Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Sunday, August 19, 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


Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim, your process is much like mine. I go through a number of revisions until I feel I've made it as good as I can (though I know it's not yet there). Then I show it to my husband, who's a professional book editor. He runs a university literary press. I ask him for a big-picture read. Then I fix what he sees wrong with it. Next, if I have time, it goes to my novel critique group, and I fix what they find, and in the process I find more things myself and fix them. Then my husband and I copy-edit and proofread, and off it goes to my agent and then my editor, where I will again go through another couple of drafts making some minor changes, mostly to do with logistics. And of course, once those are done, there are the copy-edits and proofs yet to go.

This has particularly hit home right now because I've just received my manuscript with suggested changes from my editor after I thought we'd gone through final edits. I'm always glad to go through all these, though. The whole process is designed to see that I don't look a fool in public. I've never understood people who resist editing. 99% of the time, the editor's just trying to help make your book and writing the best they can be.

Jim Jackson said...

Linda, I so agree with your comments about editing.

Good editors don't try to change your style into theirs; rather they try to improve your story and your writing. I find that I almost always agree with their suggestions or when they ask to rewrite a section because it is clunky or unclear, they are invariably right.

Editors are human too, and occasionally make mistakes, but I've found they too agree when you politely object to a suggestion.

I'm happy for their editing and always hope for as strong an editor as possible.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

Jim, My process is similar and I am pretty much always looking for readers/critiquers in the late stages of review. I have one editor whose changes sound more like me than the original words. It is an amazing process.

Gloria Alden said...

You're lucky to have beta readers. I've gone over my first book and revised so many times. A few family members read it. They're all avid readers including mysteries so their input was helpful. Probably my best beta reader was someone in my writer's group. She made a lot of good changes without altering my voice. My Guppy critique group has been good, too. They didn't see my first book until I'd made many revisions. Then they saw the first drafts of my next two books plus a middle-grade mystery I wrote. At the beginning of this year after still more revisions, I sent them the first book again, a chapter at a time, and after over two years since reading it they enjoyed it even more maybe because I'd continued revising, but also because they knew who the murderer was and enjoyed finding the clues and red herrings I'd left. Still, I wish I had the beta readers you all have.

Anonymous said...

I'm similar to y'all. I hired an editor (also a good friend) who doubled as a beta reader, but I also had 3 other beta readers. One is a voracious thriller reader who's daughter has a service dog so I wanted that experienced set of eyes on that portion of the story. Another beta is a mystery author herself. And the third is a gun expert who rarely reads fiction but loves nonfiction. I got great feedback from all of them.

E. B. Davis said...

I just finished reading Cabin Fever. Well done, Jim! I've always enjoyed reading and that part of my "job" as a writer has been easy to do. Reading and responding is part of the job, but then if I weren't a reader, I wouldn't be a writer. My critique group worked in 20 page segments, which at first was fine. But pacing wasn't something that could be evaluated. Next time, I'm writing the entire first draft before working with a critique group.

Thanks for the read. I enjoyed it.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria -- As a member of the Guppies you can arrange to swap manuscripts with other Guppies. Betsy Bitner can set you up at the appropriate time.

And sometimes the best way is to ask -- the worst that can happen is the person says "no."

Amy -- I think you have hit upon one of the key attributes of a good beta reader group and that is to have a diversity of readers.

Elaine -- Thank you for the speedy read. I appreciate your comments and perspective, particularly on the ending.

Many of your specific suggestions I'll be taking or if Owen is talkin, then takin -- but only if the editor insists will he be talkin' and takin'! (Inside joke.)

When I did work with a critique group I also learned to only use them after I had a draft I was fairly comfortable with. Otherwise many of their comments and suggestions ended up on the editing floor as I added and deleted scenes, characters and subplots.

~ Jim