When Your Beta Reader/Editor Says Your Book Sucks (aka, lessons learned)

I sent my third book (not the third book I’ve ever written, but the third book I’m looking to publish) to my best friend and beta reader about two weeks ago. Last week, she asked me, “How brutal can I get?” I’m pretty sure this was code for, “Your book sucks.”

This led me to a very important lesson.

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

For those of you who have been following my writing journey, you know it hasn’t been without its ups and downs. As a writer, I sometimes struggle with storytelling and always struggle with wanting to be discovered by readers. I also know how important it is to keep getting better at the craft. To write and write and write, and to study and learn and write some more, always trying to improve.

For this third book, I wanted to shake things up. I had a method for writing that has always worked for me. I’d write a chapter, edit, revise, reread, and revise some more until I was comfortable that chapter was as close to good as it could get. Then I’d move on to the next chapter and do the same thing (this is known as being a write-itor). The result? A pretty damned solid first draft. It took longer to finish a book that way, but I always had an ongoing sense of the plotholes and details that still needed closure by book’s end (very important when you’re writing suspense!).

So yeah. About shaking things up. See, when I started writing the third book I’d been hearing a lot about how a writer needs to just write. To get his or her thoughts onto the page and just keep going until they got to the end. And then, go back and revise, revise, revise. So I thought, yeah, I could see the merit in that. I mean, it’s all about the creativity, right?

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

When I started writing a gazillion years ago (seventeen years, to be exact), I used to write longhand in a notebook. It was a very liberating experience because I just let the images come to mind and then they’d flow out onto the paper. I loved the feel of the paper and pen in my hand and though it was painstaking work (for both my fingers and the length of the process), it was enjoyable. Fast forward those seventeen years and the start of book three, and I got to thinking maybe I should try that again. Let the old creative juices flow through a pen and paper, and just write, write, write and then type it into the computer and then revise, revise, revise.

Well, guess what?

Yep. The dreaded five words from my beta reader: How brutal can I get?

Sob.

Ouch.

Time to break out the vodka.

You know, the whole writing-longhand-in-a-notebook-experience, without looking back and just letting the story flow, really is liberating. Problem is, it’s too liberating. As much as I thought I had a sense of storyline, and theme, and characterizations and conflict and red herrings and driving suspense along the way…well, I didn’t.

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

LMRitchie | WANA Commons

So yeah, here I am looking back at the past six months it took me to write that book and I’m thinking, oh boy. I see a major rewrite coming. And guess what? I’ll be doing it as a write-itor again, on my laptop, one chapter at a time, writing until I’m comfortable and certain that chapter is as good as it can get. And only then will I move onto the next. And I can guarantee you I’ll be doing the same thing for book four and every book after that.

It was a valuable and hard lesson learned, and one I hope every writer out there takes to heart:

Write in the way that works best for you and dismiss the advice everyone else tries to pass on. They have no clue how you tick.

Copyright © 2012-2014 · All Rights Reserved · TerriPonce.com

About Terri Herman-Ponce

I write about twists, turns, past lives and suspense
This entry was posted in Stories Behind The Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to When Your Beta Reader/Editor Says Your Book Sucks (aka, lessons learned)

  1. glamorousbooks says:

    Hi. Great blog! Please follow me back for book reviews, author interviews, articles and life from Spain. http://www.authorsophia.wordpress.com

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  2. Lisa says:

    YES! Write the way that works best for you and dismiss the advice. Wise words, Terri. And a lesson that I think takes writers way too long to learn. Why? Because there are so many books on writing out there that say ‘do it this way and you’ll be published and famous’. On one hand those kinds of books can help in the beginning as you try to find what works best for you. But on the other hand, it becomes a problem when we think we have to do it a certain way because so-and-so said, and they’re published so they must know what they’re talking about… I think the biggest problem is when we doubt ourselves and don’t trust that the way we write is the best way for us. I have guilt every time my friend (and wonderful author) Susan Schreyer, talks about outlines. I don’t outline. It’s hard to let go of guilt, or feeling I’m not a ‘real writer’ because I don’t follow the same process as another. We’re our own worst critics that way. As far as your story goes, I bet if you give it a little time and then sit down with it, you’ll realize it won’t take as much work as you think it will right now.

