Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Analysing Beta-Reader Feedback

For my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw, I’ve been lucky in that I have recently gained a great deal of useful feedback from a series of beta-readers, all of whom have now completed their reading of the third draft of the book and submitted their reports to me.

These comments are extremely useful and I’m grateful of the time all of the beta readers put in to reading the book and also offering the feedback.

The question I have at this point is, now that I have the feedback, what do I do with it, and how can I make the most effective use of the comments I’ve been given, so I have recently given some thought as to how I can glean from the feedback the overall trends in the comments.

For the second draft, this plan was a lot easier as I only had one beta-reader report to deal with, and drawing up an action plan from that was easier with only one opinion to go from.

To draw up an action plan for the next edit, I quickly realised that this needs to be organised or it won’t be effective, and I think in previous posts I’ve talked about my shoot-from-the-hip approach to planning the story. I don’t want to rely on my intuition as much as it’s unreliable and it provides more of a mental tax on the creative process, which bogs one down.

So, as each of the reports has come through, what have my tactics been so far?

  • Firstly, I’ve been conducting a series of “debriefs” with each beta-reader, where possible. This has taken the form of an unstructured chat about the reading experience, dipping in to the feedback and generally just talking out ideas to resolve issues and points made in the feedback. I’ve already had some great ideas the implement into Draft 4 from these so far and I’ve more to do!
  • All of the feedback I’ve got has been imported from the individual responses into a main feedback spreadsheet. This has helped me, at a glance, view the different responses to each question. I’ve also tried to plan ahead and highlight salient points in the feedback as positive (in green) and things that need improvement (in red). I am deliberately not describing these red comments as “negative” as I think that term has connotations that don’t apply in this situation.

At this moment I have the main feedback form comments imported into my feedback spreadsheet (questions to the left, each beta-reader’s comments get their own column so I can at a glance compare and view different answers to various questions) and highlighted as appropriate. My next task is to add to the spreadsheet the various notes from the online debrief sessions I’ve been doing.

As I mentioned in my previous post about this beta-reading experience, I want the feedback to be all in one place for easy analysis, and this method of logging the feedback in an organised way is going to make my next task – drawing up an action plan for each of the questions, which will then feed back in turn into an overall master plan for the next draft – a lot easier.

Already I feel that I am a lot better prepared to squeeze the most value out of the feedback I’ve got for this book – I’m feeling confident, but there’s plenty of work to do. I’m glad I sent this draft to the beta-readers now as I was confident of its stature but there’s some golden ideas to further enhance it.

I think also looking back, my belated epiphany to the level of organisation is already paying off for this project and other ones. I’m working on a new project which I hope to talk about very soon wherein I’ve learned my lessons from the planning aspect of this story and it’s making the writing process considerably easier and more enjoyable!

I see myself as a “technical writer” so these insights into workflow and how it’s changed over time – for the better, I must add – help me reflect on my own process and how it is constantly evolving and becoming more efficient! Hopefully readers find this interesting too and helpful also.

Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Planning Process

My post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw has had some positive feedback on the third draft from beta-readers, which is really encouraging. Some of the most heartening feedback on this draft has been on the quality of the planning.

This surprises me as the planning for The Thaw took me a long time, and looking back on recent techniques I am currently learning about such as Save the Cat, Story Grid etc – excellent planning resources I want to definitely invest time in for future ebooks – I think it’s right at this stage of the project to look introspectively at how I planned the book and what I would do differently.

One of the key comments that inspired this was from beta-reader Bethany Votaw. She said that I “know plot”. This is a happy coincidence because looking back at the plan in my OneNote file for The Thaw, the plan is of a fairly prehistoric format that I would in retrospect not use again.

The plan took several goes to get right, and I think this is true for most novel plans. It’s great to get ideas down, throw them against the proverbial wall and see what sticks, which is something I did do. My earliest plan is dated April 2014 and takes the format of a series of paragraphs outlining the plot. That’s it. This is perhaps what the film world would call a treatment

This was a document that took approximately from April 2014 to July 2015 to create – this stage of planning is crucial and also very difficult as it requires that magical quality of conjuring something out of nothing. Looking back on this document for this blogpost I see a lot of cool ideas that didn’t quite make it into the draft as it came out and stands today. But crucially this outline captures the synthesis of the idea into something that resembles, cobbled together and vague as it may be, a story.

