Saturday, July 14, 2012

The unabridged guide re: beta reading for authors

How to Beta Read a Manuscript
by Ashlyn Chase
and agent Nicole Resciniti

There are several things a beta reader should know before they agree to help an author in this capacity. It’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly, and it involves more work than you might think.

First, the beta reader isn't reading a book. They're reading a manuscript. It should never be rated and reviewed for the public, because it isn't finished. It isn't even an arc (advance reading copy.) It could change quite a bit after editing is complete. It could change drastically, based upon your feedback! Things that might have interfered with your enjoyment may very well be taken care of by the time a book hits the shelves.

What the beta reader needs to do is review it for the author, and them alone. If you're used to being a reviewer, perhaps rating it in your head will help. If it's not a 5 star manuscript in the beta reader's opinion, she needs to tell the author(s) why not and additionally what he, she or they can do to make it one. Both good and bad feedback before a book is published (and it's too late to change) is extremely valuable for authors.

 I’m going to be brave and share what my beta reader had to say about the manuscript I just completed. With her permission, I’m printing what she said word for word, and giving you all my knee-jerk first impressions. I may take her suggestions and I may not. I need to consider all the implications--especially since this is a series and some bits may affect other books.

"LOVED Flirting with Dragons! The book is awesome. Bliss is amazing. She is so funny and snarky and cool. Drake is sexy and sweet. I LOVE Mother Nature. She's my favorite. I think you do a phenomenal job building the world and welcoming characters into Boston Uncommon. The secondary characters are among your greatest strengths and I think your cast of characters rocks! I look forward to seeing this series develop over the course of several books (can't wait for Anthony and Claudia!).

*Kudos to her for recognizing my brilliance! She is indeed a clever, intelligent woman with discerning taste.*

 In reading, you had asked for some suggestions to help up the word count and I have some macro suggestions. Also, there were a few areas that you might want to 'tweak'. As always, these are just suggestions, so take what you want and ignore the rest. Okay, here goes:
--Mother Nature. She's friggin' awesome. Let's get her on the page sooner. As in, within the first 50 pages. You have the elements in place and the setup is there.

*Okay, that’s doable, especially since she’s such an awesome character.*

A scene to show that Gaia is watching what's going on and is maybe concerned about the initial fire (or the recent spree of fires). IDK. She doesn't appear until very late in the book, and, since she's going to play such a pivotal role in Bliss's life, I just think the reader should get to meet her much sooner.

*Okay, I get it. You don’t have to get pushy.*

--Establishing the plot/conflict. We don't have a clear idea of what the conflict is until rather late in the book, like over 100 pages in.

*Huh? Wait a minute…what happened to the smart beta reader? I want the one who ‘gets me’ back!*

Is there any way you can up the tension and enhance the suspense with Drake and have him reflecting on the recent rash of fires? It is a great thread, but it isn't really exploited enough, and it could give the reader a clear idea of where the story is going.

*Humph. I’ll think about it.*

--The Zina and Drake angle. This kinda a big one for me. As a reader, I really struggled with Drake waffling back and forth and going on the date with Zina AFTER he meets Bliss. You do a brilliant job of justifying his decision via the promise to his mom and propagating the species, but it detracted from the romance for me, especially when Bliss forgives him so easily.

*Forgives him easily? Are you reading the same scene I wrote? She gave him not one ultimatum, but two!*

Plus, they go from him admitting that he went out with another woman to having unprotected sex with Bliss. That for me is a little hard to believe.

*Heh heh. Clearly you weren’t the bad girl I was.*

My suggestion here is to have the saved-at-the-fire scene with Bliss to introduce her to Drake, but then to have Drake going out on a date with Zina. A date he had planned BEFORE ever meeting Bliss. That way, he's still honoring his mother's wishes and trying to do the right thing by his race, but then he can compare Zina to Bliss and choose Bliss.

*Yeah, okay. I can probably flip that around. If not, it stays as is…tough noogies.*

This would allow you to introduce Zina sooner (as she is the main antagonist and her vengeance is the basis of the plot) and it would alleviate any confusion or negativity regarding the romance with Bliss and Drake.

*True. Damn, I’d better figure out a way to make that happen.*

--Another option would be for an opening scene with Drake meeting and breaking it off with Zina before ever even meeting Bliss. This would 1) make it very obvious that he only has eyes for Bliss, and/or 2) establish the plot within the first chapters.

*I thought you wanted conflict. What are you doing to my conflict? Now you want to water it down. I thought you said to ramp it up. Make up your mind, lady*

Now, I want to remark that what you have works. It wouldn't stop me from reading. I loved this book and enjoyed the conflict that Drake endures, as it would be a very difficult cross to bear to have to choose between love and duty.
--Zina as the antagonist, needs to come sooner. Also, is there anything you can do to up the stakes so Drake/Bliss are more proactive in defeating her?

*Sigh. That’s a tall order. You’re asking me to have two mortals take down an immortal fire-breathing, pissed off dragon all by themselves, but I’ll see what I can do.*

--Drake as living in a one bedroom studio and getting his butt kicked by a girl. Alpha-hero wise, you might want to change this up a bit.

*Hey, that’s only because he refused to hit a woman, even if she hit him fist. Sigh. That’s my hero. Pitter patter.*

If he wonders why he was so vulnerable. If he freaks out over it, and this leads to another scene with Gaia, one where she explains that he's not immortal anymore. Adding this scene will help the reader to sympathize with Drake and understand why he is not able to defend Bliss himself (because asking the other supes to help does kinda undermine him, although it is totally justified).

