How I beat procrastination and went from zero words to a chance at $10,000 in six months
I am a writer. As such, I am a master procrastinator. Instead of going ahead with the querying or self-publishing of my second novel, I paused my writing to find a great way to manage beta readers. It turned out to become an entire platform and company (BetaReader.io, which I founded together with my brother Axel, and which is now used by thousands of authors to perfect their novels and build their audiences). An amazing feat, to be honest. But in the process, I forgot something. I got so sucked up in the innovation process, which I love, that I forgot about the thing that brought me here in the first place: telling stories, which I also love.
So when on one cold summer day (I live in Sweden), I heard about a major publisher organizing a middle grade novel contest with a grand prize of $10,000, I jumped at the opportunity to reboot my writing.
The catch: the deadline was less than six months away, and I hadn’t even started writing. Heck, I didn’t even I know what I wanted to write about. I decided that I needed a solid time plan, as well as some kind of bait to fight off the Ghost of Procrastination Future, who already saw heaps of opportunities at writing tons of dead-end story-beginnings. I needed something to help me stay on track.
Accountability is key
After some contemplation, I realized that what I needed was to make myself feel accountable. And to make that happen, I could actually let the Ghost of Procrastination Past help out. That ghost had once made me launch a beta reading platform instead of a novel. This time around, I could leverage that beta reading platform to actually pull the novel together.
So I started drafting beta readers. I needed kids aged 7-12 and their parents, as many as I could possibly gather. Since good beta readers are notoriously difficult to come across, I decided to add a reward to the mix: the $10,000 prize would be split evenly between the 100 first beta readers to read past, and give feedback on, at least half the manuscript. That meant $100 per reader, which is actually quite a lot for many kids. It also meant that I probably had to limit myself to 100 readers, but I decided that it was worth it. 100 readers is more than enough, and it’s a good, symbolic number that’s easy for people to remember and talk about.
– But how about you, you say, no money for you?
Don’t fret! There was more to the prize: the winner would also get a publishing deal. This meant a win-win-win situation: thanks to the beta reader feedback I could gather via BetaReader.io, the novel would (obviously!) become great; all readers would be duly thanked, with the first 100 of them to pass the half-book-mark getting a monetary reward; and I would get my novel out to the masses and earn glory and royalties for many years to come.
– But what if you don’t win?
I thought about that, too. After all, the contest was arranged by a major, if not the major publisher in Sweden, and they would surely receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions. Possibly from many better text-stranglers than myself. What if my readers put in all that time hoping they’d make a decent buck, and then nothing came out of it?
In the end, you could say that that would be their own fault. That they should account for the risk, just like I did. But even if I love writing, I didn’t want to go empty-handed out of this.
Your beta readers are your audience and your marketers
Then it struck me that I wouldn’t. With 100 readers to test my novel against, and some (a lot of) diligence from my side, I would actually come out on the other side with a not-so-bad – if not pretty darn good – middle grade novel. Even if I wouldn’t win this contest, I would have won the story. I could take my pretty darn good novel and sell it to another publisher, and then split my royalties with the 100 readers. Or, knowing that I had both a good novel and an invested audience at hand, I could choose to self-publish and use them as my 100 person strong marketing team. Word-of-mouth is a good thing, and considering that this was quickly becoming a rather unusual way of making a book happen, I could probably leverage that, as well.
Said and done. I created a website, barnboksexperimentet.com (roughly translated to “thechildrensbookexperiment.com”), and announced my partaking in the contest, that I intended to share the prize and/or part of my future earnings with my beta readers, and that I was looking for at least 100 kids to help me out.
It worked. I quickly got overloaded with reader requests.
Getting to business
So now I had my audience. Next, I would need something to write about. Something that my middle grade readers would love. Good thing I thought of that when I created my website and the signup questionnaire, which, among other things, contained the question: “Which is your all-time favorite book, and why?”
Based on the answers, I started plowing through all the mentioned books. In order to have a chance at getting through them all, I actually listened to most of them at 2x speed (I’m a father of two toddlers, the second one who came fresh out of the womb right after I had this idea). Listening is a great way of taking in a story, because it can be done while riding the bus, doing the dishes, the laundry, and in many non-paper-friendly environments.
So I read and listened, listened and read, and took an aweful lot of notes of what I liked and disliked, and what I thought I could write myself that would suit both my beta readers’ taste and my own ditto.
Fail fast and keep moving
Then, I started plotting. While I’ve been writing for most of my life, this bit was new to me. I used to be a hardcore pantser, and I know there is a constant battle going on about which approach is best and whatnot, but for this project I knew that I had virtually no time to waste, so I needed to make sure that I made as few mistakes as possible along the way.
When I used to pants, I could rewrite an entire story several times, adding and removing major plot points each time, and still not feel satisfied at the end. This time, I needed to get it right immediately. Or not straight off the bat, perhaps, but with less than six months of far from even part-time writing left until the manuscript needed to be submitted, I would only be able to squeeze in one, or tops two rewrites.
So I took the mantra that I had brought with me from the startup world – fail fast – and plotted down three different stories over the course of a couple of days. I quickly identified and patched the plot holes, and then picked the story I would enjoy writing the most.
