Beta Reading

by A.M. Justice

Njal's sagaI’ve been beta reading lately. It’s a new experience for me—while the concept has probably been around since the penning of Njal’s Saga in the 13th Century—I never heard the term until a year ago, when I plunged into the indie author world. In times past, friends, agents, and editors might read a manuscript and provide feedback, but there was no formal name for the process. Beta reading is a beautiful term, describing exactly what it is: like a software beta tester, the beta reader is privileged to see a novel at its newly hatched stage. The code is finished but not tested, and it’s the beta reader’s job to find and flag the bugs in the novel. In fantasy and science fiction, the beta reader looks not only for plot holes and gaps in character development, but problems with the world building. Is it internally consistent? Does it maintain Tolkien’s concept of secondary belief? In short, does it work?

But what about artistic license? As a beta reader, I’m keenly aware that my reaction to a book is that of a single reader—others may glide through the passages that make me stumble. Where I yawn, others may sit up, rest elbows on knees and bring the book closer, the better for their eyes to devour the page. Some may be transfixed by the majesty of the prose, while I count paragraphs or pages until I’m through the clutter of words. In some, the symbolism may inspire a whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that spin out into fresh insights into humanity, while those signposts remain invisible to me as I slog through, waiting for the end.

What if some of the giants of literature had had me for a beta reader? Moby Dick isn’t a fantasy novel (although since the title character is a preternaturally intelligent and vengeful sperm whale, I’d say it’s fantastical), but it’s a classic of American literature and contains a great story. With that in mind, I give you my beta reader comments on Moby Dick.


Dear Herman,

Thank you for allowing me to beta read your manuscript of Moby Dick. There was so much I thoroughly enjoyed in this story—some parts had me holding my breath and turning pages as fast as my eyes could devour the page. The core of this story is so well done I can see it making a great movie, perhaps spawning a whole cinematic franchise of remakes and reboots. The adventure plot ranks right up there with the most exciting stories ever told, and I think you should be proud of this magnificent achievement.

Because there was so much I liked in this novel, it pains me to tell you I didn’t love all of it. While some chapters boosted my adrenaline levels, and others were so stunningly beautiful they left me breathless (I particularly liked the chapter on the sanctuary where the cows birth and nurture their calves), there were far too many chapters that made my eyelids droop. Your chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a particularly glaring example. Forgive me for being blunt, but I read that chapter with two thoughts in mind: 1) “What the F?” and 2) “How many more pages to the end of this?” The “observational” chapters, as I’ll call them, really try your reader’s patience, and I think you’ll have a hard time holding people through to the end unless you consider dropping them. Also, doing so will bring the book in line with a more reader-friendly word count. As written, your manuscript is over 200K words! You know no agent or publisher is going to pick that up. And if you self-publish, CreateSpace will force you to charge a pretty high price for that much paper, and no one will buy it.

I also think you need a female main character. Remember, more than half of your potential audience is made up of women, who like seeing themselves in stories. Perhaps you can have the whalers rescue a Polynesian princess from some cannibals. A love triangle between the princess, Ishmael, and Ahab would ratchet up the tension, and I think it could really enhance your story. It would also provide you with an opportunity for the book to have a happy ending, if the princess and Ishmael both survived the shipwreck. Your current downer ending works, but keep in mind that readers usually prefer books to end on an upbeat note.

Lastly, I recommend you consider sentence length. Let’s take your opening paragraph (great first line, by the way—really grabs the reader!). This paragraph takes up half the page and consists of 8 sentences. The third sentence comprises half the paragraph! It must be at least 50 words by itself. Again, you’re really asking a lot of readers to stay with you, and you could make the same point much more simply and directly:

Call me Ishmael. I was broke a few years back, down on my luck and pissed off at everybody, and instead of killing myself, I decided to hop aboard a ship and see the world. That’s perfectly normal—everybody loves a sea voyage.

See how you can tighten that up? Also in that first paragraph, cut out the reference to Cato. Who the heck is he? This character never appears in the book, and it’s a red herring to mention him in the first paragraph. And finally, you can knock out at least one allusion to suicide; you don’t need to beat that dead horse.

Again, Herman, let me reiterate how much I enjoyed the good parts of this book. I think it has so much potential—it might even become an American classic one day. But I strongly urge you to implement my suggestions. Take out the slow parts and cut your readers loose on the wild ride you’ve penned.




A Wizard's Lot, A.M. JusticeThese days, writers are told to keep their novels under 100,000 words and to keep their story lines straightforward. Every word, we’re told, should advance the plot. For the most part, I agree. But authors need some artistic license. If Melville had just stuck to his plot, Moby Dick would not be the masterpiece it is. As a reader, I happen to like long, complex books—many of my favorites are well over 150,000 words and have multiple, interwoven plot lines. As an author, I write what I like to read: big, complex tapestries. Maybe one day, I’ll write a seafaring yarn.


A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now, when she’s not daydreaming about helping the lions of literature “improve” their work. To see more of what’s on her mind, drop by the KnownEarth Works website, follow her on Twitter, or hang out on her Facebook page.


13 comments on “Beta Reading

  1. A very interesting article, especially compelling to me as my novel is out with betas right now. And I wonder, as you do, how to gauge the feedback as it comes in. What a reader likes is such a subjective phenomenon, dependent on factors tangible and intangible. I love books others don’t, and vice versa. And your letter to Herman Melville was hilarious. Thanks for this thought provoking piece.

    And I like big, complex tapestries, too.

  2. Thank you, Leigh! I just received beta comments on my third novel. It was the first time I’d used beta readers, and the experience was both terrifying and exhilarating. However, I’ve found it really helpful to see where the betas “just didn’t get it.” That tells me that the message didn’t come through, and I ought to consider a change. I’m currently doing a heavy rewrite on this book based on the comments. I’m not necessarily taking my betas’ suggestions, but I’m reworking the plot and structure to more successfully lead the reader through the story *I* want to tell.

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