Write Dialogue that Engages, Emotes, and Entertains: The Do’s and Don’ts

Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”

Interview, The Paris Review, Issue 64, Winter 1975)P.G. Wodehouse

Beta Reading: Should You Skip It?

What do beta readers do for your manuscript and how to find one that helps?

Your first draft is written. You’ve read it and re-read it three times or five times or ten times, and found some plot holes and inconsistencies, a stray supporting character that disappears, overuse of “that” and “so”…

Another read will result in a brain freeze or you metaphorically tearing up those pages that probably gave you carpal tunnel writing. Despite the immense joy of having written something you love, there may be times when you feel like giving up, but you also want other people to love it as much as you do and also make some money from the story that is your baby.

What can you do at this point to see your manuscript through to publishing?

One option is to let it sit for a few weeks, or a month or two and revisit it with a fresh mind. The drawback is you get too involved with the book. As an author, you have conceptualized the story, birthed the characters and the troubles they get into, played God and created whole new worlds, penned all of it down, and then garnished it with some self-editing. Your opinion of your book may by this point get biased—the best book ever written or kindling.

The alternative route—professional editing/critique—may be arguably premature and potentially leave your pockets lighter, making you unsure whether you want to spend the big bucks at this stage.

There is a not-so-secret, third option, which will only demand some time, patience, and friendliness—BETA READING.

Who are these people and where do you find them?

Beta readers are, as the name suggests, test readers. Most often they represent your target audience and read your books with the intention of enjoying the same and also providing invaluable feedback about your story.

Not all superheroes wear capes, as such, identifying beta readers, especially ones suited to you, can be a tough job. Your prime prospects are your fearless friends and family and colleagues who are inclined to read something you wrote.

But will they be objective and give a candid review of your writing?

Approaching a beloved teacher/professor may result in more objective feedback but unless you were an extra credit student participating in all essay writing competitions, winning elocutions, debating your way through school, or best friends with their kid, it is likely that the teacher will be more focused on their current students.

In that case…

Look for strangers who know your book genre well, are consistent readers of your genre, and most importantly, enjoy reading your specific genre. Beta readers are typically not professionals, most will not charge to provide feedback, they will be objective in their feedback but will be subjective readers.

Beta readers are different from alpha readers (the very first line of defense, primarily friends/family who you show your very first draft), critique partners, and they will not evaluate your manuscript from a craft perspective. Similarly, beta readers do not edit a manuscript like editors and professional critics. It is important to know that the feedback from beta readers is subjective insomuch as the advice is only from their point of view, whether they enjoyed the book, whether they found the story engaging, what worked for them, what didn’t work for them, unlike a professional who will analyze and inform using their study of the craft of writing, publishing industry trends, marketability, etc.

Then, how do beta readers add value to you, an author looking to publish their story?

Beta readers are a walking-talking mood board for your story, more so if they are consumers of your genre. The best way to go about finding your ideal beta reader is to look among your target audience. A person who enjoys reading romantic fiction may not be the best person to go to with a sci-fi story unless the sci-fi angle only supports a romance.

They will help you identify major plot gaps, unclear passages, inconsistencies, and also point out overused/cliche tropes or elements that are missing from your story. Since they represent your readership, their advice regarding the pacing of the narrative, whether the dialogue is engaging, whether you are able to keep their attention, whether the conflict the characters get into is relatable, etc., is pretty much gospel.

That said, beta readers are persons with opinions and advice that you may not agree with and are not obligated to abide by. Being the author gives you complete creative autonomy, however, try not to take the advice with a grain of salt—a mind open to constructive feedback will be able to sort between great pointers and one person’s opinion!

  • They help you identify issues you may miss in your self-edits.
  • They will be representative of your target audience and act as your first scale.
  • Their feedback will allow you to revise minor issues before taking your work to a professional editor, saving time and cost.
  • The beta readers may introduce your book (once published) in their social circles if they enjoyed it.
  • You’ll make excellent reading and writing friends on your publishing journey.

“That said, beta readers are persons with opinions and advice that you may not agree with and are not obligated to abide by.”

How to make the best of your experience with beta readers?