My second stab at the outline is dated January 2016, which marks the point at which I decided to motor ahead with the story, taking it from concept to something resembling an outline of a cohesive story, with plots, characters and settings. I decided with this outline to get down to basics, and bullet-point the events of each chapter.

It’s perhaps important to note the context of the time at which I was writing this outline: I was coming to the midpoint in my first year of studying Creative Writing at Kingston University and I felt I was able to really take the idea of The Thaw forward. (Interesting note: the working title for this book was After the Winter, alluding to the “nuclear winter” we are so accustomed to in post-apoc work) However, I didn’t have any great knowledge of advanced techniques of story structure – beat sheets, the story grid etc. Indeed, one would correctly argue that was why I elected to study Creative Writing at University, but the success of that in my particular case at the University I attended is a topic for another post.

Eventually it was time to outline. In creating the outline I would later write the book from, I used what seemed to be the archetypal planning methodology: the three act structure. But for what became a 105,000 word novel, I feel that I pulled this structure to its logical limits. I planned the book in three “acts” (the beginning, middle, and end), and each of these acts was formed of three groups – a beginning, middle and end – and each group was formed of three chapters – to form, yes, a beginning, middle, and end.

This worked moderately well, but I feel a lot of the issues (and hence this plan took a lot of time to come together) came from relying on having three acts but being less sure of what story beats or narrative points belonged in each. The middle was especially difficult to plan without each event feeling like a contrivance to getting to the final confrontation, and I still feel the middle part of the book suffers from some degree of inevitable “sag” that a lot of middles often do. That said, I did come to realise some narrative points that I am extremely proud of, especially when making the protagonist’s personal arc also emblematic of the world as a whole.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t plan a book this way again. While the three-act structure is venerable it is also prehistoric when relied upon solely, as it was by me for The Thaw. It is to my own credit that my beta readers so far have engaged with the plot and reflected this in their feedback but I can’t help but think it’s to some degree a fluke, as my use of the three-act structure in this instance certainly didn’t help in planning the story beats (indeed, if you gave me a list of the common story beats such as those used for Story Grid, I would be hard pressed to tell you where these beats existed in The Thaw. They’re there, but this is not something I wish to repeat).

For a couple of short stories I’m working on so far this year, I’ve started experimenting with a four-act structure (Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3) for layout, and I’ve also started using spreadsheets to structure these plans (with excellent results).  Using a structured layout in a spreadsheet, and also putting those story beats or elements in there really early allows you to have much more granular control on the act structure.

But my general approach on looking at some of these methodologies is that perhaps the best approach is not to treat them as hard-and-fast, set in stone commandments (my Plotting vs Pantsing post springs to mind) but rather guidelines to make planning easier and less of an exercise in frustration when staring at a blank page.

I suppose in retrospect I was quite cavalier with the plan to The Thaw, but it worked out for me in this particular instance, but going forward I hope to learn and improve on my planning both on the reflection I’ve had here and make the planning process for future books and stories a lot less emotionally draining and less lengthy and agonising!

Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Surveying Beta Readers

I’m currently in the process of gaining feedback from a selection of beta-readers for my work-in-progress post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw, which is now at draft 3 stage. I’ve had three out of the eight people who have been sent the work respond, and I’ve undertaken a couple of beta-reads myself in that time.

First of all, it’s important to understand what I wanted from my beta-readers – if I didn’t know what I wanted then the feedback I would’ve gotten would’ve been just as scatty. Just before I sent The Thaw out, after actually having agreed who would beta-read, I received an email from Bethany Votaw with her novella Tracker, which I agreed to beta-read for her. She included in her email a series of questions she wanted me to answer to comprise my feedback.

Actually, let’s step back: I’d already by this point been working on what to ask my beta-readers. Bethany’s email helped me focus my efforts as my initial questionnaire, even at an incomplete stage, was sitting at around 47 questions, and that was before I’d finished. I reflected and thought this would be a tall order for any of my beta-readers to complete without it seeming like “a job”. I wanted beta-reading The Thaw to be as easy as possible, as it’s meant to be fun.

