One of the biggest challenges authors face is getting early feedback. Many of us belong to critique groups, writer groups, or even have a trusty developmental editor that help us navigate plot pitfalls. I personally find the most important feedback comes not from professionals, but from the readers themselves. Beta readers, with their perspective being that of the consumer is absolutely critical. Editors and critique groups may love your book, but will readers? At the end of the day, the consumer’s opinion is most important.
However, the world of beta readers is a difficult to navigate. Where do you find these betas and once you find them, how do you manage their interactions with your work? Authors have struggled with finding betas who quickly consume and respond versus those who say they’ll partake but never produce notes. It gets even more confusing when you find that a pivotal plot point is loved by some, hated by others and you are required to go back and ask a thousand questions to discover the underlying reasons.
For my latest book, Night Legions, I needed a new method to work with my beta readers. I contemplated creating a GoogleDoc where they could mark up, correct, and comment, while at the same time, seeing the notes made by other readers. While this solved one of my issues, the second issue of managing the readers themselves would not be solved. I hate sending the frequent, “So, how’s it going?” emails. I wanted an easier method that required less effort from myself while I started in on other projects.
I’m not going to gush, despite its gush worthiness. BetaBooks was singlehandedly the answer to all my beta reader needs. The website, is fairly straight forward. It allowed me to upload my novel chapter by chapter, and lets me keep track of reader feedback, reader progress, and interact with readers as they respond to the chapters. It’s reduced the hours necessary chasing feedback or the need to harp on beta readers to keep moving forward. It will be my go-to for all my beta reader needs from this point forward.
Easy Beta Signups. For the few readers, you can easily input their email addresses and have them added. For those with a large number of beta readers, you can input their addresses in bulk or even provide a link where they can sign up themselves. Easy peasy.
Chapter Notes. When I beta read for authors, I always want to know ahead, what should I be looking for in each chapter. Betabooks allows you to give “pre-chapter notes” and then ask questions at the end of the chapter. This preps the reader and reminds them what they should be looking for. I think this helps align the reader to each chapter.
Chapter Feedback. At the end of the chapter, the reader can leave notes. You can respond as necessary and follow-up with more questions. This forum style setting also allows your members to see fellow beta readers’ comments and respond. Conversation between beta readers will help prevent redundant comments.
Track Reader Progress. Some beta readers keep notes on their own computer until they’re done. While it’s appreciated that they keep notes, I find it more helpful to see the comments as they come in. With Betabooks, I can tell when they last logged in, how far they’ve read, and what chapters they’ve left comments on. What used to take me hours to track is summed up in a single page and can be seen in just a few seconds.
Automated Follow-ups. Ultimately, I hate harping on somebody for not working at the pace I need them to. Betareaders are a gift, gems even, and pushing them is a delicate balance of need versus scaring them off. You can set Betabooks to auto send every few days after readers have been inactive. This is great as it appears the service is reminding them, not you. It helps take a bit of the heat off.
Great Customer Service. The service is relatively new, and early on, I had questions about the product and how to get the best out of it. Not only did I receive help, it came straight from the creators themselves. They’ve been thorough, helpful, and more than willing to answer a gauntlet of questions ranging from current usage to future plans. I wish every product had this level of customer service.
When starting out, you can test Betabooks for free. However, to get some of the more intense features such as the automated responses, you’ll go up to the 34.99 per month level. For the month or two I will need it at the end of each book, the money is well spent. At this point, I’m willing to pay to increase my production and help manage some of my administrative duties. I highly recommend check it out to see how it can speed up your workflow.
Check out BetaBooks and get started.
Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.
So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.
I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.
Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.
Mark Your Spots
Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.
Let It Simmer
When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.
Don’t Take The Easy Way Out
Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes
Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.
Kill Your Darlings
I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.
Save The Bodies
Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.
Have A Saving System
One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.
Fall Into The Story
Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.
Listen To Yourself
If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.
Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.
If I had traditionally published my books, the publishing house would have assigned an editor to me and the whole process would have been mapped out, complete with details and deadlines. But as an indie, the editing ball was in my court just like every other aspect of bringing my books into the world, and I had quite a learning curve. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way about finding an editor, working successfully together, and navigating the multilayered, and sometimes intense, editorial process:
Understand what kind of editing you need.
