I get messages once in a while from soon-to-be self-published authors soliciting advice about writing and publishing. I recently answered a question of one of these folks and thought I'd share my answer with anyone reading my blog. I should be writing a book right now, but I often indulge in other activities to avoid my work so that I can make my life more stressful and therefore interesting.
The issue this person wrote me about centered around feedback from early readers. When you write a book, you get people to read it first before you release it to the general public and make it for sale. Usually first-time writers look to friends and family for that service. I'm here to tell you why that's a mistake. I'm also here to tell you how to avoid what I think is one of the most common mistakes first-time writers make. There's actually a list of those most-common mistakes, and I'm going to do some other blog posts on each one in turn. For now, here's the first one on my list:
The importance of ACTION in a story…
I think one of the biggest complaints people have about first-time writers is that the story drags, that there are unnecessary scenes in the book that do nothing to drive the story forward. If you ever read a book and get to a part that you just skim, take a moment to see exactly what it is you're doing. From my examination, and from the feedback I see in reader reviews (not of my books of course, ha ha), readers start skimming when the action stops and stop skimming when they see action starting again.
Authors, every single chapter, every single scene you have, should be moving the story strongly forward and should have a purpose leading to the final resolution of the story. That's what I call action. If you could cut a particular scene out and the story would still make complete sense, it doesn't belong in there at all. Even in a romance novel, every single scene should have action compelling the story and characters forward. In a simple sense, we can say that something important should always be happening in the story, even if it's just a character finally becoming self-aware through introspection.
Would-be authors, keep in mind that you will improve as a writer with every book. Like anything worth doing, practice makes perfect. Your first book will not be awesome. Mine sure wasn't. (Some would argue that none of mine are, the bastards.) I had to go back to my first book and make some big changes after getting reader feedback about POV issues, telling not showing, etc. It's all a part of the process of becoming a better writer, something that should never stop happening for any of us.
Beta readers who make sense…
The most important thing when you've finished your manuscript (the first draft) is to have readers who do not know you, who don't care about you as a person, and who read in the genre you're writing in be your beta readers. They are the only ones who will and can give you the feedback you need to improve the story and make it the best it can be. How many do you need? I'd say no more than three really good ones. Too many opinions just makes it harder to decide what to do. With three, you can have a simple majority.
Friends and family are the worst people to get technical feedback from. That's not to say that you shouldn't do it if it makes you happy. My husband and mother are my first readers of every book I write, because I know they'll be positive, kind, and motivating. I'm very sensitive about my writing, and I need that support. But for the real scoop on how ugly my baby is? I need a “real reader” or two or three.
Family members are too connected to you, so they hold back, and if they do have negative feedback, their words hurt more than those of a stranger would. And even more importantly, they are likely not your market, so the feedback they give you might not even be valid. Someone who reads literary fiction all day long is not going to be able to tell you if you've gotten the story right for a zombie romance. They won't connect with the themes like a true zombie romance junkie would. You are a dealer. Readers are junkies. Give the junkies the drugs they want and need. (Wow, that was a kind of horrible analogy, but I'm keeping it anyway because it totally fits.)
I have about fifty or so friends and family who are close to me. I can count on one hand those who have voluntarily purchased and read one of my 20+ novels, and most of them only did it after I hit the New York Times bestseller list. It's not that they don't love me; it's just that they're too close to me personally (and probably worry that the books will suck and then they'll have to tell me or hide from me for the rest of our lives) and I don't write books they'd normally read. It was hurtful to me at first until I figured out what was going on.
I have a bunch of writer friends and I have only read a few of their books. Why? I don't have time to read, for one, and I'm also too close. I don't like giving feedback to friends, because anything negative can hurt the friendship and not giving all the feedback makes me feel like I'm not doing them any good or actually hurting them in another way. So it's better to just avoid it altogether, at least in my world.
I have a whole other blog post set for the future about beta reading and how to take the comments given and use them in a constructive way, and another about how to be a good beta reader. But those are for another day when I need to procrastinate on my work in progress. For now, I think I've done enough of that for one day. 🙂