Beta Reading for a friend – Lessons I learned

I finished beta reading for my friend I told you about in an earlier post, and it amazes me how much I have learned about my craft in the process. Believe it or not, this was my first beta read/critique outside of flash fiction and short stories on Scribophile, and even that hasn’t happened for a long time. I’ve critiqued a bunch of them, but I had never done a beta reading for a book. Even though I knew how important it is for writers to read the work of others who are also on the same experience level, I had never tried it. The reason was that I was too afraid of making a mistake in my critique/review and ultimately be a hindrance to the fellow writer. I mean, can you imagine if you’ve written something you were very proud of, have a trusty beta reader tell you that you should murder your darling, then have an editor or someone else more experienced than both you and the beta tell you that you should add it back? What would that say about the beta’s worth as a writer?

Point of the matter is that we learn to identify what to avoid in our own work by seeing it in someone else’s. For example, I know what exposition is, I’ve read a hundred articles and posts about it, and yet, if you were to ask me to identify it in my current project (Through Stranger Eyes), I’d most likely fail to find every single instance of it in my work. As I was reading my friend’s work, I came across a small section where I was certain beyond any doubt (in my mind at least – remember, I’m still a newbie) that what I was reading was pure exposition that slowed things down and was unrelated to the story, the plot, and the characters. I immediately made a note of it, so my friend would notice it and choose whether he wanted it in or not. As I was writing the comment to the side, it occurred to me that I had included an almost identical piece in my work. So I turned to my novel, found the page, and there it was. I had read this part of my story well over ten times, nine of which were pure edit rounds. And there it was, staring at me. It never crossed my mind that I had consciously chosen to keep it, because I failed to identify it as an expository piece that slowed things down, just as it was the case with my friend’s plot. If I hadn’t beta read, I would have never spotted it and I would have given my betas a less-than-acceptable story to read. Maybe they’d point it out to me, maybe they wouldn’t notice it or consider a big deal, maybe they’d be afraid of hurting my feelings by pointing it out. But I bet an agent or a publisher would see it and judge my work based on it.

I’m not going to go over on how many more sections like that or other problems I spotted in my works thanks to my friend’s novel. Suffice to say they were plenty.

Dear betas, when the time comes, you’ll be receiving a somewhat tighter and slightly fewer-in-words novel. Thank my friend for that 😉

My next editing moves

Through Stranger Eyes has reached the point in the revision/editing process where only minor details remain, as you can see from the sample image below.


If you thought to yourselves that it’s way too cluttered for me to be calling these as “minor details,” you should have seen it after I finished drafting it. So what’s minor details? By minor details, I mean finalising character names (the green bits you see scattered all over the place) and/or some names for places, and of course work on continuity (the comment bubbles at the left side). Some of those are question I ask myself about the world or what my main character sees or has seen so far.

What? Don’t tell me you don’t debate with yourselves about these things. Little things, like, “should he see X detail now or five pages later when the character enters Y place?” or “should she have this dialogue line here, or should I have used it in the previous chapter?” I’m sure you do it too. You are, right? I’m not the only one who does that, yes?


Anyway, once that’s done, I’m thinking of editing in a slightly different way than what I did for The Darkening. This time, I’ll print it out first (instead of doing it at the very end), take my trusty red pen, probably delete or change somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the whole thing, then transfer the edits to the digital copy. Once that’s done, I’ll look for those sneaky filter words with my trusty macros, and use my favourite online tool for sentence lengths.

For sentence lengths (but not just that) I’m using Slick Write and I’m loving the flow graph they provide (found at the left sidebar, after you paste part of your manuscript and press the Check button), particularly the Sentence Length Flow. If the graph isn’t a perfect (or as near to a perfect to my satisfaction) wavy pattern (yeah, fine, sinusoidal graph, for you with a mathematics/physics background) then it’s time to tweak the problematic sentences. Once that’s done, it’s off to betas, around late spring by my estimates. Hopefully.

