Saturday, 27 September 2014

On Meeting a Manuscript



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?



16 comments:

  1. With great writing comes great responsibility. One needs lots of patience, insight and knowledge of the subject to be a Beta reader.

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    1. Absolutely right, Alka. While essentially beta reading is supposed to be reading a manuscript and delivering feedback simply as an objective reader, some of us with Lit-strings-attached just have to exceed our mandates even though there are no univ marks to be scored any more - it's fun and it's intellectual. My book reviews are notoriously famous for such "misplaced" over-reaching. :P
      Thanks for coming by, Alka.

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    2. P.S. - Thankfully, it doesn't require you to edit the document. That, I think, is the greatest responsibility to shoulder.

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  2. Its a great responsibility indeed!
    Very good post, as usaul Sakshi. I love the way you patiently capture and bring across all the points.

    Being in IT, I think 'Beta' term has come from there, though I am not an authority in writing field. Wherein just before sending out the product to end users, it is Beta tested. and Alpha testing is done by users. Nothing to do with the meaning, but just the usage of greek alphabets in their order.

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    1. I love the Alpha-Beta meanings you dropped here. I had no clue. I had assumed the literal (English?) meaning of Alpha personality and Beta personality to add humour to this post, and there Beta is considered a wannabe Alpha. :D
      Thankfully, no Omega close by. :D
      Thanks for being here, Ruchi.

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  3. Saks, your love for the written word clearly comes out not only in this post but also via the fact that you are so proud of what you do and clearly love Beta Reading (or Alpha Reading, as you call it here). You not only have to mirror the Average Joe Reader to the author but also have to kind of exceed your mandate by suggesting possible alternatives as well to make the book just that little better, and I am sure with your first book you have done an awesome job of that, given by the reviews it has gathered over the course of the last week or so.

    Am just hoping that this is just a humble beginning of a long, fruitful and fulfilling journey to you in all sense of the words used.

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    1. 'Wrong, for the Right Reasons' is not the first book I beta-ed but the first book to get published out of the manuscripts I did. Ritu ma'am was the first 'client' to call, that is true. Yes, the reviews are good and I feel happy for her.
      The journey has begun fine. :)
      Thanks for your kind wishes, Jai.

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  4. What a wonderful account of this interesting journey!!!! Way to go, Sakshi and Ritu.

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  5. As usual your underlying wit and engrossing narrative makes a tough job sound glamorous. I met Ritu online during the Celebrate Blogging contest and found her to be a real trooper. Can't wait to read her book now having read the back story.

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    1. I tell you, that moment when you press 'send' on all your feedback is a very scary moment. You just don't know if the authors will eventually like how you stripped their manuscripts of everything they had so lovingly adorned them with and show them aspects which either the did not see or did not want to see. It's scary, but as of now, I've not been held by the neck. :D
      Thanks for being here! :)

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  6. Software alters the meanings that English suggests. IT terminology fits perfectly in the Beta reader case. Having said that, it is certainly not an easy job to have someone's baby in you hands and suggest what the mother or father can do to make it better. Scary. A lot of responsibility.

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    1. Scary indeed, Jas. However, to hear you were of help feels 'empowering', in some sense. Thank you for being here! :)

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  7. That's an interesting back story for Ritu's book. And I agree, you are an alpha reader in every sense of the word. My hands tremble at the mere thought of having to read/edit someone else's hard work. But then again - we know you are very good at what you do. So kudos, Sakshi :) Need to order the book now.

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    1. It is scary. Even more than the last story of yours that I read! :D
      I'm okay. Still to take on editing which I think is the most goose-bumpy of 'em all. :D
      Yes, do read. :)

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