Good editing can make indie books look indistinguishable from traditionally published books. But if you’re new to the business, or working on your first project, you might not know that there are different types of editing, or understand what kind of editing your manuscript needs. When choosing an editor, understand what services that editor provides. This may mean hiring more than one person.
The first type of editing is developmental. I think of developmental edits as big picture edits. I’m too close to my manuscript when the last word finally claws its way out of my overtired brain and onto the paper. I can’t see plot holes, character issues, places where the writing drags or where something doesn’t make sense. Skilled beta readers or a trusted critique partner can help with this, and so can an editor.
Once all the major issues have been solved and readers are responding to your story and characters in the way you’ve intended, it’s time to fine tune and hand over the manuscript for a copy edit. A copy editor will assure consistency throughout the manuscript. For example, I have a Jon in one of my books, and I would periodically spell his name John. A copyeditor will also catch overused words or phrases, correct grammar mistakes, and essentially polish the manuscript.
Finally, the manuscript will need a proofreader to give it a final look before publishing to find typos and small mistakes. I always proofread one last time after the proofreader, but that may just be my obsessive personality at work!
Use referrals to narrow the search for an editor.
Now you’ve got a handle on the different steps involved in the editorial process, and you know what your manuscript needs. How do go about finding the right editor? There are a ton of free-lance editors out there and it’s hard to sift through all the information.
I rave over my editor. I tell anyone who asks what a find she is and I regularly give out her contact information. When a writer loves their editor, you’ll know it, and an enthusiastic referral is a great place to start looking. Ask people in your writing community and on-line writing groups who they recommend, and then reach out.
Interview a few different people.
Ask these folks to edit sample pages of your manuscript to see what kind of feedback they give and how they deliver that information. Find out how they like to communicate and ask about their process. Does their style resonate with yours? Do they enjoy your genre of writing? What does their turnaround time look like?
When you hire an editor, due diligence upfront is important. Your work together will be a business arrangement certainly, but it will also become a trusted relationship, and you’ll want to make sure this partnership is a good fit.
Recognize that editing is different from drafting, and honor your process around it.
You’ve found someone to work with and you’re eager to get started. So, what’s all the fuss you’ve heard about editing? Why do writer’s lament this part of the process, wring their hands in angst, scream with frustration, cry into a bottle of wine?
Okay, so maybe all writers don’t do these things! But for me, and for many of my writer friends, editing is a different animal entirely from creating a first draft. And when I say this, I’m now referring mostly to the developmental editing phase. Drafting a novel fills me with creative energy. I lose myself in a world of my own creation and fall in love with my characters. Sure, I may get stuck in a plot tangle, but the overall writing experience is joyful.
Editing is different. On the one hand, the bones of my book are in place. I know where I’ve started, where I’ve ended up, and I have a lot worthwhile material in the middle. I know I have a good story and there’s relief and satisfaction in this. On the other hand, once I’ve turned in the draft of my manuscript after months of intensive work, I don’t even want to think about touching it again. I’m exhausted, and the idea of tearing it apart and reassembling it is daunting.
So, I have to honor my process and emotions around this. Here are some tips for making it through a developmental edit with your love of writing still intact:
- First, celebrate the accomplishment of finishing the first draft! Without a first draft you have nothing. But now the story is out. Good for you! I admit to popping a bottle of champagne in celebration within moments of typing the last word. Then, I send the draft off to my editor. While she’s working on the first round of developmental edits, the manuscript gets shelved while I gain some distance. I’ll actively work on another project during this time period, basking in the glow of my achievement.
- Recognize that it’s really hard to have your work critiqued, even when the edits are spot on. Although I know what’s coming, I’m never quite prepared for the emotional stress I feel when I receive a five-page editorial document filled with commentary, and my own manuscript covered in red ink. To be honest, I want to cry – maybe into that bottle of wine! I want to call my editor on the phone immediately and beg her to tell me she loves me and that I’m not a horrid writer. I’m sure she’s pleased when I refrain from doing this.
