How do you make your book the best it can be?

With the second draft of Medium Dead complete and winging its way towards beta readerdom, I’ve been thinking about the honing process. You’ve done the research, you’ve written the book, you’ve revised it … what more can you do to make sure it’s the best it can be?

Back in the eighties I worked in IT and one of my many jobs was to evaluate and adapt Michael Fagan’s technique for improving the quality of documents. Though primarily aimed at technical specifications the Fagan Inspection was touted as applicable to any document and highly adaptable. Could it work for novels?

But first, what’s a Fagan Inspection? The idea of the Fagan Inspection is to hand out a document to four or five people who analyse and fact check it to death. Not to be confused with the Fagin inspection which involves sending teams of small boys to steal code from your competitors.

What made the Fagan Inspection different from other quality control techniques is that each inspector could be assigned a role – analysing the document from a specific viewpoint. This reduced duplication of effort and imposed a structure on the process. Anyone who’s ever workshopped a story will know the human obsession with spelling mistakes. They’re the easiest error to spot and the least expensive to fix. Fagan was more concerned with the expensive errors.

To give an example, here’s how I adapted the process to inspect a system design specification. First, I brought in a business analyst to compare the design against the business spec. Had we strayed from the original user requirement? Then I’d bring in designers from other systems to check the interfaces. Were we compatible? Was the data being passed to and from our system in the expected format? Then I’d have someone inspect the internal consistency of the document and someone from programming look at it from the point of view of the persons who’d have to spec and code. The ethos of the process was, one, to point the inspectors towards the areas where the most expensive errors were likely to be and, two, bring in eyes and relevant expertise from outside the team.

So, could it be adapted for a novel?

Of course, one big difference between my IT inspectors of the 80s and today’s beta readers is that the IT inspectors were paid. It was their job to nit-pick a document to death whereas the beta reader performs the task as a labour of love. It’s got to be a fun experience. Here’s a shiny new novel to read for free, ages before anyone else gets a chance to see it and, in return, would you mind answering a few questions.

But the idea of recruiting fresh eyes and pertinent experience is, I think, a good one. Even if you’ve already sounded out an expert – be it in a science, a particular culture or a time period – before you started writing your great work, having a different pair of expert eyes read the end product can only be good, can’t it?

So, does anyone out there actively recruit specialist beta readers to check their novels? If you have, say, a fantasy with a strong romance element set in tenth century Spain I could see an advantage in actively looking for beta readers with an expertise/love of one or more of those constituent elements. And I’d give one the task to read the novel from the point of view of a Romance reader, another from the viewpoint of a lover of historical fiction, another to read it as a Fantasy, and so on. The same for location and foreign dialogue. As a Brit living in France writing books often set in the US, I look for American beta readers to check my dialogue. I might look for another who knows the geographical area I’m writing about.

The list of potential roles for beta readers is as long as the subjects we write about. You could ask someone to concentrate on the magic system, another to look at the worldbuilding or the science, the culture, technology, battle scenes etc.

Anyway, just an idea. And if there are any lovers of fun contemporary fantasies with no vampires but plenty of magic and crime fighting … I’m looking for a couple more beta readers from the American, female and under 35 demographic. More details here.

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  1. 1. Jason Pettus

    I found this entry fascinating, because of being in a very similar position to what’s described here: I run a one-person publishing company, and when it came time to release the organization’s first book last month, I found myself stuck in almost the exact same dilemma. I basically made an open plea to everyone on my mailing list; out of 300 invitations, about 20 people said they’d help review and proof the manuscript before publication, and about five of them actually did. What I unfortunately discovered is exactly what you mention here — that those five beta readers focused almost exclusively on spelling mistakes and typos, with the vast majority of the remaining proofing falling on my shoulders.

    In a perfect world, I would do something similar to what you describe here, although in my case break it down more along the lines of traditional editing roles: one person to check just for typos, one person to make sure the text is flowing well and reads smoothly, one person who’s hyper-specialized on the ins-and-outs of grammar, one person to check the appropriateness of the slang, one person to do nothing but fact-check every cultural reference. (For example, in the book I published last month, one of the stories made a reference to a 1987 movie, despite the story being set in 1982, and also got the number wrong of what the last level of the original Pac-Man arcade game was [psst -- it's 256].) Like you say, though, in a world where you can’t afford to pay any of these people, you sorta just have to take whatever help you can get.

    In any case, I definitely recommend the same thing you’re advocating here, to at least get the manuscript in as many trusted people’s hands as possible before publication, and especially those whose natural lives match up closely to the milieu of your story. This is important for all books about to go to market, but especially in the case of self-publishing writers and basement presses, all of whom are saddled with a bad reputation for error-prone books.

  2. 2. Michael R Underwood

    I’ve actually been doing something like this for my current novel. Since it’s a New Weird/Superhero genre fusion, I’ve recruited readers who were New Weird fans but weren’t into superheroes, Supers readers who didn’t know New Weird, and the few people who like both. I’ve handed it to people who don’t tend towards reading action so that I can see how well it appeals outside its primary audience, and so on.

