Do I Really Need a Beta Reader or Critique Partner?

Short answer: YES! Beta readers and critique partners are essential for your revision process.

But, before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s define these people.

Beta Reader: these are people who read your manuscript as a reader first (not a writer). They will give you their reactions as a reader and give basic feedback, but not critique specific writing elements.

Critique Partner: these are people who critique your work as a writer. They will dive into elements such as character development, plot, story structure, pace, tone, and so forth. And note the ‘partner’ here–it’s usually a reciprocal relationship where you exchange manuscripts or chapters and critique each other’s work.

So, now that we’ve got the definitions down, why did I put such an emphatic, bolded, underlined YES? Well, let’s imagine you have a finished manuscript. First of all, WELL DONE. You’ve written a book! That’s a huge achievement. Maybe you’ve done some revisions. Maybe you’re ready to throw it in front of an agent’s eyes.

Wait! Before you do that, throw it in front of someone else’s eyes, say, like a beta reader or a critique partner. So far, only you have read your manuscript. You know all the ins and outs, you know the characters as well as you know yourself. And that’s part of the problem. You need an outside perspective to lay some eyes on those pages. You are too close to your plot and characters that you may completely miss something that is unclear or makes no sense outside the author’s brain.

I would suggest finding critique partners and beta readers. First, critique partners to really break down technical parts (flow, tone, structure, character arc) that might need to be reviewed. And how does one find a critique partner? I found some of mine at a writing group in Los Angeles. I’ve found others at writing conferences (which are frequent and across the globe, virtual now because of COVID, but in-person pre and post pandemic!). I know some have found their critique partners on Twitter! Your friends might even be writers and you don’t even know it. Keep in mind that this partnership is almost always reciprocal, so expect to critique their chapters and/or entire manuscript while they do yours.

After critique partners come beta readers (though there’s no written rule on which come first). Again, these are people who are reading your manuscript as a READER, not a WRITER. They can point out parts that are slow, or what was confusing or unclear, whether the emotional sections hit right, and overall if they were satisfied with the story.

I’ve found both types of readers invaluable. I say to you honestly I have no idea where I’d be without my critique partners and beta readers (thank you if you’re reading this!). Having one critique partner or beta reader is good, but I would suggest aiming for three different sets of eyes on your story. Everyone comes with a different background and different experience and that diversity is valuable. Someone might catch what a different critique partner missed. Remember, if we want our books to be read by the masses, it’s good to get more than one opinion on your novel before it goes in front of an agent.

All in all, having someone else read and even critique your work can elevate your manuscript to the next level. It’s worth the time, effort, and social interaction. I promise.

Do you have beta readers and/or critique partners? How has your experience been?

Revision Woes & Learning How to Cut Words

I am now on my fourth revision of the novel I finished in late April of this year. It has gone through many cuts, re-writes, tweaks, and has certainly been shouted at by yours truly. I cannot convey how much I have struggled and learned throughout this process. I feel like a completely different writer and the way I look at writing has changed fundamentally.

I’ve been using a few tools to get through this revision process. I started out with Janice Hardy’s Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, which I’m still using today as I get through this fourth revision. It’s been instrumental in getting me to where I am today. She accounts for all different kinds of first drafts: incomplete drafts, plot-suffering drafts, and, most relative to me, too-long drafts.  I also read her Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) which completely changed the way I wrote and viewed others’ writing. Despite being a fairly simple topic on the surface, it was an eye-opener and game changer. Her work, in general, has been very helpful to me in becoming a better writer and all the savageries you must tuck under your belt to get there (kill your darlings).

I have cut 25,000 (25k) words from my novel. 55 or so pages, for those of you who think in those terms.I never thought I would be able to do that. I looked at my behemoth and I’m like I CAN’T CUT ANYTHING. But I could and I did. And I should have. The phrase, “kill your darlings,” doesn’t just refer to killing off characters. It means cutting beloved paragraphs, scenes, and entire chapters. It means coming to terms with the fact that although you love this scene, cutting it will probably make your entire body of work stronger. It’s been a very painful learning process, but I’ve come away stronger. I feel less indecision and remorse about cutting scenes because I know that being more concise and true to what it’s about will make the entire novel stronger.

Does it get easier? How do you do it? I think an understanding of why you’re doing it is first and foremost. Like previously stated, cutting all those extraneous bits of my novel made the story stronger. It’s like getting a haircut when you’re overgrown and overrun by split ends. Those split ends aren’t going to lead anywhere, they’re just distracting from what the entirety of your hairdo could be (if you chopped ’em off). Strange metaphor but, eh.