- Take time to process the critique. Once I read what she’s sent me thoroughly, I put the manuscript aside again for a few days, maybe a week. I let the ideas percolate. I begin to see that what she’s suggesting resonates with what I already knew. I take it seriously when she reacts to something in a way I didn’t intend. I recognize my own bad writing habits.
- Allow the creative process to re-ignite. Once I dive back in to writing, creative ideas for how to fix things start to flow, in the same way they did when I wrote the draft. I scribble notes everywhere, from the backs of napkins to the little pad I keep by my bed for middle of the night inspiration. I form a plan of attack. Then I call my editor. We talk. We even laugh. And I get to work.
- Recognize editing can take more than one go around. My editor and I will go back and forth, sometimes with a round of beta readers working on it in between, until we are both satisfied that content-wise this book is ready. Most of the work I do with my editor is developmental in nature, but she is very meticulous, so by the time the manuscript goes to the copy editor, it’s quite clean. We still both believe that extra set of eyes is important though, because at this point, we’ve both looked at it so many times we know we’ll have missed something.
My editor has become a trusted partner in my publishing journey. I know if something is bothering her, I need to pay attention. Likewise, I know that when she says my book is ready, it’s ready. She gives me confidence to move forward when it’s time, but also honesty when my work isn’t quite polished yet, and as an indie, that’s invaluable.
Editing is daunting, there’s no question. But understanding what the process entails, how you personally need to deal with it, and finding a trusted professional to work with makes all the difference.
Whether you’re a first time client or a repeat customer, getting ready to have your story professionally edited takes a lot more than just finalizing the latest draft or having your plot notes organized. If you want to become the client your editor puts other clients on hold for, you need to be ready in every way possible. From an editor to my future clients, here is the wish list of things I hope and pray for everytime I download my latest project manuscript.
Be in the right frame of mind.
I’ll say it once, I’ll say it a thousand times–your editor does not hate your book. I have never had a single book come to my doorstep that I deemed trunkable. Some need more work than others, some need work in other areas, but every book I have come across can be saved. Nothing is worthless, nothing is useless. HOWEVER, you need to be prepared for it to be imperfect, for its flaws to be pointed out, for the often very long editorial letter of improvements that need to be made. Again–I don’t hate your book. Nor are you somehow a bad person for sending me a manuscript that needs a lot of work–that’s what you hired me for! I like your book and I like you; my list of improvements is me helping you to make it the best damn book it can be. And I’m very, very good at making kickass books.
Know what you need.
Sample edits exist for a reason, and that reason is not just for the client to give me a test drive–it’s me taking your book for a spin. They are an absolute necessity for first time clients, and they become vital whenever I hear the phrase, “I’m not in a writing group nor have I had any critique done, but my friends all say its really good.” That’s great, I’m glad that your friends are supportive of your work; it’s important to have a support network as an artist. However, your friends are not editors, and their opinions aren’t always helpful.
Before you hire an editor, do your homework. Find out what your book really needs. If you don’t know, tell your editor when you hire them to suggest one after the sample edit. This lets me know that you are aware of the work that might need to be done–such as full developmental overhaul and copyedits to follow, rather than just a run through of line edits–and puts my trust in you that you and I can work together.
There is nothing more frustrating for me, and terrifying for me, than the moment I have to tell my client that no, you’re wrong, you actually need this much work done and it will cost you x amount of dollars. I’m not a car mechanic, I’m not trying to take your money by making up extra work. If I tell you the book needs another stage of editing, it’s because it needs another stage of editing in order to do well in the competitive publishing market we all work within today.
Have a financial plan.
I am literally the most understanding editor you will ever meet, because like you, I am broke as fuck 99.9% of the time. However, I’m also hiring editors, cover artists, and PR to self publish my own novels. As a professional author, financial planning is something you need to get used to as part of your day to day work. So! While I will help you to put together a payment plan that doesn’t empty out your wallet all at once, I still need to be paid and paid on time. Because I too have bills to pay and they are all planned around my editing schedule. I’ll break huge editing job payments up into quarters or even more if I think it’ll take multiple months (it’s rare but it happens, think monstrous epic fantasy that needs to be broken up into multiple books–that kind of edit). Be sure to have money aside to pay your editor on time, and I will jump a bike through a hoop of fire into a swimming pool if you ask me to. Your editor will remember a great book, but they will love you for paying them on time. That’s how you actually become The Favorite Client.
