How To Take Criticism

A few weeks ago I talked about the editing and beta reader process in order to make your book the best it can be and now I have received my own feedback from all my beta readers on Prophecy, my next novel.

My own editing for Prophecy

This is the hard part but it’s critical because the more eyes you have on your manuscript before publication the better. They have to be the right eyes but you definitely need to improve the manuscript before it’s published and you can’t do it alone. I had several published authors as well as readers of my genre do a beta-read plus an expert on art history as I use a lot of this in the book. I’ve also had a structural edit for the whole book.

So I have a whole lot of constructive criticism to work through now and this bit is always difficult. But why is it so important?

You have to develop a thicker skin as an author because you will get criticism

If you’re going to ‘ship’ your work i.e. get it out the door and into the hands of readers, you have to take criticism. So it’s better to catch as many issues as possible at the beta reader stage so that criticism you get later is because the wrong reader has read the book, rather than your plot has huge holes or grammatical issues.

Criticism in book reviews definitely hurts so it’s good practice to get some before you make your work public.

I currently have 58 reviews of Pentecost on averaging 4 stars. 4 of those reviews are 1 star and 2 are because it’s not Christian enough (and I never claimed it was!) I don’t like those reviews but I have no influence on them, I can’t do anything about that. I just have to take that criticism and try not to let it affect me. I counteract those comments with the 45 4 & 5 star reviews instead. We have to remember to focus on the positive and not just see the negative.

Taking feedback from beta-readers

Here’s my post on the beta reader feedback for Pentecost. You can feel my depression! I’m happy that I have improved since last year and haven’t repeated the same mistakes this time. The comments are still difficult to take but I know they will help the finished product. You know I like to share the hard parts as well as the triumphs, so here’s my method for dealing with beta-reader feedback which can feel like criticism.

(1) Thank everyone sincerely for their help, offer to help them with anything and make sure you credit them in the book. This is a great service we all need as writers.

(2) Read through the notes everyone has sent and then let it settle. Do not react. Do not try to justify why you did whatever you did. Take the feedback without reaction.

My sweet vice. Green & Black's organic chocolate.

(3) Bawl your eyes out, then self-medicate with chocolate and/or wine. You thought you were finished but actually, you still have a way to go. You’re probably sick of the book but you have to go through it again. Ouch. After you have drowned your sorrows, go to the gym and play a lot of really loud music. My tracks for getting over these feelings (and here I show my age and how uncool I am!): Tubthumping by Chumbawumba (I get knocked down, then I get up again…), It’s my Life – Bon Jovi, Don’t Stop Believing by the Glee cast (am I losing readers yet?!) , Hold On by Wilson Philips and other such classic feel good tunes!

(4)  Re-read the feedback with a critical eye. Have the same things been said more than once? For example, two of my beta-readers pointed out that the first sentences of my chapters start the same way which becomes jarring. Great feedback and easy to fix. I’m taking that to heart. But only one of my readers said that the theme of eugenics on top of the rest of the plot was ‘too much’. The others all said it was a good extra layer so I’ll be leaving that in. I had been having some doubts about my ending although most loved it. One of my beta readers had a suggestion that will also ease my own concerns so that will be changed. But overall, most of the comments will not take much to fix, this is not a complete rewrite for me (thankfully!) but it will add more depth and fix the issues that the readers found.

(5)  Create your hit-list of what needs to be changed so you have a map of the rewrites. It’s also good to have a list of everything even if you’re not going to change it, so you can use it as a learning experience, so I collate everything into one document organized by scene.

Folder for drafts of Prophecy

**At this point, I’ll add a comment on versions and backing up as some people still struggle with this. At the end of every day, I save my WIP into a new document with the date on it and I email it to myself on Gmail which stores documents and is easily searchable. I also save to my drafts folder and back up externally. Then when there is a first draft that is saved as Draft_Date and so on through the multiple drafts. I have Draft_BetaRead_Date which is the version I sent to the beta readers and I will have the other drafts right up until the end. I always date them so I can trace back changes. This might be a little over the top but be sure to keep your drafts in case your change your mind later and back up somewhere other than your home computer – just in case!

(6) Go through the book again making the changes that you’ve accepted need to be done. Some may be big and others may be small. All are important. This is basically your final draft so it needs to be right. BUT/ don’t let this become an excuse for not finishing the book and releasing it to the public. You must ship your work if you want to be a professional writer. It’s a risk but if you don’t do it regularly, the ‘flinch’ gets worse and you’ll never publish (read about the flinch here).

