Cooking and Assembly

After all the hard work of choosing your story, identifying your characters and conflicts, outlining, and working on a first draft, your mix is complete. The cakes are in the tins, the dough separated into loafs, or the biscuits rolled and cut. Now it’s time to pop everything into the oven, take a step back, and leave things to bake.

And, whether it’s a piece of flash, a short story, a novella, a single scene, chapter, or complete book, there’s one other thing to do before you move onto the next step. Take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back. Every completed piece of writing is progress, another step taken on your writing journey. It’s easy to look ahead and feel overwhelmed by what’s still to be done. Being able to look back and say “Yes, but look at what I’ve achieved so far,” can give you the impetus to take the next step.

So what is the next step?

In my introduction, I mentioned setting your work aside for some time. For a short piece, such as an entry in this blog, an overnight wait is normally enough. By contrast, for a full-length book, you may want to take a longer break and work on a different project, giving yourself time to clear your mind, allowing you to return to the draft with fresh eyes.

Or, if you prefer, you can share your first draft with a select few readers for early feedback.

Alpha Readers and Critique Partners

An alpha reader is someone who enjoys reading, who perhaps doesn’t understand the techniques of the writing craft, but who can give you feedback from a reader’s perspective. Your alpha reader doesn’t need to be a professional—a family member or friend can be equally as useful. The important quality to look for when deciding on who to ask is honesty. You want someone who’ll be blunt and tell you, “It’s burnt,” or, “You used salt instead of sugar,” rather than someone who’ll grit their teeth and insist it’s the “best thing they’ve ever tasted.”

A good alpha reader is someone who’ll tell you the truth.

A critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange work; someone who’ll read and critique your writing if you do the same for them. Maybe you already know someone else who writes in your social circle, or perhaps there’s a local writers’ group you can go to, to meet other writers. Alternatively, you can join a writers’ website online or join writers’ groups on social media. But how do you know if someone is a good partner for you?

Start by reading something they’ve written. Is it a style of story you enjoy? Can you suggest anything to help them improve? And can you, in turn, learn anything from what you’ve read? If you answer yes to all three, this is a good sign your strengths and weaknesses complement each other. This means that, when you critique each other’s work, you’ll both improve as writers, learning new skills as you read someone else’s work, and also discovering weaknesses you may otherwise be unaware of when you receive feedback.

Should You Edit First?

At the alpha stage, major editing isn’t required. The idea is to receive feedback on the story and characters before you start. I do advise reading through your work two or three time before sharing, however. Eliminate any typos you find (one or two may slip through, but too many can put the most patient reader off,) fix awkward sounding or overlong sentences, and replace any placeholders with something better if you can. Also make sure whoever is reading knows it’s a first draft, and if there’s a particular part you’re unhappy with, tell them or add a few notes to explain the issue.

Interpreting Feedback

Learning how to interpret reader feedback will help you improve as a writer. Comments like “I really liked the start, the end was exciting, but the middle was slow,” may not seem helpful at first, but there are some useful details to take from it.

I really liked the start, the end was exciting

Both of these statements are positive. The reader saying they liked the start suggests your opening hook works. It interested them enough to keep them reading to find out what happened next. That the ending is exciting suggests you’ve timed the tempo well, raising the level of conflict as the story reaches the climax to keep the tension high.

The middle was slow

A slow section in a story can signify a lack of conflict or progress in the story line. Maybe your characters are spending too long discussing what’s happened, deciding what they’re going to do next, or ignoring the main conflict while dealing with something the reader considers irrelevant. Either way, you now know you need to revisit the middle section and look for ways to inject conflict, advance story progression, or cut out unneeded dialogue or action.

Some other feedback you might receive (not an exhaustive list):

I didn’t care if Jane Doe succeeded or failed

This can be caused by a lack of emotional empathy for the character, often due to a lack of emotional showing. I’ll go into more detail on this in another post, but to summarise, emotional telling would be, “Jane was angry,” “Jane was confused,” “Jane didn’t like the cheese,” etc. This puts a barrier between the reader and the character because they’re not experiencing the emotion with the character. Whereas if you show the emotion—”Jane threw the cushion across the room,” “Jane frowned at the puzzle, flipped it over, and tugged at the odd protrusion,” “Jane nibbled the corner of the cheese, wrinkled her nose, and spat it into a hankie,” etc, the reader experiences the moment with the character, allowing an emotional connection.

