Author Feedback: Making A Good Book Great

Good advice from a successful professional is hard to come by. But we deliver!

In my recent series on the myths of self-publishing, I spent a great deal of time on editing because I think it is an essential component in the book creation process. Editing is important no matter which way you publish. For self, it’s essential as you have no safety net at the publisher, but if you are going traditional, then a well-edited book will significantly increase your chances of getting published. But where and how do you go about that all important feedback?  Well, that’s the focus for this post.

Let me start by saying that for this post I’m not going to focus on copy editing. That’s not to say I don’t think this is important; it’s just not the focus of today’s post.  Today we’re going to talk about the story, items such as pacing, character motivation, plot holes. In other words, the framework of the story you are trying to tell.  Part of this post is drawing from my method, so it is a technique that works for me, feel free to adjust it for what works for you.

Start with yourself

There are authors who bring in solicit feedback after each chapter they write. If that works for you, then by all means continue to go that route. But for me I don’t let anyone see it until I have:

  • Finished the book (the first draft)
  • Read through the book from start to end – making notes of areas that need addressing:
    • What was too fast?
    • Where was I lacking detail?
    • Are there scenes missing that I should add?
    • Were there scenes that didn’t add to the narrative?
    • Are there characters that add nothing to the story?
    • Are any of my people acting out of character?
    • Is the dialog stiff or stilted?
  • Update the book from the list above (second draft)
  • Do a first pass copy editing, fixing obvious grammar, punctuation, or word choice errors

 

During my second pass draft, there are a number of questions I flag as areas that “might” need addressing.  It’s not worth doing them at that time, but the feedback will either confirm or deny my suspicions.

Alpha readers

Okay, once I’m done working on what I felt needed fixing, it’s time for the alpha reader.  In general, I keep the number of alpha readers to a minimum: one or two people at most. What you are looking for in an alpha reader is:

  • Someone who likes the type of books you do and is a good fit for your “style.”
  • Someone who can be brutally honest.
  • Someone who can be balanced indicating both strengths and weaknesses in the manuscript.
  • Someone who you won’t get pissed off at or make you become defensive.
  • Someone who can clearly state their opinion (in other words, not the person who says, “I really liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”

 

Conventional wisdom says this person shouldn’t be related (or close) to you such as a parent, spouse, significant other, or close friend. I disagree.  I think this is EXACTLY the kind of person because you are more likely to dig deeper with someone who you greatly respect and who respects you and your work.  For me, it’s my wife. She does an amazing job of finding the things about my book that I miss.  Many a plot hole has been plugged by her astute eye. I might not agree with every one of her “suggestions” to fix a problem, but I completely trust her instincts for pointing out where a problem exists.

Good sources for your alpha reader are: a trusted loved one, a fellow author who you trust, a previous reader, a friend who you debate books/movies with.

Once you get the feedback from your alpha reader – you need to give the books a third editing pass correcting and restructuring based on the alpha reader’s feedback.

Beta readers

Beta readers are essential, and unlike alpha readers (which should be a small number of people), the beta group should be at least 8 – 12 people. For me, my wife organizes my beta reads, and she usually has 40-50 people. I don’t recognize that many for others. Robin has a system that makes it possible for her to handle that large of a group. She is planning on writing a book about how she runs beta reads. It will be free to all writers, and if you want to sign up to get a copy here is a link. The important thing about your beta group is it should represent a wide range of readers.  Things to consider when selecting beta readers:

  • Diversity in experience with your work: (never read anything by you vs. avid readers vs causal readers)
  • Diversity in demographic – have both men and women, old and young, people from other countries
  • Diversity in writing experience: readers only, aspiring writers, published authors

 

Recently my wife ran two beta reads for my new book Rhune (Book #1 of The First Empire). She got them from the following:

  • People who had written in asking to beta read in the future.
  • A posting she had me put on a forum I frequent asking for beta readers.
  • My goodreads group where readers of mine gather to talk about my books.
  • Sending some private messages to people on goodreads who have shelved my books but haven’t read them.
  • Sending some private messages to people on goodreads who haven’t shelved any of my books but have read/liked other books similar to mine.

 

She had nearly 600 people raising their hand to be beta readers…now that was fairly easy for her, since I have so many books out, but she used EXACTLY this same process when I was just starting out and was still able to get a good group of beta readers. She has each of them answer a survey and based on that survey, she picks her beta readers by selecting a wide range of people with different ages, genders, writing aspirations, and experience with my books.

Critique partners

There are a number of places on the Internet (and in person) where you can get feedback for your writing. Unlike alpha and beta readers (who are going to be reading the full manuscript) critique groups usually limit reading to a sample (a short story or a few chapters).  I belong to the Arlington Writer’s Group and have been with them for many years.  When in a group like this, you have to give to get. In other words, you agree to read people’s work and comment in exchange for them doing the same.  While this might sound like a lot of work, it also reaps a lot of benefits…and not just for the critiques you receive.  I find that reading other people’s works helps me see mistakes they make…and then I’ll be more conscious about those mistakes in my own writing.  Places to look for to get critiques:

 

There are, of course, many others, but these are places to get you started.

Next steps

Once you’ve incorporated changes from alpha/beta readers and critique partners you’re ready for the next step.

  • For traditionally published authors  that would mean submitting the work to your publisher for their editing process to begin.
  • For self-published authors  that would mean hiring a copy editor to give the work a final polish.

Final thoughts

Getting feedback for your work is an important step. Every writer, no matter how skilled they think they are, benefits from other’s critical eyes. It’s impossible for us to see our blind spots. Hello…there’s a reason they’re called blind spots!  Grow thick skin, and look for people who will challenge you…but don’t lose sight of two important facts.  First, that you won’t please all the people even some of the time. What one person loves another could hate.   And second, ultimately the book is a reflection of your voice and just because a item is raised doesn’t mean you have to act on it.  For me, when I hear many people commenting on the same thing, then I definitely take notice.  But there are times when I trust my instinct over others. When I’m deciding on a potential change, I may argue with the person giving the advice to be sure they have thought through the issue.

Important things to remember are keep an open mind and don’t get defensive. The best thing you can do for you and your books is to provide a comfortable environment for people to give you feedback. It is, after all, what you are seeking…and if you do, your books will be better.

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