Beta Reading for Peter Orullian
Beta reading is something I’m asked about at least once a week. Either I’m asked to do it, or I’m asked why I do it, or I’m asked how I managed to get the gig in the first place. I’m also frequently asked what I do when I actually sit down to read someone’s manuscript.
Why do I bring this up? Well, because you may have noticed we just published Alan Bahr’s review of Peter Orullian’s novel THE UNREMEMBERED: The Author’s Definitive Edition. The review was extremely positive. If you have been a long time reader of Elitist Book Reviews, you might recall that I personally reviewed the original version of the novel several years ago. Frankly, I didn’t like it at all. It wasn’t that it didn’t show promise, it was that it didn’t feel like the final version. It felt like the draft before cutting a bunch and cleaning up the rest. Again, that review was done in 2011.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s story time.
Earlier this year, I get an email from the author, Peter Orullian. I’ll abbreviate the back-and-forth:
Peter Orullian: Hey Steve, remember me?
Steve: Well yeah. I killed your first book.
Peter: Exactly! Can you read my second book and do the same thing to it, in advance? I want my second book to be way better than book one. I think you can help.
Steve: Are you sure you’re emailing the right person? Is this a trap so you can murder me and take your vengeance for that review?
Peter: I’m totally serious. And I totally don’t want to murder you. Honest. I need your scathing feedback.
Steve: OK. But as a beta reader, I don’t hold back. I’m not cruel, but I don’t sugar-coat anything. And I didn’t like your first book.
Peter: Perfect! I’ll send it over right now.
Steve: Uh, OK.
What followed was several weeks of discussion with Peter on what I felt were the strengths and weaknesses of his second novel, which is now titled TRIAL OF INTENTIONS (totally my suggestion). Here is what you need to know about what I do, and what Peter got a whole ‘lot of. (Just stick with me. I promise this leads to us reviewing his first novel for a second time).
When I beta read, it takes me about four times as long to read the novel than it normally would. I look at every sentence, every paragraph and every page. I look at the characters an point out if I ever think they are acting out of their establish personalities. I look for plot holes, logic flaws, repetitive word usage, bad dialog, underutilized side characters, bad cliches, stuff that’s boring, places with bad pacing, things that ruin pacing, things that can fix pacing, PoV violations, redundancies, inconsistencies etc…
You get the point? It’s intense. On TRIAL OF INTENTIONS, I made hundreds of comments. Some were as simple as, “I need more clarity here.” Others went on for the better part of a page. Some were, “Delete this entire chapter.” Interspersed in all of this were comments where I pointed out a clever turn of phrase Peter would use. Or where I loved the turn a character was taking.
Through all of this I learned something very important: Peter Orullian cares about his writing. I also learned that he wants to get better with everything he writes, no matter how much work it takes. At some point during this process I went from simple beta reader to a full-blown content editor. But I wouldn’t have let this happen if I didn’t think that Peter was willing to make it work, and if I didn’t think he was listening to me. But it became abundantly clear that he was listening. He didn’t argue. He didn’t get upset if I didn’t like something. He would nod his head, and then we would end up discussing potential ways in which the issues could be resolved. It became a partnership where I wanted him to succeed an get better just as much as I knew he was hell-bent on succeeding and getting better. This is something that all authors should strive for.
There’s a misconception about reviewers. People think we want to hate everything, ’cause that’s fun, and sometimes we write entertaining reviews about those books. That’s not the case…at least, not with me. I want to be impressed. I want to love every novel. I want to be entertained and close that book with a smile on my face. I realized, about half-way through TRIAL OF INTENTIONS, that I might be able to help a little with that.
We went through the novel, cut a ton, reworked everything (sometimes a lot, sometimes hardly at all), and then sat back and gave each other a high-five. I was exhausted. Peter had to edit all the crap I sent him, so no doubt he was done with me and even more exhausted. It was a good experience. We ended up becoming friends through it all. And the thing is, TRIAL OF INTENTIONS was actually super solid. I think people are really going to dig it. It was very well written. It showed everything cool and unique about the world, and at the time both Peter and I were working under the impression that this would become the new entry point into the series.
A week later, Peter calls me up and says, “Guess what, Steve? Tor is relaunching the first book, THE UNREMEMBERED! You know how you hated it? Now’s your chance to read it again! And put your money where your mouth is Mr Reviewer! Think you can do it?”
What followed was one of the weirdest reading/editing experiences of my life. We were editing book 1 so it matched book 2. At this point, Peter knew what to expect from me. Scathing rebukes. Bitter sarcasm. Unrelated, yet witty, tangents. At the end of the day, Peter CUT 40% of the novel. He made it the novel he wanted it to be originally, but wasn’t given the freedom to do from his editor at the time (now fired).
I could go on an on about this process, and Peter and I have talked about it on panels we have shared at conventions, but you’re probably bored. Plus I’m sure Peter will share his side of it later.
The short of it is this: Peter Orullian worked his tail off when he was given an opportunity authors hardly ever get. That was enough to earn my respect, and now I happy to call Peter one of my best friends. Which is why I didn’t review THE UNREMEMBERED: The Author’s Definitive Edition. I’m way too close to it, and to the sequel, TRIAL OF INTENTIONS. So I had my reviewer Alan review the updated book 1, because he is as picky as I am. He loved it, and I’m both glad and relieved.
Being a beta reader/content editor is a stressful and rewarding job. And make no mistake, it’s a freaking job. Sometimes I even get paid for it. But it’s a huge responsibility. Take it seriously, and be professional. And don’t leave an author hanging.
So there you go. There’s your look behind the curtain. Peter’s novels were just two of the ones I did massive beta reads/content edits for. Feel free to ask your questions below.
And I hope you dig Peter’s novels. They are getting better and better, and I’m convinced he’s going to have a fantastic career.