With a Little Help From My Friends


Once upon a time, I was the Lone Writer.  I drafted my novels, chapter by chapter.  Occasionally, I shared them with a single trusted confidant, chapter by chapter.  When I did, I got feedback on what worked, chapter by chapter.

This system worked.  I published twelve novels with two traditional publishers with this system.  (Of course, I shared those novels with my agent, and he (very, very rarely) told me what he thought worked and didn’t work.  And once the novels were sold, an editor had input about what worked, chapter by chapter, and overall.  A copyeditor had input about continuity and consistency.  Sometimes, editorial assistants conveyed their opinions as well.  But in the writing stages of my work it was me, all me, with maybe one other person.)

As a side note:  I was a member of an SF writing group for a couple of years.  The group has been in existence for more than 20 years, and there are around a half-dozen published authors who have participated in the group for all or part of that time.  The group mostly handles short stories; I never submitted my novels to it, because it takes several months, if not a year or more, for the group to address novel-length work.  I no longer work with that group (but I really enjoy their holiday parties every year!)

Over the years, I’ve shared my work with more people prior to publication.  I’m sharing my baseball series with a lot of people — it has to be perfect for a somewhat-new-to-me subset of the romance-reading population, and I have to get my baseball facts right.

But in the past month, I’ve had my eyes opened, regarding the value of multiple readers when a book is in the draft stage.  Here’s the story:

Almost eight years ago, I met with my agent to figure out what my next book was going to be.  We discussed a “book of the heart”, a non-genre novel that would address serious social themes, examining hard problems in sensitive detail.  The book would be YA.

About six years ago, I started to write that book.  I completed the first three chapters and sent it to my agent, to make sure that he agreed I was on the right track.  And he *hated* it.  He felt that I’d started the story at the wrong place.  I’d created characters who did not adequately examine the serious issues in the story.  The characters were so insular, so claustrophobic, that I could not manipulate them into an interesting novel.  I set aside my attempt.

About three years, I figured out a new way to tell the story.  I completed three chapters, and I got the go-ahead from my agent.  I wrote the rest of the novel and sent it to him.  He had a variety of questions, comments, and suggestions.  The story has a hugely important moral component — it’s directly stating what characters should and shouldn’t do in certain circumstances.  He pointed out places where my moral message was blurred.

For two years, I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote the story.  Each time, I shared it with my agent — a man who has represented hundreds of authors, selling to hundreds of publishes, for decades.  Each time, he gave me his opinion, and I weighed his suggestions.  Some I accepted, and some I rejected, but I continued to reshape the novel.

About a year ago, my agent started shopping around the finally-finished novel.  We felt confident about the writing, and we *believed* in the story.  And it was rejected at over a dozen publishing houses.

A few months ago, I decided to self-publish this novel of my heart.  As is the requirement with Book View Cafe, the publishing co-op that supports all my self-publishing efforts these days, I submitted the book for at least one member to read.  In fact, three members read the book.

And they offered *brilliant* critiques.

They saw character arcs that were complete, but could be made higher and longer.  They saw secondary characters who functioned as foils, but could be made sharper and of greater contrast.  They saw plot problems, where my characters sailed past obstacles that would stop them in the real world.  They saw thematic problems, where I was inadvertently conveying certain messages about how the world worked.

And not one of my three Book View Cafe readers saw all of those points.

I’ve spent the past month reworking my novel.  I’ve added about 5000 words, key scenes between primary and secondary characters.  I’ve taken out and added back another 10,000 words, reshaping interactions.  I’ve sharpened my conclusions and made my message inescapable.

And all of these changes were made after one of the shrewdest businessmen in the publishing world had coached me on the novel for years.  (Incidentally, none of the rejections we received from editors addressed any of these points directly.)

I’m not sure about the fate of my heart-novel.  I’d love to think that my agent will take it in its revised state, send it back to a variety of traditional publishing houses, they’ll read it, fall in love, and make an offer.  But I know that editors rarely re-consider work they’ve seen before.  I’ll likely continue presenting the work through Book View Cafe (which has its own set of benefits, don’t get me wrong.)

But I’ve just lived through an example of how my writing is made better by others, by critique partners who can study the entire shape of the work.  How about you?  Do you work with others as you write?  Do you share chapter-by-chapter, or complete manuscripts?  What works best for you?


11 comments to With a Little Help From My Friends

  • I definitely love having the MW beta group, even if I haven’t been as active lately. I hope to start participating again soon. Since then, I’ve also been fortunate to gain a critique partner, someone I can meet in person and talk with over tea. I love the Magical Betas, as I call them, because of the variety and breadth of feedback available. I love my CP because we push each other as much as possible, and together strive for more. I don’t know where I’d be without either. 🙂

  • I’ve done both chapter-by-chapter and novel length. The problem, for me, with chapter by chapter is that I write pretty fast (when I write, and lately that’s been a problem, but it’s getting better). So, if I submit chapter one to a crit group and keep writing, I’m on chapter 4-5 when I get to the crit group sometimes. Or I have to wait. And then I spend a ton of time rewriting chapter one. Often, if I’d just kept writing, I’d have found a lot of the problems the crit group pointed out in chapter one as I wrote 2-6 or whatever. And if I can find those problems, I don’t need a crit group to find them for me. (And I don’t mean that to sound nasty or snobby). I need the crit group to see stuff I don’t see / can’t see. The forest I miss for the trees. Or the obvious plot hole. Or the totally amazing missed opportunity. Or whatever.

