The joy and pain of beta-reading

A ‘Beta Reader’ is the very first person to be handed a manuscript and asked to read it with a critical eye. There are often two problems: 1. The author is relinquishing their ‘baby’, a creation that mustn’t be touched; and 2. The reader has a tremendous responsibility and must disassociate themselves from any personal feelings.
The result can be an unmitigated disaster and the death of a friendship, or it could be the cement that seals a personal relationship with trust and respect.
As a reader, how do I tell the author that a character needs to be filled out and given a much bigger role? How do you look at a timescale, scratch your head, and have the temerity to tell the writer that it simply doesn’t work?
Beta readers are not professional editors, nor are they simply proof-readers: both of which require separate and additional skills. My belief is that the beta reader must stand back and see the bigger picture, a la that famous Rolf Harris comment: ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’
My crime thrillers under the name Tony R Cox, are beta-read and part-edited by Tony Moss, my former boss as Chief Sub-Editor at the Nottingham Evening Post. Tony is a long-time friend and a dedicated, proven and successful professional in the newspaper and magazine world. Most of the time friendship is the prime mover; with my books, his professional skills come top. Tony is encouraging and helpful, often amusing, as well as being eagle-eyed and incisive. He likes a complete book to ‘attack’.
I have just finished beta-reading a close friend’s novel. We met five years ago when I went to his debut novel’s launch in a bookshop – and coincidentally won a copy of his book, Heartman. I read it, was astounded by the quality of the work and the different slant he took in a literary world of police procedurals. Gradually we realised that my comments were constructive as well as lightly critical. His fourth in the series is the manuscript I have just finished, chapter by chapter – which suits me as a reader and allows me to home in on a few thousand words, not be faced with 350 pages.
It has been a remarkable few months. Mark Wright is one of the most lucid authors writing today. He grasps the importance of action but also gets deep into the mind of the reader so that they are led, encouraged and almost physically tossed into a maelstrom. Such a stream of consciousness, no matter how controlled and managed, is bound to incur mistakes: I see my role as highlighting those, perhaps offering simple solutions, and ensuring that each character remains three-dimensional.
It has been an honour. He says he owes me a pint; I say it’s the other way round. The satisfaction of ‘Job Done’ is shared.
I believe that no manuscript should be submitted to a literary agent or a publisher unless it has been beta-read. As with a work of art, which it is, get as near to perfection as possible before you set it free.

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