    This is a great recommendation, and thanks for sharing your perspective. If we only ever have the same people read our work, we’ll just end up writing for those beta readers, and aren’t likely to broaden our readership.

  3. 3. Simon Haynes

    I used 10 beta readers for my last novel, and I told them I wanted to hear about inconsistencies, wtf moments, boring bits, etc. I did this to avoid having them hand back a comprehensive list of grammatical maybes.

    That’s a good idea to assign each one a specific task though – might nab that for the same process with the next book.

  4. 4. Bob Charters

    I suppose it gets easier to find Beta readers if one has had a few published already. If you have yet to prove (marketwise) that reading your book is going to be a rewarding experience, finding them might be a bit of a challenge.

  5. 5. Chris Dolley

    Bob, yes it’s more difficult but not impossible – I’ve seen message boards with lists of beta readers and the kind of fiction they’re looking for.

    What I did though was join an online workshop. At first it was very difficult to find anyone to review my work but by reviewing other writers’ work and joining a mutual reviewer’s list I built up a list of excellent contacts. It’s also where I met fellow SF Novelist Simon Haynes – we were both on a list of people who would reciprocate reviews.

  6. 6. Chris Dolley

    Simon, yes the identification of boring bits/wtf moments is probably the most important part of the beta reader exercise.

  7. 7. Chris Dolley

    Jason and Michael, good luck with your books!

    Of course the problems begin when the different reviewers start giving conflicting advice. The New Weirders want it weirder and the Supers want that aspect played down. Hopefully that won’t happen and you’ll discover a new, untapped subgenre:)

  8. 8. Jaime

    I debated overnight if I should comment on this or not. I just signed with an agent, but I don’t have books on the shelf yet. I am going to link to this article on LJ and ask some of my friends, all writers and editors, what they think.

    But parceling out elements of a novel to beta readers and asking them to concentrate on that one thing, i.e., the magic system or what ever, is just counterintuitive to what I see the function of beta readers as being. I see them as separate from any experts I might consult for technical details, historical accuracy, etc. All those detail bits come under the heading of research and are on my head. It’s up to me to make sure they all mesh and work and aren’t wrong.

    Beta readers tell me if the story works, if the characters are too stupid to live and if I actually have a plot. They view the work as a whole, because in the end, that’s how readers are going to view the story, as one interwoven piece.

    If the magic or worldbuilding doesn’t work, most beta readers are going to twig to that pretty quickly. If the romance or the love story in a book is too over the top or twee, your average reader is going to pick up on that too.

    Frankly, if the love story in one of my books only works for a romance reader, I’ve failed. That subplot or character element needs to work for everyone.

    So this whole idea of splitting story elements up and pulling out individual threads kind of baffles me. How do you balance that? How to you pull it all together into a coherent story arc if no one tells you how the story works as a whole?

    I think about process a whole lot, which is why I’m asking. I couldn’t do this, I’d get nothing out of it but confusion.

  9. 9. Chris Dolley

    Jaime, I certainly don’t advocate splitting story elements up and pulling out individual threads. Each beta reader receives the whole book. Some may be asked to read the book paying special attention to x or y, others might be asked to comment on how they think a reader of a particular subgenre may view the book. It changes from book to book.

    “If the magic or worldbuilding doesn’t work, most beta readers are going to twig to that pretty quickly. If the romance or the love story in a book is too over the top or twee, your average reader is going to pick up on that too.”

    I make the assumption (crazy optimist that I am) that the author has done his/her research and has a pretty tight book before it sees its first beta reader. So the beta readers are checking, say, the magic system for consistency – odd little wobbles that the author may have missed or never considered the full implications of.

    As for the ‘average’ reader – you only have to look at Amazon reviews to see how varied their opinions can be. Some subgenres even have different sets of rules and expectations that readers/writers unfamiliar with might not appreciate. I’m short of time at the moment, so I’m rushing to finish this, but I’ve heard that Romance readers can get quite annoyed if their expectations are not met. And, I may be wrong, but I think the MilSF or AltHist readers are much more forgiving of infodumps. They like the extra detail. So if you’re straying towards another genre and want to know how your book will be received there it makes sense (IMHO) to canvas a wide opinion.

  10. 10. Chris Coen

    I used to have the most wonderful plot-oriented beta reader – who I also became acquainted with through a workshop, Online Writing Workshop. It was through him that I really learned what a plot was and how it should function. I mean, let’s face it–while we are all variably gifted in portions of the writing process, I doubt any of us are pros at it all. (And if you are, I want you to beta read for me! *g*)

    Color me as a writer who thinks it’s a great idea to use the competencies of your friends…and if you happen to be able to recruit beta readers specifically for those competencies, go for it. In those areas where we know we’re lacking, it just makes sense to pursue outside expertise.

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Author Information

Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley is an English author of SF mysteries and fun urban fantasies, a pioneer computer games designer, and the man who convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. His novel Resonance (2005, Baen) was the first book to be plucked from Baen’s electronic slush pile. He now lives in France with his wife, a dolmen, and a frightening collection of animals. His memoir French Fried (2010, BVC) has just been released. Visit site.

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