Beta Reading—Part 4

This is the final post in a four-part series on beta reading. If you missed the earlier entries, you can catch up with these links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

So the beta reader has sent you his comments. Your ego has recovered from the blow, and you’ve realized the reader made some excellent points. Your story will be better if you incorporate his suggestions. Ideas are coming to you about how to revise the characters and plot. (If you’re lucky, your characters will help you with the revisions.)

Is it time to start the rewrites and move on with your life? Sort of. In a good beta reading partnership, the relationship doesn’t end when the comments are sent in.

Now is a good time to talk with (or email) your beta reader. Let him know how helpful his suggestions and comments are. Tell him your ideas for the revisions. Ideally, the relationship continues and you can exchange further drafts, future works, and bounce ideas off each other. In the best-case scenario, you both enjoy each other’s writing and look forward to seeing the final version take shape and the birth of your next works.

Don’t abuse the relationship, though. Don’t email your beta reader every day asking him to read your latest revised or new scene. Wait until you have a few chapters or sections done. And then politely ask if you can send them at some point. By now, of course, you know to reciprocate when your beta reader asks for your help.

To wrap up the series, I’ve created a short “do’s and don’ts” list as a quick guide for writers and readers. I’ll create a separate page with links to these posts for easy reference. It should be up soon, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

The Writer’s Guidelines

  • Determine if you need a beta reader. Unless you plan to publish, this may be more critique than you need.
  • Be sure you’re ready. Beta reader comments can be extensive and cause distress.
  • Don’t send a first draft for a beta read. Wait until at least the second draft.
  • Put the manuscript aside for two or three weeks before you send it to the reader. This will help distance you emotionally and help you be objective when comments come back.
  • What do you want from the review? Make these concerns clear to the reader.
  • Set a realistic timeframe for the beta reader.
  • Determine how you will reciprocate with the reader.
  • Be prepared for the feedback. There will be suggestions for improvement. This is what you requested.
  • Remember that respectfully worded suggestions are not personal attacks on you or your work.
  • You might not incorporate all of a beta reader’s suggestions. But make sure you don’t ignore good ones that would improve your work.

The Beta Reader’s Guidelines

  • Make sure you’re ready to beta read. You must be objective and leave your personal opinions out of the review.
  • Understand what the writer seeks from the review. Do you know the genre and completeness of the manuscript? (second draft? fifth?)
  • Read the manuscript at least twice.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments. It is not acceptable to be rude, aggressive, or insensitive. Phrase them as suggestions as much as possible.
  • Be sure to address all the areas the writer noted for you.
  • Begin and end with positive comments about the work.
  • Let your comments sit for a day or two before you send them. Reread them and make sure they are tactful and diplomatic.

And there you have the basics of beta reading. I hope the series has helped you understand the process and see how such a critique should work. It can help you make your work the best it can be. Go into it prepared, and you will come out a better writer with an improved story.

If you have any questions or additional tips, please feel free to ask them or add them in the comments!

I didn’t have time to pull together some additional resources for this post. I’ll try to add them to the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page when I can. Next week, I’ll get away from the educational series and do something different.

Beta Reading—Part 3

Over the last two weeks we’ve covered an introduction to beta reading and what the writer and beta reader need to understand before beginning the work. Today, we get down to the nuts and bolts of what the beta reader should (and shouldn’t) do and how he should present his critique. We’ll also look at what the writer should expect from the review. Instead of beginning with the writer, this post starts with the beta reader.

What the Beta Reader Should Do

Read the manuscript at least twice. On the first read, note general feelings or problems with the manuscript. For example, does the opening scene leave you struggling to figure out who and where the characters are? Are too many characters presented in the first chapter? Did a character suddenly appear with the protagonist at noon while two pages ago she was across the country two hours earlier? Your questions might be answered as you read more. After all, a writer shouldn’t reveal everything in Chapter 1. But if you’re repeatedly taken out of the story by incomplete or confusing descriptions, the writer probably hasn’t provided enough information.

With the second and later reads, focus on the areas the writer asked you to check. If she’s concerned about mixed point of view (POV), read carefully and note where you encounter it. If she’s worried that her characters are flat, see if she’s right. If you think they are, be specific as to why they’re dull. Are they too perfect? Are they risking nothing by their actions? Is the antagonist too evil and gives everything away?

If you notice a problem the writer didn’t ask you to address, do point it out—tactfully and diplomatically. (We’ll come back to tact and diplomacy soon.) Maybe she didn’t ask for help with POV. But you notice she’s not only switching POV within a scene but also within a paragraph. It’s best to stick with one POV per scene, although some writers successfully break this rule. However, if her shifts mean you can’t follow the story, or you don’t think they have the desired effect, let her know. (And changing POV within a paragraph is never good).

