Author Archives: mary

Finding–and Being–A Beta Reader (Part 3 of 3)

Yesterday we talked about some problems you can run into with beta readers. At one end of the spectrum is the emotional cheerleader who’ll be upbeat and positive about your work, but won’t give you any helpful feedback. On the other end is the put-down troll who has nothing nice to say about your work.

To find the beta readers in the middle, here’s some helpful hints.

Be clear what you want from a beta read. “I’m looking for detailed feedback. I need honest critique to make this book the best it can be. I trust you to tell me about any parts you find confusing, any things that didn’t work for you, or any places where you felt bored.” Give examples. “I appreciate your support. I value a thorough critique more than a pep talk. I’m relying on my beta readers to help me find things to improve. Do you think you can provide me with this kind of critique?”

Sometimes I also tell my beta readers what I don’t need. Some folks aren’t particularly good at correcting grammar, but they’re great for talking about plot, dialogue and character. “I don’t need you to worry about grammar or typos – what I’m looking for is how you respond to the characters, your thoughts about the plot, and any parts where you felt confused about what was happening.”

You might have supportive family members, friends and/or partner who aren’t usually readers, or who don’t know much about writing, or who aren’t familiar with your genre. These are the people who will probably ask to read your story, but won’t know enough about technique to be able to describe what works and what doesn’t. Aunt Jo might be great for cheering you up when you feel self-doubt, but don’t rely on her as your only beta reader.

Conversely, don’t bother with anyone who hasn’t given you a useful beta read in the past. You might get a Negative Nancy once, but you don’t need to go back to them for more.

Similarly, if there’s someone in your circle of associates who volunteers to beta read, but they have a reputation for being unreliable, then don’t count on them to be your only beta reader.

 

As a beta reader myself, I’ve noticed that it’s very easy to deliver a beta read that looks like a “laundry list of problems.” Some methods of communicating flaws are more polite than others.

I always begin by talking about aspects of the manuscript that I liked. I conclude in the same way. My military leadership courses called this the “Sandwich method.” The reader will begin, and end, with a boost of confidence that will mitigate their emotional response to the problems in the middle.

Similarly, if I find something in the story that I really liked, or that I thought worked well, or that made me curious, I mention it in the notes. I think beta reads should point out what’s really good as well as what’s bad.

I’ve also noticed that if I’m rushed for time, I tend to focus on the flaws – the main point of the beta read—and don’t have as much time to praise the good stuff because I’m racing to finish by deadline. This is another reason to take jobs where you can afford to take your time and talk about positive aspects of the work.

If you’re asked to be a beta reader, remember that your professionalism will reflect on you. Do as good a job as you’d want someone else to do on your manuscript. If you suspect you won’t have time to do a thorough critique, it’s better to decline the job when you’re first asked than accept and flake out right before the deadline. And if the person doing the request is asking for something unreasonable – a one-day turnaround, or trying to get you to do an editor’s work for free – save yourself the grief and politely decline.

Beta readers can help you improve your writing tremendously. Once you find some good ones, keep those relationships strong! Show your appreciation for your beta readers’ work, and you will be rewarded.

Beta Reading and Emotional Minefields (Part 2 of 3)

I think the worst feedback I ever got from a beta reader was “It was good.”

“What would you change, if you could change anything about the story?” I asked, fishing for more details.

“I wouldn’t change anything.”

“So my manuscript is perfect in every way?” I was skeptical. It would be great to have written a flawless draft, but also not very likely. “Really?”

My beta reader looked uncomfortable. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings with critique.”

There it was. I had to coax my beta reader that I wanted critique. I needed honesty about aspects of the story that weren’t working. I had hoped to analyze reader responses and decide if I needed to revise my techniques. Did my readers feel that I was confusing them by being too oblique, or talking down to them with heavy-handed foreshadowing? I wouldn’t get the feedback I needed if all I received was a vote of confidence.

I didn’t need a cheerleader to be emotionally supportive. I needed someone who would dissect my work and tell me honestly about things that weren’t working.

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At the other extreme, writers of my acquaintance have had beta readers whose feedback is a bundle of unhelpful negativity. “Your plot sucks.” “I hate your main character.” “This setting is stupid.”

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The beta reader you want is someone in the middle. You need beta readers who are willing to be up front and honest if they find problems with your story, but you also want beta readers who will express that feedback in a helpful and constructive manner.

“This plot sucks” is no more useful than “This plot is good.” Why does it suck? And there are certainly ways to phrase such feedback that are just as effective and far more civil than “this plot sucks.” “This plot hinges on a series of implausible coincidences?” “This plot gets bogged down in the middle, making it likely that readers will lose interest?” “This plot has a major hole – the main character has a cell phone he uses to order a pizza, but never thinks to use it to call for help?”

If a beta reader can clearly identify problems, the writer will then be able to choose how (or if) to address those problems.

If? Well, it’s possible the beta reader misunderstood the story. If that’s the case, rather than fixing a nonexistent plot hole, the writer might want to concentrate on making the events read more clearly.

“My main character’s cell phone fell out of his pocket after he ordered that pizza. But my beta readers all missed that. Perhaps my language was too subtle. Maybe instead of writing that “he felt a strange lightness in his pocket,” I should be more explicit. I’ll have him reach into his pocket instead and discover that his phone is gone. Then it’ll be clear to my readers what happened.”

