To beta read or not?
For those of you who don’t know, beta readers are people who read a pre-publication draft of a manuscript and suggest changes. They aren’t editors, and normally they don’t pick up on grammar and typos, although some do.
The main role is to provide feedback on how the book hangs together from the reader’s perspective.
Sometimes readers get an edited version, but often, it’s a version that’s not been through a professional editor, because an author isn’t going to want to pay for one round of editing to have to go back, rewrite and pay for extra editing.
Usually, it’s done for free, for example authors reading the books of other authors.
Not everyone uses betas, or, an editor may fulfil the role of a beta.
What are the sort of things beta readers look for?
The obvious ones are: characters and their development throughout the book, pacing, dialogue, flaws, inconsistencies and plot holes, structure eg is the order and emphasis right? more of this and less of that? what worked, what didn’t, and the big one – did the reader like the book?
People reply differently with their feedback. Some provided detailed comments via track changes (I can’t bear all the annotations, gives me vertigo), others make general comments, others look at specific aspects in detail. An author may ask readers to look at certain sections they feel are weak, or they may give betas a list of areas they want feedback on. It’s very flexible.
In one of the professional book review groups I’m in, one author asked for beta readers. So … I ended up reading Alison’s terrific book, Castles in the Air.
It’s a family memoir of her mother’s life, based on diaries, letters, and Alison’s observations as a child and young woman.
I was intrigued for so many reasons: Royal Naval connections, travelling and ex-patting from England to south-east Asia, to South Africa, back to England, then Malaysia, and then Australasia. With a few more trips thrown in.
Molly, the main character in the book, was born in the 20s, and her family travels to Hong Kong in the 30s shortly before the outbreak of WW2.
We read about the four or five week voyage out there, life on board ship, and the amazing life young Molly had in, firstly Hong Kong, then Singapore, and later at school in the Cameron Highlands. But as the war becomes more intense in south-east Asia, Molly and her mum are shipped out, although they have no idea where they will end up.
It’s a world in the past but Alison recreates it beautifully. An added bonus in the book is a selection of photos from this long-past era.
I loved the detailed reference to on-board ship menus in the 30s, so much so that I got hugely distracted hunting down more of them.
I can understand why Molly recalled the food on board ship, as they were served what, in that time of austerity, would have been elaborate meals. Family meals at home would have been simpler: one course, perhaps two at weekends or on special occasions. It must have seemed as though they were going out to dinner every night. A typical adult Tourist Class lunch menu from the sister ship of the Corfu, the Strathmore, in 1936 consisted of soup or Welsh rarebit to start, followed by veal cutlets with bacon, potatoes served three ways and bringals (aubergine). On the cold sideboard was potted meat and fish, Leicester (pork) pie, roast rib of beef and ox tongue. There was a choice of four salads, including beetroot and American. On the sweets menu was fruit roll pudding and a blackcurrant water ice. The cheese course offered four types of cheese, including gorgonzola, accompanied by a selection of bread rolls.
Get that! And people think food has improved? Check out these menus from the 30s. Sirloin steak for breakfast.
As Molly grows up, we watch her start work, take pride in the career she chooses, and then she becomes engaged.
Molly travelled out to Singapore again in the early 50s. Hm. Menu not as good.
After her marriage, we follow her new life and read about her starting her own family, and the inevitable challenges of leading an ex-pat life in yet more countries.
I don’t want to retell Molly’s story, so suffice to say it is surprising, poignant, heartfelt and very moving. With an unexpected ending.
It’s hard to say ‘great book’ when there is sadness and tragedy involved, but this is a well-crafted and well-written story that I enjoyed from start to finish.
And, reading the beta version and the later one, was fascinating. Not only had Alison generously mentioned her two beta readers in the acknowledgements, she’d made a number of changes that I’d suggested.
There is no obligation on an author to do this, but, as a beta reader, it’s interesting to see suggestions that are taken up. It feels like time that hasn’t been wasted. I’ve still got a few editorial gripes, but I usually do.
Whatever, it’s a great story, and I totally recommend it to people who are interested in memoirs generally, and specifically, twentieth century history, difficulties of being expats, living abroad, nursing, drugs, depression, family relationships, and … close unspecified relationships. Throughout the book, Molly’s relationship with her family friend Steve, hovers, even after his death.
Castles in the Air by Alison Ripley Cubitt and Molly Ripley.
A few refs on beta reading, for anyone who wants to know more:
Photos by permission of the author.