    What I do do is talk about my book with a couple people. I tell them plot points, chat about character motivations, etc. It’s not a critique in the traditional way, because they aren’t critiquing my writing, but it does help a lot to figure out what’s going on, where I’m going, how to fix a problem, etc. So when I’m in the first draft, those are really helpful, more helpful sometimes than a critique of the writing would be–or at least faster. I can talk about it, go rewrite it, move through the plot problem, and move on. It’s after I’ve got a first draft that I feel like I can show people that I move on to critique of the actual words on the page. Does that make sense?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well, actually, my plan for *tonight* is to format my manuscript into a pdf so that I can send it to three beta readers. I have shown the first chapter or two to a couple people, but this is the first time anyone will see more than that. Like pea_faerie, during the writing process I find that I can go back and find a lot of the big problems myself, so I just couldn’t bear to show it to other people until I had a chance to address the things I already *knew* were wrong. This process has taken me a very long time, in part because this is my first novel and there were *lots* of *really* broken things in the earlier drafts. But now I am *finally* (yay yay!) to the point when I can still myself point to some existing weak points, but now I definitely should get other peoples’ feedback before I try to address them. Granted, my beta readers are all friends of mine, but they’re also intelligent, analytical people, so I’m certain I’ll still get some pretty thoughtful responses. Fingers crossed. It would be nice to try something like the magical-words betas, but I’ve been so *slow* getting something ready to show that I don’t feel like I could be sufficiently actively involved…

  • Ken

    I’m getting close to the end of the first draft of my WIP. Over the year or so that I’ve been working on it, I’ve often considered sending off a single chapter or two to the MW Beta group (Waves to Larua and Pea :)). The reason why I haven’t is that I know myself *just* well enough to know that I’d probably end up stopping where I was and going back to look at the chapters I just received feedback on. For me, that’s dangerous ground since I can easily get trapped in the name of making those first chapters perfect, etc.

    My plan is to keep things under wraps until I’ve had a chance to: 1. let the manuscript cool off a bit and then 2. get at least one revision under my belt.

    I figure that, by then, I’ll have picked up everything I’m going to pick up and that the story is ready for another set of eyes.

    Of course that may change with the next book, but I won’t know what that bridge is built from until I’m on it.

  • Razziecat

    I don’t share rough drafts. Like Ken, I do at least one revision before anyone else sees it. I haven’t put anything up on my online group for quite a while, because I was too scattered–working on several things at once, which really isn’t, for me, a good way to work because nothing gets finished. I want the work to be at least a little polished before someone sees it. In the past year I’ve become more confident about what I’m doing and how I do it, so I’m hoping to begin submitting things for critique in 2014. I may even look for a beta reader here on MW 😉 Like Pea Faerie, I also talk about the story sometimes with my sisters; we all write, so those discussions can become pretty lively!

  • I am so glad you got this feedback and feel better about a long term project.

    Since the wonderful and long lamented crit group broke up some years ago (12? 14 years?)I never share as I write. I sometimes share (once I’m done) with another writer. But not often. However, I may start sharing more. I’m seeing things in my writing that let me know I’m getting lazy. Must slap myself (or have someone else slap me) back into shape.

  • sagablessed

    I do share with a group, chapter by chapter, though now I am looking at having only one or two betas. I am going to limit it because too many cooks…… I have a bad habit of trying to please everyone, which of course does not work. I need to please myself with the WIP first, then polish the thing.
    But these days I do NOT read the critiques until the work is finished. Those things everyone hates, I keep. (sort of, sort of not…LOL)
    I did send timelines, ideas, and so on to people, but never got feedback, so I have stopped doing it.

    Pea is on MW betas? *flaming muppet-on-coffee-overdose arms*

    Now, if you all will excuse me, I have pea soup to blend and strawberry/blueberry scones to bake. It is well past low tea, and almost time for high tea.

  • I don’t share until I finish and can go through a couple revisions on my own first. Then I look for beta readers. I find that the bulk of things that might be pointed out to me chapter to chapter I can find on my own with a proper read through. It’s those things I can’t see later that I usually need help finding.

  • Oh, right. Now that I’ve had coffee, I’ll answer the actual question:

    I used to share what I had sooner. I think because I didn’t trust myself and I wanted someone to give me approval, tell me whether or not I was doing it right. These days I would rather wait a bit longer before getting feedback. These days, I trust myself enough to finish it and edit a few times through before showing it to anyone (so far, mostly my critique partner for little bits, but one of the reasons why I’ve been holding back on the beta group). Also, I realize that I don’t want to load anyone (CP or betas) with the same stuff over and over again, another reason for not posting nearly as much. Re-reading the same thing with just slight changes can be wearing, and I’d rather fresh, useful feedback than worn-out readers!

  • When I was writing short stories I belonged to two crit groups. One was a Clarion style, meet once every two weeks group that included William F. Wu, another published author who wrote military thrillers, and several wannabe novelists. The other was an online group of wannabe-SF/F/H writers on CompuServe. From the 1st group, I usually got two brilliant (if sometimes painful) overall critiques and a lot of ooohs, aaahs, love its and no comments. From the CompuServe group, I received detailed comments, identifying typos, things that missed and things that hit, and lots of “what I would do if…” comments. Both groups were helpful for the short stories. I learned to trust my instincts in determining which comments I could/should keep or ignore.
    Now that I’m working on novels, I no longer have a community of writers I can easily share with, and I’m not sure I would want to share them chapter by chapter. I have too much trouble pushing through without going back and fixing. If I realize I made a mistake six chapters ago, I have to fix it, and work forward again from there. I blame it on the short stories and being able to make them almost submission ready on a first pass. I know, intellectually, that I can’t do that with a book, and yet knowing there’s something wrong back there is like a slavering ghoul hanging at my shoulder. I can’t ignore it. So – no. I don’t share my first drafts anymore.

  • ::nodding and reading along and impressed by the variety of crit experiences described!::