A Writer’s Journey (Part Seven): Getting Feedback from Beta Readers and Book Doctors8 min read

by | Nov 15, 2017 | Writing | 0 comments

Note from the Editor: A Writer's Journey is a series that follows writer Mark R. Hems as he weathers the challenging yet rewarding terrain of writing a novel. Series Posts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

At this point in my writer’s journey, I’m almost up to date. It’s been five years since I wrote my first novel for Nanowrimo in 2012. I feel like I’ve come a long way since then.

I didn’t realise until very recently however, that there were still some crucial things I wasn’t doing very well.

Though I’d spent ages learning about plot, character, P.O.V, etc — mapping it all out meticulously — somehow I still wasn’t putting all of it into practice effectively.

Beta Readers

But how do you find out what you’re doing effectively and not so effectively? Well, one way of course is to send your manuscript out to as many beta readers as possible. This is something I haven’t been doing enough of for a couple of reasons. Firstly because it’s terrifying. Sending your baby that you’ve worked on for months — years — into the world to potentially get savaged? It takes a lot of courage to do that. And a willingness to put your ego on a shelf. To step away from your investment long enough to learn from your mistakes.

Another reason was that I wasn’t quite sure how. I know that many writers join local writing groups, but I’ve always been a bit of a loner. I found it difficult to make those sorts of connections. There are alternatives however. Scribophile, for example, is an online community where you can share your manuscript for review. The Writer’s Workshop also has an online community, the Word Cloud, which has similar features. I still haven’t used either of these, but definitely intend to after my next round of edits.

Book Doctors

Another alternative for getting feedback is to employ the services of a professional book doctor such as Hal Duncan. I met Hal a couple of years ago at the Festival of Writing — had a one to one with him to assess the novel I was writing at the time. Anyway, I met up with him again at this year’s festival, and after discussing my latest novel in depth, I realised that he was the best person to review it. Hal’s an expert storyteller and has won several awards for his own writing including the Spectrum and Tähtivaeltaja Awards for his 2005 novel, Vellum, which was also nominated for the World Fantasy Award.

As a book doctor its Hal’s job to analyse a manuscript at an exceptionally deep level. He’ll look at plot structure, chaptering, character, P.O.V, voice, worldscape, and even low level technicalities including presentation and illustrations.

The product of this analysis was a detailed report that left me feeling at the same time deflated and enthused.

Deflated because it shed light on all the things I was doing wrong; enthused because it told me how to fix them.

Facing difficult truths

Turns out the plot work I’d carried out had been pretty effective. The pacing and bones of the story were largely present and correct, but there were some key issues that were crippling the novel. These mainly revolved around an early decision I’d made to target the novel at a YA audience. Sick of the slew of dystopian novels in YA literature, I decided I wanted to write something for that audience that was more positive. A kind of Indiana Jones style action adventure with a Da Vinci Code-esque puzzle solving angle. In retrospect, I should have known that this feels more Middle Grade, which highlights just how important it is to know your target audience and to read widely within your chosen genre.

Anyway, having chosen YA I then went on to assign a transformational arc for my protagonist that would have him lacking in confidence and self esteem at the beginning of the novel and watch him grow towards his ultimate goal of learning to believe in himself — a goal that would be reflected in the plot. Because of this my protagonist starts off very weak and has a distinct lack of agency that never really kicks in until very late in the novel.

Putting the ‘agon’ into protagonist

This had two negative effects.

Firstly, a protagonist with no agency is a principal actor with no agon — no conflict. Or at least none that he/she faces and overcomes. And without the protagonist actively facing and overcoming conflict, they become nothing but a vehicle for the plot; a puppet to carry out the will of the author. This is not an uncommon problem, especially in novels that reflect a Hero’s Journey narrative structure where the hero is already the ‘chosen one’ — typically having a token Gandalf to face the conflict for them.

Secondly, because of my protagonist’s lack of confidence and agency he feels distinctly immature. More like a fourteen year old than the eighteen year old that I had planned. And, as a knock on effect, the tone also feels Middle Grade. An obvious solution then, would be to target the novel at a Middle Grade audience instead. Unfortunately there were some key plot points that were quite adult in nature, which are crucial to the story.

So, a dilemma — my novel was at war with itself. How to end the war? Well, I knew I wanted to retain the aspects of the plot that were more adult so there was no choice but to jettison the Middle Grade stuff. That meant rewriting my protagonist, giving him more maturity and agency. That of course has a knock on effect on his interactions with other characters, which would also have to be re-conceptualised. On top of that I’d have to change the tone and voice, inserting more interiority, backstory and reflection that would conjure my protagonist’s perspective more fully.

Basically a complete rewrite.

Manning up

Now, I could look at the mistakes I’ve made as proof that I’m just no good, that maybe I’m not cut out for writing. And believe me sometimes — when peering up at those vertiginous peaks of the work I still have yet to do — I’m sorely tempted to give up.

But I am the protagonist of this particular journey.

If I fail to face my own agon, decide to choose not to apply my own agency and endure this most demanding crucible, then there will be no story. Great writers are not born great, they become great through facing each challenge head on, through dedication and perseverance.

And so, like my protagonist, I have to man up and face the challenge.

My writer’s journey continues…

Encountered similar issues in your own writer’s journey? Tell me about it in the comments.

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