During the last month, I have written about the way I revise a completed 1st Draft using the Revision Cycle: Phase I, Structural; Phase II, Scenes; Phase III, Word-by-Word, Line-by-Line Edit. Using this procedure helps me focus on different aspects to fix the work, one piece at a time. Once I have completed the first cycle (there may be two or more before sending the work into the world), I am confident the major character, plot, and flow problems have been resolved. But how can I be sure I have done the best for the reader?
A Difficult Decision
Now it is time to let another read the story. This can be an unnerving decision and one where great care must be taken.
My wife, Linda, is my First Reader. Although Linda has read sections and even complete chapters during my first draft, I do not recommend this approach in most cases; we have been married a long time and she has a good eye for faults such as over-writing, consistency, female characters, and logistical issues. She is the exception. In most cases, letting someone read during the sloppy work-in-progress first draft can extinguish the flame so necessary when in the throes of developing characters and plot—no negatives allowed.
Instead, after the first revision cycle find another writer (preferably one who either reads or writes your genre—better yet, both) who is familiar with the art of creation. Writers have a keen eye for slight nuances missed during the whirlwind of writing, and a good first reader will pick up items you missed.
There are also critique groups which can help with this process. Here are two I have found helpful, both concentrating on Speculative Fiction, and especially fantasy:
Check each for particular requirements in order to have your writing critiqued.
When I present my story to another following the first revision, I ask them to watch for specific aspects, staying away from word usage at the most basic level (though that may come up during discussion) and focusing on the overall story. The questions—modified from James Bell’s book, Revision and Self-Editing—I ask the reader are these:
Does the story start quickly and hold interest into next section?
Is the Viewpoint character firmly established at the outset? Are his/her struggles–both internal and external–real, logical, and clearly stated? Is that true of all Viewpoint characters (if using multiples) ?
Do you empathize with the Protagonist?
Does the plot flow smoothly, one scene easing into the next? Is there anyplace you felt like stopping?
Do character relationships deepen?
Do you care about what is happening in the story?
Is there a sense of death (physical, professional, or psychological) that threatens the characters?
Is there a strong bond keeping the characters together on their individual quests?
Do the scenes contain conflict and/or tension?
Are secondary characters active and important to the story line, rather than simply “spear characters” whose only purpose is to relay information?
Are the conflicts leading to the end believable and difficult enough?
Does the final battle and/or the final choice set up the end?
Are there any loose strands hanging? Any questions not answered?
Is there a feeling of resonance at the end? Do you have a sense that life goes on after the last page? Do you want to read more about these characters?
Any additional thoughts, observations or suggestions?
A pretty simple yet complete list that gives me an idea how a reader perceives the characters and story I have created.
Understanding the First Reader Feedback
As the creators, we have intimate relationships with the characters, but does that come out on the page? This is critical. Because we spend so much time creating and fine-tuning who our characters are, we have a wealth of information about their lives, their background, interests, fears, and hopes. Of course, not all information about them can or should go into the novel, and sometimes what we deem a “given” is either missed by the reader or so vague as to not make the impact we intend. A good first reader will help us see where we either gave too much information or left out critical elements.
Expectation and Disappointment
Giving the reader the above list will allow them to focus on the important points and help us fix them. However, every reader (agent and editor) undertakes the reading with individual sets of likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Understanding this can help monitor the pain when a reader just doesn’t get it, and it will happen. Expect your reader to be honest, and be prepared for disappointment because it will come.
I suggest choosing two or three people to read the story so as to balance the individual impressions: this gives a more well-rounded reply to the questions you posed.
Many say paying a professional editor to do a detailed edit of a novel manuscript is necessary: costs range from $1,500 into the several thousand dollar range, something out of my and most new writer’s price range.
I was fortunate to find a retired English teacher to edit my work at no cost because she loves fantasy. It is not often one finds such a kind-hearted helper, and my gratitude and thanks seem woefully meager compared to the time and effort she put into the task.
My point is: after the first revision, it is important other eyes take a look at the story. Why tackle the second revision if there are major issues you did not catch the first time around? While other readers have the manuscript, take the time to sigh deep, but not too long—other stories await your attention.
See you on the next page,