If a scene or chapter is particularly special or meaningful to me, or if I think it may be useful in another part (usually isn’t), I’ll tuck it away into my “Cuts” folder in my Scrivener file. That way, it’s not truly gone forever. It’s a secret way to make it hurt less.

I’m sure my book is still too long at this point. As I type this post, my manuscript is at 188,506 words, which is roughly somewhere between 358-539 pages, according to Scrivener. I’m going to continue with my revisions and continue to pare it down to size until it’s telling the exact message I want it to. I’m still going to be sending off to agents and publishers, because I feel ready, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop revising.

Anyhow, I hope my shared stories of my revision struggles and enlightenment can help you in some way. Please don’t hesitate to comment below with any questions or stories you have. Thanks for reading.

How NaNoWriMo Developed My Writing Habit

The story I have been writing has been in my mind for around 8 years now. You might be saying, “That’s a long time, Alana, you haven’t finished it by now?” Well, for one, I am almost finished with the first draft (eeeee!) and two, I wasn’t exactly writing it that whole time.

I distinctly remember jotting down my idea of the story and the world it lived in during a philosophy class my Junior year of college in New York. The world and characters started showing themselves to me and I was desperately trying to write them down in the margins of my notebook. Luckily, I got a little bit more serious than that. For a while, it was just jotting down notes, seeing what was coming out of my head.

Fast forward to me out of college in Boulder, Colorado. I took this novel idea (hehe, get it?) and put something into action. I got The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt and put in a lot of hours to develop my characters, giving them real fears, hopes, and dreams. I see it as a huge foundation to my book as it stands today. Would my characters have been as in-depth if I didn’t use the book? Probably not, I don’t know. Also, spoiler alert, I didn’t finish writing my novel in 90 days. I don’t think I even finished Alan Watt’s book, but it was invaluably helpful to getting into my world and characters. However, I didn’t actually get many words down in my actual novel at this point. I think, perhaps, I had written a few pages (that still remain today), but it was more brainstorms and sketching out all the pieces to my characters.

Progress forward and I find myself back to my hometown of Los Angeles, California, needing a job and lacking clear direction. My novel takes a backseat to a lot of other things. I have too many dreams swirling in my mind and they confuse me so that I chase none. A quote I learned from a philosophy class floats up into my mind…

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” – William James

And ain’t that the truth. I went and listed all of the things I would love to do, that I believe would be fulfilling and also able to help others through it. I had (still have) some very special people in my life who helped me map out my dreams and taught me to allow myself to believe in me. And, very eventually, (maybe two and a half years in?) I decide that I am going to chase that novel. The idea that still sticks with me today that is almost spent in the over 600 pages I’ve now written. That act of decision was so incredibly uplifting and powerful. I felt purpose and direction. Even if nothing was going to come of this, I was still going to write a book.

It was still a struggle, don’t get me wrong. I set writing goals each month and didn’t accomplish them. I still felt distracted while knowing that I needed to focus on it. I inched my way more and more through my story and put fresh (figurative) ink down on the page that had run dry for too long. But still, the story would never be done if I went at such a slow rate. Daily writing wasn’t really a habit. It needed to be more ingrained in me.

I’m not sure how I discovered it, but some time in the fall, I discovered National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. And I was like, yes! A novel-writing month, I should participate in however you participate! The idea of NaNoWriMo is to get participants to write a 50,000 novel by the end of the month. Yeah, it’s a lot and terrifying. Did I finish my novel by the end of the month? Um, no. But did I develop the absolutely beautiful habit of writing 1000+ (1600, to be exact) words a day? YES! And it fundamentally changed my writing life.

I laugh when I look back on my pre-NaNoWriMo goals. For example, one was “2200 words a week.” A week! I can do that in a day now. And it really is in big part to NaNoWriMo. It was a grind, it was a struggle, but those 30 days carved out a beautiful habit of purposeful, daily writing. Pen to paper, finger to keyboard every day, even when inspiration runs flat.

After NaNoWriMo, I continued writing at least 1200 words a day, watching my novel flourish from the beginning to just about the end. It’s a habit, it’s part of me, it’s going to bring me to my goal of finishing this first draft and beyond. Again, even if this book never gets published, I will have written a book!

Of course, other things helped to refine and improve this habit (such as this Udemy course), but to me, NaNoWriMo really kicked me off my trembling feet and helped me run with my writing. So thank you, NaNoWriMo, and I’ll see you again later this year, hopefully with the next of this book series (can that be a thing if even one isn’t published?).