The title is a little misleading as only the first half has had its first beta-read, but now the disclaimer is out of the way I can explain what a beta-read is to non-writers. Oh, actually no, I can’t because Out of the Darkness is still in its alpha draft stage. This isn’t going well, is it? Let’s start again.
Beta-reading is having a reasonably polished draft of your manuscript read through by a reader whose opinion you value. They then offer feedback and ideas for improving aspects of the story and, sometimes, your writing style. It’s relatively unusual to send out a completely unpolished first draft for someone to read, hence ‘alpha-reader’ not being a term in everyday use. However, I decided getting some early feedback could be very useful. If I was wide of the mark I’d rather find out sooner and avoid rewriting whole swathes of the story. Having found a willing masochist to trawl through my tortured first draft, I attached a copy of my .doc file to an email and waited nervously for a reply. I got one back surprisingly quickly.
Beta-reading can be exciting – someone finally gets to read your work – but it leaves me, and I suspect many other writers, feeling vulnerable. There is a writer’s care, time, creativity, and personality in anything that we produce. Any manuscript that isn’t rattled off in an afternoon has a lot of emotional investment in it. What others think of Out of the Darkness certainly matters to me. Below is, word for word, what I got back in the email. *Holding my breath*.
‘All in all I think you have a pretty good story going. No “but’s” either.
‘As a still-in-process first draft, there are some rough spots you’ll work over and refine later. Nothing major wrong with the story.
- Pacing – very good.
- Build-up – also feels right. Definitely builds and keeps building and doesn’t stall.
- Plot – starts off simple and begins to add layers, and they’re inter-connected which is even better.
- Characters – distinct and well-thought-out for M**** and M*********. F***** doesn’t need any more development than you’ve done since he’s minor. I’d like M****’s [name edits mine] ship to get some more show-time because it’s intriguing as far as its secrets.
- Points-of-view – handled really well. One of the main advantages of third-person and yet not easy to do. Which is why pretty much everyone just sticks with first-person which is more forgiving (but very limited). I’ve seen some “first-person” writers try to cheat by switching first-person POV and it isn’t pretty. Few authors have the skill to invoke unique voices for multiple characters. Instead, you get the author’s voice stuck onto each character they use. When going from book to book, this isn’t as bad (******* ******* doesn’t have very unique voices for all of her characters although she cheats by making each character always dwell on their character-specific plot points relating to their lovelife or whatever). Within the same book as ****** ********* [author names changed to protect the innocent] did with her trilogy, it gets noticed.
- Word-count – you have about 42,000 words in this document, and the story so far will support 80-90,000 words. I’d probably try for 80,000 as it feels like a mid-point has been reached and the story is heading into the second half.”
‘In my mark-ups on the document:
- I offered possible alternative words/phrasing for when you go into revision.
- I went ahead and pointed out repeated words but you will probably catch those anyway on a read-through. Repeated words *always* happen in first-draft, because we’re in a zone and thinking of story and scene and certain words will crop up more than once.
- I also discuss some thoughts on certain scenes or character actions.
- A few technical thoughts here and there.’
* And now, breathe*. My overwhelming feeling on reading this was one of relief. What followed was an intelligent discussion of character development and scenes that I won’t go into here as there’s too many spoilers. It’s not perfect. Several of the shortcomings I was already aware of – others need pondering. There’s work to do, but the fundamentals are in place. For this reader at least, I have written something that works.
So there you have it. There’s still a lot to do. I need to finish the first draft. (I reckon I’m just over halfway.) I need to get the whole thing beta-read, hopefully by several people, and incorporate their suggestions. Then it’s on to editing, getting the content rubber-stamped by Frontier, proof-reading, and polishing it until you can see every pimple on your face reflected from its shiny cover. But, today, I’m not looking at those mountains; I’m focusing on the fact that someone else thinks there is a decent enough story there that it can be told. Maybe someday you’ll agree (or not).
Note of thanks: At his request my beta-reader has asked to remain anonymous, despite having some books out that I could have plugged here. I’m still going to offer a public thank you though. Reading through a first draft isn’t for the faint hearted. Not only that, but the feedback was both encouraging and critical enough to be very useful. The story will be much better as a result. Thank you.