To that end, I “zoomed out” with my questionnaire, choosing to ask less, broader questions and allowing my beta-readers to expand on their own thoughts. These are all intelligent, gracious people giving me their time – for free – and I felt bad “working” them too much, so the long questionnaire was simplified down to 25 broader questions.

The initial 47-questions one was an in-depth quiz featuring text boxes and tick-box answers. I structured it into what I thought were logical sections: General Thoughts, Story, The Ending, Setting & World, Themes & Influences, Characterisation and six sections I titled “character focus” sections on specific main characters. Can you see how this quickly became a nearly-50-question goliath that even I, the creator, was struggling to tame?

In organising the feedback for my beta-reader’s, I thought about including the questions via email, or on a separate, empty Word document for my beta-readers to fill in; this was the approach I took when the sole beta-reader (I did ask others!) replied. It worked but with this, as I was expecting a lot of feedback both in terms of scope and in terms of the number of beta-readers, I decided I needed to be organised off the bat and having feedback forms floating around in my emails just wasn’t right.

As a Microsoft 365 subscriber I have access to a product called Microsoft Forms, which is a tool in which surveys and quizzes can be created and responses collated. I have used it already with some success with my Doctor Who Fan-film Reverence of the Daleks, which has an Audience Survey attached to it. Therefore, I thought Microsoft Forms was a no-brainer in collating the feedback for The Thaw draft 3.

(Obviously, I’d be remiss to not mention that other providers are available: Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Jotform, etc; I just chose Microsoft Forms because it integrated with my OneDrive storage)

Microsoft Forms has a lot of powerful survey features – sections, branching etc – of which I used practically none in this instance. The difference between the “public” survey I created for the Doctor Who film and the “private” survey I was planning for the beta readers of The Thaw draft 3 was that with the “public” survey I decided to guide the responder a lot more with more mandatory questions, while also simplifying some of the questions for the sake of time and effort with tick-boxes, dropdowns or rating boxes, as if a form is “too much effort”, people won’t want to expend the effort, for better or worse.

With the “private” survey for my volunteer beta-readers I could be more confident that they would be inclined to fill in a long text field; indeed, the feedback form for The Thaw draft 3 was 25 questions and a “what would you rate the book out of 5?” question. I kept it simple and streamlined and I’m really pleased with how it worked out.

Even now, I am considering how I could’ve done the feedback form better – maybe I could’ve built on some of the interesting lessons from the “public” form I did for the Doctor Who film and included a section of tick-box answers to provide me with a quick snapshot of statistics for how my beta-readers felt that perhaps wouldn’t require a great deal of thought and typing into an open-ended text field.

That said, I’m confident that I hit a great balance with this feedback form in allowing for detailed discussion while not making it so overly-long that it felt like a slog or an effort, which would’ve been doubly concerning as Microsoft Forms, sadly, doesn’t give the option of saving a response partway though, it’s all or nothing – I am forever grateful of my beta-readers, all of whom so far have spent considerable time filling out the form, some nearly two hours!

So far, I have had three detailed and considered responses, all readily accessible in my Forms dashboard. They’re not going to be lost in my emails or scattered around my hard drive – though I will blog in the future about my efforts to centralise my workflow. My plan once I have more responses is to pull them out of Forms and put each question in a spreadsheet – yes! – with the answers from each respondent and draw my conclusions from there. I’ve already downloaded the responses so far to my computer so I can read them there as PDFs but they’re always accessible online and easy to find!

Bethany recently complimented me greatly on my organisation of my feedback during a live stream she hosted (I belatedly join the chat at around the 1hr13m point but it’s all great), and I am really pleased that my method worked and has made being a beta-reader of mine considerably less strenuous. While it may seem like a lot of effort to set up an online feedback form as opposed to sending questions as a document in an email, I think the organisational benefits of having that feedback readily accessible (for the author) and readily submittable (for the reader) really makes it worth considering, even if it may take some additional time to set up.