Every now and then I take a break from stories about our fantastic universe to write about the business of being an author.
Most people think that when the writing of a manuscript is done, and the edits are finished, then it’s time to send the novel on to the publisher. That’s not correct. It now is time to send the manuscript out to trusted readers (some just folks who like to read, some professional writers), and find out how the book feels to them.
Most writers are working in a closed room, living the novel in their own minds. The smart ones go to regular writers groups to get feedback on chapters. But even the writers group members are not reading the book as a whole, as it was intended to be seen. So how do you get the published book experience from prospective readers? Beta readers.
Writers generally will find about four trusted friends or associates and ask them to go at it: is the book fun to read? How are the characters? Is the dialogue believable? Did I make any egregious mistakes?
Usually, if your test readers are good, you’ll find out in a couple weeks, maybe three, if your work passes the Everyday Reader test. You have to be careful to pick out readers who like your genre (I once sent a manuscript of an Egyptian novel to someone who told me she hated reading about Egypt.). They also must be pretty fast readers who have time in their busy lives to breeze through your writing. And lastly, they must be at least decent at grammar and spelling so they can point errors out to you. And believe me, errors will get past you, no matter how careful you are.
Also tell the test readers this is not an edit. You don’t want a manuscript that’s bleeding red ink with things they’d like to change. This is your book and you don’t want anyone telling you how they would write it. You’re pretty much done with the book and you only want big-picture comments, especially those that tell you if you described a landscape all wrong or if a character always reacts to bad news with stomach pains (these you can vary with headaches and gasps, etc.) Beta readers also can point out repeated words, a real bugaboo of mine.
I wasn’t as lucky as I usually am on my last group of beta requests. One treated it as an editing job (although some of the changes she made were lifesavers), one said she’d be done in two weeks and then suddenly was off the radar. Another had an illness in the family (excused, obviously). And the last sent it in late but had great info in her comments.
Using the two usable beta reads I had, I was able to add in some seriously needed changes, fix grammatical goofs, and get the state of Connecticut so it sounded right. (I’ve only been there once, and made a few crucial errors.)
Without the comments from my beta readers, I doubt I’d have the air-tight novel I have now (or so I believe). My publisher is busy until the first of the year, so it will go off to him then.
Not too many people know that the best writing is somewhat a group effort, with test readers and professional editors all playing a part.