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  3. Mary Lawrence says:

    I’m sure all is not lost. I bet there are some pearls buried in those pages.

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  4. I find writing is mostly rewriting for me. Each story seems to use a different process, and I have yet to settle on one. It’s always new each time I start writing and that’s what makes it interesting, at least for me. Thanks for the insights on your writing process.

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  5. Interesting suject, Terri, and I did enjoy reading everyone’s thoughts. However, what no one mentioned is the pure ecstasy of rewriting. I tend to write both ways – a sloppy first draft that contains quite a few write-itor chapters. Then I start all over again. It takes me a long time to finish a book because I rewrite around five times or more, caressing every sentence and listening to rhythms. But, believe me, each rewrite has me floating higher and higher — a very strange feeling. I love it. So… I wish you wonderful ecstasy during the rewrite. Hugs.

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    • terriponce says:

      An interesting way to look at it…as ecstasy. I truly enjoy editing, but I’m the kind of writer who enjoys editing a clean draft. So kudos to you for being able to rewrite the way you do! I’ve learned that, for me, it’s not so much fun. I much prefer the editing route! :)

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  6. sparshall says:

    Terri, when you do see the reader’s notes, you *must* share with us what you learn from them — what you agree with, whether you gain a new perspective on the story and characters. We’re all invested in it now and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know… well… what happens next! (See, you’ve proven how good you are at building suspense.)

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  7. Terri,
    I kind of write the way you do in that I write, edit a bit, then move on. I’d put away your beta reader’s comments for a few days then look at them again. You might get a different slant on what she’s telling you as you’ve already gotten past her “opening hook.”

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    • terriponce says:

      I haven’t read them yet, and I will in time. And I’ll mull them over as I always do and decide how to go from there. I’m kinda excited!

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      • marilynlevinson says:

        I’m glad you’re excited about reading her comments and not taking what she’s written in a negative way. We writers have all the freedom in the world to change our words BEFORE we publish a book. You’ve the good sense to take what your beta writer advises while knowing how you want your story to play out.

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  8. Now me, I’d get a second opinion. Could be that’s your best work so far, and Madam Beta is only that–a beta who got comfortable with your previous works. Then too, I’ve been told that if we write long enough (you’ve written a LONG time), there comes along a book that will NOT submit to the process that’s worked for the previous 16.9999 years. This book will only deign to be written if we dip our toes in whatever the dark side of process is for us (for me, it’s the O word–outline).
    And yet, I heartily agree with your bottom lines: It’s your book, it should be your process. MANY of the tried and trues don’t work for me, and never will. Thank goodness I didn’t spend too much time trying to square peg my books into them.

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    • terriponce says:

      I trust her implicitly but I also trust myself enough to know what to keep and what to ignore. And I think you hit on a point about pushing myself. I KNOW she’s pushing me for better and out of a comfort zone. To me that’s a Good Thing. :)

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  9. Betsy Bean says:

    Your post captured my attention being one of those editor types. Back in grad school we were taught to write a couple of different ways, then throw away the notes and write what works best for us. I’ve edited and critiqued numerous manuscripts and plays, and am thrilled when the writer takes some of my suggestions and tosses out a few. The less I say, comment, edit or remark, the less I feel about a story and the less I’ve invested. Lots of ink on the side, you’ve got a good thing going on so keep at it. Ultimately, it is YOUR story. Yes we edit to make it structured, tidy, and Aristotelian, but we editors are separate from the book author and it is not our story. We always hope the author does well, and hand over our edits just as lovingly as you hand over your words. So take some, most, or all of the editorial comments, see how it fits with your story, thank the editor for the investment, and continue on with your rewrite and path to riches. We hope you make it big, too! Write on – I hope to see your book on the shelves!!

    http://www.latteda.com/book-reviews

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  10. Peggy Bird says:

    Your last two sentences are the words of a wise woman. We all need to heed them.

