Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Coping with Slow Starts, or Why You Should Have Beta Readers and Listen to Them!

This post is based on recent experience, and I hope the reflections here will help anyone who finds himself or herself stuck in a similar situation.

As we all skip--and sometimes trudge--down the road to publication, I can't help stressing the importance of having our WIP read by critiquers and beta readers.
Dozens of helpful eyes have looked at different chapters of Serving Time, and I still marvel at how many mistakes people catch--mistakes I thought I didn't have. A typo here, an awkward sentence there... if caught too late, these errors can all add up to one embarassing mess! I'm thankful to my critiquers for showing me where I go wrong while I'm still in time to mend my ways. Thanks, guys from Critique Circle!

Being a translator and teacher, I always considered myself a pretty good editor. But that doesn't mean I'll be single-handedly editing my work. I'm too emotionally attached to it, and I sometimes see brilliance in my writing where others go "huh?".

To avoid these "huh?" moments, I recently contacted a professional editor and arranged a day for me to send her my full manuscript. We're thinking sometime in late January. While that might seem far away, it's a good thing. I still have so much to do--and here's why: last week, I gave out copies of Serving Time to five fantastic beta readers, and the results are in:

I have a slow start.

Sure, they tell me the writing is excellent, the characterization is good, but the pace doesn't really pick up until we're too many pages into the book. After hearing this from several of my helpers, my first reactions were hot-headed--and probably what goes through many people's minds when we don't hear what we want.

Let's look at some examples:

1) "My work is great and they have no idea what they're talking about."

2) "But the pivotal point is so clear! Can't they see this phrase here on page 61! It's so clear!"

3) "Other readers will like it and won't mind taking a little longer to get to the central plot."

4) "After everything I've been through, I'm not making any more changes!"

Have any of these thoughts ever stampeded through your head? If so, it's time to take a rest. Take a few days off to distance yourself from your novel. DO NOT start pounding out angry or defensive responses to the people who are trying to help you.

Once you've found your distance and cooled down, you can begin to think about how big of a problem you have, and how to solve it.

Let's review those initital, hot-headed thoughts, but this time after taking a short break:

1) "My work is great and they have no idea what they're talking about."

Your work sounds great to you because you're the author. What parent likes to be told their child is ugly?
Those less-than-pretty opinions are what you received--what you have to work with--and if they're given in a helpful manner, you would be self-destructive not to take them into consideration.

Three of my beta readers agreed that the first few chapters of Serving Time are dedicated mostly to the setup, and it's difficult to see a central plot emerge until we reach Chapter 6 or so. In my case, that means we have to wade through about 19k words out of a 121k book. That means almost a sixth of the book shuffles by before readers fully grasp the main conflict.

Thanks to the watchful eye of my beta readers, I'm now aware I have a problem. And admitting to a problem, folks, is the first step to fixing it.

2) "But the pivotal point is so clear! Can't they see this one phrase here on page 61! It's so clear!"

Again, you are the author and you know this story better than anybody else ever will. What might seem clear to you isn't necessarily going to shine for readers. Giving information to readers is a delicate balance: ensure your public will understand what you want to say without spoon-feeding or patronizing them.

3) "Other readers will like it and won't mind taking a little longer to get to the central plot."

While this may be true in some cases, isn't it still a good idea to listen to advice prior to publishing? Once your book's out there and receiving reviews, you can't really take it back.

4) "After everything I've been through, I'm not making any more changes!"

This is a difficult phase in every writer's life: weariness. But remember: every hurdle you jump now is another hurdle gained. It's okay to make mistakes, as long as you are strong enough to learn from them.
So these are the thoughts going through my head now that I'm aware I need to tweak the first chapters of Serving Time. However, no matter how itchy my fingers get, I'm forcing myself to wait until December to make any changes. Then, with my first NaNoWriMo under my belt and some distance from my novel, I will be able to go back to it and work on it with a fresher mind.

I haven't succeeded in finding much information or help on how to avoid slow starts in novels. These are the two helpful links I've found.

For more information:

Starting a Novel in the Wrong Place, by Agent Kristen
The Slow Start: How to Open your Novel with a Bang, by Roger Colby

Do you have any techniques for revving up slow starts? If so, share them in the comments!


  1. In another life, some 15 years ago, I edited for a living (albeit in the Queen's English, go figure that they'd hire a Yank to do that). Yet to this day, I can't catch typos and other mistakes in my own work.

    Now, onto the "slow start." I think your start is important, since it establishes the stakes, give us an idea of how your world works, and introduces us to interesting, fallible characters. I think that all it really needs is to give us a hint of what the central conflict is just a little earlier.

    1. Thanks for the comment, John! :-) I'm trying to find a way of showing the central conflict sooner, and it's really tough. I'm going to wait until NaNoWriMo is over to really start my revision.

  2. I agree it's important to have those critters. They can see things you can't because you know the story so well.

    As for openings, I find that you need some conflict to pull the reader in. It doesn't have to be anything drastic..like a killing or a car wreck, etc. Just enough to hook the reader.


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