Three Red Pencils by Horia Varlan (CC BY 2.0)
As an engineer, I learned the value of getting “a fresh set of eyes” on anything I was designing. At each stage of the design process (paper napkin, 3D computer model, dimensioned drawings, etc.), it was always a good idea to have someone else look over my work and offer suggestions or catch mistakes, because The Rule of Tens applied. That rule meant that every error that made it another step in the design process before it was caught would be ten times more costly to fix. The last thing I wanted was a call from the fab shop supervisor. By then, the cost to correct an error in my design might include surrendering body parts.
As an author, the same ideas apply to writing a novel. While working on An Irish Miracle, I was very fortunate to have Robin Martin, of Two Songbirds Press, as “my editor”. I really do love saying “my editor” because of the tremendous value Robin’s “fresh set of eyes” and talent as a freelance editor brought to my writing. I was well past the “paper napkin” step, having already written three drafts, before I contacted Robin through the Editorial Freelancers Association website. Based on her detailed Evaluation and Critique, I wrote the fourth draft, which nearly doubled in length while making my plot stronger and my characters rounder. I was also able to correct writing errors that Robin had documented, eliminating instances of filtering, narrative exposition, and shifting points of view that would have jarred my readers out of their vivid and continuous readers’ dreams. After doing a full contextual edit of the fourth draft, Robin even found yet another “fresh set of eyes” for the final proofreading of my corrected and polished manuscript. From experience, she told me she was too familiar with it to proofread it herself.
Because of the collaboration with “my editor”, An Irish Miracle is nearly ready to be sent out, and I’m confident that I won’t be receiving any unwanted telephone calls from the fab shop supervisor!
Photo Credit: Soggydan on Flickr
I didn’t do a very good job taking feedback from my “alpha” beta reader* on the first draft of my first novel, An Irish Miracle. One could say my initial responses were a bit defensive, as most of them started with “Well, I did that because . . .” It soon became obvious taking that approach would eliminate the possibility of future feedback from any beta reader, and I desperately needed all the feedback I could get. I was setting out on the path from engineer to author quite alone.
It took me several tries, but with some very helpful coaching, I started to catch on. My responses to feedback began sounding more like “That’s really interesting. Would you please tell me more about what you mean . . .” For the second draft, my circle of beta readers expanded to two. From that feedback, I learned the term “in media res” and rearranged the timeline of the entire story, which was a big improvement.
For the third and fourth drafts, my circle of beta readers continued to expand and I worked at my new skill of taking feedback gracefully. I got volumes of excellent critical feedback that helped me to polish my novel. I also made some observations about taking feedback on my writing:
- The most critical feedback, often the most difficult to hear or to read, was absolutely the most helpful. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess.
- The feedback varied considerably, depending on how beta readers experienced the story through their own filters and life experiences, giving some insight into how a broader audience might react to the story and to the characters.
- It was ultimately up to me, as the author, to decide how to treat each item of feedback I received. Whatever the decision, always gracefully and with sincere appreciation for the gifts of time, thought and effort the feedback represented.
- It paid dividends to seek out beta readers who were a lot smarter than me.
*A beta reader reads a written work with an eye to improving story, characters, and general style before the work is published. Of course, my “alpha” beta reader is my lovely wife Linda, who is an avid reader in her own right and who is a lot smarter than me!
Readers and writers, welcome to Rob Mahan Books! I’m Rob and I’m an emerging author. Perhaps you are, too. Or maybe you’re a reader who loves to discover first-time authors or a reader who just loves a good book. In any case, we need to talk.
After almost two years of work, my first novel is in its fourth draft and close to its final form. On this blog, I plan to share thoughts and experiences from the path I have taken to get from a “blank sheet of paper” to 100,000+ words. I have no formal training in writing fiction, but I have always been a reader and books have always been a part of my life, thanks to my mother. (You’ll recognize her as Helen, a young girl in my short story The Dictionary.)
Topics for future posts will include where my ideas have come from so far, how I set out to write one kind of novel and ended up writing something entirely different, resources I’ve discovered along the way, some basic mechanics of writing I’ve learned, taking feedback gracefully, and the decision process I’m struggling with now—to go the traditional agent-publisher route or to self-publish.
And, of course, I’ll tell you a lot more about my first novel, An Irish Miracle.
Thanks for being out there!