It’s compact, to-the-point and pulls no punches. If you want a quick way to get across what it takes to compete in the publishing world without the support of a traditional publisher, this is the place to start your journey.
Long ago, I chose the image of Joaquin Phoenix playing Emperor Commodus in Gladiator as a short-cut to show the power and speed of rejection. It’s a compelling image that I laugh at now, but the chill of a swift veto about a writer’s work can feel as high-stakes as the Colosseum.
I encourage writers to feed on that energy, to use it when driving their work regardless of the emperors and gatekeepers. As soon as you start, you’ll come to realise what it takes to be the gatekeeper of your own work.
“Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.”
ONCE you’ve read your manuscript, ensured the plot is the best you can make it at this stage, and seen to any glaring inconsistencies in your narrative, it’s time to have your work read by someone else. In the independent and traditional publishing landscapes, this is the moment to seek out beta readers, and for you to become one.
You can do beta than that
Beta readers are not family. Cousin Myrtle is not going to give you objective criticism on your manuscript, nor is Uncle Eric. They will always love everything you do, blinking in slightly confused admiration about your writing pursuits, but they are undoubtedly not equipped to read and appraise an emergent piece of writing. Beta readers are other writers or people who work with words (editors, academics, sub-editors, journalists, etc.). Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.
Often the stock-in-trade of writing groups, beta reading should always be about reciprocity. After telling people you’re a writer, be prepared for other writers to ask you to read for them. I have been doing so for long enough that I’ve read second and third titles by the same writers, and vice-versa. The process makes you into a great watchdog of their work, and they provide the same essential service for you. Get used to regular beta reading – all your work on plotting and narrative sets you in good stead for the process.
One last read… for now
As a courtesy to your beta readers, before sending them your manuscript, give it one more read through to ensure it’s the best it can be at this stage. This will invariably involve working on it more before sending it off, but hopefully you’re getting used to the reality that being a writer is all about doing the work. The term ‘beta’ reader stems from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, which assumes there is someone in the ‘alpha’ reading position. That’s you.
When sending your manuscript to a beta reader, it’s wise to lay down some ground rules. If you only seek feedback on plot, say so. If you want the whole shebang, through to spelling, ask for it, but also respect that a voluntary beta reader may not have the time or inclination to go into great detail. The format you send your manuscript in will depend on these decisions, particularly if you want to enable the beta reader to leave sticky notes or comments in the places they refer to. The most important feedback a beta reader can give you is about the manuscript’s readability (which is indelibly linked to your plot), so while it would be helpful for someone to proofread your manuscript, this is not the stage for it.
“Remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.”
There is no need for a manuscript to have a final title. The title is not important at this stage, although rare is the writer who has not decided on one, but be prepared for it to evolve down the track. Ensure your manuscript is legible. There are a number of formats to follow (the classic plain typeface, one-inch margin on four sides, double-spaced lineation, page numbers, new chapter-new page format is standard) but down the track you will be required to tailor your manuscript to different publisher’s requirements. Some beta readers will ask you for a printed manuscript, or at least some payment to cover the cost of paper and ink for printing it out at their end. This is an entirely reasonable request, and if that makes you roll your eyes, this is your first taste of the electronic vs print tussle of publishing. A very large proportion of the reading public will not read a book on a computer screen. Get used to it.
When selecting a beta reader, it’s always okay to negotiate a deadline for their response. Most writers are keen to get their work to publishers (or to self publish), so an open-ended time period to read a manuscript can become a drag. Be real with your potential beta readers, indicating a notional timeframe. A month is not unreasonable. Six months is way too long. Give beta readers permission to tell you they got to a certain point and got confused or lost interest. This feedback is essential and shows you where to immediately rework your book.
Ever since the independent publishing marketplace expanded, manuscript appraisal services have been popping up in all major publishing territories. There is no standard fee, which is usually charged per word, and there are plenty of companies seeking to stream writers into their independent publishing services (‘taking your book from manuscript to paperback’). If you’re going to pay for the service, clear negotiations and a contract are essential, outlining costs, timeframe and what you’re paying for.
Reading the responses of beta readers is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process. Good beta readers know this, and do not seek to destroy the spark of a writer’s soul when they critique. It’s very important to remember that receiving negative feedback is really the point of beta reading – rather get it now before your book is a paperback sitting on the shop shelves, when the only way to change anything is to pulp the lot.
