What’s the difference between a manuscript critique and a beta read?

text reads: beta read or manuscript critique? which one do you need?

A few months ago, I wrote a thread on Twitter about how beta reading a book differed from a manuscript critique. It just so happened that I’d read three manuscripts that week. Two were books by established writers, which I was beta reading and one was a manuscript by a new writer, for which I was doing a critique/assessment report.

The two experiences were very different. The two beta reads I read quickly – reading them as a story and making the odd note to myself as if I came across something that needed attention. They were both authors I enjoyed reading (and in one case I’d read the whole of the series up to that point, so I could point out any series inconsistencies because I’d enjoyed the other books and remembered things from them).
The other was a newer writer, so needed a lot more notes. My notes ranged from small things like incorrect usage of words or minor instances of head hopping to bigger structural issues.
I wrote up all three sets of notes over a weekend. The beta reads took me about 30 mins each to check notes and write up. The critique took me several hours. The other main difference is that I would charge for the critique, but the beta read was for free (those authors would do the same for mine another time).

All this got me thinking about the time a newish author asked for a sample edit of one chapter (which I did). They then asked for a full manuscript critique. But a few days later, they cancelled because they didn’t want to pay for ‘a very expensive beta read’. I didn’t argue at the time – I hadn’t started work on it – but there is a big difference between a beta read and a critique.

Notes on a beta Read

When I beta read for a writer who knows what they’re doing, my notes tend to be short – ‘needs more tension here’ or ‘this subplot doesn’t tie in’, ‘the ending doesn’t work’. I’m telling them what’s wrong, but I can trust that they will know how to fix it.
Similarly, that’s the sort of note I get from my beta readers. I have rewritten an entire 20K ending based on ‘this ending doesn’t work’. They only had to tell me what was not working. I would then do the work to figure out how to change it. This is the sort of editorial note you’d get from a structural editor in a publishing house.

Notes on a manuscript critique

My notes on manuscript critiques for newer writers run to several pages because ‘this doesn’t work’ is a useless note to give someone who doesn’t know what to do to fix it. I have to unpick WHY things don’t work (sometimes it’s easy to work out, because it’s a beginner mistake I’ve seen before, sometimes it’s not). I have to explain my observations. I have to suggest ways they could fix it. I have to be careful to tell them exactly what is wrong, but not tell them exactly, word for word, how to fix it – because that interferes with their voice and if there’s one thing we’ve heard from editors it is that they don’t want critique services to interfere with the voice of a writer

You need notes that are specific to that book and where the author is in their journey. If their 100K book only has 70K of story in it, you need to work out what that core story is and tell them which bits to cut (and maybe explain story structure). If their book is too short, you have to give them guidance as to where to expand it. You can’t say ‘add a subplot’. You have to suggest places in the book where a potential subplot might be hiding. Sometimes this means reading the manuscript several times.

And THEN, you need to go through and work out if you’re hitting the right balance in your feedback. Too negative and you risk putting the writer off writing. I remember all too well the pain/horror of my first manuscript critique. But once I’d stopped crying and eating all the chocolate I could find, I realised that they had a point. I made the changes they suggested and it improved the book. But that was only because I was in the right frame of mind to accept the criticism that I’d asked for. If I’d been earlier in my writing journey, I might have given up. I’d hate for that to happen.

On the other hand, if you’re too positive, you risk giving the writer a false sense of safety. They will think you’re a lovely person, but the report won’t help them improve their book or get closer to finding a publisher. Plus, I feel that telling people what they want to hear rather than doing what they paid you to do is ethically dubious … even if it is nicer.

So you have to read an re-read the wording of the feedback, all the while thinking ‘is this too harsh? Is this sugar coating it?’.

Reading a manuscript that needs a lot of work is not fun. It’s time consuming and it’s hard work. (And I should be spending that time writing!)
So yeah. A manuscript critique is different to a beta read. One is work. The other is fun.

