The other day a coworker asked me about my experiences with online dating. (I used various dating sites off-and-on from 2009 – 2012, and ultimately I met the man who became my husband via the Internet.)
“Be open-minded about it,” I recommended. “But also, don’t get your hopes up too much.”
For a lot of online dating sites (at least in my day), you create a profile with pictures and information about yourself, and then you message people whose profiles catch you eye. Online daters can spend a lot of time perfecting their profiles (I know I did!), and they might spend a lot of time thinking about the coolest, cleverest ways to message you.
What that means is, someone could seem super awesome online. Then you meet him/her in person…
Naturally, I had a few “bad” dates over the years. Like the ex-rugby player who was such a close-talker his spit actually flew into my eyes as he told me his plan to move to Mexico and “watch the dolphins swim while I wait for the end of the world.” Or the guy who showed up for our date wearing toe sneakers, told me he was a professional juggler who lived at his mom’s house, and then offered to give me a hand massage. (Note that in this case the only truly offensive thing to me was his wearing of toe sneakers on a date.)
But for the most part, the dates I went on weren’t bad. There were just… meh. “There was nothing wrong with him,” I’d often find myself saying to my roommate in our debriefing sessions, “but there was nothing very exciting about him either.”
Sometimes I’d go on a second date and be even less enthused. “I guess I could go out with him a third time,” I’d tell my roommate. “But honestly, I don’t really care whether or not I ever see him again… That’s probably not a good sign, is it?”
No, probably not.
Unfortunately, I’ve been feeling the same way about a lot of books lately. I get a book from the library, and after reading the back cover and the first couple pages I’m super excited. This book is going to be AWESOME! But then, the more I read, the less enthused I become.
Often a book will start off with a really intriguing hook or inciting incident within the first chapter or two. The writing is excellent, and I’m looking forward to a beautiful reading relationship over the next few days. But then the story will go nowhere (or at least nowhere very interesting). The middle will sag, becoming boring, confusing, over-written, or all of the above. And if I make it to the end (sometimes I don’t), I’m often left unsatisfied. “That’s it? I read this whole book for that?”
Like an online dater with a perfected profile but a ho-hum personality in-person, it seems like some authors are polishing their first fifty pages to a shine without working so much on the book as a whole.
Part of the problem is that we writers know how important the beginning is. We’re told over and over that if we don’t hook the agent/editor/reader in the first few pages, no one will read on. So what happens is our first fifty pages get revised to awesomeness while the rest of the novel stays so-so.
Another part of the problem is that writers attend writing groups and workshops. Not that these are bad – it’s good to get an outside perspective on your writing! – but you’re often not getting feedback on the whole book. For example, I recently joined an online writing group; each month we submit up to 2500 words, but at this rate it will take two years for me to receive feedback on my entire novel!
With the workshop model you are getting feedback on a small section (often only the beginning section) of your novel. You’re not getting feedback on the overall structure: the plotting, the pacing, the character arc, the ending. No one is able to tell you that your middle is confusing or meandering. No one is able to tell you that your main character is static, or that the problem you set up in chapter one is never fully addressed, or that your ending doesn’t really work with the rest of the story.
And what that means is you have a book that starts out with a brilliant bang but fizzles halfway through, leaving frustrated readers like me pouting on the couch, trying to decide whether or not to keep reading. I guess I could keep reading, I say to myself, but I don’t really care whether or not I find out what happens. That’s not a very good sign, is it?
No, probably not.
So what’s the solution? Find some beta readers! These are kind souls who will read your entire manuscript at one time (within a few weeks is reasonable), and give you feedback on how it’s working overall. As helpful as writing groups and workshops can be (and they can be very helpful!), getting some beta readers is the way for a novel to be spruced up from head to toe instead of getting only a polish on the first fifty pages.
Recently I found a few beta readers for my novel draft. One is a friend who is requesting nothing in return, but the other two are fellow writers – I am reading their novels in exchange for feedback on mine. Really, the manuscript swap is the best way to go, in my opinion. Not only can friends and family members be biased with their critiques, but you might learn something from reading someone else’s novel-in-progress. (It’s often a lot easier to spot problem areas in someone else’s writing than in your own. I’ve had it happen where I critique another manuscript and then realize, oh my god, I did that in my novel, too!)
In the end, I’m not saying that all books have the problem of being awesome at the beginning and then meh the rest of the way through. There are plenty of books out there that are amazing from cover to cover. What I’m saying is, I want my book to be one of those.
My plan is that after I get revisions from my three beta readers, I will revise again and then get a few more beta readers to give me feedback on the second draft. I’ll continue this process until the book is as good as it can get. It might take a long time, but hey, it took me a long time and a lot of online dates before I found a man who was as good as it gets. In the end, it’ll probably be worth it.