Friday, April 15, 2011

The Unpublished Novel and You, Part Two

A writer has given you the opportunity to read her or his unpublished novel. Having consulted my first post on the subject, you've decided to seize that opportunity by the horns. Now what? Well, you have a little work to do, which we'll get into in just a moment. The fun news is that you have a shiny, new job title to show off. You can call your mom and tell her you're a:

Beta Reader

"Wait a second, what's a beta reader?" you may wonder. Perhaps you've heard the term "beta tester" in relation to tech stuff. Video games, for instance, are beta tested before they go into production. Beta testers play a mostly-finished version of a game to get a feel for the overall experience. They hunt for problems the game's creators may have overlooked--bugs, glitches, story continuity, the secret cow level... that kind of thing.

In the writing world, beta readers (sometimes called "first readers" by people who like to be contrary) play a similar, important role. Beta reading is the step between the completion of a manuscript and submission for publication. The bulk of the technical writing work should be done by now. The diligent writer will have edited and proofread her manuscript before putting it into your hands. Don't worry if you aren't an expert grammarian; that's not why you've been recruited. As a beta reader, your job is to experience the novel and let the author know whether or not it works. Curl up with that unpublished novel and grab a notepad. It's time to read.

Can we skip the hobbit toes and get to the party?
In the Beginning...

Within pages--and definitely by the end of the first chapter--you should have a sense of where this novel is headed. You won't know precisely what's going to happen, but a successful opening will introduce one or more major character, set the tone for the novel, and give you a taste of the story's conflict. Does the beginning compel you to keep reading? That's called a hook, and your writer wants a strong opening hook. Let him know whether or not the initial chapter draws you into the story. Beginnings are hard to get right, so your input here is truly invaluable. What works? What doesn't?

The Long and Winding Middle

As the novel progresses, keep a close eye on plot and characters. Although complications will arise for our plucky heroes, the main thrust of the novel should remain focused. At the beginning of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we learn Mr. and Mrs. Bennet wish to make good marriages for their daughters. We are told of Mrs. Bennet: The business of her life was to get her daughters married... (pg. 3) The rest of the novel all ties back to this single point. Complications such as Lydia's elopement with Wickham and Lady Catherine's staunch disapproval of Lizzy are roadblocks to the main goal of getting the Bennet girls married. As you read the unpublished novel, mind whether subplots and complications are related to the main goal. If the story ever becomes bogged down or confusing, take note!

Initially, you might not know why a character makes the choices s/he does. But as you read, each character's motivation should become clear. If you get to the end of the novel and still don't know why the villain wanted to blow up the farmer's market, your writer needs to hear about it.

Yes, but why have we spent all morning staring into this pond?

Jot down a few scenes or characters you enjoy. What's good about them? If the dialog is witty, or a narrative passage is sensually engaging, or a character has appealing swagger, be sure to let the author know. Hearing what we're doing right is just as important as what we're doing wrong.

Hindsight is 20 / 20

Sometimes you just won't know until the very end whether or not a novel works. After you reach "The End," take some time to think about the story arc. Does the novel end in a satisfying way? A satisfying ending is one that makes sense in the context of this particular novel. Has the major plot been resolved? Have subplots been tied together? Note any dropped plot threads.

How about the characters? Has the main character evidenced growth from the person s/he was at the beginning? Do you feel like each character got the ending that's right for him or her?

"What did you think?"

When you've finished reading and making notes, it's time for the beta reader to report back to the writer. Whether you email your thoughts or carry on a conversation, remember to be honest, but tactful. Tell the writer what you enjoyed, and where you saw room for improvement.

What if you hated the novel? First of all, decide whether your dislike is a matter of taste or a matter of execution. In other words, did the novel succeed in conveying a coherent story with well-developed characters, and you just didn't like it? If so, try to keep your remarks objective.

Sometimes, a novel just honestly is not well written. What then? Pick two or three of the most egregious shortcomings to remark upon, and remember to stay non-judgmental in your wording. Say, "I feel the plot lacks focus," rather than, "This book is pointless." Dig deep and find something positive to say, too.

When you act as a beta reader, you provide a great service to a writer, and you get to be one of the first to read a (hopefully) good novel. Remember, every great novel was once an unpublished manuscript. Don't be afraid to give beta reading a try!


  1. I'll be a fighting fish for your stories any time! <3

  2. Like this one! You've inspired me to revisit my writing that I haven't touched in over a year. Now, if only I could read it objectively and use your tips above...

  3. It's so hard to read my own work objectively. Sometimes a good long break from it helps, so hopefully you'll be able to look at it with fresh eyes. If not, you've got friends who would be more than happy to help. :) I hope you'll get back to writing soon!