Or it might be due to character coming across as one dimensional—a sum of his traits without anything deeper to give him the feel of a real person. In this case, try giving him a few quirks, a nervous tick (use in moderation to avoid it sticking out and pulling the reader from the story), or other little details that suggest the person has a history and a life outside the story. Also try to ensure they grow during the story. If, for example, he’s afraid of the dark at the start, he could understand his fear and learn to cope with it by the end.

I didn’t understand why s/he did that

If someone says this to you, it could be that you understand why your character made the choice s/he did, but you failed to share the reasoning with the reader. In this case, go back through your story and look for spots where you can work in some dialogue (internal or external), back story, or related events to help the reader understand your character’s reasoning.

Alternatively, you might have opted for the character to act in a certain way for the sake of the story, without taking their motives into account. When this happens, ask yourself why your character would make that choice. Is it in character for them? What’s the logic behind it? It may be you need to tweak or change your character’s action, (in which case, remember to reflect the change in the story going forward,) or it may be the choice was correct but you need to show the reasoning behind it.

The climax was great, but the rest of it dragged

This is a sign your resolution (tying up of loose ends) is too long. Adding a few scenes after the climax to show your characters dealing with any unresolved issues, enjoying their success, and starting the next stage of their life can create a satisfying end. But if you spend too long lingering in the new life the satisfaction can be lost, shattered alongside the reader’s own imagined happily-ever-after for the characters.

The ending was too abrupt

The problem here is the opposite to the one above. An abrupt ending suggests a lack of resolution, where too many loose ends are left dangling. Leaving one or two things unresolved is fine, but if you’ve created a complex weave of plots and subplots, the reader will expect a degree of resolution for most of them. Check through all your subplots to ensure they resolve at some point. If you find ones that don’t, either find a way to resolve it as part of the ending or cull it from the story.

Finally, if you can’t find the cause of an issue flagged in feedback, don’t be afraid to ask the reader for more details. Explain what it is you’re trying to achieve. That way, if something isn’t coming across as you intended, the reader will be able to tell you. (They can’t highlight something that isn’t there.)

Doing Your Own Alpha Read

Once your bake is cooked, removed from the oven, and set out to cool, it’s time to plan the assembly. Print off your first draft if you can. If that’s not an option, transfer it to your tablet or e-reader if you have one (scrivener’s compile can export your manuscript in epud, mobi, or pdf formats,) or change the size/style of font you’re using so your work appears visually different when you read it. Doing this will help your brain process the writing as something new, picking up issues you might otherwise miss.

Now grab a red pen and some highlighters (or use comments/highlights on your e-reader or software), settle down somewhere comfy, and read your story in the same way you’d read a magazine or book. The aim is to pick up any structural or character issues that might put readers off your work.

If you find your mind wandering, mark the section where it happens and note the issue in the margin. If a character’s actions are inconsistent, make notes where those inconsistencies happen. If a section feels rushed or slow, lacking in detail, or overloaded with description or dialogue, mark all those issues too.

SPAG errors or technical issues aren’t important at this stage, but if you do notice some, mark them with your highlighters and move on. You don’t want to spend ten minutes sorting a single sentence now, only to end up deleting the entire paragraph when you start on the structural edit.

Finally, for each scene note down the plot or plots the scene impacts, the conflict type present, and how the story is moved forward.

For example, if your story is about a young, adopted man searching for his birth parents, and the scene shows him debating with himself over whether he wants to find them, your notes might be:

Plot: Boy looking for his parents
Conflict: Internal (should he look or not?)
What has changed: Boy commits to looking for them

Then, in the next scene he may inform a friend of his decision, only for them to end up arguing because the friend worries it’s a bad choice. For this the notes may be:

Plot: Relationship with best friend
Conflict: External-friendship
What has changed: Relationship strained as friend disagrees with choice

If you struggle to identify the plot, conflict, or change for a scene, it may be the scene is missing one of those ingredients, indicating it either needs reworked to include it, or that it’s superfluous and can be deleted. (This is a process I will look at in more detail in a later post.)

These notes, along with any feedback from alpha readers and/or critique partners, will create the foundation on which to build your structural edit—the first step in the shaping of your bake.

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