Thanks to ease with which one can now publish a book, indie publishing is really taking off. Many people don’t even bother submitting manuscripts to the big publishers or courting agents. I think this is, in part, due to a perception in many writing groups that “my work will just be rejected, so why bother?”
Personally, I think this is wrong. People should continue submit good work to agents and publishers, because a big publisher can do great things for their authors.
I understand both sides of this argument, and I have received my share of rejections. I am an indie, and for me, this is the best way to go. But when I look back on my earlier work, I can clearly see why it was not accepted. I had no idea what a finished manuscript should look like, nor did I understand how to get it to look that way. I didn’t understand a story arc.
I didn’t understand how important it is to allow trusted readers to read your work while you are writing it, to insure it flows and sustains the interest.
Some authors call these intrepid heroes “first readers,” and others in the industry are now referring to them as “beta readers.” Many editing firms offer this service as a part of their package. I can hear you now–“My Cousin Earl looked at my story and he said, ‘That’s nice.’ So I sent it to Mud Runner Magazine and they rejected it and didn’t tell me why.”
I am sorry to tell you, but Cousin Earl may not be a good choice for this task, as he is not a true beta reader. Even though you wrote an article just jam-packed with a ton of information on the advantages of using various different types of knobby tires for off-roading, Cousin Earl will not tell you anything that may hurt your feelings. He will, however, tell his wife that their kid could write a better article on four-wheeling than you did, but he’s not going to tell you. (Unless you get too drunk on Cousin Grace’s eggnog at the family Christmas party, and accidentally knock over their Christmas tree.)
I wish I had a good response for people who say things like, “But I don’t need an editor! I just need someone to tell me if it’s good or not!” Unfortunately, my responses to such declarations are not polite, so I keep them to myself, smile and say, “That’s nice.”
You DO need to hire an editor. You need one, even if you are submitting your ms to a publisher or agent, because editors proofread, correct grammar, guide you to a good story arc. I ALSO recommend you find someone who enjoys reading the genre you are writing in to read your manuscript first before you submit it.
I have a form I send along with my manuscript. I got the questions from Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game). Orson has also written several wonderful books on the craft of writing. The form I now use is as follows:
Thank you for consenting to Beta read: _______________________. I am not asking for an edit, I am asking your opinion of the story, the characters and the action. This is a critical stage in the process as, once I have your feedback, I will make revisions to address issues of flow and send it to an editor for the final line-editing. These questions are from the article in ‘Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy’ by Orson Scott Card, a brilliant author in his own right.
Please make a note of the page number and the line number where you encountered a problem with the flow of the story.
1. Were you ever bored? Tell me where it got slow.
2. What did you think of the main character(s,) _______________________________? Of the others?
3. Was there any section where you became confused? What did you have to read twice?
4. Was there any place where the story became unbelievable?
5. What do you think will happen to the characters now?
The way you answer these questions determines the way I continue with my story. After all, I am writing for others’ pleasure, not just for my own gratification. Even if your responses tell me things that I don’t want to hear, I heed them because I want to turn out a good story and your input is my best tool for that. So in this case, bad news is good news, because I can still rectify the problem.
Don’t ask a friend who is an editor or another author to do a casual read because they are unable to resist dicing it into small shreds and making helpful suggestions as they go, even though that is not what you are looking for with a casual read. Authors and editors are passionate about the craft and have strong opinions. Don’t ask them to read casually, because they can’t do it.
Now, I admit I do have many friends who are authors and who have done some beta reading for me, and while a few tend to go into great detail about things they don’t like in areas where our personal styles and tastes differ, I still get feedback that I can use to help make a better story. This is also a service many editing firms will offer, and is a “deep beta read.”
But for simple, honest opinions as to whether you have written a good story or not, I ask a non-writer who just enjoys reading for the fun of it. For me, that person is my sister, Sherrie. She is an amazing artist, and an avid reader, who understands what she likes in book and isn’t afraid to point out where she didn’t like it.
If you have a friend who fits that bill, feel free to copy the above questionnaire to a WORD document and send it as an extra attachment along with with the PDF of your manuscript. (Of course, your ms has already been formatted with line numbers, and page numbers before you send that questionnaire, right?) See The Shape of the Beast.