  • Tell them what makes you most apprehensive about your writing—plot holes, repetitive sentence structuring, inconsistencies in the prose, unrealistic characters, lack of conflict, lack of clarity, tone and voice, etc. This way the beta readers will know what to look out for.
  • Ask them to pay special attention to chapter one—did it hook them? Did the tone speak for the theme? Did they feel like reading more? Were they introduced to the main character and some conflict?
  • It may be a good idea to mention what you don’t want them to focus on (a) because you will take care of it yourself (b) you are going to hire a professional for some aspects (c) you don’t want them distracted from the actual story—typos, overuse of certain words, grammar (unless it is unreadable or makes passages unclear), active/passive voice, etc.
  • Find a beta reader that regularly reads your genre and enjoys it.
  • Remember that a beta reader is a subjective reader. Their advice will be based on what works for them and what doesn’t. Try not to let that dishearten you.
  • Try not to be skeptical about their feedback. Take it all in, let it rest, and then with a clear mind, choose what makes sense to you. The feedback is not universal.
  • Let the reader know when you expect the feedback. Be courteous and let them know you are reasonably flexible, but be assertive about your deadlines. It may seem rude since you are not paying the reader, but it is best to clarify expectations before starting to work with someone. You won’t waste your time and they will appreciate knowing you won’t waste theirs.
  • Try not to be disheartened if they refuse your request to beta read, or leave the book halfway. Beta readers have the right to say no, remember, they are doing it as a favor.
  • Of course, it may be counterproductive for you as an author to wait for someone to review your book only for them to leave it halfway. As such, it is advisable to get multiple beta readers.
  • Know that there isn’t a right number of beta readers (but keep it under five) to read your book at a time. Too few (some may not finish the book, some may only give ‘I liked/didn’t like it’ feedback, some may take too long) and you might not get enough feedback to go by, and too many readers may lead to a hotch-potch of feedback/advice.

Why you may still need professional editors after your manuscript has gone through the beta reading stage?

While beta readers help identify potential issues, professional editors help fix them. An editor collaborates with an author to fine-tune the prose before the author published their book. A well-established and most followed sequence of editing is:

You may need one or more types of editing depending on the editor’s assessment and your requirements. You can read more about how to decide what kind of editing you need here.

Where Can you Find Dedicated Beta Readers?

  1. Personal connections—family, friends, teachers
  2. Work connections—colleagues, fellow authors
  3. Writing and reading groups—online or offline
  4. One of the ways writers find most fruitful is going online and reaching out to online writing and reading communities to find their match. Most beta readers you find here are looking for a new read, a free copy of your book, and sometimes an acknowledgment of their contribution to your published book. You may also find some editors who are starting out and want to dip their toes in the publishing industry by beta reading and critiquing for authors.
  5. If this proves unsuccessful, you can also search for paid beta readers in these groups. Most charge a nominal amount to provide near-professional feedback.
  6. You may also look for a quid pro quo arrangement where you exchange manuscripts with other authors for honest feedback.
  7. You can also reach out to local writing communities by doing a Google search. An in-person discussion may be more effective in terms of accountability, getting your doubts answered, and friendliness.
  8. Authors who already have a mailing list can put out feelers for beta readers through the same.

Here are some links to groups you can reach out to for beta readers:

Beta Readers and Critique Partners Facebook Group — The group is strictly moderated and allows beta readers and critique partners to provide only free of charge feedback. One good thing about the group is you will find no marketing and promotion links.

Beta Reader Writers Club — This is a fun group with about 8k members, all writers and readers. The discussions are great with writers getting real feedback on specific issues they post on the groups alongside beta reading. The moderators do not allow advertisements for paid beta reading gigs, although you might get some DMs offering paid services.

Fantasy ARC and Beta Readers — This is a side group (with about 6k members) of the Indie Fantasy Addicts and YA Fantasy Addicts group, designed to connect for ARC and beta reader purposes.

Goodreads Beta Readers Group — The group is open to all. Post Your genre. Get a group of well-read writers/readers to offer their feedback.

10 Minute Novelists — 10 Minute Novelists is an international group devoted to helping time-crunched writers develop the habit of writing, learn the craft, and build their careers in small increments of time.