(7) Re-read in print or a different format other than your screen, and then give it to the copy-editor for the final run. They will pick up any typos, grammar issues and final mistakes. Make those final changes and you’re finished. Yes, you really are!

There will always be more you can edit but you need to stop somewhere.

That’s why deadlines are critical for perfectionist writers. I always planned on getting Prophecy out in 2011. It might be Dec 31st but I will have it out in ebook format and working back from that deadline has driven all my work.

How do you deal with beta reader feedback and criticism? Curl up and die or hack away and make those changes? How do you know what to change and what is your own voice and not for negotiation?

Copy-Editing And Beta Readers

After some major rewrites based on my Editorial Review from the Steve Parolini, the Novel Doctor, I gave my thriller novel ‘Pentecost’ to seven beta readers and asked for their feedback.

This is one of my honest, personal posts! I hope it helps you on your writing journey.

Who are beta readers anyway?

Review copies printed locally for beta readers

Beta readers read your book prior to it going to the printer. You could also use them before submission to an agent or publisher. They read the manuscript for comment on the structure, characters, plot as well as grammar/spelling or anything else they notice that may need revision.Their comments will generally result in another rewrite although of course you don’t need to action everything. Beta readers should be people who like the genre you write in, and also need to be able to give honest feedback. There is no point in just hearing praise at this stage. Criticism only makes our work better!

The practicalities of working with beta readers

I selected five of my friends who read in similar genres as me i.e. fans of thrillers, crime, mystery and fast paced novels. I also asked a writer friend I respect, the lovely Alan Baxter and also my copy editor (who just happens to be my Mum – lucky me!)

I gave them a hard copy A5 version of the book I had printed locally (above) so it was easier to review and make comments on. I also included a letter indicating the comments required i.e. grammar and spelling would be done by my copy editor but I wanted feedback on character, plot, any parts they skipped over or found jarring as well as general comparative notes on other books vs mine.They had three weeks to read it and provide feedback.

I received feedback in the form of marked up A5 books, an interview style discussion and brainstorming as well as phone calls, during which I took copious notes with page references. The most heavily marked up version was from my copy-editor (to be expected).

For the next step, I took my own hard copy of the novel and added comments and notes from all the beta readers. Blue writing is for word changes, tense issues and grammar. Red is for more rewriting needed. Finally, I went through another full rewrite fixing everything from that master draft.

Feedback and lessons learned

Hard copy with edits

I had a few depressed days as I considered the extent of the feedback! I had thought I was 95% complete but it was actually more like 85%. Going through another full rewrite was not on my schedule and by this stage, I was pretty sick of the manuscript! BUT/ the whole point of the beta reader review and copy edit was to ensure that a quality product is released in Feb 2010.

Some of the good feedback included:

  • Great idea for the plot, believable and unsure what was real and what wasn’t
  • Fast paced with no time to rest for the reader (this was also given as a criticism but it’s how I like my thrillers to be)
  • Good settings, vivid descriptions made it cinematic in scope
  • Learned a lot about the Apostles and also Carl Jung which made it interesting
  • Good beginning and good ending (with obvious potential for a sequel)

In the spirit of full disclosure and learning for us all, here is some of the constructive criticism received:

  • Overuse of particular words e.g. now, just, was, then as well as using the same word in consecutive sentences
  • Wrong tense often used
  • Dialogue stilted in places
  • Point of view moves into third person omniscient when it shouldn’t, especially when settings are described as if from a travel book instead of character’s POV
  • Protagonist name change was needed. Morgan Stone as a character came to me when the book was called “Mandala” back in Nov last year. Then the plot morphed to be about the Pentecost stones and her name was too much repetition. I chose Morgan Sierra and rewrote some back story to explain the history of her family so it makes sense.

Not a page was untouched in the edit

One of my beta readers also came up with some brilliant additions to the plot which I’m adding in with his consent. It made me think that I need to give the book to readers earlier so I can expand on the plot at an earlier stage.

From this I learned a few very important points:

  • I need to study the craft in 2011 so I can fix all the basic stuff myself next time. I’m happy with the story but upset at how much blue is all over the book. Thankfully my copy-editor is brilliant and will go over it again now it has been rewritten so you can expect all this to be fixed in the finished product!
  • I understand why editors, agents and publishers hate to read the slush pile. If people don’t use editors, copy-editors and proof-readers before submission, the work could be definitely be improved.
  • To all indie and self-publishers, we MUST use editors, copy-editors and proof-readers. Quality in our publishing is especially important as the most annoying criticism of self-publishing is the lack of quality. Yes, it costs money but it definitely improves the finished product!

Have you used beta readers and copy editors? What have you learned from the process?