROOFREAD AFTER THAT.
This is common sense on one level, but don’t sent first drafts to betas. The time for a beta reader is when you have cleaned and polished everything as much as you can.
Think about the role of a beta reader:
- To assure you of what works
- To let you know what doesn’t
- To point out when you are unclear or confusing
- To clue you in that you’re saying too much or too little
- To point out parts of your novel that intrinsically fit but could use a bit more work to flow better
First drafts always have small holes. They always need cuts and additions that an author doesn’t need help to identify.
Also, first drafts generally are riddled with typos. A reader’s attention is a limited resource. You want your betas focusing on content. On your story and how it’s developing. On how you are phrasing things.
When beta readers are focusing on all the typos they are finding, they aren’t focusing on content, and you are missing out on some great commentary.
The solution is simple, as stated above: edit and proofread before you send your draft out. Your story will be tighter and cleaner: closer to its eventual final form. You might still have some typos, but fewer is always better.
Depending on how severe are the changes your betas suggest, you might go through a second or even third round with them. You might just send them a chapter or two to reread and comment on. For purer input, you might seek out beta readers who were not among the first batch and did not read the pre-edited version.
So, what is your process of deciding when to send off to betas or editors? Do you base it on a number of drafts? Do you bring in betas when it “feels right” to do so?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League.” She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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