Update on Through Stranger Eyes with a request for help at the end

At the end of this post, there’s a request on a friend’s behalf. If you don’t want to read my following ramble, skip to the end of the post and read the last paragraph.

The project I’m working on at the moment (provisional title, Through Stranger Eyes) is coming along fine, though slow, which means I once again failed to stick to my deadline. By deadline, I don’t mean a date where I would have finished everything about it and have it ready for betas. That’d be awesome, but no. What I mean is a date when the current round of edits had to be over, so the next round could start. I have yet to tinker with individual words (filter words and more active verbs) and sentence lengths and this usually takes time.

The reason for the delay is that I started querying and pitching The Darkening once more (most agents are back from holidays, plus I waited and hoped far too long on feedback from competitions I participated that never came), and at the same time I started researching ways of crowdfunding. Why? Because I may be submitting and querying agents, but I still have to keep my options open, in case every agent I approach turns my book down. A rather shocking possibility, but possibility nonetheless. I don’t know if you were aware of the following fact, but apparently, horror is a hard sell nowadays. I sure didn’t know it. There’s an abundance of horror books out there, so it never crossed my mind. Bad research on my part? Maybe, but then again I’d rather not
write solely following a market trend, since these things change with a snap of the fingers. I’m also unwilling to just shelf my work and forget I ever wrote that book. I may be emotionally attached to it, but I started writing not only because I had stories I wanted to tell, but also because I wanted others to read those stories. I don’t write for myself, which is why I struggle (perhaps too much) to perfect my craft and, through it, the quality of my work. I don’t have anything against those who write for themselves, it’s just not what I want.

So, I’ve spent a great deal of energy on researching marketing plans, strategies, promoters, editors, expenses, in addition to honing my craft, editing my own work, and of course reading to improve my writing skills. I’ve also decided to self publish a couple of my short stories in the following months. Not only will this put my name out there and, who knows, perhaps grant me a couple of readers, but I will also learn things related to self publishing first hand. It’s all nice and helpful when I read articles and posts about it, but unless I do it, everything I read will be something theoretical. All this, however, takes time, and it seems a day doesn’t have enough hours in it anymore, and I sometimes feel too drained.

Finally, the request I mentioned earlier. It’s not for me, but for a writer friend. Mind you, I will be in his shoes at soon, and you may have been in his at some point in the past. He is in need of beta readers for his current project, an epic medieval fantasy novel titled “Flakes of Fire” (about 135,000 words), for an adult audience. I’ve already offered to read for him, but one beta is never enough. In fact, it may be disastrous, especially since I’m not as experienced as a lot of you are. His open calls for betas on Goodreads and other sites have gone largely unanswered (we all know how hard it is to get beta readers when we embark in this journey) and there are no writing groups near where he lives. That’s pretty much how things are with me as well. I too don’t have a writing group (not many Greeks writing in another language, hehe. There are some but not too many), so I offered to help him by turning to you. If you would like to read something new, something fresh, if you have the time to spare and help a new writer, please let him know. His name is Yoann and his email address is: yo.re02[at]gmail[dot]com. Replace [at] with @, and [dot] with a period/full stop “.”

Thank you all.

Character building and setting

I’ve been going over my second novel (provisional title: Through Stranger Eyes) and in particular trying to make sure I have created a fully fledged main character. In doing so, I came across C. S. Lakin‘s post on Live Write Thrive where she suggests we ask our characters twelve questions related to the setting to present and create them in the most realistic way. As she says in the beginning of her post, “When choosing settings for your scenes, you want to think about the kinds of places that will allow the emotions, needs, dreams, and fears of your characters to come out.

In my second novel, the setting is an important element of the story and goes hand in hand with the plot for a reason. In cyberpunk worlds (such as in Through Stranger Eyes), the fall of moral and social values alongside the disproportionate rise of technology that makes life easier for very few, could easily have its roots in the socio-economic structure of today. In that case, the setting can (and in my mind, should) be something not only to set up tone and mood for a story, but to also create awareness in the subtlest way possible.