In your uphill battle to publish your story, beta readers are your red bull—giving you the push to take the next step; and editors are your hiking stick—they will assist you and keep you on track, provide stability and help you envision the best version of your manuscript, and reduce strain on your mental joints when the path becomes rough.

Be Sure of the Kind of Editing Your Fiction Manuscript Needs

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

A lot of new authors as well as veteran authors feel stuck and without direction after completing the first draft of their manuscript. The general consensus on writing and literary blogs is to send your manuscript to professional editors. However, to make the most of your editorial experience, you have to be ready. If this is your first time with a manuscript, and you are overwhelmed or feel a mental paralysis kicking in, just know that you are not alone in this. Help and motivation come to those to seek it.

  • Self-edit at least twice (Pro-tip: Look out for the most pressing issues and flag the ones you would want a professional opinion on and fix ones that you can take care of yourself, for example, delete filler words like “that”, “really”, “unless”, etc., but save the verbose prose for the editor)
  • Send your manuscript to beta readers. Read more about beta readers and their value to your manuscript here
  • Revise basis the beta readers’ suggestions
  • Determine what kind of editing you need
  • Send to professional editors

This will help save your financial resources as well as time and mental energy.

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

― Shannon Hale

You have identified an issue:

You went over these terms and maybe Googled some to understand what a “flat character arc” or an “inconsistent point of view” means and it is clear, one or more of these issues stand out in the story and even dilute the storytelling. If such is the case, it sounds like you need Developmental Editing.

You are not sure:

You understand these issues as an objective reader but are unable to evaluate your writing in relation to these sentence-level issues. In such a case, you may benefit from a Manuscript Evaluation/Editorial Assessment.

You are confident:

After your self-edits and revisions, you feel confident that big-picture elements are set in place, and the manuscript is well-structured and strong. If so, you can move on to the prose issues

You have identified an issue:

You feel that your desired tone and writing style don’t match, or your dialogue is flat. You want the language to be crisp, and the prose to be easy to follow. It sounds like your manuscript needs a Line Edit.

You are not sure:

You understand these issues as an objective reader but are unable to evaluate your writing in relation to these structural issues. In such a case, you may benefit from a Manuscript Evaluation, used almost synonymously with Editorial Assessment.

You are confident and ready to publish:

After your self-edits and revisions, you feel confident that your manuscript is well-structured and the language is impeccable, engaging, and smooth reading. If so, jump on to a Proofread, typeset, do another proofread, and publish!

A professional editor will help bring your story closer to the writer, not just by readying it for publishing, but also by anticipating reader expectations and studying your genre’s market trends.

A good editor is someone who cares a little less about the author’s needs than the reader’s.

― Dene October

First Draft: Don’t Get Stuck

Congratulations! You have finished the first draft of the story you have invested your sweat, tears, coffee/tea money, and sleep on. You feel a myriad of emotions, there is the well-deserved sense of achievement, the much-needed relief, the satisfaction from having finished what you started. But there is also the what-next dread, the uncertainty anxiety, the realization that this may have been the easy part because, well, you are a WRITER. This is what you do, what you are good at, what you enjoy doing. But WHAT NEXT?

Don’t work yourself up with this question. Because there is a solution, an answer. Not an easy one, no, not even a straightforward one, yet you can find one that works for you. Let’s take a look at a foolproof chain of events that you can follow to get “your precious” piece of work up on the Amazon best-seller carousel, your favorite local bookstores, and in readers’ TBRs. As I go through the steps, I will also talk about the hurdles that writers face while attempting to check off this list.

Steps to Take After Finishing the First Draft

📚 The first thing to do after you have finished writing your first draft is to let it sit for a couple of weeks at the minimum. Give yourself time to savor the feeling, get it out of your system, and hype yourself up for what is to come next.

📚 Start working on your second and third drafts. In your first draft, your focus was to put pen on paper, write what you know, bleed your story, your idea onto the virtual pages. Whether you are a plotter or a panster, each time you review your work, you will find things to improve upon like character arcs, plot gaps, setting of a particular scene, a dialogue or four, maybe even the big beats like the climax, or the catalyst. But you have to draw a line at “too many rounds of self-edits”. How do you identify when that point is reached? There is no right answer, but two rounds of self-edits are enough to review big-picture elements and spot glaring plot holes, issues in point of view (eg., two characters sounding very similar despite being from different backgrounds), one-dimensional character arcs, etc.

