Question: How do you know if the book really works?
Answer: You don’t. You think it does, but it’s just a delusion brought on by too much Jack Daniels, too many late nights, and an inflated ego.
The truth is that you don’t really know if your novel works until you send your little disaster out to a small group of people you trust and let them look at it. I usually consider drinking heavily before doing it, while they have it, and before reading their comments, suggestions, corrections, and, in some cases, outright abuse of my talents. I sent Blood Link VI – The Slayer out to the betas this week and we’ll see if I’ve done well or if I suck oily bilge water.
I’ve talked about Beta Readers before. These are the brave souls who volunteer (okay, I coerce them) to read the manuscript after I’ve done all I can to make it readable. These people must love you enough to do it, but respect you enough to tell you the truth as they see it. Not everyone will like what you’ve written. What matters is that they are capable of articulating what works or doesn’t work.
My regular Betas are a diverse group. There are about a 8-12 per book and it’s a fairly even mix of men and women. A hair stylist, two retired attorneys, a gun shop employee, a librarian, a truck driver, a schoolteacher, a great-grandmother, a fitness instructor, an administrative assistant, a housewife, an assembly line worker, and several retirees all read the same book at the same time and provide their own unique perspective. About 2/3rds have prior military service and most are currently employed.
Diversity is important. A novel with a strong military component has to be written so a housewife in Pocatello, Idaho, with no military background can follow the action and still be technical enough not bore the hell out of a former Marine in Miami, Florida. The love story has to excite those that enjoy a little sex and romance, without ruining the action by overloading the pages with batting eyes and ripping bodices.
Betas also have to work for free because I’m poor and can’t pay them. The betas appear in the acknowledgements and they get a copy after publication for their e-reader. That’s not much considering the amount of time and energy some of these people devote to my books. I usually promise them beer or food if we’re in the same place at the same time, but I try not to visit any of them so I don’t have to pay up.
Within a week of sending out the manuscript, I have the first responses back. There are three Betas who don’t worry about anything but the story. They might note a missing word or an awkward sentence, but they aren’t there to correct grammar. Their job is to devour the book as though they picked it up in a bookstore. Their comments within the manuscript are generally short and pointed:
“I liked it right up to here, than you bored me.”
“This character is a caricature.”
“You rushed the ending.”
“You left this plot line unresolved.”
“This chapter has no valuable content”
“Where’s the threat?”
“Who is this?”
Their overall comments are no less succinct:
“It works and I liked it a lot.”
“Much better than the last book.”
“It’s okay. I think you need to spend more time on XXXXXX to fully develop the plot.”
The rest of the readers take two to three weeks to finish. Some catch a little, some catch a lot, some are really into the language. I have at least two who are talented enough to be paid editors. I love the grammar people since I suck at it.
I truly adore the people with the courage to challenge me. One reader pointed to a particular spot and told me that she was bothered by what my character did. She didn’t feel that my heroine would cry at this point, but would instead remain strong until later in the day when the problem had been resolved and then cry. After mulling it over for a few days, I concurred with her and adjusted the chapter.
One marked a spot and wrote, “You pissed me off as a reader. This is it? This is all he has to say? What the hell is wrong with you?” Needless to say, I reworked that section of the story.
The story isn’t finished until the betas say it’s finished.
I’m now going to go add some Jack to my coffee and wait impatiently.