Which is why we charge for the one that is hard work [and take great care about whom we extend the beta reading offers to!].

In case you hadn’t already guessed, I do manuscript critiques and mentoring. Details are under the Resources for Writers tab, or just click here to go to the manuscript critiques page.

Book review: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of Storytelling
The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was fascinating!
There are many books that talk about how humans are wired for story. This books goes into the science (particularly the neuroscience) of WHY this is. Written in a clear and accessible style, it was easy to follow and genuinely interesting.
If you’re a storyteller and you want to know why people get hooked on stories, you definitely need to read this book.
I received a review copy from Netgalley.

Buy link UK

Buy link US

How To Write Romantic Comedy

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out? It’s my first non-fiction book and it’s co-written with my friend and esteemed colleague Jane Lovering. It’s all about … how to write romantic comedy. We thought we’d go for the obvious title. (Discarded titles were ‘RomCom101’, ‘Three times round the car park and back in for another, Dammit, dammit’ and ‘Things to do whilst eating biscuits’).

There’s a lot about biscuits, but an awful lot more about writing comedy. Jane has won lots of awards for her books and I’ve failed to win (but been shortlisted for) lots awards for my books, and we’re both comedy theory nerds, so we do know what we’re talking about.

If you want to check it out, here it is!

Book cover image How to Write Romantic comedy

Do you want to write Romantic Comedy, but struggle with the comedy element of it? Are you stumped by how inject more humour into your novel? Do you want to know how story structure is just like telling a joke? Do you want to learn these things whilst being lightly entertained and given a giggle or two?

Then you’ve come to the right place.

Award winning authors Jane Lovering and Rhoda Baxter have over twenty books between them (where they make a great defensive wall) and extensive experience of cramming laughter into literature. They will show you how to put comedy into your romances, and make you laugh while they do so.

This book will teach you:

  • The different types of comedy
  • The anatomy of a joke
  • How to make things funnier
  • Different uses for comedy in a novel
  • A simple trick to translate timing onto the page
  • Specificity explained through the medium of biscuits

If you’re looking for an easy, accessible How-To guide to writing romantic comedy* then this is the book for you.

*Contains confectionery. Bring tea.

It’s had some lovely reviews already from some established rom com writers! This post is getting rather long, so I won’t add them here. But if you pop over to the Amazon page, you might recognise some of the names 🙂

Book review: Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better WritingTake Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up because so many people (including my agent!) recommended it to me. I’m a pantser. I genuinely didn’t think I could be a plotter – I’ve tried, I’ve even plotted one book, but I find it really hard. This book gives you a way of outlining a book and reducing the number of dead ends you wander down at the drafting stage.

As I read it, I realised that I already did this when I was thinking about a book. Stuff like working out the character arc, the external goal etc. This gives it a more formal framework. I’m using it in the book I’m plotting right now.

If you’re new to the idea of outlining, this is a great book full of common sense advice.

Buy link UK

Buy link US

The Bestseller Experiment and RNAConf2018

Sometime last year I started listening to The Bestseller Experiment – a podcast run by two guys called Mark, about how they were going to try and write, publish and market a bestseller in just one year. A weeks after I started listening, they had Bryan Cranston on the show and it all got huge. I remained a fan of the show and chatted to them and the rest of the community that formed around the show on Twitter.

So, when I got the chance to chat to one of the Marks at the RNA conference, I was thrilled. So, if you want to hear me trying to explain terms like ‘Instalust’ to a slightly bemused man, tune in to this week’s episode of The Bestseller Experiment. 

Also on this episode are Nicola Cornick and Sheila Creighton. All three of us mention how awesome the sense of community is at the RNA and how the NWS scheme mentors new writers. Listening to it made me miss the conference and all my friends from there. Never mind. York Tea soon.