*Yeah. Justified! He’s smart to ask for help from characters who can and give it to him. I hate arrogant stubborn Alphas who refuse to let anyone assist, regardless of the disastrous consequences.*

As far as his monetary state goes, play up the had-it-all-and-lost-it angle more. Let the reader know that Drake was once very very wealthy. His family is very old, they would have amassed wealth/land/power, granted all of this could have been taken away when his uncle went rogue, but we need to see/hear about that. Otherwise, it does kind of seem odd that someone so old would have so little.

*Nuts. Does every hero need to be richer than God? What’s wrong with making a modest living as a firefighter? Oh, wait! I know. I’ll have him walk away from it all because his uncle was a Mob boss and his fortune came from ill-gotten gains. Ha! So there!*

--Drake's link to all the fires. This is something that is touched on by his boss and by Bliss' brothers. If he is suspected of arson, that would be a really big deal. Can you have a small scene of resolution, where Gaia or Vulcan steps in with the authorities to explain or offer 'counter' evidence so that Drake is cleared?

*Uh, no can do. Humans aren’t supposed to know the supernatural council exists.*

Or just a line of dialog where the chief says, 'if you weren't in the firehouse at the times of these crimes, I'd be ...." You know what I mean? Something that exonerates him before he can really be charged.
*Charged? Who said he was going to be charged? He had nothing to do with the arsons! What kind of crazy misleading—
Oh…I guess if she wasn’t clear on that, I’d better go back and make it crystal.*

Bliss can use a similar line of defense when arguing with her brothers in front of the camera crew.”
*Sure. That’s easy enough. Sigh. Back to the storyboard.*

Despite my silly commentary, I realized the whole time how lucky I was to benefit from an excellent beta reader’s impressions and suggestions.
Here’s what a good beta reader should do:
1)         Provide honest, insightful feedback in a constructive, positive fashion.
2)         Alert the author to anachronism, logic gaps, or material that may be confusing. If something is ‘unbelievable’ or draws the reader out of the story, these sections should be indicated.
3)         Consider the manuscript from a macro perspective. Do the plot elements work? Do the characters act and react in manners befitting their personalities, circumstances/motivations/goals?
4)         Comment on the pacing. Is this book a page-turner? Or do some sections lag? Does each chapter propel the plot forward or is there ‘filler material’?
5)         Rate the book on a scale of 1-10. Tell the author if this is a book they would want to read again and/or recommend to a friend.
6)         Keep the material and/or suggested edits confidential. The author/beta relationship is all about trust.
So, thank you dear readers for reading and reviewing our published books, but please don't rate or review a book you beta read unless you read it all over again in its finished state. An arc that a publicist sends out to reviewers is pretty much finished. It still needs to be proofread by the author. Some things get past editors and those mistakes will be glaring to the author on the last pass.

This is why it takes me six months to produce a novel. It will take another six for a major publisher to position it for marketing...adding an attractive cover, enticing blurb, putting it in front of potential buyers, and hopefully, someday, getting it on those best seller lists.

As a last note to beta readers, if you have any questions about a manuscript, don't hesitate to ask the author(s.) If anything is still ambiguous he, she, or they would welcome the chance to make it clear. Trust me.

Based on my beta reader’s  feedback, I’m revising the entire first seven chapters of the novel, which won’t be published until spring of 2013. If authors are smart, they’ll listen to and consider any and all feedback. A critique partner and editor are (in my opinion) invaluable, but a good beta reader can make a huge impact too.


Wynter Daniels said...

A good Beta Reader is hard to find. I'm still looking!

Desiree Holt said...

Ash, very well done. every single author or would-be author should read this article.

Ashlyn Chase said...

Thanks, Des! I was hoping to reach as many readers as possible on the RomConInc site. Only 5 comments, but the site is hard to use (IMO.)

If you can think of a better place to post it, I'm open!

Tamara Hoffa said...

I am a Beta reader for several authors and I hope I do all that you suggest in your article. I definitely keep author confidentiality and don't share anything unless it is to help promote the book and with author permission.

It is a BIG responsibility. But, a wonderful feeling to be part of the creation of a new "masterpiece"

I recently wrote my first attempt at a story for publication and several authors I had read for, returned the favor for me. I can't tell you what tremendous help I found their suggestions. I KNOW they helped my story be a much better work in the end, and I hope I do the same for the authors I beta read for.

Ashlyn Chase said...

That's wonderful Tamara. That like a critique partner. I have one of those too. Great during the writing of the first draft to have another pair of eyes and ears.

Casey Crow said...

Thanks, Ash! I know you LOVE working with Nicole. Me, too! She rocks!

Ashlyn Chase said...

We're super lucky to have her, Casey!

Maggie Nash said...

Excellent post Ash. All of us should be that lucky to have a beta reader such as yours! Snarky comments aside, you're right - the author needs to listen to the reader and not take it personally. Our books are for everyone and useful constructive feedback is invaluable in making them the best they can be.

Author Gail DeYoung said...

I have two author friends who are my beta readers, and boy, are they tough on me. Sometimes they recommend a completely different story line for my characters, or ask me to change the status of one of my characters, which at first can seem quite disconcerting. But I discover that if I listen with an open mind to their suggestions, they are usually right and the story is a much better product. I love beta readers!

Ashlyn Chase said...

Hi Maggie,

Thanks for stopping by and reading the article.

Gail, it's great that you have honest readers! You don't have to take their suggestions, but it's wonderful when they offer ideas and suggestions, isn't it?

Marisa Cleveland said...

What a great article! Thanks for sharing. :D

Ashlyn Chase said...

Thank you to everyone who read this. If you'd like to recycle the article, please contact me at