Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Why I love Beta-Readers (and what they do!)

I'd never heard of the term 'Beta-reader' until a couple of years ago. Then, I thought it referred to those techie types who check computer coding or develop HTML. Instead, it turns out they play an essential role in helping to turn a novel from 'quite good' to 'very good'! The kind of person you definitely want in your Team!

What do Beta-Readers do?
Sheet from a 'galley version' (Dark Place to Hide)
Essentially my Beta-Readers 'read my book' as though they've just bought it. They usually receive a hard copy in galley format in the post, so it's formatted like a book, but isn't bound together. I produce this copy after I've spent several months pummelling the first draft and turning it into something that resembles a coherent and polished novel. Or after I think I have. 

My readers are a fresh pair of eyes, who do what I can never do - which is to read with no idea of what's coming next in the story. They are therefore able to react to it with immediacy. Fresh. Having worked on the book myself for many months and read and re-read it over and over; added to it, taken bits away and so on - I know it too well to be able to read it as a new reader. Their view is blank, uncontaminated by previews of the threads involved. They also have no idea which sections flowed naturally and instantly and which had to be squashed or bashed into shape over and over again!

What Beta-Readers don't do?
They are not editors, so my Beta-Readers are not asked to point out spelling mistakes, continuity errors or faults in grammar. At this stage, formatting issues (such as incorrect paragraph or tab indents) are not important either, as there will be more rounds of editing before these are all checked. If anything, the role of my readers is similar to a 'structural editor', where they are invited to comment on the building blocks of the novel: plot, sub-plots, threads, themes, pace, characters, setting, atmosphere.

The Specifics
I give my Beta-Readers a checklist, so they know exactly what I'm looking for as they read. It saves misunderstandings and helps me to state exactly what it is I want from them. I ask certain questions, suggest the amount and degree of detail I require and give a deadline for completion (of course!) - and a fee. Shown below are a few sample questions I used while working on my current novel, LOST IN THE LAKE:

  • This novel is book two in the Dr Samantha Willerby Series and follows on from INSIDE THE WHISPERS. It therefore needs to work as a standalone novel AND to work for readers coming to it after reading the first book in the series. Please comment on how successful you think it is in both respects.
  •  Do you think as a series book, LOST IN THE LAKE is missing anything in following on from Book 1? Or needs something adding/changing? (My intention is to avoid spoilers for people who read them in the wrong order). Would you have expected something different as the second in a series?
  • Can you comment on the order in which the plot evolves - eg Did you find out certain facts/reveals too soon/too late. Were they too complicated/too obvious? Explain a little.
  •  Did the story keep you guessing? Did it grip you and keep you turning the pages? Given there are several story strands, what held your attention most? Explain a little.

What happens next?
    The comments that come back from Beta-Readers tell me, first and foremost, how differently every reader interprets and assimilates what they've read! Because of our own backgrounds, personalities, influences, interests and even the mood we're in when we sit down with a book, our views on a story will vary enormously. One reader will find an aspect of the plot too complicated, another will like the challenge of the complexity, another won't comment on it at all. The issue then is to consider how I make changes. If ALL my Beta-Readers are telling me a particular character is too 'bland' or too 'whiney', for example, then I need to seriously reconsider how that character has been drawn. If one readers responds with 'I found Lynn too pushy' and another says 'I really like the way Lynn's pushy nature develops throughout the book' - then I have to stand back and assess exactly what I was trying to do. To change or not to change? To keep or not to keep? These will be the constant questions I work with intuitively over the following few weeks.

     The Hardest Part 
    For me, the most difficult part of the editing process is maintaining continuity as I smooth out the changes. This is especially true if the alteration is major, but even tiny changes feel a bit like working on a Fair Isle jumper and having to meticulously unpick all the threads that are 'pink' or 'grey'. I then have to close it up 'seamlessly', making it look like those threads were never there in the first place.

Photo: https://tomofholland.com
     Having said that, I also love the editing process! By the time I reach this stage with a book, I know the characters inside out and I love spending my day with them! I love trying to make the plot clearer, the dialogue sharper, the setting brighter, to inject the anticipation and jeopardy with more jolt and sting. With the framework already in place and all the details of the path of the mystery set up, it's a joy to go back into that world and tinker around. I ask questions all the time: Do we need this? Does this add anything? Is this overkill? With the help of my Beta-Readers, with any luck the end product will be a far better book!

LOST IN THE LAKE is available to pre-order on Amazon from July 13th and for release on September 7th 2017. It is the second in the psychological thriller series featuring clinical psychologist, Dr Samantha Willerby, and follows on from INSIDE THE WHISPERS.

More TASTERS about the new book to follow in the next two months! Or Click HERE to join my Newsletter for updates.

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