Monday, August 20, 2012

Beta Readers

My novel Cabin Fever is currently out to several beta readers. After an internet search on the term “beta reader,” I realized people use the term to describe a wide range of functions. I’ll describe my writing process, which leads to my definition of beta reader.

Before anyone reads one of my manuscripts, I will have written several drafts. The first draft is to get the story down. I am a pantster rather than a strict plotter, so my story changes as I write. The second draft aligns the first part of the story with the actual ending. In it I add necessary scenes, eliminate excess characters and scenes, plant additional clues and maybe redesign a subplot or two. In the third (and maybe fourth) drafts I polish the storyline and hone the language, probably still tweaking the story to strengthen it.

The writing by this point is by no means perfect, but good enough not to get in the way of the story. I then ask my life partner, Jan Rubens, to read the manuscript. She’ll circle grammar errors, poor word choices, clunky construction and whatever writing errors she sees, but her most important function as she reads the manuscript is to note what she is thinking and feeling in each chapter and list any questions she has. Because this is her first read, she can tell me where I have confused her, where the dialogue is stilted, where she got bored with description and whether the plot makes sense. Her first read through is a big picture critique.

If I have done my work well, she won’t find too many problems, but she will find some and she usually has suggestions for fixes. Draft five addresses whatever she’s spotted and polishes the language. Now the beta readers get their turn.

I send them a manuscript I hope is perfect and know can’t possibly be. Again, I am most concerned with plot and character problems. By character problems I mean two things: (1) flat, stereotypical characters I need to flesh out, and (2) any instances where they think, “she wouldn’t do that!” Plot issues can include anything from pointing out a flaw in my protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) otherwise impeccable logic to internal contradictions (she entered the room through the only door and exited through a second door).

Beta readers will also let me know about clunky writing, typos (despite my careful proofreading and use of spell check, I read right through some errors), and grammar disagreements. Sometimes they point out repeated phrases I have over-loved such as any fire incorporating “dancing flames,” or I’ve developed a ballet of nodding heads, etc.

All my beta readers are avid readers; some are also writers. I like to have between six and eight to get a good mix of comments. Everyone has their pet peeves or interests and I benefit from a broad cross-section of viewpoints. Cabin Fever could still use a couple of additional beta readers. Please contact me if you are interested. In exchange for your insight I’m offering what I believe is my best novel yet and a chance to see your name in print in the acknowledgements when (well, technically if) the book is published.

~ Jim

(Originally Published on Writers Who Kill Blog 2012-08-19)

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