Do tell the writer when you think a scene is good or a character resonates with you. The critique will be stressful on her. She needs some positive reinforcement. (You will, too, when someone critiques your manuscript.) Otherwise, the writer can easily think her work is garbage. So, did a character make a joke and you thought it was funny? Say so! Did a scene make you tear up in empathy with the characters? Let the writer know this. Begin and end your comments with some of these positive points.

It’s okay to let the writer know your emotional responses to a character or scene. But don’t confuse this with your personal views on the subject or your personal preferences for writing style or content. You aren’t writing the book—she is. As a writer, I want to know what emotional response the reader had and if it matched my intentions. Did a character’s action leave you angry? Let the writer know. If that’s her desired reaction, she’ll know she got it right. But if she wanted you to feel sorry for him, she needs to think about her word choices—and consider the possibility that you simply misunderstood the scene. That happens.

It’s okay to make a few personal observations, such as your experiences with something in the book. But don’t form your critique around them, and do let the writer know these are “personal asides.”

Be specific with comments so the writer understands what you mean. “This character bores me” doesn’t give her much to go on. Tell her why he bores you. It will help her fix the problems. Something like this is more helpful. “Tom doesn’t seem to have any flaws. He never has a bad thought about anyone, even the man who killed Tom’s father before his eyes and stole his horse. He doesn’t come across as a real person in his situation should.”

If a passage confuses you, explain why. “Tom has helped his friends throughout the first 15 chapters. There was no good reason for them to abandon him when he passed out at the bar after his very first taste of alcohol, and yet they did. Why? If there’s a reason, the reader needs to know it. If there isn’t one, you might want to reconsider the friends’ reactions.”

Be tactful and diplomatic with your comments and recommendations for rewrite/revision. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is an area where we shouldn’t be too direct or “action-oriented” in our word choices. Phrase your comments as suggestions rather than instructions or complaints. Comments like, “you keep dumping too much backstory at the beginning of every chapter” or “stop changing POV in every scene” may be accurate. But they generate intense feelings of negativity and depression in the writer. Take a softer tone. For example, “Readers might skim over the first part of your chapters to get to the action. You might want to rework some of the backstory elements into a character’s internal thoughts or a dialogue exchange and spread them through the story.”

Wait a day or two after writing your comments before you send them to the author. Then reread them. How would you feel if you received the comments phrased as they are? Could they be more tactful? Are they clear? Have you provided enough encouragement and pointed out areas that are working well?

What the Beta Reader SHOULD NOT Do

Never make insensitive or inflammatory comments. Beta reading and critiques should never be personal attacks on the work or the writer. If this happened to you, I’m sorry. But it’s not how things should be done. Personal or mean-spirited attacks are not a rite of passage into the writing world.

Don’t limit your comments to those of the “here’s what needs work” category. Begin and end your comments with things you enjoyed and thought the writer did well. You would need to hear it. So does she.

Don’t take it personally if the writer doesn’t incorporate all of your suggestions. Maybe five other people loved something you hated. She has to make the final call on what works.

What the Writer Should Expect

You should receive both positive and “areas for improvement” comments. Remember, you have asked for an honest critique of your draft. Don’t ask for a beta read if you think your work is perfect as is. There is always room for improvement. Well-phrased and carefully thought out suggestions for improvement are not personal attacks on you or your writing. Your beta reader is trying to help you write the best story you can.

You will feel some “negative” emotions when you read the comments—anger, hurt, depression. That’s normal. That’s why I said make sure you’re ready for this in Part 1. It gets easier as you gain more experience, but it always stings. Go ahead and console yourself with chocolate or a glass of your favorite alcoholic beverage. But remember—you wanted an honest critique, and that’s what you should get.

Put the comments aside for a few days after you’ve read them. Don’t reply to the reader at this point except for a polite “thank you I got your comments, and I’m going through them.” You’ll stew over them. You’ll think the reader missed the point completely. You’ll feel defensive about your writing, your story, and why you told it the way you did. Under no circumstances should you dash off a knee-jerk email to the beta reader or a blog post about the terrible beta reader.

You’ll soon catch yourself thinking about ways to address the beta reader’s points. You’ll realize that there is something to his comments. Now you can look at the manuscript and his comments again. And, with a calmer eye, you’ll see the validity of most of the comments. Most—not all. It’s unlikely that everything he said will apply. Maybe he misread a paragraph and the resulting comment really doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t read your genre, a point that confuses him may be clear to regular readers.

But a good beta reader will make many good points. And you need to think about them. They’ll help you make the story better. And if your goal is publication, whether traditional or independent, your story should be as good as you can make it. That’s the only way to build an audience who will read your future publications.

