Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers

eye-magnifying-glass-book

I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]

 

Now for the scary bit …

The scream detail

Last week I finished the second draft of my children’s book Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve previously written how I went about whipping the unkempt mess of the first draft into the slightly less unkempt mess of the second. Now that’s done, it’s time for … the scary bit. (Cue diabolical laugher.)

Up until now, the book has been my secret, inside my head and on a screen that only I’ve seen. All of it – good, bad and indifferent – has been my own special baby. I’ve tried to make it as good as I can, and in reviewing the first draft I genuinely attempted to be as objective and dispassionate as I could about identifying its flaws and areas for improvement, and implementing them. And over the course of writing two novels and absorbing the advice, wisdom and experience of many others (including some of you good people), I believe I know quite a bit about what to look out for and how to make writing better.

My baby has grown and matured. It’s now a teenager – which means (and with apologies to any teenagers reading this, because this obviously doesn’t apply to you) it’s got spots, is frequently confused, has highs and lows; and is generally at that awkward stage of being halfway grown up and knowing a lot more than before, but not as much as it thinks it does …

So I’ve now taken this project just about as far as I can by working completely on my own. Now I need someone else’s input. The second draft is surely better than the first, and (unlike the first) it’s something I feel I can show to someone else without them laughing in my face and then slapping me around the face with it. (Which, let’s be clear, I don’t want when it’s on a laptop.)

But it still has a way to go. There are still things wrong with it, big and small, things that I can’t see because I’ve looked at them too hard and too long. There are still ways it can be improved, things that haven’t occurred to me because I’ve been thinking about it too long and can’t easily step back and look at it as a whole.

I need fresh eyes; and they need to be the eyes of someone I can trust. Someone that will have a completely new and fresh angle on the book, who has expertise and insight. Ideally a market expert. So, for DCFS at this point, that means two things.

First: well, who better to get feedback from than the real experts on children’s books – children? My eldest son is ten, putting him slap-bang in the middle of the target age range. His reading ability is average for his age, and he’s a somewhat reluctant reader. Which makes him a pretty much perfect guinea pig. My youngest is six, meaning he’d struggle to read the book on his own, but I’ll read it to both of them.

Reading out loud is an excellent way of checking how well the prose flows. I did read out some chunks to myself when writing, but to be honest I feel like a bit of a nutcase if I talk to myself too much. Reading the whole thing out loud again to a (hopefully) listening audience will be a good thing.

But just as important – if not more so – is whether the story really engages them. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s excellent Coraline to the two of them, and they hung on every word. When I stopped at the end of each chapter, they begged me to read one more page from the next before finishing. (And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t only to delay going to bed …) If I can get anything like the same reaction from DCFS, I’ll know I’ve got something good.

I’m not expecting a great deal of feedback from them, but any that I can get will be gold dust. The best feedback will be how much it holds their attention. However, I fear my kids are unlikely to deliver a full, detailed critique of concept, plot structure, characterisation or the over-use or otherwise of adverbs. They will know if they like it or not, but not precisely why.

So for a more forensic analysis, I’m paying for a manuscript critique. Next time I’ll talk more about that, and why I’m taking that route instead of asking for beta readers. But for now, it’s goodbye to blogging and hello to the bedtime story … good night!