After the Draft: Episode II, The Beta Factor
Okay, my day of celebration is over and it’s time to start polishing up this manuscript. The first time you finish a novel and go back for a read-through can be a little strange, at least it was for me. There were parts of the story that I hadn’t read for over a year. Enough time had passed that I didn’t even remember writing some passages. It’s important at this stage not to get distracted.
In the first read-through, you’re looking for the obvious errors; spelling, missing words, punctuation, sentence structure, and blatant errors of continuity. You’re also trying to cut out unnecessary or redundant words, sentences, even paragraphs. When a professional editor gets their hands on your book, it’s not unusual for them to red-out ten or even twenty percent of your word-count. Help get that process started.
At this stage, I try not to get into major restructuring of plot, characters, etc. Before that process starts, it’s been my experience that fresh eyes need to take a crack at it. We call these folks Beta Readers. The job of a Beta Reader is to read through your draft, taking notes and making corrections as they go along. They are your first editors, and they are your first impressions of how your manuscript will read to your audience.
Therefore, selecting the best people to be your beta readers is important. First of all, immediate family probably isn’t a good bet. Chances are, they have emotional attachments to you, and some investment in the book itself because they want to see it succeed. This makes it difficult for them to have the distance to judge your work dispassionately.
Instead, try to find 2-4 people who have experience as writers, editors, etc. People you’re close with, but who don’t have a vested interest in the manuscript. I’ve lined up three people as Betas for Any Port in a Storm. All of them are professional authors, and one of them also works as an editor. Diversity is also important. You want a spread of backgrounds, age, gender, etc in your Betas. This will make their viewpoints closer to that of a real audience. My pool includes people from different parts of the country, two men, an honest-to-goodness woman, varying ages, two parents, a single guy, etc.
Beta readers almost always do their work on a volunteer basis, so be patient with them as they take time out of their lives to help your manuscript. Often, this can be a long process, but then, so is everything else in this business. Often, writers find a handful of good, reliable Betas and stick with them for years, creating a little circle of support. If you ask another writer to be a Beta for you, it’s very likely that they will ask you to return the favor later on. Do it, not just because it’s polite, but because editing the work of someone else is one of the fastest ways to learn to identify the same problems in your own writing. After doing the process a few times, you’ll find your own manuscripts come out cleaner, saving you time editing later.
And for the love of God, do not put all your Betas in one bowl. Beta Readers are extremely territorial. It doesn’t matter how big the bowl is, they will seeks each other out and fight to the death almost immediately. Keep them in separate bowls and out of direct sunlight.