Air Pirates Postmortem: What Could've Been Better

In my previous jobs, I was trained to treat even a creative process as something to be examined and refined, so as to repeat successes and minimize failures. In my writing process, that takes the form of statistics and post-mortems -- to learn as much as possible about my own process, to make it better, and (by putting it up here) to maybe edify other writers as well. If this stuff bores you, don't worry. Next week I'm going to talk about board games (whee!).

Today I'm going to look at what could have been done better (on the assumption that I can actually change these things in the future; in the business we call this "wishful thinking"). But first, an overview of the process:

Thinking4 yearsn/a0Ideas that came to me while I was writing Travelers.
First Draft19 monthsn/a100,000I talked about this part of the process here.
1st Edit2 months95 hours94,000My own edit and plot fixes before anyone else saw it.
1st Beta3 months

14 beta readers. 4.6 critiques returned from 6 people (some critiqued only part of it). Meanwhile I wrote "Pawn's Gambit" and outlined The Cunning.
2nd Edit1.8 months79 hours86,000Based on critiques from the betas.
2nd Beta1.5 months

2 beta readers; while I worked on the query, synopsis, and wrote the beginning of The Cunning.
3rd Edit1.5 months58 hours91,000Based on critiques of 2nd Beta. Added about 200 words per chapter (mostly description).

That's sort of a broad view. For one thing, each edit consisted of me going over the draft like 3-6 times looking at different things. Now to identify what went wrong.

I think this is the most obvious flaw from the table above: 14 betas, 4.6 critiques.

Okay, first of all, please know that I'm not judging any of my betas. None of them. Beta reading a whole novel is a LOT of work, and many of my betas were non-writer friends and family who maybe didn't know that. But -- and this is important -- just the fact that they offered made me feel really, really good. It showed me a special level of support, and I'm grateful for everyone who asked to help.

That said, a lot of this is outside of my control. For one thing, sometimes beta readers DO stop reading partway through and then tell the author why. One of my most important and valued betas did exactly that, and Air Pirates is way, way better for her input. My most important changes were directly due to that partial critique, so: The purpose of beta readers is not to catch every typo and misplaced comma, but to get you thinking about your manuscript in a different way. That can be done even if they don't finish it.

But what about the folks who didn't give me any feedback? As much as I love them (and I do), I can't fix something if nobody tells me what's broken. I think the fact that I announced an open beta may have had something to do with it; my betas knew there were lots of other betas. It's a psychology thing: people are more likely to fulfill commitments if they know they are the only ones responsible for them. So in the future, I will ask about 2 people per beta phase, and I will ask them directly. It's far from a guarantee, but it's fixing what is in my control to fix.

I try really hard not to stress about how fast or slow I write. Really, really hard. At the same time, I'm thinking about doing this long term, and finishing a novel every 2 to 2.5 years just doesn't seem like a maintainable speed for a career, you know?

So what can I do about it? Not stress about it, first of all. I know from experience that speed at anything is gained with practice. I trust that I will get faster as I get better. Also I know that towards the end of the draft I was pushing out over 10,000 words per month, which is a lot better if I can maintain it.

So my goal here, in addition to not stressing, is to focus on self-discipline and daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. They don't have to be huge, but they should stretch me a little. Or at least keep me from getting distracted.

If you think something might be a problem with your manuscript, chances are good someone else will too. That means if you're aware of a problem, you should fix it before someone else sees it, rather than hoping nobody will notice.

I did this with description, among other things, and both readers in the 2nd beta phase called me on it. Repeatedly. I knew I was lazy with descriptions, but I was more interested in getting the manuscript out then in sitting down and thinking, "What IS in this room? What DOES that rug look like?" (and so on). It's a problem I could've fixed on my own, but I didn't.

Why is that a problem? Because if I had fixed it, those two beta readers could've spent their time identifying problems I WASN'T aware of, instead of telling me things I already knew. Beta reading is really hard. If the novel you're critiquing is full of plot holes and annoying characters, you're not going to notice all the little things that are wrong with it too. On the other hand, if the novel is near-perfect, you're going to get really nit-picky, catching things you would otherwise have glazed right by.

