Hello and welcome back to my Inception to Completion series, taking you through the novel-writing journey from beginning to end. Last week we discussed editing your completed first draft and the most common issues to watch out for.
After you’ve done a few rounds of editing, you will likely get to the point where you’re not sure what more you can do. This might be because you think your story is in great shape and nearly ready to be self-published or sent out to agents—or it might be because you know it’s still not quite right, but you have no idea how to fix it.
This is the perfect time to bring in some outside help. Someone else who’s never read the story before will bring in a fresh perspective and it’s likely that they will pick up on issues that you never would have noticed.
There are two types of readers that I turn to at times like these, who I like to think of as the Inner Circle and the Outer Circle.
The Inner Circle is composed of the readers you trust the most. This is the group who gets to see your manuscript when you’re still not quite sure about it and need some fresh opinions. Your Inner Circle should be made up of people who you have an open and comfortable enough relationship with that they’re not afraid to be brutally honest with you.
My Inner Circle is comprised of three people. The first person I show my chapters to—usually as I am still writing the story—is my mother. She is a voracious reader who helped spark my interest in books. She has read my work since I was a small child writing picture books and continues to do so now. Is she biased because she’s my mom? Probably at least a little. But she’s not afraid to point out when she stops being on a character’s side, or doesn’t understand their motivations. She’s also an excellent proofreader. Her unwavering support is always a huge help in getting me through the process of finishing that first draft.
The next person is my boyfriend of nearly 15 years. He is my publishing partner on my books and also my editor. He doesn’t usually read my books until I’ve finished the rough draft and run through a round or two of editing. You may be wondering if he is biased as well—I can assure you he is not. He is a ruthless editor and quick to note problems with pace and structure. It’s extremely helpful that while my mom’s strengths lie in character development, his lie more in identifying themes and making the whole big picture tie together.
The last person who gets to see a manuscript is my critique partner, who I have been working with for 7 years. While my mother and boyfriend just read my manuscripts for me, my critique partner and I trade manuscripts and read them for each other. Commenting on and helping to shape each other’s stories has created a tight, writerly bond and enabled us to trust each other’s judgment. She writes out her thoughts in track changes as she reads, helping me to know the precise moments when she gets bored. She is excellent with world-building, character, and identifying contrivances.
With their different strengths, this group of people adds up to a better editor than I could have ever hoped for. If you’re not lucky enough to have people close to you with an editorial eye, you shouldn’t worry. After 7 years I still haven’t met my critique partner in person—we found each other on author Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Matchup. We each gave a brief description of our novels then talked a bit about the books we liked to read. She emailed me, we swapped 50 pages of our books, and decided we were a good match. We read each other’s entire books after that, and the rest is history.
Between things like the Critique Partner Matchup and the millions of writer’s groups out there online and in real life, I bet you can find at least one critique partner of your own.
Once you’ve found your Inner Circle and used their guidance to improve your book, it’s time to consider sending it to your Outer Circle. These people are often referred to as “beta readers”. It’s important that you’re comfortable enough at this point about the idea of someone who’s not terribly close to you reading it. Because unlike your Inner Circle, members out of your Outer Circle don’t have to be friends that you trust completely with your writerly feelings.
Most importantly, people in your Outer Circle just need to be fans of the type of book you just wrote. If your novel is an epic fantasy, don’t hand it off to a friend who only reads historical fiction. Instead, give it to your pal who’s obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. A person who knows and enjoys your genre is going to be much more likely to give you valuable feedback since they’re a member of your future audience.
While you would expect in-depth critiques from your Inner Circle, your Outer Circle is there to provide general impressions. What they liked, what they didn’t like. Most of my beta readers tell me their thoughts in a brief email, or over dinner (which I gratefully pay for). I know you may be nervous to ask your friends and colleagues to read your work, but you might be surprised by how many say yes.
There’s only one author’s name on a book cover, but just like a film or TV show, it takes a big team of people to produce a quality story. Forming your team will help you to shape your draft into the novel you always hoped it would be. It may turn out even better.
Next week will be the last installment in the Inception to Completion series. Tune in to discuss how to know when you are really, truly finished.