Editing & Rewriting

Tips for Working with Beta Readers

Photo by Jo Naylor

I’ve been posting on promotion lately, but I want to switch gears for a moment to a post I’ve had rough drafted for a year concerning beta readers.

What’s a beta reader? Basically, it’s your guinea pig. A beta reader is someone who “beta’s” – tests – your book. They read through an early copy and tell you what things you should change, what things they like, and what things confused them. Depending on your arrangement they may also edit.

Ruth and Janet did a very good post/video on what to look for in a Beta Reader, but as an author who also does beta reading, there are things betas are looking for in authors.

1. “Do you have time to…”

If you’re lucky, you have those regular reliable betas who are always happy to read for you. But that doesn’t mean you should just drop it in their lap, or expect them to “know” that the beta is coming up because you mentioned it in a facebook status. Before you send a file, or even have a file ready to send, it’s a good idea to ask if they “will have time”.  I try to ask my beta readers a month or two in advance, and then again two weeks before I plan to send the file. This might annoy them (see #10) but it’s what I prefer from authors, so…

2. Deadlines

When you give a beta reader a deadline make sure this is REALLY your deadline. Don’t say, for instance, “I need this back by the end of the month” and then, two weeks until the end, start to panic because they haven’t got it finished early. When someone gives me a deadline I use the date to juggle my other projects around it – meaning I DO NOT do it early. Other betas may be the kind to finish in advance, but, to be safe, If you need it two weeks earlier,  give your beta reader that deadline.

3. “How far are you? Do you like it?” 

As an author I know the nail biting fear while waiting on your book to come back from the betas, but as a beta I have to say “Enough with the questions. Just stop.” When I send you back my notes, comments, and corrections I will answer all of those questions, and I’d bet so will your beta readers. Please, please, please don’t harass them. You’re likely to annoy them  and that can leave you beta-less.

4. Be specific with what you want.

Do you want your beta to edit or just make comments? As a beta I have discovered that nothing makes an author madder than unsolicited editing advice, which left me on the fence about whether to do any editing – or even suggest “maybe this needs edited” – for a long time. Your beta reader might be in the same place, so if you want/don’t want honest editing let them know. Something as simple as “All I really need is to know whether this flows/makes sense/is gripping. I have someone else editing”, then the beta knows not to do it. Conversely you can say “Do what you want: comments, editing, whatever makes you happy” for a no pressure “ok” on editorial suggestions.

5. Make sure your betas are a good fit for your book.

Just because your beta readers loved your last book, doesn’t mean they’ll like this one, especially if you switch genres or styles. Make sure you communicate to your betas what they’re going to be reading, even if you think you’re simpatico and they already *know*. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with tear stained emails from betas who hate, hate, hate your new book and everything about it. And no matter what we like to pretend, that’s a blow to the ego.

6. “How did you feel about ___?”

If there’s a part of the book you think needs attention, or that you’re not sure about, ask the beta readers in advance. Sometimes they didn’t pay especial attention to the scene you’re worried about (you could think of that as “it didn’t stick out to them, so nothing to worry about.”), and they may have to re-read it in order to answer your questions. As an author I have been guilty of this after the books come back from other betas, I run to the others and say “Did you think X was boring/too long/unbelievable/etc.” There’s nothing wrong with discussing things, but make sure your beta is open to it. Some do beta reading for a lot of authors and – especially if they’re doing yours free – may not have time for long discussions. In other words, consider whether they have the time to deal with your author quibbles before you dump them all out in an email.

7. “Wait – Here’s a new version!”

As an author I understand editing the book – even rewriting it – while it’s out to your beta readers. As it comes back from reader after reader, we tweak this, redo that, change this, and sometimes it’s barely the same manuscript we first handed out. The desire is to send this new, better – so, so much better – version to your betas who aren’t done yet and say “Hey, this is better. I’ve changed it. If you don’t read this one, all the comments you’re going to make may not pertain anymore.” But what you’re also saying is, “All the comments you already made don’t pertain anymore. Surprise!” That’s not to say you might not have betas who don’t mind this – or who *want* the newest version – but I’d suggest being cautious and at the very least offering, not demanding or just cold sending the newest version. And speaking of new versions…

8. “Don’t bother finishing it. I’ve changed my mind.”

As an author I understand this. Maybe it needs a new ending. Maybe it needs totally re-written. Maybe a beta pointed out a huge, huge timeline error that ruins the whole thing (heh-heh, Yeah, that’s happened to me) but when an author says “don’t bother to finish” some betas may feel like “Why did I bother to start?” I know you had good intentions at heart, no point in your beta wasting their time finishing up a story with notes you don’t need, or want, but at the same time it can come off as dismissive – “thanks for starting but I don’t really care anymore”. Your beta readers may be different.