Come back tomorrow for some tips on how to find those beta readers in the middle!

 

What is a beta reader? Part 1 of 3

What is a beta reader? It’s someone who can read your freshly completed manuscript and give you feedback before you submit the story to a publisher or agent. Or, if you’re self-publishing, beta readers help you know how to revise your manuscript so that it’s the best it can possibly be before you send it to a hired editor.

Beta reading is a significant amount of work. These days there are more and more people offering their services as beta readers for pay. If you choose to use a paid beta reader, check them out in advance. Anyone can call themselves a beta reader – what quality of work can you expect for your money? Is the rate fair? How satisfied are the previous customers?

You might have some eager fans who are happy to give you a beta read in exchange for an early peek at the book. Be sure they have the skills necessary to give you helpful feedback. Enthusiastic readers might not always have the technical knowledge to provide advice for improvement.

My experience to date has been a “barter” system among writers – some published, some not, but all people who I trust to know a good story from a flawed one. Such a system means I can trade my own skills for beta reads. This arrangement might be more challenging if you’ve yet to build a circle of writing associates. If I’m beta reading someone else’s novel, I know that when my next novel is finished, they will be there to beta read it for me. As a double bonus, as writers themselves, they are generally able to express the parts that they found challenging in clear, specific ways.

On that note, beta reading is not editing. If you’re looking for full edits, you should be prepared to hire an editor.

 

It’s useful to set a deadline for your beta reader to return your manuscript with their comments.

You will need to give yourself time to read the feedback, consider revisions, make those revisions, and get your story submitted before the publisher’s deadline. Ask your beta reader to be sure they can commit to that deadline. Some beta readers don’t understand that they can’t take all the time they want, unless you let them know otherwise. I always add, “If you don’t feel you can get it done by X date, I understand, but since I have time constraints of my own, I need to know that I can count on you.”

The more time you can give your beta reader to read your piece, the better. If I have only two days to beta read a novel, I’m getting very little other work done during those three days. That’s why I’ll only “pinch beta” books for close associates—assuming I can rearrange my schedule to accommodate!

Sometimes life happens, people have emergencies, and deadlines get missed. It’s useful to ask for multiple beta readers in case one has to drop out due to personal emergencies.

 

When you’re choosing a beta reader, you will need to find someone whom you can trust to keep your manuscript confidential. I’ve worked for a publisher who required beta readers to sign non-disclosure agreements before they read. This measure was taken to prevent beta readers from putting spoilers up on the Internet before the book even went on sale to the general public. If you’ve already signed with a publisher, make sure you know their policy on beta readers.

If you’re self-publishing, looking for an agent, or submitting your manuscript to calls for submissions, then you may not have to think about such agreements, but you do need to trust your beta reader not to plagiarize, post spoilers online, or distribute copies of your manuscript.

Tomorrow we’ll look at beta reader feedback: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Seeding the Future

Some series are structured from the beginning; others are open-ended. If you don’t know how long your series will go on–if you want the possibility to add more books if it does well–then you’ll do yourself a favour by seeding ideas for the future.

This technique might not be useful for you if your series is highly structured and working towards a certain predetermined end. For example, the Harry Potter series was planned from the beginning to be seven books long–one for each of Harry’s years at Hogwarts.

But suppose your series is about the crew of a starship. You’re sure you could write a lot of books about their adventures. Or suppose your series is about a detective. You’d like to be able to write a number of stories about her cases. How long these two series will be is going to depend in large part on how well the early books sell. Based on sales, you’ll choose whether to extend the series, or whether to write something else.

If you’re extending your series, you don’t want each book to become Episode of the Week. A new crime to solve, a new planet to explore–but so what? One way to make each book “count” is to reveal more about your characters. Maybe one of them changes in a meaningful way. Or maybe we find out about someone’s past. Or maybe two characters start (or end) a relationship.

And then there’s your seeds.

The navigator of your starship crew always wears a helmet. Nobody’s ever seen his face. In the first few books, this fact is just a matter of mild curiosity. But if you need a story idea for a later book—take off that helmet. Has he assumed someone else’s identity? Is he an alien? Is he hiding an injury or a secret?

Your detective believes that her son died after meeting with foul play. His body was never recovered. In the first few books, this tragic past is why she became a detective. But if you need a story idea for a later book–one of the criminals she arrests has a tip that her son may be alive.

If you choose not to extend the series, these “hooks” become background information, matters of curiosity, things mentioned in passing, general “flavor.” But if you do choose to write more books later, you’ll have ideas to explore that have been “written into” the series from the beginning.

It is possible to go overboard on the story seeds. If your starship crew spend the earlier books constantly wonder what’s under the navigator’s helmet, then your audience will feel dissatisfied if they don’t ever find out. You also don’t want to overly restrict future stories by laying too many hints that you can’t contradict later on. You’ll have trouble making your detective the youngest of six daughtersif you mentioned in book one that she’s an only child!

But if you seed ideas into your earlier books, then if you extend your series, your later books won’t feel like “add-ons made up off the top of your head”. They’ll tie into previous books, expanding on ideas that you suggested from the very beginning. And if your characters grow and change, or if your audience learns more about them, then your series will maintain a sense of continuity–and possibly take both you and your readers to some surprising new places.