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  11. I love this; thank you! I am completely a “write-itor” too, and it works for me. I have dabbled in the thought of writing something straight through, then revising…and it just feels wrong for me. It would be so forced. I write pieces as I get ideas for them, and fit it together like a puzzle — but I am always moving along chapter by chapter too. I dunno; it just works. =) Thanks for the validation of writing in the way that works for each person!

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  12. Lelia T says:

    You’re very fortunate to have a best friend who’s willing to tell you the truth and she’s fortunate that you’ll listen. I’ve been a beta reader and have had varying reactions to my suggested revisions. It can be tough on both sides but it sounds as though your friendship can stand it. Good for you ;-)

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    • terriponce says:

      Well, in all honesty, I trust her implicitly. And I also know I can pick and choose what I want to listen to. In the end, though, most of the time she’s right. We’re just simpatico that way. :)

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  13. By now you know the story you want to tell, so you’ll be fine when you rewrite. The last six months have NOT been wasted. (No writing effort is ever wasted, IMO.) You’ve been learning about your characters and firming up your concept of the plot. I’m sure you’ll produce a terrific book in the end.

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  14. Penn says:

    After having a chat with Terri during which I brought up David Baldacci’s name (I know Terri likes this author) I wiki-ed DB and discovered that his first bestseller, Absolute Power, took three years to write. I wonder if he did it chapter by chapter or allow it to be a free-flowing spirit. I’m thinking the former.

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  15. Absolutely! Write in whatever way works for you no matter what anyone else says. They aren’t writing your book; you are!

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  16. morganmandel says:

    I’ve been trying to get my book done, then go back and fix it, but I always have to read the last few paragraphs I wrote and always want to rewrite them before going on. I edit way too much, instead of being creative. As for writing in longhand, that would be a nightmare for me, since my fingers are too used to typing, and also, often I can’t read my own writing.

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  17. I write exactly the same way. In fact, I don’t even start the new chapter until after I’ve read the latest chapter just to be sure I pick up on the flow and capture the mood where I left off. I also tweak, I can’t help it, before moving on. It does make for a stronger and cleaner draft. All in all, I prefer it to the alternatives. Thanks for the warning. :)

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  18. Julie says:

    I’ve always written with an outline next to me. And I can’t move from paragraph to paragraph without stopping to polish it. If that’s your style and it produces results, don’t apologize for it.

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  19. First of all, here’s a virtual tray of Jell-O Shots for you, because it hurts to get a hard critique, even if it’s needed. And secondly, here’s virtual confetti and balloons for embracing the writing process that’s best for you! The last two sentences of your post should be engraved and passed out to everyone who writes.

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  20. Gina Black says:

    I’m a write-itor too. Now I know what to call myself. :)

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  21. Michelle says:

    As a beta reader, I appreciate your process and the fact that you take your editor’s/beta reader’s suggestions under advisement. I greatly curtailed the list of authors I was beta reading for, when I made specific suggestions (factual information, not stylistic stuff) and it was ignored. These were not tiny literary liberties, but glaring errors that would likely be noticed by readers. The author made no changes and published the book. The reviews were not kind, as four reviewers pointed out the same errors I flagged four months earlier. Oops?

    Ultimately, authors MUST follow their muses and intuition. I strongly commend those authors who honor the entire process, even the potentially painful, editing part.

    Congratulations and best wishes on publishing!

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  22. My writing process is similar to yours, Terri. When I try the “just start writing and keep going until you get to the end” approach, I come to a complete halt after a few chapters. I don’t know where it’s going next! I have to let the story take its time, and revising bit by bit helps that. Also, I’d much rather revise bit by bit than redo a whole draft. You have my sympathies, Terri–and also my complete confidence that the revised version will be fab!

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