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Working with Beta Readers to Write a Better Novel

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By the time a writer has polished the manuscript, he’s lived inside the story so long he’s lost objectivity. It’s time for someone with fresh eyes. An editor will examine your work from a production perspective, but it saves a lot of time if you’ve first identified and fixed your story’s weaknesses. That’s where beta readers can help.

 To paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition, a beta reader is a person who reads a novel manuscript with a critical eye. A beta reader may highlight plot holes or problems with continuity, characterization or believability; and assist the author with fact-checking.

 Many writers request fellow writers to be beta readers. I chose readers who weren’t writers because I wanted the customer’s reaction. I focused on readers interested in elements present in my novel, such as paranormal romance, the Gullah culture, or ballet. A few curious friends volunteered. I emailed nine potential beta readers. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m contacting you because your interests and experiences give you the unique view I’m looking for in a beta reader for The Bad Death. Essentially, The Bad Death is a vampire slayer novel with a Gullah heroine and is slated for publication in summer/fall 2013. The details below give the cover art and synopsis; an explanation of a beta reader’s contribution; my novel’s characteristics such as length and similarity to its genre sisters; and particulars of the beta-reading period. I also attached the first few chapters. If you say “yes”, I’ll contact you again May 1.

I made a similar appeal on a Goodreads discussion thread, with the moderator’s blessing.

I wound up with eight readers (three from Goodreads) who had a month to read and review. Five gave feedback. The most valuable input was constructive criticism. For instance, some said my heroine was too passive, too much of a victim. Her identity was revealed way too late, and a couple of readers just gave up on her. Ouch but thanks! I thought of a way to reveal her identity much earlier. I gave her a mission from the start and made her active instead of reactive. This required changing other characters’ interactions with her. It really strengthened the first 3rd of the book. Other input affected how many Gullah words I used in dialogue, chapter length, and the additions of a Gullah dictionary and a list of characters. My revisions per beta feedback resulted in my editor getting a much better manuscript. And readers got a much better book! Though it isn’t for everyone, The Bad Death is getting good reviews.

In addition to my heartfelt gratitude, I gave each beta reader an autographed copy of the published version, in the format of her choice.


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