📚 At this stage, trust yourself and take the plunge into the next step. Get beta readers and critique partners for your book. Ask your peers and friends to read your draft. Try to find beta readers for your specific genre who are well-versed in the genre and also enjoy reading it. Besides the obvious pacing, engagement, enjoyability, plot suggestions, beta readers can be infinitely helpful as sensitivity readers, your first reviewers, market assessors, and morale boosters. Use their feedback to work on another self-edit. Do know that beta readers are not editors and are assessing a manuscript as an individual with personal opinions. You don’t have to accept every one of their suggestions if they do not go with your vision. But it is always a good idea to note all of the advice with an open mind.

📚 The next and one of the most debated steps is finding a development editor for your manuscript. A development editor will do everything that beta readers and critique partners do, but they will take the feedback ten steps ahead. A development editor goes through the overall story structure and narrative arcs to create a seamless story. But do you need one?

✏️ If you are looking to publish traditionally, that is, by querying agents and finding a traditional published, you do not need a developmental editor. Agents do not typically require professionally edited submissions. However, I have worked with authors who have received feedback from agents to work on the narrative arcs and the story structure. You should first go to beta readers and critique partners if you haven’t done so already. Chances are you will get relevant suggestions from these angels. However, if you don’t feel confident enough and have the resources, make use of them and hire a developmental editor.

✏️A development editor will charge anywhere between US$ 0.01 to 0.05 per word to provide their analysis. A specialist will charge toward the higher end, while you may find a talented newcomer in the industry who will do it for a lower amount. Still, it may be too much to afford for some writers. In such situations, I would recommend investing your resources on line editors and copyeditors than development editors. The reason is that you will find line editors who provide some development feedback without charging for it. As an editor, if I am line editing a manuscript and come across a plot hole or find a character arc too static, I will point it out to the author even if I am unable to spend time on coming up with solutions.

📚 While your manuscript is undergoing a development edit or beta read, as the case may be, spend time finding a line editor who is able to mimic your style and understands your vision before proofreading before and after your manuscript is typeset. During this time, start creating a list of ARC readers who will be the first readers for your manuscript right before publication. The purpose is to get publishable reviews and create a buzz around your book.

Next week I will talk more about what a development editor focuses on to provide invaluable feedback. Stay writing!

Know Your Editor!

Hi, I’m Aanchal. I’m here to help you tell your story to the world. I’m here so that the name you have scribbled at the end of your story can be inked by a printer or published on the front page of your own book—both fiction and nonfiction.

My idea is: What you want, you will get. If you are unsure of what you want, I will help you figure it out.

I use a formula of constructive critique, sundry suggestions and fulsome feedback to nurture you as an author and help you present the best version of your story to the audience. My critique will be in the form of suggestions and not merely the use of the proverbial red pen.

I am a lawyer by education and briefly by profession. As such, I bring the skills of project management, selective scrutiny, detail-oriented and critical scoping, thorough research, excellent turnaround time, and the ability to read extensively, into my current services.

For a detailed enquiry and a peek at my curriculum vitae head on over to the Bookings form on the Home page.

A Girl on the Trains

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

They stood in line, a single file, starting from the top step of the train and extending to the middle of the 120-sleeper bogey. All of them had at least one hand on their trolleys, the handle pulled up to its full height. Some also sported backpacks or rucksacks while others held their children’s slippery hands.

