Tag Archives: beta readers

Organizing Critique Comments for Implementation

Guest Post by Susan Forest

You’ve chosen beta readers from more than one source who understand your genre, you’ve given them your best work so they don’t correct flaws you know about, and you receive their feedback. But how do you organize the feedback, process, and implement it?

Knowing how to effectively deal with feedback will greatly help and improve your manuscript and will turn beta readers into fans.

First, it’s helpful to receive your feedback, when possible, in both written form (line edits and/or written comments) and verbal form. A nice protocol is to invite your three beta readers over for snacks or out to a restaurant for coffee and dessert. This is not only a way to thank them, but to bring them together by a specified deadline, to give feedback.

During this meeting, ensure you set a tone of professionalism (it’s not just social) and take notes without interrupting (except to clarify misunderstandings). There is no point in taking up time explaining what your story was supposed to say—if they didn’t get your message, that’s feedback, too.

When I get home from such a meeting, I first organize my comments into two types: line edits and global revisions. The line edits are easy to get through fairly quickly. Here, you can clear up typos and small wording or sentence changes that you agree with. You can ignore the occasional edit that is clearly wrong, or at least, wrong for you.

Sometimes, a line edit your beta reader gives you includes something bigger: a place where the reader was confused, where their comment has implications for several places in the manuscript, or where the comment gets to deeper thematic or character arc issues. Make a note of these, and add them to your second type of comments: global revisions.

By doing line edits first, you accomplish something important to the book, improve your novel, and give yourself a sense of achievement—and staying positive about your novel is critical, especially in the face of multiple notes to make changes.

The global revisions, especially on a longer work such as a novel, can be daunting. Begin by putting them all into a single document (perhaps in point form), and reduce their number:

  • Delete any repetitions. But remember: if all three of your beta readers pointed out the same issue, it’s probably valid.
  • Delete any changes you’re not going to make. Perhaps your beta reader isn’t really your audience (if he or she doesn’t read or understand your genre, they might be off base), missed the point of your story, or—although you respect their point—you simply know: this is not a change you’re prepared to make. Hey, you’re the author, and this is your book.
  • Don’t try to please all tastes. If one reader wants you to make a certain change, a second gives you the opposite advice, and the third doesn’t want any change at all, remember that by trying to be all things to all people, you can edit the passion out of your story. Follow the critique of the reader whose vision is closest to what you are trying to achieve.

Next, phrase all comments in the positive. You can’t do anything with a negative comment. For instance, even if you agree that the comment, “Don’t make your protagonist weepy and weak” is valid, it can’t be implemented until you change it to “Angela should stand up for her own position in her relationship with Greg.” That is something you can work with.

Then, find out where (in which chapter and scene) you want to implement the change. In the above example, you might decide that Angela will tell Greg she intends to buy a cat in chapter 2, scene 1; choose the restaurant in chapter 9, scene 5; and demand he pay half the rent on their apartment in chapter 15, scene 4.

In some instances, a comment will be implemented in only one place in the book. In other cases, several different examples will find their way into different parts of the book (as in Angela’s example, above). In still other cases, the same detail will be applied to multiple places in the book. This could happen when you want to ensure rats are ubiquitous in your medieval fantasy.

Create a new copy of your manuscript (Angela and the Rat, v. 2.0) and insert the points you want to change at the top of each scene. You might want to use a different font for these notes, just to be sure the point doesn’t accidentally slip into your text. Now, instead of an overwhelming list of changes to make, you have anywhere from 2-5 points at the beginning of each scene—and some scenes will have no changes at all. This is much more manageable.

Revise each scene. You are likely to discover as you go through that some revisions simply won’t work. You might have thought you could slip in a reference to rats in chapter 3, but to do so turns out to be awkward and derails the point of the scene. No problem. When you’re revising chapter 4 you might find a more natural place to put it—and, if you already intend to refer to rats in 2-3 more places, you might not even need the chapter 3/4 reference.

You may find that implementing a change in one part of the book spawns other changes, such as the domino effect of logic and motivation, or a cool new idea that enriches and deepens your text.

And, when you have finished all the revisions (like the guy taking the wheelchair apart and putting it back together who discovers he has a handful of nuts and screws left over), you may find there are some revisions that somehow just never made it into the new draft. Do you really need them? Maybe. If so, go back and find a place to put them in. Or, maybe you don’t actually need them.

Read the entire manuscript again. This not only allows you to catch inconsistencies the revision process may have introduced, it gives you a chance to put your finger on the pulse of the book as a whole, so you can see how the build and flow of plot logic and emotions work together. This step has the added benefit of pumping up your enthusiasm for your novel: it is better! Revision worked! And, it wasn’t as painful as it first appeared.

It is a truism that, with rare exceptions, first drafts are not very good; that fiction comes to life under revision. It is also true that coming out of a meeting with your beta readers with a wheelbarrow full of suggested improvements can be daunting and depressing—so much so, it can be hard to even look at your creation again. By winnowing the comments down, rephrasing them with positive wording, and dividing them up into small, workable batches, you can really make use of their power, and come away with a vastly improved draft: one you are proud to send off to potential markets.

 
Susan writes SF, fantasy and horror, and is an award-winning fiction editor for Laksa Media. Her novel, BURSTS OF FIRE, will be out in 2019, followed by FLIGHTS OF MARIGOLDS. She has published over 25 short stories, contributes to When Words Collide, and has appeared at many international writing conventions. https://fineartemis.wordpress.com.

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!