Authors who write for publication understand that rejections constitute the lion’s share of reactions they’ll receive to the work they pitch. Even first-rate authors get them. For the most part, they cannot be avoided.
But “you can’t avoid a rejection” is a very different concept from “you can’t avoid the avoidable reasons for rejection.” Publishers reject works all the time that might be good, or even great, but don’t fit the publisher’s editorial calendar or current target market. Works that do fit the catalog like a glove, however, sometimes fail for the eminently avoidable reason that the work wasn’t yet ready for querying.
We at Caffeinated Press see this phenomenon a lot. We must, with depressing regularity, reject submissions that fall within our bailiwick but were sent to us before they were truly ripe. Unlike other publishers or editors bloviating on the Web, we do not believe that most of what we get is garbage. It isn’t. Maybe we’re lucky, or maybe we’re not so jaded (yet), but most stuff we get is reasonably competent. The problem, though, is that adequacy isn’t sufficient. Given the volume of submissions we vet, you really do need to be in the top decile of authors for us to extend a contact offer. Good isn’t necessarily good enough.
As it happens, there’s one solid way to advance your work to the higher end of the talent pool. The technique is conceptually simple, usually cost-free and mostly helpful.
The technique? Beta readers.
A beta reader is a person — preferably, a published author — who is intimately familiar with the rules of your genre and enjoys experience in writing and editing works of similar length to your own. Having one is great; having several is even better.
A good beta reader is:
- A professional writer. A fellow undergrad English major is rarely the right person for the job. You need someone who’s edited, and been edited, and has successfully navigated the query process to have been published several times before. Inexperienced peer editors can sometimes cause more harm than good.
- Accomplished in your genre. A romance writer doesn’t necessarily “get” horror. And vice versa. A beta reader will, in part, help you to conform to relevant genre conventions, so finding someone who actually understands those conventions is really rather important.
- Accustomed to working with material of similar length to your own. Flash is radically different from short stories, which are radically different from novellas, which are radically different from epics. Each length category has its own tips and tricks. The scrivener of epic fantasy trilogies will be of somewhat limited assistance in perfecting a mystery clocking in at 8,000 words.
- Understands grammar and style. You need at least one beta reader who’s Certified Grammar Nazi. These CGNs will not only help you fix the obvious problems (ahem, punctuation outside the quote marks or single quotes for dialogue or wild over-use of ellipses) but also more subtle problems like misplaced modifiers or weak diction that are often the first things a publisher will look to as a first-pass reason for rejecting a manuscript.
- Understands plot, conflict, characterization and point-of-view. Your CGN may or may not help with the arc of the story as a whole. Ideally, a beta reader can help you fix structural flaws that transpire over several scenes or even the entire story — for example, in ensuring the coherence of narrative POV or uncovering plot holes or foreshadowing misfires.
- Won’t pull punches. If your beta reader returns a manuscript with a few generic suggestions and lots of praise, such response isn’t a sign that you nailed the story. Rather, it’s a sign you found an incompetent beta reader. A good peer editor will rip your story to shreds. Even great stories benefit from a healthy flow of red ink over the page. You must welcome and encourage rough, controversial, tough comments. They’ll sting when you read them, but — like a tequila shot — it’s a good kind of hurt.
- Isn’t your Aunt Ethel. Friends and family might make decent alpha readers (i.e., the folks who see your actual first draft), but they aren’t good candidates for beta readers.
When you receive feedback from a beta reader, understand that (a) it won’t be fun to read, and (b) you can ignore what you wish, but (c) you ought to take every piece of feedback seriously and evaluate it with grace. Some readers are more quick than others to insert dismissable personal preferences, but in general, if you picked the right person, then that person’s advice deserves respectful consideration.
Three things about submitting material to a publisher that hasn’t been revised by one or more beta readers:
- Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a small press or literary journal will pick up your pitch. In effect, the press’s editors serve as the beta readers. Or you might find an agent who will serve as a beta reader because he or she really wanted the material. But there’s often some other consideration that’s in play. For example, we’ve accepted work we knew (because we asked!) wasn’t edited in light of beta review, but the package as a whole checked certain boxes we were interested in. However, “lucky” != “common.” Skipping beta readers is, in almost all cases, a self-inflected injury.
- Publishers really can figure out — usually, within the first 500 words or so — that a piece hasn’t been reviewed by a competent beta reader. The tells are pretty obvious, actually: Typos, improperly attributed speech, grammar blunders, punctuation outside quote marks, humdrum dialogue, etc. When you’ve read hundreds or thousands of submissions, you soon master the warning signs. It’s skill, not cynicism, and if you think you’re such a natural talent that you can pull the wool over an experienced editor’s eyes … well, good luck with that.
- No matter how many times you’ve reviewed your own material, if you haven’t substantially revised it in light of feedback by beta readers competent to edit works in your length and genre, you’re still working on your first draft. Period. End of discussion. And sending a publisher a first draft is, to be clear, a very strong telegraph of the author’s immaturity as a writer and lack of professionalism as a content creator.
I hear the lament: “But, but, but, I don’t know where to find one of these magical beta readers.” They’re actually easier to find than you’d think. Join writer’s groups, for starters. Or, better yet, join more than one. Attend writers’ workshops and conferences. Sign up for websites — there are many! — where authors trade chapters for detailed critique. And if you are 100 percent sure you can’t find a beta reader, consider hiring a professional book editor.
One of the worst things an author can do is shop queries on the open market for material that hasn’t been substantially revised in light of feedback from competent beta readers. This error, however, is easily avoided. But to get there, you’ll have to do one of the hardest things that writers ever have to face: You’ll have to socialize with your peers and put your work out there for review.
It’s tough, sometimes. In a way, it’s psychologically easier to send a half-baked manuscript to a publisher and receive a rejection letter, than to send a work-in-progress to a person you know in the real world and then learn what that peer thinks of your skill as an author. But if your goal is publication, you must get beyond the self-doubt and embrace all the peer criticism you can get your hands on, because when you eventaully nail that peer-reviewed final draft, your odds of success with publishers and agents will increase significantly.