A family of six stood taking up the entire section outside the door to the bogey. The second youngest in the family, a girl of seemingly marriageable age, so said the disgruntled expression on her face probably caused by the incessant nagging of the relatives behind her, stood with both hands on either side of her, fingers curled around the two poles attached to the exterior façade of the locomotive, at chest height, perfect for her. One foot on the top step and the other resting its heel on the floor of the train, she was ready to hit the concrete. She didn’t wait for the train to come to a full stop before jumping out just as the train announced its arrival on platform 2 of the Chennai railway station with a horn that continued to blare for 10 seconds too long.
This impatience wasn’t unnatural or unusual for the Dua family who had to rush to platform number 8, baggage in hand to catch the train to Bangalore, where the girl’s maternal family had their ancestral home. Oh, what a home. It was the only place she could claim to have stayed in, which almost resembled a Haveli. The best thing she liked about the house was that it had two kitchens and one was twice as big as the biggest room in her own house. It was a big, fat kitchen. Strangely, all of her relatives on her mother’s side didn’t seem to make full use of their fortune — not one person scaled high on their BMI. What a waste. Well, that is where the party of six was headed, and she intended to right the wrong.

She looked back once to help her uncle, who had arthritis, get down from the train without incident and then took off leaving his charge to his son, her sixteen-year-old cousin, who screamed gen-Z with his ear pods in place, a multipurpose 20-litre backpack hanging off one shoulder, his red and white Converse shoes adding a little pop and vintage to the bland blue jeans and a baggy black sweatshirt — all thought out to the T to ensure it didn’t look thought out. She herself was on the cusp of GenZ and millennial hood and didn’t waste a single opportunity to side with the winning team whenever possible. In fact, she was pally enough with the boomers as well, having never uttered the words, OK, Boomer in her life. She may have thought it, but never uttered it.
So, she ran straight to platform number 8, prepared to pull the chain to stop the train if the need arose. She had to manoeuvre through the crowded stairs, a sea of red, black, blue, and green suitcases taking up more space than their owners. She didn’t stop till she reached the ramp leading down to the destination platform, and at that point looked back to gauge her relatives’ progress. Satisfied that they would catch up, she rushed past the trolleys and men and women and children and made her way onto the train and found her balance, once again on the top step of the locomotive. She waved to her family who had made it to the ramp and were starting to walk down. She felt a familiar jerk just as the lady with the robotic voice, perfect for announcements, broadcasted the arrival of a train from Puducherry on the railway announcement system.

Not convinced that they would make it, she ran inside the bogey to attempt a pull. But the train stopped just as abruptly as it had started. She sighed in relief, wiped her forehead of the sweat, and sat down on a side berth for a minute to take a breather. So spent she was from all the running and manoeuvring that she did not notice the train had started to move again, this time accelerating faster. It took her 10 seconds to realise this and when she did, she scrambled to run out again in a panic to see if her family had made it. What she witnessed, though, startled her into a ‘huh?’. They had made it to the platform, but they were just standing there while the train she was on picked up speed. What was more surprising was that they were all facing the other train that had just pulled into the station. She yelled out for her cousin, expecting him to have the best hearing of them all. It worked. He looked around, but proving her wrong, so did the rest of her family. All of them mirrored her confused expression. She waved again trying to coax them into hurrying up to join her. They mirrored her actions too, but their countenance had changed from grim-faced to grin-faced. They were smiling, chortling, and getting onto that other train. She looked around, bewildered, at the turn of events. Meanwhile, her ride had passed the platform and all she could see were the cross-crossing tracks and the train across from her starting to move in the other direction. She did the only thing she could think of and jumped straight on the deceptively empty track running parallel to the platform, one eye on the moving train and the other on the platform, contemplating the next course of action — run to the platform, or the train two tracks down from her, gaining momentum with each passing second. Deciding on the latter, she began to sprint, careful but determined, when a railway guard began to give her chase, a big stick in hand and yelling for her to get off the tracks. She pointed at the retreating train, trying to convey her intentions with her wild gesturing. The faster she ran, the closer the guard got, but she didn’t have time to question the physics. The guard was two inches away from catching up to her, stretching out his hand that was not holding the stick to grab her shoulder, closing the distance with a resounding thump. He threw away the stick and took hold of both her shoulders and shook her. “It is past 11 o’clock. Can’t you see how late it is? I don’t know what to do with you.” His voice suggested disappointment, and he was beginning to sound more and more like her mother as he continued to berate her.

The tracks and trains and the stick faded away, as a familiar figure, bent forward and towering over the girl, came into focus. The girl covered her face with her hands in response as if shielding her eyes from the morning sun and grumbled, “Just five more minutes. Please. Just five more minutes.”

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