9. “I’ve re-written it thanks to all your suggestions. Here’s the whole book back. Please read it again.”

As I’ve mentioned, many beta readers do beta for multiple authors, or are authors themselves. Though they may love your book, there’s a good chance they don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you really think they do, you can always ask them, but don’t just cold mail them the newest file with a list of instructions and a new deadline, unless you already have an understanding. (Even with an understanding it’s still nice to ask, which brings me to my most important point.)

10. Do unto others.

Do any of these things irritate your beta readers? If they did, would they tell you? I’m pretty sure most of my beta readers are too polite to say I’m driving them nuts, and I know I am, so in the end the best thing you can do is treat your beta readers the way you’d want to be treated. Don’t set impossible deadlines. Ask them to pay special attention ahead of time. Make sure they know how much you value them, their time, and their contributions and make sure to thank them in either the acknowledgements or dedication of your book. Oh, and a free copy doesn’t hurt either. Which leads to my very last point.

A Bonus Tip:

Don’t demand reviews.

Even if you offer your betas a free copy, don’t expect – or ask for – reviews. Remember the version they read was in progress, and they may not have time to read your corrected version. Or they may not like to write reviews. Or they may not feel comfortable doing it. (I had a beta who refused to review anything she beta read because she felt it was wrong since she had “had a hand” in the book). If your betas do review, thank them, but don’t expect it.

Do you use beta readers? if so, what tips do you have to keep the relationship running smoothly?

Categories: Editing & Rewriting | 14 Comments

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Categories: Book Formatting, Book Setting, Book Setup, Business Plan, Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Reader, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How To Write An Epilogue

In my last post, I wrote about writing prologues. I thought I’d follow that up by writing about epilogues. I would like to begin this article by stating that prologues and epilogues, while at opposite ends of the book, each require different needs to be fulfilled in order to be written effectively. Let’s explore that, shall we?

First, what purpose does the epilogue serve? In a way, it serves as an enhanced last chapter. If the prologue serves to set the tone of the story and usher in whatever journey that the main character or characters are about to go on, then the epilogue serves to let the reader know, usually on a very happy note, that all is well and that the characters have moved on from the journey. This is why JK Rowling only used an epilogue in the final book of Harry Potter: during the previous six books, Harry was still very much in conflict with Voldemort, even if he wasn’t always aware of it. The epilogue in Book 7, when the next generation is sent off to Hogwarts in a more peaceful era, lets us know that the conflict between Harry and Voldemort is over, and that “all is well”.

Does an epilogue have to be one chapter? Depends on the writer. Some writers prefer to have only a chapter-long epilogue, while others have written epilogues that have taken up to two to four chapters. Snake, if I remember correctly, has around five chapters in its epilogue. Like I said, depends on the writer and what they want to do with their story.

How much wrapping up do you do in an epilogue? Preferably you want to wrap up all your loose ends at the end of the book, and especially if you’re doing an epilogue. Most authors, unless they’re writing a series, will try to get rid of loose ends as they can before they get to the final chapter, so that they’ll be able to wrap things up in a neat little bow at the end. Figuring out how much wrapping up needs to be done should usually be done in the plotting stages of writing your novel, though. This helps reduce stress and any unexpected problems or questions from cropping up at the end of the book.

Of course, some authors will have an epilogue that will have a happy little scene, and then tie up their loose ends or open questions in supplemental materials after the last book, but the authors who do that usually are big-name authors with traditional publishing houses like Charlaine Harris or JK Rowling. If you would like to do the same thing though, ask yourself one question: do you have a big enough fanbase that would be interested in a lot of supplemental material released after your book? It’s an important question to answer before you start writing.

What should the tone of the epilogue be? Most epilogues I’ve read tend to end on a happy or hopeful note. “We’ve gone to hell and back, but we survived, we conquered, and we’re stronger. Things may not always be great, but they’re not always terrible either.” Of course, there are probably epilogues that let the reader know that things aren’t as nice as they could be. I sort of wrote the ending to Snake to be that way. Once again, it depends on the writer, what sort of story you are writing, and how you want to go about writing it.

What’s the best way to write an epilogue? No two writers are alike (thank God for that), so it depends greatly on the writer. The best way to write an epilogue is to practice it each time you include one in a novel, and also see what works and doesn’t work for you when you read an epilogue in someone else’s book. This will allow you to figure out how best you can write an epilogue and include them in as many novels as you desire.

Now, not every novel has to have an epilogue, just like not every novel has to have a prologue. But if you decide to put an epilogue in your novel, I hope you’ll find this article and the advice it gives rather helpful. And please let us know in the comments section if you have any more advice on creating epilogues that resonate with audiences. We would love to hear from you.

Categories: Book Setup, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Reader, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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