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.

Announcements, Writing

Livestream (9/10/2020)

This past weekend I took part in a live writing stream on Bethany Votaw‘s YouTube channel – talking all things writing, my work-in-progress The Thaw, beta-reading and, oddly enough, condiments! Watch the discussion below:

This was really fun and I was honoured to have been asked by Bethany to participate. You may very well see me in more livestreams in the future!

Also subscribe to Bethany’s channel for more content and streams!

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!