I had feared that the plotting approach would bore me to bits
Then, I started writing. And, as expected, my early plotting efforts paid off. Because I had already jotted down many of the twists and turns, I didn’t hit any story walls or find myself written into a corner like I used to do when I pantsed. And it was suprisingly fun, too. I had feared that the plotting approach would bore me to bits because I knew what was going to happen, but it turns out there were tons of tiny details that I didn’t know about, like minor character traits, reactions and situations that apparated as I wrote.
Additionally, when I pants-write I usually need several hours to get back into the story if I’ve been away for a couple of days, but with my skeleton of a plot to guide me, I could now get into my flow-zone within just a couple of minutes. This was essential, as I wrote most of the first draft on my cellphone at night when one of the toddlers had woken me up and I couldn’t fall back to sleep.
Deadlines can help you push through
Still, I didn’t manage to stick to my tight schedule. Fast-forward one month, and I still had about five chapters left to write on the day that I had promised to send the first version to my beta readers. In order to stick to the schedule, I paused the writing, and self-edited the first six chapters best I could, before I sent out three different versions to my betas in what scientists would probably call a blind test (no readers saw each other’s feedback, and they weren’t informed that they had been handed different versions). This way, I could put my betas to work while I finished the rest of the book so as to not waste precious time. The things I wanted to learn in this first round weren’t about the full story, anyway, but more about which tense to use, how “hooking” the beginning was, and who my real target audience might be.
I gave the readers a month to get back to me, and used that time to finish and edit the first draft.
On to the feedback
Then came the first round of external feedback. I can’t overstate how much I love this part of the writing process. To “watch” my readers take in the story, to see how different readers interpret the same things completely differently, and to eventually start seeing the patterns. You’ll need a thick skin, though, or to already have a great story, because not everyone will love it. Some will say it straight to your face – this I appreciate the most – but some people try to be kind and don’t say anything. They sort of “fade away” instead, or make nice compliments about dull details that they did like in order to conceal their dislike.
Not everyone will love it
The good thing was that I could turn this into constructive feedback by looking at my readers’ behavior instead. BetaReader.io helped me identify what worked well and what didn’t by showing where people dropped off and by aggregating their overall ratings. When a lot of people drop off at the same place, or don’t get past the first paragraph despite a prize looming at the end, you know that something needs fixing. Good thing I tested three different versions, because this quickly helped me realize which tense and beginning worked best.
I was now a little more than halfway into the project. With two and a half month to go, I knew how I would have to tweak the first draft based on my learnings from my first mini-beta-round. Three weeks later and with less than two months until the deadline, I was now on draft #2 and could send out the full story for the first time.
A lot of the editing had had to be done on my phone, which proved a little awkward when I realized that auto-correct had “helped out” in dubious ways in more than one place. A lot of the first reader feedback was on plain typos or strange phrases where auto-correct had switched one word for another.
Oh, well. The typos were quickly fixed, so most readers were spared, at least. And then, the feedback got more interesting. This time, I couldn’t write while I waited for the feedback (because I’d draw my conclusions when I had the full picture), so I just enjoyed life and took notes as trends started to emerge.
The “final” draft
With one month to spare now, I had to cut a few people out who hadn’t been active for a while, but most of my readers had finished the book. The picture was clear already a few days ahead of time, actually. Four distinct conclusions could be drawn from the reading data and feedback:
1. The beginning was still too slow
While I enjoy a slow build-up, most kids (at least among my readers) want things to happen quickly. I also realized that I didn’t let through immediately what type of story it was (urban fantasy thriller), which cost me a few readers. Some of them pushed through anyway, claiming first that this wasn’t their kind of book, but they’d give it a go, and then after a few chapters they came back to revise their initial verdict.
2. I found a plot hole
A minor, albeit annoying one, that seemed to bother parents more than children. Thankfully, it was easily fixed.
3. Don’t effing curse so much
I have to admit I enjoy throwing in the odd curse words to emphasize feelings, but while one of my characters was a real crass-ass, the others weren’t, and the cusser’s language had accidentally smeared off a little on them. And apparently, even if kids do swear, most of them don’t seem to like it in text. I decided to go back and focus the swearing on the one character who deserved it.
4. The ending was too abrupt
I’d like to think that this piece of feedback was an effect of my pressed timeline, which didn’t give me more than a day to write the ending. The result was that my readers got a bit annoyed with how fast the story ended after the climax. They wanted to dwell for some time before closing the book, which I assume is a good sign for the entire story. Either way, with only the three other bits to fix, I did manage to spend a little more time on the ending before the contest deadline.
In the end, I managed to submit the manuscript 3 whole days before the official contest deadline. The one downside is that I didn’t get to test my third draft against a new round of beta readers to see if my changes had had the intended effects, but oh well. At least I researched and wrote a whole novel, from idea to 3 full drafts (excluding the plot drafts), in less than six months. I know there are writers who churn out more than that, but this was my first time to pull it off while juggling a company and a tiny family as well, and everything without hitting a brick wall.
No matter how it goes, I can honestly say that I enjoyed both the process and the final story. The plot might not be world-changing, but it’s good, even really good, and I have 100+ invested readers who will back me up when the time comes. We’ll see in a few months if we win or if we have to proceed with other publishers.