Finding beta readers and hiring a structural/substantial editor is a vital part of writing a book. Yes, a copyeditor is necessary too, but don’t overlook the importance of getting input on the broader aspects of your story. Even if you’re an expert storyteller, other people will see places for improvement that you won’t. So after you’ve finished your manuscript, take those extra steps of hiring a professional structural editor and seeking out a few beta readers to make your book the best it can be.
Of course, having people tell you everything that’s wrong with your story is painful.
Here’s my advice on accepting feedback from editors and beta readers…
Understand that writing a book involves a lot of rewriting. Even when you’ve written and rewritten and declared your manuscript “done”, until you’ve gotten feedback from other people you’re only half way there. Writing a book is a long process that requires a patient willingness to revise, edit, and revise some more. No matter how good you are, no matter how good your manuscript is, your book will (and should) undergo big changes between when you declare it “done” and when you publish it.
It sucks. You will have to kill off scenes you love. You will have to write entirely new scenes. Your editor and beta readers will find big problems and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped all the way back to the outlining phase. But when someone finishes reading your manuscript and says “it’s good, but I found a huge plot hole” or “it’s good, but it needs a structural overhaul” or “it’s good, but the entire middle act needs work”—please don’t get discouraged. Please don’t cry like I do every time this happens. Don’t rapidly conclude that your entire book was a waste and it’s terrible and why bother? Because here’s the great news: these problems are never as tragic as they seem. In fact, fixing them often requires minimal changes.
Fixing plot holes
So a beta reader points out a big problem that could potentially void an entire scene. Maybe something like, “Why didn’t the teacher just come over and stop Jess and Sam from getting into that fight?” At first glance, this kind of feedback sucks. You wrote the entire scene, and all subsequent scenes, based on a plot point that your reader just poked a hole in.
But often fixing a plot hole is just a matter of inserting a couple of explanatory lines. Here, maybe Sam’s friend asks that exact question, and Sam explains that the teacher was busy tending to another kid’s nosebleed at the time. No need to panic that you have to rewrite the scene and every subsequent scene. You’ve just filled that hole with two lines of dialogue.
Your editor recommends adding more substance to a secondary character. This is another easy fix. A story arc has three parts, right? Well, in act 1, show this flat character as having a weakness or a secret. In act 2, remind us of that weakness/secret and show the character working to overcome it. In act 3, show how that character has overcome the secret.
An example that comes to mind is the cop Al Powell in Die Hard. His arc is so simple—he shot a kid, he feels guilty, and at the end of the movie he overcomes that problem. In minimal screen time, this little arc turns Al into a three-dimensional character.
Of course, this is a minimal fix, but my point is that if you approach these seemingly large problems methodically, you’ll find that fixing them is not as daunting as it seems.
Kill your darlings and spawn new ones
After a structural edit, you’ll likely need to remove, merge, or create entirely new scenes. Sometimes you’ll need to kill a scene you love. Sometimes the entire point of a scene can actually be expressed in one sentence, requiring a sort of scene merge. Often, you’ll just need to add a couple of sentences to make the point of a scene clearer.
If you do need to kill a darling, don’t fret it. Time passes and you’ll soon realize it was actually a useless part of the story and not all that good anyway. Occasionally, your fondness for that scene never goes away, and if that’s the case, save it and turn it into a short story or publish it to your blog as a “deleted scene”.
If you need to write an entirely new scene, then sure, this can take time. But you love writing, so stop complaining that you have to do more of it.
My point in all this is that fixing seemingly huge issues is never as bad as it seems. It’s often a matter of adding a couple of lines.
Revising is all part of the writing process. In fact, if you didn’t get some sort of huge, terrifying suggestion from your editor or beta readers, then I’m sorry to say they didn’t do their jobs properly. Expect it. Embrace it. As Anne Lamott says about writing in Bird by Bird, “You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time.”
The final story is, of course, up to you. You can choose to accept or reject suggestions. Use your discretion and don’t feel obligated to accept every single one. However, if you don’t seek any input from beta readers or professional editors, then your book will not be the best it can be—and if it’s not the best it can be, then what’s the point of publishing it? Yes, fixing the issues people bring up can take a while, but it’s worth spending the extra time making your book perfect.