Your most valuable writing asset isn’t your computer, grammar knowledge, or storytelling ability. It’s your arsenal of advance readers.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked via Twitter: “Mrs. @mbweston, what’s your writing process?” To answer his question, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about how I go about my personal writing process. So far, we’ve covered:
- The Writing Process: Part 1 – Getting Your Inspiration
- The Writing Process: Part 2 – The Conflict
- The Writing Process: Part 3 – Plot: Your Story’s Skeleton
- The Writing Process: Part 4 – The “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Example of a “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (A)
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (B) Description
- The Writing Process: Part 6 – Cutting Your Darlings
- The Writing Process: Part 7 – Editing for Grammar & Style
Have you ever applied an update to a software program or a smartphone app only to have it crash immediately (or worse, lock up your device)? How frustrated did you feel? I usually end up yelling into my computer or phone, hoping the software developers can somehow hear me. “If only,” we think, “they had tested this on a few people to make sure it worked before they released it to the world!”
This is why many companies have beta users: people who volunteer to test the software to see how it works before it reaches the public.
You don’t want your cell phone company to send you an update without first testing it. In the same way, you shouldn’t consider your manuscript complete without letting a few people read it first. This post will discuss how to use your advance readers (or your beta readers, depending on what you call them).
Why you need advance readers:
- You already know exactly what is supposed to be happening in your manuscript. An advance reader doesn’t. You see your story clearly in your head. You know what your characters look like and how and why they react the way you do. When you read your own writing, you already know exactly what is going on. You will never be able to catch whether you’ve actually communicated what is going on without help from someone else. For instance, I still remember when one of my advance readers told me she had no idea what Gabriella, one of my main characters, looked like when she read my first book, A Prophecy Forgotten. I read through the manuscript and discovered I had never described the poor girl. I saw her clearly in my head. I just forgot to tell the reader about it.
- You have seen your own writing too much to catch all the mistakes. You’ve read over the though when it should be through at least ten times. You need another pair of eyes. I cannot tell you the amount of mistakes my advance readers have caught that I skipped over, even after several editing runs.
- You might have written something that, well, stinks or needs rewriting. You might think your story is the greatest in the world, but if you are the only one who likes it, you won’t make many sales. You need some outside opinions of how your story works before you drop it on the general public and make it open to Amazon reviews. After testing my second book, Out of the Shadows, a few of my advance readers told me they didn’t feel compelled to root for Tommy—one of the most important characters in the Elysian Chronicles series. I had to rewrite almost a third of the book to make Tommy a more compelling character.
- You want the criticism before you send your manuscript off to the publisher. After that, it’s too late.
Look for these types of readers:
- The Best Seller Reader. You want someone who reads tons of best sellers to read your manuscript, especially if you eventually want your name on those lists.
- The Fan Reader. Once you have established a fan base for your works, you need to get one of them to become your fan reader. The fan reader will let you know when you’ve gone too far when it comes to killing off a character, etc. I changed the order of my prologue in Out of the Shadows around because my fan reader almost had a heart attack when she thought I had killed off my main character, Davian.
- The Director Reader. If you can find someone who likes to direct movies, get him or her to read your manuscript. They will find places where your action is lagging or where you’ve shown instead of told. My director reader, Steve Burton told me to “raise the stakes” in one of my scenes in A Prophecy Forgotten, and following his advice helped the story.
- The Literature Lover. You need one of these. They love to read classical literature that the rest of us snore through, and they love art films. They will catch your thematic issues and character development problems. Just be sure to ignore most of their advice when it comes to action scenes.
- The Genre Reader. If your manuscript doesn’t appeal to those who read your genre, you have a problem, which is why you need a genre reader to look over your manuscript. Genre readers can also give you some great ideas you haven’t thought of, and they can let you know if your writing style is too much like another authors’.
- The Grammar Snob. You need one of these to read your final copy—the one you create once you adjust it after listening to your other advance readers’ comments.
Your readers need to be willing to criticize your work. You don’t want someone who is too afraid to tell you what they think. You want someone who is willing to say, “This sucks, and here’s why.”
How to find advance readers. This part is easy. Just ask. You’ll find several people who love to read and who will appreciate the opportunity to read and comment on your writing. They will take being asked as a compliment.
Once you found about five advance readers, you need to get them your manuscript, and you need to do it cheaply because paper, ink, and copies are expensive. I take my manuscript, single space it, and divide it into two columns like a magazine. It’s easier to read single spacing in a two column format. I also shrink the margins to ½ inch, and I make the font 11 instead of 12. I copy everything front and back to shrink the amount of paper I use. (I have one reader who prefers to use Microsoft Word’s comment function, so I email him the actual double-spaced manuscript.)
Once I make my copies, I hand my advance reader a manila envelope containing: the manuscript, a red pen, and a note pad for them to write on.
Oh, yeah, and I also give them a letter that 1) gives them permission to hurt my feelings without retaliation, and 2) threatens their life and the lives of their family members if they breathe a word about my true villain to anyone. *wink wink*
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which talks about dealing with your advance readers’ critiques…
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.
Hey, MB! This is great stuff! My friend, Ronald Dunn, with whom I’ve been working with for over a year now, is in the middle of his second book and we’ve been talking about how to go about this. Lo, you turn up with this. I’ll be sending him the link.
It’s easy enough to see that you may need someone to catch your spelling and grammar mistakes, but we tend to forget that plot, characters, and scenery may be lacking because we do have that clear vision of what we’re building. And the little touch of the tool-filled manila is a stupendous idea, because it gives them little excuse not to do it. Of course, I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to read the story before the rest of the world!
Hope all is well with you!
Awesome! So glad it could help!
Thanks for this post, I love the idea of you supplying them with everything they need as well as a nice letter to introduce them to what they are doing. I haven’t found any readers yet…not really ready to search yet, but at least I have an idea of how I might go about doing it once I do.
I’m glad it could help. I think it also helps to know that you will be running your work through an advance reader ahead of time because it keeps the question, “What would my advance reader think of this?” always in your head while you are writing and trying to figure out how to make something work.
That makes sense.
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