Of course, no one expects a fiction writer to go that deep into sociology and philosophy just to tell a good story. But we are expected to create well-rounded characters, with their hopes, fears, and memories, and at the same time flesh out worlds for them that could easily be real, regardless of the genre. Hopefully, these questions will help all of you in this pursuit.

Inner critic

I hate my inner critic. I really, REALLY hate him. I’ve managed to reach the point where I only have 3 – 4 more chapters to write after which I will be happily able to say “I finished it! I finished my 2nd book!”

That was the moment my inner critic struck and messed things up. And that moment is when the previous joyful statement turns into something like, “yeah, but look what a mess you’ve made. Story sucks, plots sucks more, characterisation sucks even more, overall product sucks the most.” And then the unwillingness to continue comes along. From writing 3.5k words a day, I go down to 1.5 and writing becomes a chore.

yay droopy

I really, REALLY hate that inner critic. It takes all the fun away. I blame my perfectionism that sometimes runs in my veins, especially when it comes to writing.

In liue of that, I figured I might give you my take on what I do to battle these defeatist feelings, though be warned, I have yet to achieve a victory against them.

1. It’s a first draft, therefore accept it as it is. I’ve often said to some of you who follow this blog and we have developed a more direct form of communication, not to worry about a work being sucky or below expectations simply because first drafts are supposed to be that way; sucky, full of mistakes, full of plot holes, full of everything that could make you throw your computer out the window (or typewriter).

And yet I fail to adhere to this rule. Go figure. It’s still a solid advice, it’s just that my brain fails to remember it when it needs it the most. Kinda like those drivers who shield their eyes when they’re about to be part of a minor accident instead of watching where they’re going and controlling the car, even though their instructors have told them exactly not to do that.

2. It’s good to be strict with your own self-imposed deadlines, but the world won’t end if you stretch them by a few days (yes, I’m talking to you, Chris Sarantopoulos). I have very little doubt that I will be able to finish my WIP (Through Stranger Eyes is the current title, if anyone is wondering) before I start querying my previous book. Especially if I just focus and write 3k words a day. I may stretch my deadline by a couple of days, but it can be done. The thing is, I feel like I’ve exhausted all my fuel, plus the backup fuel I had stored somewhere, and some more I stole from those around me. I’m on fumes here. Bottom line is, as I said in my previous post, sometimes it’s easy to reach your daily quota, sometimes words simply refuse to come. Accept it. That’s the life of a writer, even when it comes to the big names.

3. Don’t panic, revision will save you. Consider revision as a loving and caring mother. We all mess things up from time to time (some of us more than others), but mom is always there to not just chastise us, but also show us the right way. That’s kind of what revision does for you. Even if the new plot line you made up, despite what you had planned and outlined, clashes with every other plot line, relax. You’ll get it fixed a couple of months after you finish your work, after you’ve hid the MS and let it mature. It may take you some more time to patch things up, but it’s okay. Just keep repeating “revision will make things right.” And yes, I’m talking to you again, Chris Sarantopoulos.

4. Trust your ideas. We write fiction because we have ideas to test, and strange worlds and situation to experience. Some will work better than others, some will be utter crap. If you’ve written the latter, look at points 1 and 3. Repeat as often as necessary. Chances are those ideas will spark something. Perhaps a better tangent for your story or a new story altogether.

5. Resist the urge to start another project because “this one is too hard/you suck/you are inexperienced for its complexity yet, etc.” Just put the words down. One word at a time. Neil Gaiman said that. You can’t argue with one of the masters. You can’t revise or improve on something that isn’t there. Let that inner critic shout all he/she wants. If you start an awful lot of projects without finishing any one of them, say because you’re not ready for that project yet, when will you be ready for it? Will you ever be?

Oh well, that’s all for now. Damn you inner critic.