How To Decode Beta Reader Comments on Pacing
At The Spun Yarn, we do Feedback better than anyone else. You choose your reader demographics. We assign three readers to provide full novel feedback, including check-ins throughout the novel, overall comments, and qualitative scores compared to our growing manuscript database. Then we find consensus, analyze, and give you actionable suggestions for what to do in your next revision.
In our How to Decode series, we share our learnings from more than one hundred full beta reads from our diverse group of readers. How do beta reader comments map to potential problems in your manuscript, and what can you do to address them?
Ok, so you finished a draft of your WIP (go you). You swallowed your imposter syndrome long enough to ask some people to read it, (phew!), and at least one of them finished it (you're rocking everyone's pants off).
So...now what? Your reader(s) said some good things about your WIP, and maybe some not-so-amazing things too. You have a feeling that some of their comments are right, but you aren't sure if you agree with others. What do you tackle in your next revision?
More readers = consensus = gold
Quick note: the more readers the better. The good thing about multiple readers is consensus: where they agree and disagree. Consensus is liquid gold for writers.
Personally, when it comes to big story issues, I trust an honest reader's gut reaction that something is wrong, and then decide whether it's important to fix it, or whether fixing it would break something else. When two or more readers independently agree that something is wrong, I bow to the throne of consensus and I FIX IT.
If you don't have multiple readers (get some, and uh, we do consensus analysis really well), you can still map specific comments to areas you may want to look at in a revision.
Comments That Are Really About Pacing
Pacing, the speed at which your story unfolds, gathers momentum, complicates itself, and resolves. Different genres have different paces, literary fiction moving more slowly than thrillers, for instance. What's important is that your pacing should be deliberate and consistent.
A glacial pace could lose readers and sound your WIP's death knell, even in literary fiction. A frenetic pace will confuse readers and may eventually lose them, even in a thriller. You may keep readers a bit longer with a frenetic pace than with a glacial pace, but a confusing, hurried pace is worse because when you do finally lose your readers, they will be frustrated and ANGRY with you. Hell hath no fury like a disappointed reader, especially when it comes to Amazon reviews.
Let's take a look at the kinds of quotes we see in Spun Yarn beta comments that relate to pacing.
"At three-quarters of the way through, I was riveted."
We've noticed that our most liked manuscripts share this trait: readers are at their peak of enjoyment three quarters of the way through.
This makes sense when you think about it: in the first quarter, you're setting out your premises, building your world, and introducing your conflict and characters. In the second quarter, your characters are journeying, complicating the conflict, reaching their lows or gaining tantalizing leads to their highs, and by the third quarter, all of your work should be paying off as the plot and character development fall into place and gain momentum.
By the three quarter point, you may have answered or resolved some initial conflicts, but readers are tuned in and leaning forward to see your grand finale. This is pacing at its finest: a beginning and middle that meticulously set all the pins in place, a third quarter and finale that knock them all down in surprising ways. It's a sign of a great outline, or, if you're a panster, that your revision thus far have paid off, pulling all of your disparate threads into place.
"The book was a little slow for me at this part..."
Slow = boring. Readers are generally nice people. They don't want to hurt your feelings. Any good writer can hurt their own feelings by translating words like "slow" into "boring the pants off of me, turning my eyelids to cement, making me crave a root canal to distract from the monotony." Okay, we writers tend to go overboard with the self-deprecation.
If readers say that a particular section was slow or took them several tries to read, they're indicating potentially slow pacing. You haven't made them care enough about what they're reading, or, in some cases, you're covering too much old ground and frustrating readers who want to move to new plot events.
A well-paced book will unfold at a consistent pace, and will always give readers a compelling reason to keep going. Most often, the reason to keep going is conflict. Sometimes it's mystery. Your characters should always be struggling and changing. If readers get bored, consider ways to shorten the section in question, cut it altogether, or weave it into a section of the book that does have clear conflict.
Finally, clunky writing can slow the pacing. If you sent a book out to beta readers but none of them finished despite their pinky swears, take a hard look at your opening chapters. In addition to conflict, is your writing tight and engaging? Check yourself on passive language. I like this article on passive voice because it dispels the notion that passive voice is always bad, and gives examples of when and when not to use it. Check for overuse of adverbs (we don't believe that adverbs are evil but they can certainly be overused). Check for tedious reiterations of things you've already said in slightly different ways. Check for filter words and awkward phrasings. Read the opening aloud in front of a frenemy and you should be able to tell immediately if there's something wrong with the writing.
"The X part felt a little too quick, and/or confused me."
When readers are confused or feel that events unfold too quickly, it could be a sign of inconsistent pacing. At the Spun Yarn, we often see this in the last quarter of the book. An author finds herself with too many loose ends to tie up, or isn't sure about how to end the story and it shows in an overly convenient ending or an ending that leaves too many questions unanswered.
- Make sure your subplots are resolved. Map them out and address each one, even if only in passing. The point is to instill the reader with confidence that you're not wildly abandoning subplots along the path behind you: that you have a plan, that you haven't forgotten anything.
- If every subplot's resolution occurs in the last quarter of the book, see if you can resolve a few of them earlier to make the pacing consistent. Minor subplots can be resolved a bit earlier, and spacing them out can quell the heartburn that comes from a placid third quarter followed by an explosive, chaotic finale.
- Cut some subplots altogether if they're not strongly contributing to the story enough.
If you receive this feedback about 'too much at once' or 'it's confusing' at the beginning of your story, tease out whether readers are content to stick with you and trust that their questions will eventually be answered, or whether readers seem overwhelmed and panicked. If the latter, try taking more time to cover the critical elements first, and saving other characters / mysteries / subplots / settings for later.
We notice in Spun Yarn comments that readers are often willing to give you the benefit of the doubt for the first quarter of the book, as long as they don't continue feel overwhelmed in the second quarter of the book.
Let us know in the comments: was this helpful? Were you rolling your eyes at the lack of new information, or panicked at seeing terms you didn't recognize? If the latter, check out this brief primer on pacing from the always helpful Writer's Digest.