If reviewing a book is like taking the wrapper and ribbon off from a mystery gift, reviewing a manuscript is nothing short of being given a hidden treasure chest, with the key to open it. What lies within is virginal, for no other eyes except the author’s have seen it yet. You are told that. Sometimes made to sign and swear that you will keep secret whatever you find inside – jewels, maps or pebbles.
So, there is exclusivity to make you feel special. Curiosity too, and how it kills! There is a taste of power, for you have a license to deconstruct, sift-sort-suggest, to your head’s content. There is also a message in the bottle on your work desk, blinking neon – I trust you. Tell me what you think. Honestly. Thus, more than anything else, reading manuscripts makes you feel very responsible; more than being a caretaker of your own treasure chest can.
Let me get serious now.
A few months back I became what we call a Beta Reader of manuscripts. As much as the term reminds me of a tool in the Physics lab, it actually makes me feel like a moon-dust robot, a nuke scientist and John Nash rolled into one whenever I say it aloud. Just the term, that is. The work of helping an author with feedback about their stories so they can polish them and make them publisher-ready (to put it very humbly) is much more difficult than the zaniest profession you can think of.
Let me tell you why it is difficult and why you should call us Alpha Readers and not the second-in-command, Beta.
When an author has spent the better part of his past few years ‘working on’ a manuscript, he knows he is mailing you on an average 320 KB and 70,000 words of perfection. Pure perfection. He presses ‘send’ and your inbox reads 1 New Mail and somewhere in the few seconds in between he becomes a best-selling author – in his head. And you? You sweat, reading the introduction to the attached manuscript which is ‘close to my heart’ and a list straight from some Blue Book reading thus - ‘check this’, ‘notice that’, ‘keep a tab’, ‘what do you think’ and of course, ‘be honest’ – the last almost like a threat with an invisible ‘or else’ attached. After all, you are not the commissioning editor who will be dear-ed. Instantly, your finger nails feel your teeth and your fee seems like salt-free peanuts.
So, you make a list of your own, next to the one the Boss sent, called ‘Expectations’. Suddenly, you are married to someone’s work and the father of the bride carries a pen (mightier than the sword), while the bride herself seems high-maintenance. Your side of the page, the real Beta list, is but a shadow in comparison. In short, there’s work to be done. The manuscript has to be read with a concentration even your inner eyelids have never seen. Comments and suggestions have to be added in track change mode and in polite language, even if you are asking them to go easy on the expletives. All impulses to kiss-bin-bin-bin-kiss-just-bin the virtual copy in admiration or deliverance have to be resisted. Finally, a chunky document called Overall Feedback has to be readied, which becomes a blueprint for the author to mull over slowly. In all this, do not forget, you have to be honest yet balanced, academic yet not-too-heavy, suggestive yet not over-smart, loud and clear yet not drown his voice and finally, helpful. Phew!
Yes, Alpha Reader would be good. Thank you!
And then one day, when a book you helped shaped in whatever little (I mean big, actually!) ways sees the light of the published day you cut a cake, pat yourself publicly in the MCD park next door and order Chinese from Yo! China to celebrate “your” success. All jesting apart, it feels very, very good. Right from the point when the message in the bottle from the start is mouthed at the end of the assignment too as ‘I trust you’. That is when, as suggestions you made are incorporated, discussed and worked upon, you realize where the real value of this work lies – in the regard for what you call your impressions and feedback but which mean much more to those receiving them.
Ritu Lalit’s ‘Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is the first among the manuscripts I beta-read to be a published book. I remember her call when with a semi-certain yet hopeful voice she shared this book’s idea with me, asking me straight away ‘Do you think this will work?’ It was 3 pm on a lazy day, it was 45 degrees, there was no electricity and I had a ripped toe-nail hopping around with me. But nothing clouded the conviction with which I felt for the book. Not just because it was woman-centric; not just because it was about surviving the everyday and not the fantastical but also because I assumed she was going to pour a huge part of her own life’s experiences into this survival account of a young divorced mother-of-two. The result of her hard work is for anyone to read now.
‘Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is one of the most real books you will read this season. It is Shyamoli’s story – as a young divorced woman, a single mother of two, a daughter struggling to break-free from an abusive mother and a person looking to walk on her own terms in a society which defines ‘respect’ in the most constricted of ways and hangs norms like nooses around the necks of single women. What is special about this book is what is seen as amiss in others – there are no sudden twists and turns, no army of characters and not even a flourish of a closure. It tells you a story keeping the sensational and the spectacular away, yet retaining the extraordinary within it, in the form of portrayal of relationships, streams of consciousness and the growth of the characters over the years that span the novel. One of my first doubts was about Shyamoli being too real to be made into a ‘heroine’ but by the end of the manuscript I had revised my idea. She is that exactly because she is life-like. And readers will be able to find a Shyamoli in their lives too. Isn’t that a wonderful thing in a book?
I met one manuscript for coffee first. Then I met some more, and then a few more and I don’t need to stop any more. Each speaks in its own voice to me, in its own style, not just to the reviewer that I am but to the dreamer that I want to be, of holding my own piece of art in my hands one day. Perhaps, that is what makes me love my work, for the possibility it keeps alive in my mind and for the various lessons it tucks within its folds for forwarding that on the right path.
In the meantime, do you now see why we should be called Alpha Readers and not Beta, the second in command?