By Brenda Buchanan
There comes a time in every writer’s life when she needs to back away from the keyboard and ask for help.
For me, this moment comes when I’m so close to my story that I can’t separate myself from it. The telltale sign is when my characters show up in my dreams. At first, this nocturnal workaholism freaked me out. Now I know it’s my signal to call in my betas.
Beta readers are the indispensable people willing to read a full manuscript and give critical feedback at the point in the process when a writer cannot objectively assess her own work.
Some writers work one-on-one with a series of beta readers, honing the manuscript in stages. Others have a standing writing group. Still others partner with a colleague who writes in the same genre, finding shared understanding of craft to be useful.
I’ve tried all three methods and they worked reasonably well. But with my last two books I’ve come to rely on a beta ritual I call roundtable, which supercharges me as I head down the home stretch. That said, it may not be for everyone. Like every aspect of the writing process, what works for me may not work for you.
Roundtable occurs after initial feedback from my spouse−who is my alpha reader−and separate from review by any necessary technical experts. For example, on my current project, I was lucky to have MCW’s own Bruce Coffin read the manuscript and share valuable knowledge about guns and police procedure.
In the lead-up to roundtable, I provide my beta readers with a full copy of the manuscript. Some find it easiest to mark up my prose on paper. I print out a full copy of the manuscript for them, put it in a three-ring binder and deliver it along with a sharp pencil and a pack of post-its. I email the file to those who prefer to evaluate it on the computer screen. A couple of weeks later, we meet around the big conference table in my office and my beta readers have at it.
There’s no stage of the writing process when kind words are not welcome, but the purpose of roundtable is for them to tell me what doesn’t work. How can I sharpen my characters? Give them more depth? Where have I failed to make the characters—major and minor, good guys and bad—believable, nuanced human beings? How can I create a more fully-realized setting? Where are the energetic lags, the holes in the plot, the clichés? Are there too many characters? Do they have the wrong names? Are there boring parts? If so, where? On the most fundamental level, how can I make it a better story?
With Truth Beat, the third book in my Joe Gale series, my four betas were Ann (a longtime professional editor with a serious mystery habit), Richard (a marketing expert who doesn’t read mysteries at all, but has breathtaking knowledge of popular culture), Shonna (a talented author with both fiction and non-fiction titles to her credit) and Travis (Shonna’s musician husband, who writes lyrics that make me weep with their compact brilliance). Other than Shonna and Travis, my beta readers didn’t know each other.
Before our meeting, I was hopeful but not entirely sure about the wisdom of putting myself on the hot seat and encouraging a barrage of critical feedback from this disparate group. But something told me they would click and it would work.
It turned into a synergistic spectacular. Multiple people reacting to my work at the same time yielded perspective and suggestions finer and richer than four individual critiques ever could have produced. Each beta reader started out with an individual critique, then they began to build on each other’s points, helping me to see not only what I needed to do to make Truth Beat stronger, but enthusiastically brainstorming with me how to get there.
Two nights ago the same reader foursome reconvened along with a new beta, Susan, a lawyer colleague and golf buddy who reads widely and perceptively. The five of them tackled my current project—the first book in a new series (I hope!) featuring a female criminal defense lawyer who returns to Maine and takes over her father’s practice after her hot-shot job in Boston didn’t work out.
Unlike Joe Gale, Christie Pappas and Rufe Smathers−three of the lead characters in my Joe Gale books−I’m still getting to know the characters in this new series. On Monday night every one of my betas identified my unfamiliarity with them as the manuscript’s greatest weakness.
My stories rely on strong, sure-footed characters. The betas were unanimous that with this book, I have more work to do. It was humbling, but so important to hear each of them make this essential point. What followed was a spirited conversation about the promise each character offers, and how I might go about making each as compelling as possible.
By the end of the roundtable I was exhilarated about returning to the keyboard. Thanks to my beta readers I have fresh bearings on my creative compass. I know where I’m headed and can’t wait to resume the journey.
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three Joe Gale books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available through Carina Press or wherever fine ebooks are sold.