Photo by Joel Robison
How do you adapt your novel drafts to beta readers' feedback? I get asked this question a lot, because I send out my drafts to Beta Readers to read and give me feedback. A lot. Namely - and I just calculated this - as of today I sent out my drafts to a total of 141 Beta Readers. That's about 40 for Drafts 1, 2, and 3, about 70 for Draft 4, and about 30 so far for Draft 5. Draft 5 is not done yet, so I only sent out a preview of the first 18 Chapters. Now, some people call me crazy, some are outright angry with me and tell me it's a very very bad idea to show your work to strangers when it's not done yet. I disagree. My readers rule. Anything they say rules, because I'm writing my story for them. Without them, my story doesn't exist. It has to be read, to become a story, otherwise it's a sad monologue in my own head, nothing more. This may go against everything you ever heard or read about, so let me illustrate for you how it helped me to write better and you decide for yourself.
The confusion on your Beta Reader's face is priceless. Let's face it, at the very beginning, before anyone else in the wide scary world knows you're writing a book, there is only a handful of people who do. Your family (unless you write at night by flashlight under a blankie) and your closest friends, at least the ones whom you were brave enough to tell and who didn't roll their eyes at the idea. Those are the first people who are willing to suffer through your first crappy drafts, not necessarily because they love your story, but because they love you. And, after having read your story, they might fall in love with it too. Here comes the beautiful part. When you meet them, after they've read your stuff, the questions they ask make no sense to you, and that look of confusion on their face? Yeah, you got it. Now, write down every single thing they say, then don't change it the way they asked you to, but rather go back to those spots where they were confused. All of them. Every single thing they mentioned, and then in your next Draft simply explain what you meant. We writers are so terrified of over explaining things, that we forget our readers can't read our minds. It took me 10 dear faces to see like that to get it.
No feedback is ever bad, all feedback is awesome. Here comes the bomb, and I'm already ducking because I know you will throw something heavy at me right now, but here is the thing. Every single piece of feedback you get is brilliant. You know why? Because every single piece of feedback comes from someone who spent their time on your story, and they want to help. If they didn't care, they wouldn't have wasted their time. So, even if they hated it, it's great. Don't drill them on why they hated, you'll never see eye to eye on this, instead, ask for one simple question - what page did you stop on? THAT is the page you have to fix. It might be a little thing, it might be a big thing, but there was something there that stopped them, so go back and see what it is. I especialy love negative feedback because the person who is angry is very passionate, so they usually send you this huge e-mail, or, instead, just two quick lines. That is gold. Try to pretend that your story is not your story and see what angered that person so much. I can guarantee you that after a few of these you will start seeing a pattern, people repeating certain things. Once you have that jolt of recognition in your gut, that's it, you need to fix it. Your gut will tell you what and your gut is always right.
The more feedback, the better. This is now truly irritating you, isn't it? I mean, it's hard to deal with 10 people, how the hell are you supposed to deal with 100 people? And write at the same time? It's madness! Well, here is the deal, the more people read your story, the more feedback you will be able to see to sift through the 80-20 rule, you know, the one where if 8 people out of 10 tell you the same thing, it means you really need to do it? Yeah, that's the one. If you only send your draft to 6 people, it's hard to judge by their individual responses, plus, you will waste a lot of your personal time going over their feedback in detail. Don't. Quickly read it, absord it, don't take any notes, read the next piece of feedback, and so on. Soon the important things, the theme, so to say, will emerge. For example, for me, especially for Draft 4, it was the immaturity of the main character that was attributed to her being 16 yet calling her mother Mommy and her father Daddy. I changed it in Draft 5. And another thing was me going into these poetic side notes that had nothing to do with the story and slowed it down. I cut most of them out from Draft 5 (well, still in the process of cutting). See, only 2 major things! You can compare Draft 4 and Draft 5 excerpts as an example. You should've seen how many different ways people told me the same information, over and over and over.
Beta Reader's feedback is just that, Beta Reader's feedback. Never forget that it's all there is to it, it's simply people who have their own opinions. Don't take it seriously, don't get all wounded and upset, simply try feeling it, try noting commonality in people's opinions. They are not attacking you, they want to help. Sometimes they don't know how to do it right, so it might come across as trashing. It's not. It's simply an opinion. At the end of the day, if someone's feedback made absolutely no sense to you, don't get stuck on it, let it go and move on to the next. Because if you don't, you will never be able to use these opinions effectively. It's like with writing, you have to keep writing every day, keep moving forward every day, without looking back, without rewriting what you wrote yesterday, because otherwise you might never finish your Draft at all.
There you have it. Have fun. Post an excerpt to your novel on your blog, not more than 1,000 words so people have enough time to read it while they sip their cup of coffee, and then ask anyone who would be interested if they'd beta read the whole thing. Forget about copyright, send it out to anyone who will read it. Not only will you get great feedback, you will potentially meet your future readers who will shell out their hard-earned cash for your book when it's done. BECAUSE YOU LISTENED TO THEM. Because they feel like they've taken a part in creating your story. Because, even though you're the one writing your novel, in the end, it takes a village. So go ahead, share, and make your story better!
And now, ladies and gentlemen, you may kill me in comments. Go on. Don't be shy.