Make the time.
I am not the only doing the work here; it’s up to the both of us to get your book done and done on time. If you’re just doing copy edits, this means going through and approving or denying all of my changes on Word via the Track Changes system. Takes a couple of hours depending on the length of the novel and how picky you are about each and every word of your book. Some clients will go and look over every single change before they approve it, and some clients are what I call Trust Fall clients, who trust that I know grammar far better than they do and simply approve everything without even looking. Either way, you can do it in a weekend at most.
But say we’re doing a full comprehensive–that’s three to four stages of editing we’ll be doing in one month (two if you have a monster novel), one week per stage if its under 100k, two weeks if it’s 100+, not counting time between stages for you to go over my work and make any changes that are needed. As a client, you have to be prepared to make yourself available to do the work that needs doing in a timely manner. Plan your calendar accordingly. Schedule out social events, don’t take double shifts for a few weeks–you do what needs to be done. Because as your editor is doing exactly that for you, we expect the same in return.
Know what your next step is.
Where are you going with this book from here? Do you plan to self publish it? Are you looking into publishing houses that are more along the lines of small to mid-sized indies? Or are you thinking about shopping it out to agents? Knowing what your plans are for putting this story out into the world is not only a huge part of knowing what you need, but it also helps your editor to determine the type of client you are or will become. If you’re self-pubbing a memoir, I’ll probably only see you once, and maybe I’ll get referrals from friends. However, if you’re writing a series, that means I can compile the style sheets for this story together with proper tags for hunting it down later. That way when you come back in a few months and say, “Hey, I have the sequel to that novel we worked on back in January,” I can pull up the style sheet, add the new places and names in, and make a flawless consistency check that keeps up with all of your work in half the time.
What I will also do for those who are looking to get into independent publishing is try to point you in the right direction. That is not something all editors do; it is something I do because I want to see your book succeed and it’s just nice to help people. I know quite a bit; sharing that knowledge means maybe you, my client, can tell someone else about The Good Places to shop their book around and avoid the hellscape pub houses that make up the naughty list of Absolute Write’s Water Cooler. Have a plan in place before you send me your initial email, and I can advise and make my own plans accordingly.
I know I’m asking for a lot here–I get it. I’m asking you to plan your finances, your social calendar, your mental state, and your writing career all in one go. I can tell you as a writer and editor both, publishing ain’t easy. You thought writing the book was hard–it’s not. Writing the book is easy; the only thing standing between the book and completion is you. Getting the book out in the world is not easy, it takes a lot of money, a lot of work, and usually a bit of sanity. For some crazy reason, I love it. Even when I want to rip my hair out that the client ignored my comments on a dragging plot line, I love it all. But I want you my client to know what you’re getting into.
“But what if things go south,” you say. “What if something goes horribly wrong and I can’t get the work done on time?”
Well, that’s when you put on your big kid pants, and you write me an email all about it. Tell me what’s up, what you need me to do, and when you need to reschedule for. Or if you’re rescheduling at all. The worst thing you can do to your editor is “ghost.” This happens when a client vanishes, doesn’t answer my emails, and leaves me hanging with a whole empty week–or worse a month–that I put aside for you and am no longer making money on. Until I get the email from you saying what’s up, I won’t rebook it. Because for all I know, the moment I take on a new client during what should have been your time, you’ll pop up with the edits all done and wanting to get through the next stage ASAP.
Trust me when I say, I get that things go wrong. Your dad goes to jail, your grandfather has a stroke, your basement floods and you spend ten hours straight working to clean it up–I get it. That is all crap that happened to me in the past year. Life does not alway bend to the will of our publishing schedules, so just tell your editor what’s going on and let us try and help. I will do anything in my power to make accommodations for you, it’s quite literally my job.
Editing is not a hire-out procedure, it’s a team effort between author and editor that requires hours of work and a great deal of compromise. But like all team efforts, when you work together towards a common goal, the results are incredible.