Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Revision Decisions

December 1st, 2012

So the novel-in-progress — a near-future thriller — went out to beta readers in November, and by the end of the month I received four sets of comments. The overall reaction was pleasingly positive, and the two issues I’d been most concerned about turned out not to be issues at all. The comments I did receive are all helpful. Several have already been applied to the latest draft as I work through my list — but you know what? Except for one item, everyone focused their comments on different aspects of the story.

This isn’t a bad thing at all. What it means to me is that the overall story works pretty darn well, that there aren’t major issues, and that different people just want more detail on different things.

Of course it isn’t necessary to address every comment a beta reader makes. It’s the prerogative of the writer to leave things as they are, to change them a little or a lot, or to go in a completely different direction than the beta reader suggests.

But what to do if one reader has real problems with a critical part of the story that the other beta readers didn’t question at all? That’s the situation I found myself in. It was tempting to shrug off the criticism. After all, no novel gets glowing reviews from everyone who tries it. Some books just don’t work for certain people.

I let the critical comments sit for a few days, and then I made myself go over them again, while reconsidering the reader, the reader’s preferences, and his reaction to the rest of the novel.

In this case, my beta reader has been an enthusiastic supporter of my work for years, he’s critiqued me before, is a writer himself, was generous with praise for almost all of the manuscript, and gave solid reasons to back his opinions. He’s also a good stand-in for the most demanding corner of my target market.

So should I listen to him, even though my three other readers were okay with the scene? My answer to that was an emphatic “yes!”

Will I be able to address all of his concerns? That was more like a “maybe.”

The challenge with the problem scene is that the protagonist needs to hold onto some level of agency — that his actions and choices determine the outcome — but because of the situation, the element of agency is elusive. Stuff is happening, but the ability of the protagonist to affect it is minimal — kind of like being tumbled in the white water of a breaking wave, when all you can do is roll with the forces around you and hope you don’t get crushed. So in this scene the element of agency is primarily in the relationships between the protagonist and other characters: how he handles the stress, the choices he makes, and what he learns from them.

I wasn’t sure I could address these issues in a different way, but I decided it was worth experimenting with the scene, to see what I could come up with.

So yesterday I spent the entire day rewriting the target section. I was completely involved with it, even while I knew that the new material wasn’t really working out all that well. I’ve been at this game long enough to know that sometimes you have to toss a lot of words around before you find the right ones to use, especially in a situation like this, where the subtleties of dialogue, discovery, and realization are so important. At the end of the day, I’d addressed most of my friend’s concerns, but I was pretty sure that what I had was kind of a hash.

I re-read it after dinner, and yes, it was a mess. So I started in on it again, just as obsessed as I’d been during the day, but I’d had a new insight, a better understanding of the possible choices and the necessary sequence of events, and at that point I was able to drop some of the complications, which tends to be a good thing for me.

So is the scene better? Well, I haven’t actually re-read it since 2AM this morning, and I’m not sure I’ve had enough sleep to properly evaluate it. But I’m glad I ran the experiment. The simple fact that I was deeply involved in the revision effort tells me that it probably needed to be done.

Posted on: Saturday, December 1st, 2012 at 12:12 pm
Categories: Writing.
Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Revision Decisions”

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) Says:

    This is why I don’t think I would yet make a good beta or alpha reader–I am not sure I can offer this deep insight yet.

  2. Linda Says:

    I don’t think beta readers really need to offer deep insight. Their reaction to a story is the important thing, what they liked and didn’t, what needed more explanation, what needed less. It’s great if they can offer analysis, but in the end, simply having another point of view is invaluable for the writer — and then it’s the writer’s task to figure out what’s gone wrong and why.

    That said, I too don’t feel like I make a terrific beta reader — I can offer helpful comments, but I am no substitute for a real editor! 🙂

  3. Glen Kilpatrick Says:

    These days…, I’d trust the wisdom of crowd-sourcing over “real editors”. However, that opens the door to ten thousand self-selected strangers reviewing your work — perhaps a significant fraction of your purchasing public.

  4. Linda Says:

    I remember one popular writer said he used thirty or more beta readers. I don’t think I’d ever go that far, or trust crowd-sourcing for editorial work, though I can see how it would be useful for copyediting, which is an entirely different activity. A “real editor” though is something to value, and this new work will be going to visit one at the turn of the year. Hopefully, she won’t come up with too much additional work for me to do!