The purpose of this article is to share some of my experience reading unpublished manuscripts and to provide some order to the process.
First, the terms:
A beta reader is a nonprofessional who reads the first or second draft of an unpublished manuscript.
An alpha reader does the same with an unfinished manuscript.
A proofreader is a professional who corrects syntax, spelling, and grammar.
A critique partner is a professional who assesses a manuscript’s substance and style.
For the past seven years, I’ve been reading and critiquing my friends’ unpublished, often unedited manuscripts. It’s grueling work—perusing a text for enjoyment and the author’s edification. But I do it because, well, I care about my friends. I want them to do well.
Gaiman was the reason I always had purple baggy-eyes in elementary and middle school. The simplicity of his writings, the interweaving of mythology, monsters, and modernity, and the cruel world behind-the-magic offered my child-self something gripping, something utterly fantastic and appalling to explore late in the night. His writing still does—today—in my late twenties. Personally, my favorite work by Neil Gaiman is The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and not only because Fiction Beer Company has a citrus wheat beer inspired by the novel). I have a theory about literature (I’m allowed a few theories, being an English teacher) that great works must inspire the moral imagination, even if the wisdoms aren’t the sort we want to hear. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the title clues us in—Harper Lee wants us to understand that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird” for they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The book indicts an American culture which regularly commits this sacrilege against its disadvantaged and minorities. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, behind an incredible narrative about magic and outsiders, there is an abundance of dark truths about adulthood—its deceptive ontology of control, its routine mindlessness. Gaiman reminds us “Adults follow paths. Children explore;” “Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside;” and—in the most incredible line I’ve read in literature, something that explains the opus of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft better than they did themselves—that what marks adulthood is not some maturity or inner growth, but the awareness of how fragile the surface of our lives are, the recognition that reality is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Well, Joe Lansdale kind of took over the Q&A in the best way possible. The others had some insights, but Joe exuded this pragmatic writing presence. A manuscript messiah miasma. Predatory parable pheromones.
A few of his best points:
The writer gives 50% of the story. The reader brings in the rest.
Some think character is giving someone a cane or an eye patch. That if they’re from Mars or were raised by Indians, they’re interesting. Don’t confuse oddity for character. When writing character, you need to think of motive. Why they do stuff. There’s Surface Motive. What they tell themselves is their Motive. And True Motive.
Characters must intrigue. They don’t have to be likable, just interesting.
When writing, there has to be music in the prose. Otherwise you’re just lining up turd after turd. Hemingway had a masculine poetry. Fitzgerald had a magical poetry. Learn how to combine rhythm, style, and character into the poetry of prose.
A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come for help?
“Don’t move,” said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother’s jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father’s desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father’s spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.