As a reader years ago, I often thought that authors simply sat down and wrote their books from beginning to end. Sure, they did some editing, but otherwise it was a chronological process with an occasional bumpy, but mostly smooth, road. Now that I write books, I see how naïve I was.
My first novel, Three May Keep a Secret, comes out in November. Before I began looking for a publisher, I hired an excellent freelance editor to give the manuscript a once over. Not only was it the best money I spent on my writing, but it also yielded some changes that I hadn’t anticipated. These changes were all for the good.
Here’s an example of how that editor caught a problem. Writers who specialize in amateur sleuth mysteries need to have a way for that sleuth to find out information about the murder. Thus, a friend of the sleuth, who is a police detective, is born. But the writer must figure out how to get that police information from the detective to the sleuth to the reader. I solved this problem by writing several chapters from the POV of the detective. My editor encouraged me to cut back on those chapters—but keep a few—and develop the plot and friendship of the two characters by keeping the POV with the sleuth. She made a good call, and it was a problem I did not see on my own. My editor is very conversant with the genre, so I trusted her conclusions and they obviously paid off with a top-rate publisher for my book.
Now I am halfway through my second mystery, Marry in Haste. I was more ambitious with this novel, attempting a double plot from two different periods of time. I wanted to get the history of my little town of Endurance into the second book, and I thought it would be interesting to show how the past of the town is connected to the present. A prime theme in my novels is the effect of the past on peoples’ lives. So this is another layer of the same subject.
I chose my beta readers (Why aren’t they called “alpha” readers?) very carefully. They are all in the age group of my target audience. Two are avid mystery readers who are widely read in the genre. The other two include a former college professor of writing classes and a former librarian. Three of the four are retired teachers, as is my amateur sleuth.
Figuring I would catch problems before I moved on with the second half, I eagerly awaited their comments. The votes are now trickling in. I need to do some re-thinking about how I work in my historical material. It is a structural puzzle. I have confidence that the double plot will still work, but I also am reminded of how important it is to have a group of first readers who point out what I can’t see. I’m too close to my material.
So, as the song goes, “I’m reviewing the situation.” I can already see a couple of routes that will solve the problem. Writing, like teaching, is often a game of problem-solving. I cannot emphasize enough, however, the importance of beta readers or critique groups or editors. Their thoughts often make a novel much better than it might have been.
In the long run, the author must decide what she will keep and change. I don’t use every one of my beta readers’ thoughts, but I do carefully consider their opinions. Then I make decisions based on my writer instincts.
A smooth road from start to finish? Sometimes that happens, but not often.