Welcome back to Two Navy Guys and a Novel, the site where two ex-Navy officers, JR and David, let you look over our shoulder as we write a military thriller, Weapons of Mass Deception. Together! Yes, it can be done. Previous episodes can be found on our webpage.
Way back in 2014, we wrote a couple of posts about beta readers: how we selected them, what we hoped to gain from the process, and their diverse backgrounds. The manuscript for WMD went out to our beta reader superheroes on DEC 15th. We asked for all feedback by JAN 15, 2015.
This is the post where we tell you what our beta readers thought and what we did with their feedback.
By The Numbers
The manuscript went out to twelve readers. The book clocked in at nearly 115,000 words (400+ pages), so this was a serious time commitment on the part of our betas.
Of the dozen, we had ten participants finish the book and provide feedback. Another reader sent in partial feedback, and one was a no show.
We got lots and lots of feedback, all told nearly 50 pages of comments! How do you handle 50 pages of feedback? Very carefully.
The first thing JR and I did was read through everything with highlighter in hand. In some cases, we went back to the reader and asked some specific followup questions (more pages of comments!). Then we got together and talked through the themes of what our readers had told us.
There were two big issues that needed our attention.
WMD is timeline-driven story spanning thirteen years, from 2003, the start of the Iraq War, to just before the 2016 US Presidential election. The timeline is so important to us that, at the start of each chapter, we have a date-time group and a location to orient the reader. The timing is critical to the story because we are using real events and inserting fictional responses around them.
As with books of this type, there is a fair bit of set-up as we introduce and draw out multiple plot lines.
The readers told us to get the first part of the book done faster. We inserted a beta feedback checkpoint 25% of the way through the novel to make sure we captured what people were feeling at the time. One reader’s response summed it up:
“I was interested…but I was not emotionally gripped.”
Message heard: we deleted two chapters from the opening quarter of the book and worked on tightening up the rest. In practical terms, we took about 25 pages out of the first 100 pages of the novel without damaging the storyline.
WMD has two sets of male-female relationships that parallel the main action of the book. The Bad Guy’s relationship was healthy, passionate, and well-grounded in the story. The Good Guy’s relationship, not so much.
JR and I sort of knew this one was coming, but as two middle-aged, married, white guys we struggled to establish a meaningful relationship between Brendan and Liz, our two protagonists. I won’t read you the beta comments because they’re still a little painful. Hey, we asked for honesty and our betas listened.
We went back to the drawing board. After spending time with the feedback, talking it out, and consulting with other writer colleagues, we came up with a three-point plan:
- Give Liz her own voice in the story. We did this by stealing some scenes from other characters and adding a few new ones. This move had the added benefit of putting a feminine voice in an otherwise male-dominated cast.
- Establish the relationship early. We had lots of tension and conflict in the scenes between our two wannabe lovers, but they lacked an emotional foundation. Why the hell were they fighting in the first place? We needed to do a better job of showing where these two came from as a couple.
- Resolve the relationship. Some of the readers just went along for the ride on the Brendan-Liz roller coaster. It bothered them that the couple seemed so dysfunctional, but that’s not entirely unrealistic. However, everyone said they wanted to know if they got together at the end.
On an unrelated note, setting the Brendan-Liz relationship to rights also gave us some new ideas to beef up our big ending scene.
The Rewrite Plan
Once we’d roughed out what needed to get fixed, we did a chapter-by-chapter summary of what we planned to change before we jumped in with both feet. The plan came out to be five pages of structural changes that ranged from “Scrap Chapter 4, rewrite in Liz’s POV” to “Change the name of ambassador to Evans.”
What Did We Learn
We were careful to select a broad cross-section of people to get the widest possible spectrum of feedback. On the plus side, when there was a major structural issue in the book (like the two I noted above), everyone picked up on it in some form. To see the flaws from ten different perspectives was incredibly helpful to our rewrite process and sparked some new thinking in our storytelling.
Probably the most interesting learning point for us was that some readers had an issue with the structure of the book. I mentioned above that the book is arranged in strict chronological order, but we use five different points of view. As one reader pointed out, this makes the reading experience non-linear, and some people were uncomfortable with that approach.
Not much we can do about that, but it was fascinating to see the different reactions and it helped us to refine our Ideal Reader.
Weapons of Mass Deception goes to our editor, Sarah Kolb-Williams, on FEB 1st. We’ll publish an updated schedule in the next few weeks, but our working plan is to release the book before the Memorial Day weekend in May.
You can expect to see another preview chapter in the coming weeks. If you’d like a short email notice about preview chapters and new release dates, you can sign up here.
David Bruns is the creator of the sci-fi series The Dream Guild Chronicles, and one half of the Two Navy Guys and a Novel blog series about co-writing the military thriller, Weapons of Mass Deception. Check out his website for a free sample of his work.