It takes years of practice, but it is possible to gauge constructive criticism. If you find yourself having several ‘a-ha’ moments when reading the feedback of your beta readers, these are the first things to take on board. The reason is they resonate with you, but they can also frustrate because, of course, your inner critic is saying: You should have thought of that! All constructive criticism will inspire you into immediate action.
Worse is not beta
Not all beta readers are fair. Sometimes, writer jealousy kicks in and unreasonable or unwarranted feedback is given to your work. When this happens, it’s your first opportunity to endure a bad review (and they are coming your way if you plan to publish anything). It can hurt like hell and inspire you to retaliate, but my advice is to seek clarity about the criticism with your beta reader, if you genuinely don’t understand what it means. Beta-reader feedback can be an ongoing discourse, and I reckon good beta readers can be judged on their willingness to have a dialogue about their thoughts and responses to others’ work. When providing feedback on a manuscript, remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.
Sometimes, beta readers prefer to give you feedback on the phone or in person, so you’ll need to take detailed notes. If you can’t act on the feedback immediately, ensure you save it somewhere you can find it later. There is no requirement to act on beta readers’ feedback immediately. Giving their ideas brewing time can help our perspective when working out the next stage of the rewriting process. You may have multiple beta readers – if so, wait until they have all responded to your manuscript before you begin reworking it.
Sometimes, a marketing issue will crop up in beta reading feedback. This might give you a jolt if it’s cold, hard sales issue, such as: ‘A book like this will never sell!’. Marketing concerns can be a frightening reality for emergent writers. It’s early days when our work is at manuscript stage, but marketing is always relevant in publishing, so it’s wise to walk the line when sifting feedback that refers to a manuscript’s genre, length, ‘place in the market’ and/or saleability. Don’t balk at a beta reader’s marketing-style feedback, it can help shape the direction of your publishing pathway, although if anyone tells you your book has no place in a bookshop, remember that’s been said about many very successful books.
Sending your manuscript to its first readers is an incredibly courageous act. Congratulations! You have come a very long way. While your work is being read, use the time to continue your marketing through regular online publishing, and consider starting your second book!
“It’s time to get tough on yourself and put your plot through its paces.”
I’VE often been approached by writers struggling to keep a writing project moving, full of angst and desperate for a solution. Incredible as it might seem, this is invariably the point writers decide to show their work to a publisher, hoping that some clue will be found in the manuscript that will render it instantly better. All writers reach a point when negative thoughts come pouring in, telling us we must have been crazy embarking on writing something nobody wants to read. Often we feel the opposite, determined that our work is perfectly formed and needs no adjustment. When either of these extremes happens to you, it’s not time to submit your work or give up… it’s time to diagnose your manuscript.
Who is the hero?
Every effective story (fiction and non-fiction) needs a protagonist, someone to lead the action, to barrack for and relate to. This might sound blatantly obvious, but one of the main blocks to manuscript health is lack of a hero. Heroes don’t need to be ‘good’ (they can be anti-heroes) and they don’t need to be particularly heroic, they only need to be obvious. What would Gone With the Wind be without Scarlett O’Hara? Imagine any of Bill Bryson’s travel tomes without the author himself in the driving seat! Identifying your story’s hero is the most important first step in getting a manuscript match fit.
Heroes with a twist
Sometimes, stories have multiple heroes, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which, like all ‘buddy films’, has a pair of protagonists driving the action.
Plots with more than one protagonist often have one hero take an outer (physical) journey, while one takes an inner (emotional) journey.
A great example of this is Thelma and Louise in whichThelma (played by Susan Sarandon) physically drives the car and has strongly-plotted reasons for taking the route she decides on; whereas Louise (Geena Davis) is driven to an emotional transition in the passenger seat.
Protagonist teams (such as that in The Big Chill) ideally need to face the same conflicts (not strictly at the same time or in the same manner) in order to keep readers focussed on the plot.
Writers creating multiple-personality protagonists should consider either letting the audience in on the secret (as in Superman) or work the duality into an unfolding or complete surprise (as in The Talented Mr Ripley).
Protagonists in different time zones (like Julie and Julia) can intersect, but giving them complete story arcs of their own will create a more satisfactory experience for audiences.
Who is the villain?
