It’s been a while since my last post in this series, mostly because I feel like I’ve been in this phase forever (five months, at the last count). I do think, however, that this is one of the most useful phases of completing a novel: finding out which bits don’t work.
Just like when you design and build a prototype, there will be things that work well, and things that don’t: the only way to find out is let people poke it and prod it, and see what happens.
I can guarantee that no matter how vigorous your revision process was (just like however stringent your engineering development was) there will be issues with the finished article. Some may be big showstoppers, some may be small niggles, but they will be there.
This is where 8D comes in. 8D, or 8 Disciplines, is a very commonly used engineering problem solving structure. It also comes in surprisingly handy when kicking your draft manuscript out for feedback. I should clarify that I’ve used 8D as a framework here rather than a step-by-step guide, but the similarities outweigh the differences. What scared me was that I did this without consciously setting out to.
1: Use a Team. Having fresh eyes look at your work is absolutely invaluable. Whether you call on friends and family, or use a critique group, is up to you, but you need several independent people you trust to review your manuscript. I told people that if they genuinely wanted to help me get this book published, then I needed them to tell me what they thought worked and what didn’t. I told them I’d be more upset if they thought there was an issue and didn’t tell me, than if they pointed out areas I needed to improve.
An important note for the authors out there: while people are reading your book, step away from it. Have time away from your plot and characters. Leave it alone. You need to see it afresh, too.
2: Describe the Problem(s). This is the trick. You can’t correct what’s wrong unless you know what it is. Ask your reviewers to be specific. Few things are more annoying to me – both as an engineer and a writer – than being told that something isn’t right, but they don’t know what. A crumb of something, however vague – a scene that doesn’t feel right, a character that doesn’t work – is more helpful.
For me, there are then three stages to this phase:
Classify feedback according to type. There are spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and factual errors before we even consider writing, characterisation and plot itself.
Classify issues according to frequency of occurrence. If the vast majority of people – who aren’t in contact with each other – pick up on the same thing, that’s a big red flag indicating a problem. There may be something which only one person feels to be an issue. I take the view that if someone has felt strongly enough to mention it, then I need to review the section with an open mind. Sometimes I’ve conceded that if I listen to them, I can strengthen that part further. Sometimes, I’ve had to admit that I can’t please everyone.
Classify errors by severity. By severity, I mean the impact of the error on the novel as a whole. Some may be a simple “find and replace” (low). Some may require a rewrite and a rejigging of a sub-plot (medium). Or it could be an error which jeopardises the credibility of the whole book (high). Either way, you should have a feel for how much work each one needs.
3: Implement & Verify Short-Term Corrective Actions. This, for me, is tackling the easy wins and the fast fixes for the low-severity items. That means any spelling or grammatical errors, and any easily fixed typos or factual errors such as using the wrong name for someone. Also, these will give you a sense of progress as you can tick a lot off quite quickly!
4: Define & Verify Root Causes. Look at your medium and high severity items, and your “must-fixes” (high occurrence items). What are the issues? Why have people picked up on it? For example, you may have a flashback scene where it isn’t immediately obvious you’re writing about a character’s past: if the information in this scene is required, why doesn’t your writing make it clear to the reader what’s happening? If someone says the mid section of the book is weak, what makes it so? Is it a slower story, or a flabby sub-plot that goes nowhere? You might want to revisit the 5-Whys if you’re struggling: or just keep nagging your reviewers.
5: Verify Corrective Actions. So, you know why your readers picked up on an issue. What do you need to do to resolve it? Using our flashback example above, do you need to rewrite the section leading up to the flashback to make it clear the character is thinking of the past? Or, if it’s a flabby sub-plot, is it actually necessary? Do you need to delete that sub-plot entirely, or can you spice it up a bit more?
At this point, I tend to copy the sections concerned into a new document, and work on them separately. This way I still have both old and new versions to compare, should I change my mind. Sometimes, I’ve found I’ll do two or three different iterations of a section before all the points have been addressed and I’ve got something which works.
6: Implement Permanent Corrective Actions. Having settled on my corrective actions above, it’s time to incorporate them into the manuscript. It’s always worth another read-through to check they work as a whole.
7: Prevent Recurrence. Depending on the extent of changes made, you could instigate another review loop to make sure you’ve captured them all and not introduced any new problems. You might even want to make a note of a few things, should you ever want to write a book again (our old friend, Lessons Learned). You could even think of ways to improve your own writing and reviewing process.
8: Congratulate Your Team. Make sure you thank everyone for their help and feedback: after all, you couldn’t have done this without them. If you promised people beer or cake in return for their time, now’s the time to provide it. Celebrate things gone right. I’ve been tremendously encouraged by the fact that even when people have disagreed on things which need changing, they’ve all agreed on things I’ve done well. If this happens to you, too, pat yourself on the back and tell yourself “well done”. You deserve it.