Cover Reveal! Belonging is coming out soon

Book cover for Belonging small town romance

In between writing books about Royal Weddings, I’ve been popping back to my characters in Trewton Royd to see how they were getting on. I’ve finally finished Belonging and intend to release it next month.

Belonging is about Harriet (those of you who’ve read Snowed In will recognise her as the drunk woman from the corner shop vying for Vinnie’s attention). I wondered why she drank so much. The result was a whole novella about her, poor love. Some of the characters in Snowed In and Pat’s Pantry show up as cameos. 

[If you have read Snowed In, if you could take a few minutes to review it, that would be really kind and lovely of you… here’s the link… hint. HINT.]

 

Here’s the blurb and the lovely cover for Belonging:

Book cover for Belonging small town romance

 

She’s grieving her lost love. He’s searching for his lost niece. Can attraction overcome family loyalty in this enemies to lovers romance?

Hiding away in a tiny Yorkshire village, Harriet is grieving for her lost love. His family won’t talk to her and she can’t move on from from his death. All this changes when his daughter, Niamh, turns up on her doorstep, needing a sympathetic ear.

Tim thinks Harriet broke up his sister’s marriage all those years ago. His sister’s enemies are his enemies. When his niece runs away to Harriet’s house, he knows he has to get her back before his sister finds out. But that means talking with Harriet.

As they work together to console Niamh and get her home safely, Tim and Harriet become increasingly attracted to each other.

But with attraction comes guilt.

Can they overcome their respective loyalties and give in to love?

 

Belonging is due for release on the 15th of September.

I’m in the Bookseller … with a whole new name

Jeevani Charika name and frangipani

I’ve got some news that I’ve been sitting on for a number of months now. I’m getting a whole new pen name – Jeevani Charika. The main difference between Rhoda and Jeevani is that Jeevani writes about Sri Lakan protagonists.

I wrote a Royal Wedding romance for Bonnier Zaffre.  It’s called A Royal Wedding and it’s coming out on the 10th of May … I should have cover(s) to show you really soon.

In the meantime, here’s my new website! I intend to keep blogging etc on this site rather than the new one.

Jeevani Charika name and frangipaniAnd here’s the link to the announcement in The Bookseller. (The Bookseller! Blimey!)

https://www.thebookseller.com/news/zaffres-new-rom-com-joins-publisher-party-royal-wedding-773331

Self Publishing Journeys

SET UP A WEBSITE ON WORDPReSS

Last year, I went to a Society of Authors event and got chatting to a lovely bloke called Paul. We discussed how I drifted from traditional publishing into indie publishing and the advantages of being a hybrid published author. The upshot of that conversation was a longer conversation that happened on his podcast.

You can listen to the whole episode here:

https://self-publishing-journeys.com/episode-101-rhoda-baxter/

We talked about my writing journey. He was most amused by the fact that my pen name is derived from Rhodobacter sphaeroides. I was most amused by the fact that he called me ‘cerebral’. We also discussed some of the self publishing courses I took so that I could learn the necessary skills.

Go listen to the episode.  Sorry if I sound like a precocious ten year old. I need to work on my radio voice.

Oh, while you’re here, do you listen to many podcasts? If I interviewed, say, UK romance authors, would you listen to the interviews?

Book review: Write to Sell by Andy Maslen

Write To SellWrite To Sell by Andy Maslen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I have to write a lot of copy now that I’ve got a few indie books out – writing blurbs, writing emails – I figured I should read up a bit on how to write copy. This book is easy to read and concise (which is good, since one of the main pieces of advice is ‘be concise’!).
There are lots of useful pointers here. To be honest, a lot of what he says is what my English teacher taught me at O-level, but it’s good to have it reiterated. It’s also nice to see a book with UK examples.
If you’re looking for a book to help you write book blurbs, How To Write A Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen is better, but this is a pretty good guide to start out with.

View all my reviews 

Buy link Amazon UK:Write To Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting by Andy Maslen Second edition (2009)

Buy link Amazon US:Write To Sell