(First written for and published on Janice Hardy's Fiction University Blog - Dec. 2017)
When you’re starting your writing career and finish your first full manuscript, what should you do next? Besides celebrating by opening that emergency bottle of bubbly you keep in the back of the refrigerator? What was that? You don’t keep a bottle of Champagne on hand? You absolutely should, because finishing the first draft of a novel is a big deal. So take an evening to celebrate, then get back to work.
Should you write a synopsis, or two, or maybe even three, so you’ll have a single paragraph one, a one-pager, and perhaps a multiple pager? Do your homework and drive yourself further down the road to a nervous breakdown as you write, and seemingly forever rewrite, your query letter to send to literary agents?
Well, yes. But not yet. The first draft is only the beginning. A thorough self-edit or two comes next, along with finding a few beta readers to give you feedback. More about choosing those later.
What you absolutely must do, if you want to produce the best book you can write, is take a good, hard look at your ego. Because it’s about to get seriously banged up if you don’t prepare yourself. When we type The End, it feels like giving birth. And that baby, your book, is as precious and perfect as a baby. To you. To everyone else, not so much. (The book, not the baby, who I’m sure truly is/was perfect and precious.)
This is a tough lesson to learn, and you are far better off if you learn it early. If you don’t, your pride in your accomplishment will blind you to any faults in the manuscript. Beta readers and a critique group, if you choose them wisely, will tell you things you don’t want to hear. You’ll go on defense, get mad, and argue with them. You’ll refuse to accept advice from seasoned writers who are trying to help you. Basically, after all that work, not getting your ego out of the way for the next steps is like shooting yourself in the foot.
And, if you do, over time, get the ego under control and ask for help once more, those same people who you sniped at the last time are not going to want anything to do with it—and quite possibly you—again. You’ll have marked yourself as difficult.
Find a few beta readers. They cannot be a relative, in-law, or a good friend. Because they love you, and no matter how many times you stress that they should be absolutely honest with you—they will not do it. If your book is terrible, they will lie and say it was great, while swearing they are telling you the truth. This is not a bad thing. The people who love us want to protect our feelings. It’s kind of their job.
So—how to find readers who will be honest? Ask your friends who belong to book clubs for the names of members you don’t know who regularly go for your type of book. Or call that friend who reads a lot, they’re bound to know others who do also. Don’t ask someone who reads/loves thrillers, horror, or fantasy, and zero cozies at all to read your cozy mystery. When you find these people who do not know you, call them and ask if they’ll read a PDF copy. Then ask if they think they can be brutally truthful. Explain to them that you’re most interested in getting any weak spots corrected before you send it out to agents, and they’d be doing you a wonderful favor. That the only way to be sure you’re sending out your best efforts depends on them. That way, you’ll have given them a mission. They’ll want to be helpful and will make notes about pages or sections that weren’t clear or anything else that bothers them.
This is where a lot of newbies panic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But how do I know they won’t steal my book and try to publish it as theirs?” There are a few reasons that won’t, and doesn’t, happen, but perhaps the best way to allay any such fear is—these days, when you create a document on Word or Libre, or whatever you’re using, it’s immediately time/date stamped as being created by you—using your name. The software does it automatically. And every time you make a change, it notes that as well. You’ve got an iron-clad chain of custody for proof that it’s yours. So take that worry off the table.
When they’ve finished the book, ask them questions. Lots of them. Take notes. And listen. Don’t interrupt their answers with a defense. Take your ego out of it. Ask them if the oh-so-clever plot twist you put in Chapter Twenty surprised them or did they see it coming? What part or parts of the book dragged for them? Did they find themselves skimming over pages? Which ones? Why? Do any of the characters seem shallow? Like they’re out of central casting? Which ones did they like best/worst and why? Was the ending good or predictable? Did the overall plot make sense? Did they get a solid image/understanding of the setting or time period? I could go on all day, but you get the idea.
After many years of training, I finally have my mother able to give me honest feedback. I want hers because she reads everything. She’s voracious. If my plots or characters seem trite or done to death elsewhere, she’ll tell me. But I think my mother is the exception to the rule, and it did take years to get her there.
I’m telling you all this because I wish someone had told me in such an unvarnished fashion. I didn’t get belligerent way back when, but I did put up defensive barriers. In doing that, I delayed my progress as a writer. In not knowing the advantage of putting ego aside, I found criticism and rejection so hurtful. Had I known to find avid readers to test-read my book, I would have saved so much time in getting to the polished version it finally became.
Do yourself a huge favor. Send your ego on a long vacation.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.