The process of converting a first draft of a manuscript to a polished novel is a daunting one. The manuscript is like a cake; the batter is mixed, but the wet and dry ingredients may not yet be smoothly combined. Once this mixing is finished we still need to bake the batter, cool the cake and ice it. Beta listeners and readers are a critical resource to consult during this creative process.
Having a beta listener is a great way to start. If you are like me, when you are writing the first draft several options or plot directions will be available. It is immensely helpful to have a person who will listen while you talk through a plot twist. Speaking out loud to an attentive listener will often clarify the best direction.
Beta readers are also known as manuscript doctors. Laurie Boris has given tips on how best to direct a beta reader. A beta reader must know what their specific job is with regard to your manuscript. Handing your manuscript to three friends who love you and asking for general feedback will rarely net you any constructive criticism. This is the point in the process where you need a thick skin and an open mind. It is better to find, for example, a timeline problem now than have it pointed out in a review on Amazon.
The question is; where can you find several people who will be happy to read your rough diamond and feel comfortable giving you constructive criticism? It is easier than you may think.
A good place to start is within your writer’s network. Many writers will trade a beta read and will provide solid feedback. If you are going to use a writer pick someone who reads your genre. A beta reader that writes romance novels is probably not the best choice to read a science fiction manuscript. Not every writer is willing to trade this service. Some writers will ask for you to do this for them, but will decline to provide a read for you. They may be too busy. If they cannot trade this service they are sure to help you in some other way in the future. We indie writers are a helpful lot.
There are many people you come into contact with, non-writers, who would be thrilled to have a look at a manuscript before it becomes a real novel. This may be a participant in a book club that hosted you. Talk about your project when people ask and test the waters. There is a woman at my gym that has offered to beta read my next murder mystery. She reads constantly, and is never without her Nook. Her mission will be story related. Was the timeline tight? Did the story flow without excessive ups and downs? Did the tension build? Were the characters believable? Did she figure out who the murderer was? Beta One loves talking to me about my projects. As authors we network constantly with other writers, and I think we forget how special we are to people who love to read but cannot write a book.
Ask your betas about your title. Do they find it intriguing or pretentious? Do they get it? I have seen a few titles in the last year that were very confusing. I was unclear as to the genre. If the reader has to puzzle over the title they will be less likely to buy it. If your betas hem and haw while their face glazes over, you should be concerned. A title can be intriguing and approachable.
Another friend will read the manuscript looking more closely at the forensic discussions and the police officers. The first murder mystery did not produce a strong homicide detective and I will correct that with this book. Beta Two will have more free rein to comment on anything that seems unrealistic. A good murder mystery, while challenging the reader to find the murderer, must also provide the salient clues that make the resolution logical and believable. An existential end is typically not a satisfactory solution in the murder mystery genre. It is likely that at this point I will undertake a first rewrite.
My brother has offered to do a grammar check. He commented that he found several grammatical errors in the first book. I am grateful that he is willing to go over the rewrite with a fine-tooth comb. Another edit will occur as a result of his review.
In this book I am killing more people than the first one. At one of the first book clubs I was invited to it was pointed out to me that I waited too long to kill someone. I aim to please; if it’s murders you want, then that is what you’ll get. With each murder, however, the involvement of the homicide detectives increases. I am unfamiliar with this specialty within law enforcement. A homicide detective must be a seasoned officer, keenly observant, possessing a specific set of skills. I have no idea how an investigation is run, so I will seek help. An acquaintance of mine is a Tampa police officer with 30 years of experience. After a lengthy conversation, he directed me to a local resource. Here I can find a retired homicide detective to read the book, or specifically the police scenes, to make sure I haven’t made any grievous errors. I am expecting that after this beta read I would perform another rewrite.
I am intrigued by the website MeetUp. I think there are many opportunities on MeetUp to find book clubs where an avid reader might become one of your betas. I have joined a couple of book clubs in the Tampa Bay area and will test my hypotheses. It is also a great networking site to meet potential readers.
After the forensic pruning it is now time for a formal edit. I strongly suggest that as tempting as it is to believe that you have a finished product, you pay for an experienced editor. An editor that is involved at this point is not a beta reader, although they may report back to you with issues beyond a final polish. Take this feedback gratefully. In general, strive to have the tightest, cleanest manuscript you can produce before going to an editor. There are several fine ones listed in the services section of the Indies Unlimited website. I have found that the tracking changes method in Word is the best way to complete this polish.
For me, there is still more beta work to be done. The polished proof is then printed and given to a couple of friends. Betas Three and Four are avid readers and will let me know if anything has escaped the other betas. At this point, I am open to compliments. Before this point, I don’t want to hear “…Wow! I loved your book and it’s perfect the way it is.” We need to give our betas free rein to critique. This is the only path to developing our craft.
There are websites where you can pay a ‘manuscript doctor’ to read your manuscript and provide feedback. Many come with extensive experience and stellar recommendations. If money is no object this is an option you may want to consider. As an indie on a budget, my goal with this post was to suggest ways to get around the more expensive option.
Make sure to check out our Beta Reader Resource Page. You won’t regret it.
Now your book, beautifully formatted and covered is ready for your alpha reader. The second leg of the journey is just beginning, and I wish you great success.