Put simply: beta readers can't catch everything. If you remove problems you're aware of before they read your work, they'll thank you by catching things you didn't know about.

You still with me? That's amazing. I would've quit reading right around when I started pretending I knew anything about psychology.*

* That's not true. I would've stopped reading at the table because I'd still be looking at it. Statistics ENTHRALL me.


Natalie Whipple said...

Great post! It's really neat to get a look at your process, and I think you have a great plan for continued improvement.

MattyDub said...

Wait, I thought we were going to talk about board games?
I think this kind of post-mortem is always a good idea. I need to do this sort of thing at my job. Or more often, I should say.

Joshua McCune said...

Fascinating rundown. I think your future beta plans is spot on, though I might expand to 3 -- maybe 2 in your comfort zone and 1 on the edge.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love your insights about Betas - I've gone through several rounds and life happens. People can't always fulfill a commitment, even with the best of intentions, and I think many don't realize how much work it is. My best whole novel critiques have come from paired betas (you beta mine, I'll beta yours) because there's a stronger incentive to follow through (on my part too). And having a regular crit group is good for motivation along the way.

I recently did a Nano novel, and for the first time realized how drafting (the first draft) could go so much faster than I had done in the past, and that there were some serious merits to that: I was completely immersed in the story, I quickly got words on the page which helped with voice and story, and I pushed through the middle muddles pretty quickly.

Downside: I kind of forgot to write the second half of the story, and didn't realize that until a month later. All good, though, because now I'm on the 2nd draft and the story is coming together much better than if I had spent 6-12 months on that first draft.

Thanks for sharing.
p.s. I love the data.

Janine said...

Great post!

I totally agree with making the most of your beta readers by making the manuscript as clean as possible.

One tool I use is the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It really helps me clean out the overused and repeated words, slow pacing, dialogue tags issues, etc, etc.

When the manuscript is as clean as I can make it, THEN I'll bring in the humans :-)

Jennifer said...

Awesome post!

I like looking at stats, too. :)

Myrna Foster said...

I was going to hand my WIP to a couple of betas next month, but now I'm thinking I'd better go through another draft. I get caught up in the action and dialogue and forget to describe surroundings too. Thanks for the advice.

Congrats on Pawn's Gambit. Has it already been published? I love their artwork.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, guys. Responses for everybody!

Natalie: Thanks, I thought you'd like it.

Matty: You'd be surprised how much I treat writing as though I was still at SAIC. And here I thought I didn't learn anything at my Office Space job!

Bane: That's a really good idea. I'll consider that next time around.

Susan: I think you're right on with the paired betas thing. I totally forgot to consider that as a factor.

Janine: I've heard of that AutoEditor (or one like it). It looks like a really useful tool (speaking as a programmer, no less).

JenE: Thanks! I have lots. I just don't want to scare people away with math ;-)

Myrna: It hasn't been published yet. Don't worry. When it is it'll be here and on my sidebar and on my Twitter and pretty much any other place I can think to say it :-)

Rhys Milner said...

Heh, this post came at an opportune time for me, good to know your betas took ages to get back to you.

I'm in my first round of beta for my first novel a noir scifi that has possibly too much action. It's been a month and no-one is more than half way through, some people haven't even started. Seeing I'm not alone has let me remove a large part of the stress the delay has been infesting my brain with.

Adam Heine said...

Glad to help, Rhys. One of the things I learned from the last postmortem was to give the betas a deadline. I did that this time, with limited success.

Myrna Foster said...

How long did you give them?

Adam Heine said...

I gave them 6 weeks. Of those who got back to me (partial or not), two missed the deadline. One finished on time but took a couple days to write up his critique. The other was about 3 months late, I think.

I moved on without the last one and just incorporated his comments after the fact. It worked okay.

In the second beta phase, both readers told me when they thought they would be finished, so I didn't give them a deadline. They also both beat their estimates and got back to me in about a month.

Myrna Foster said...