All stories also need antagonists, those characters who get in the protagonist’s way, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking every villain must be ‘bad’. Two of literature’s greatest antagonists are Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, who qualify as antagonists because they obstruct protagonists (Christie’s murderers) through expert sleuthing. Take Christie’s detectives out of her novels and her protagonists would get away with murder, which is what happens in Patricia Highsmith’s series of Tom Ripley novels, with plots tempered by Ripley’s inner battle with himself as protagonist and antagonist. In fiction and non-fiction work, readers will smell a rat if the hero in pitted against a one-dimensional villain. A great test for a well-rounded antagonist is to ask yourself if your villain sees themselves as the hero of your story. Antagonists are simply protagonists on the opposing team. Both need to be equally three-dimensional.
“If you have opposing forces in play, your plot will have natural conflict.”
Is there a battle?
Once you’ve identified your heroes and villains, you need to put them in the same arena and let them at one another relatively early in your manuscript. If you have opposing forces in play, your plot will have natural conflict, whereas if you keep them apart, readers will quickly lose interest. Many first drafts take too long to get to the point of battle. Even non-fiction works need to reach a point of conflict to engage the reader. Check if your manuscript has a turning point around one-fifth into the word length, strong enough to create an ongoing battle between protagonist and antagonist.
Is there a winner?
You’ve spent months writing your manuscript, and you’ve taken the conflict to a certain point, but you can’t seem to land your story. This is an extremely common plotting debacle, borne of not knowing if you’re writing a tragedy or a comedy. Have no fear, there’s a really easy fix: you only need to decide who wins, and it can only be hero or villain who claims the victory. Classic plot structure dictates that if the hero is better off at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, you’ve written a comedy. If the villain wins, it’s a tragedy.
Ever since William Shakespeare invented the black comedy by combining the opposing forces of Greek tragedy and comedy, there has been humour in the saddest tales (think the gravedigger scene in Hamlet), and tears in the joy (think Muriel’s Wedding in which Muriel’s mother kills herself). Readers are waiting, just pick a winner! Your hard-won resolution will flow as soon as you do.
So your manuscript has legs?
If you have a hero, a villain, you’ve pitted them against one another and decided who wins, good news: your fiction or non-fiction manuscript will live. Before sending it to a publisher, there are a few more elements to look at.
Who is speaking?
First draft manuscripts often suffer from multiple viewpoints and perspectives, or ‘voices’. Check that you’ve been consistent in your narration – there are several options for this which can be used exclusively or in combination. Narrative needs to be consistent in order to make an engaging experience for readers/viewers.
Where are we in time?
A very common confusing element for readers is time. If stories swing between time periods, or have subplots that take us away from the main action, writers easily let readers/viewers down by not giving clear reminders about where we are and who is who. Sometimes all it takes is a short recap of characters and storylines to keep readers in the loop of our unfolding stories, especially after you’ve taken your audience to another place for a chapter or two.
While re-plotting a manuscript, it’s wise to run a few tried and true plot tests. One of the best is the Bechdel Test, which will show you instantly if there is gender bias in your writing, and should make all writers aware of the need to create three-dimensional female characters. The ‘Smurfette Principle’ serves a similar purpose, and the ‘Russo Test’ is a watchdog for written representations of LGBTI.
Plenty of never-seen, unrealised, un-engaging writing languishes when writers seek to avoid connecting with audiences. Some of us do this out of a desire to be ‘literary’ instead of ‘popular’, but I suggest writers come to terms with entertainment taking many forms, everything from distraction to enlightenment. At this stage of your writing, be as objective as you can and analyse your manuscript for sheer entertainment value. Will people want to keep reading? I believe your gut will tell you where your work is getting slow and boring.
The memoir muddle
Many emergent writers begin with a memoir project, often at the behest of friends who have encouraged us that ‘there’s a book in you!’. It’s great to be supported by friends and family, who are our first audience, but when the hero of our work is us and the plot is the story of our lives, an extraordinary amount of objectivity is required. The temptation is to write a completely heroic version of ourselves and a totally villainous version of people we perceive have wronged us. An inability to see and record our own negative actions, and the positive actions of others, has brought many a memoir manuscript to a complete halt. If you think this might be the issue you’re having with your memoir, have the guts to record yourself as a ‘warts and all’ hero, and seek the reasons antagonists got in your way. It will give you more material and make for a better read.
You’ve read your manuscript. Congratulations. Now it’s time to get tough on yourself and put your plot through its paces. Get over all fears that plotting is a formulaic, restrictive process, and check your work has the ingredients of archetypal storytelling, the kind that successful authors have been engaging for centuries.