Finally, don’t expect the beta reader to “fix” the problems for you. He might offer suggestions, but he’s not a ghost writer. You have to do the hard work of rewrites for the next draft. Remember, it’s your book, not his.

Next Time

In the final post we’ll go over what happens after your beta reading experience—because the end of the critique should not be the end of the relationship. I’ll also summarize the main points for the writer and beta reader to remember. If I’m really organized and have the time, I’ll include some links to helpful posts and websites.

If you have any suggestions for those links or points to hit in the final post, please feel free to add them in the comments!

Beta Reading—Part 2

Last Saturday, I introduced the concept of beta reading and initial questions you should consider before diving into it. If you missed that post, you can catch up here. If you think you’re up for the challenge, keep reading!

Today, I want to focus on the importance for both the writer and the beta reader to understand the goals of the work. If you are exchanging manuscripts and will beta read each other’s works, you need to understand both sides of the process. Continue reading

Beta Reading—Part 1

Beta reading has been a hot topic on my blog and others. Most, my own included, have focused on specific aspects rather than the entire concept. I thought a short series of posts that define beta reading and lay out some guidelines for both the writer and beta reader could be useful.

When done well, a beta read can help take a writer’s manuscript from the slush pile to the bestseller list. When mishandled, it can shatter a writer’s confidence and drive him away from an activity he loves and should still be doing.

Although beta readers don’t have to be writers, this series of posts is designed for writers who want to “beta read” with another writer. The guidelines for beta readers, however, apply to non-writers as well.

Today’s post, and those on the next three Saturdays, will cover this topic. I hope to provide a clear understanding of this important act that requires extreme tact, respect, and sensitivity. Continue reading

I CAN Do This

As many of you know, I’ve had two manuscripts out with beta readers recently. Last week, I got comments back on my novel Death Out of Time from 4amWriter, aka Limebirdkate. I cannot believe how lucky I was to have someone as talented as her go through the manuscript. Kate could teach a Master Class in Beta Reading.

Am I going to gush because she told me how good it was? Nope. Before getting to my main point, I’ll briefly gush because she pointed out how much work it still needs.

Confused? No need to be. This wasn’t a final draft. It was only a second. And since I haven’t been at this anywhere near as long as someone like Stephen King, I knew there was a lot of work ahead. I knew some things weren’t working as they should. I knew my main characters needed revision. And there were other things I suspected. Kate caught every single point that concerned me—and a lot more. If we’re going to publish good, well-written books, we need that kind of feedback on the work-in-progress.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve been going through all the stages of feedback grief that Kourtney Heintz covered so well in a recent post. That’s what writers do. Actually, that’s what we all do when someone else critiques our efforts. Show me someone who claims constructive criticism doesn’t sting just the tiniest bit, and I’ll show you someone being just the tiniest bit dishonest.

But there’s something in these experiences that makes me think maybe I can do this—that maybe I can write a successful novel. (And by successful I mean an enjoyable, interesting story that some number of people beyond close family and friends would like to read. Monetary success is a whole other unpredictable beast.)

You see, ten years ago, or even five, a beta reader’s comments would have been more than I could bear. No matter how carefully someone constructed his critique, no matter how supportive he was that I was on the right track, I might have tucked the manuscript in a dark corner of a closet and never touched it again. I might have quit writing. At best I would have quit hoping that anyone else would want to read my work.

But that isn’t happening today. I’ve been going over Kate’s comments, absorbing them and thinking about how to address them to improve the story. And the ideas are flowing. They’re not necessarily all good. I have to think through how each would affect the entire story. I’ll throw some of them away. But they are flowing.  And I’ll think of more. And that means I’m moving forward. I’m not quitting.

And no one ever wrote and published a novel by quitting. We can’t succeed at anything by giving up before we’ve reached our goal.

Maybe this is a late burst of maturation and confidence in my life. Or maybe nothing creative ever took such hold of my imagination before. But whatever it is, I’m rolling up my shirt sleeves and getting down to the business of rethinking and rewriting. Draft 3 will be better. It won’t be the end. But I’ll be a few steps closer to writing a good story.

Maybe I can do this.

Have you surprised yourself by sticking to something you didn’t think you could do? Or kept going when others thought you would just give up or fail?

A Spammy Smile for the Day

I really enjoyed this thread, please keep posting info like this.” — Just a nice comment on my Fun With Spam post, right? What made me smile was the “name” of the commenter—Poopyface Monger. It sounds like someone’s five-year-old came up with that one. 🙂

Tripping Up Readers

How often has it happened to you? You’re reading a book, caught up in the tale, and then a chance word or phrase makes you stumble. As a result, you’re taken out of the story.

If the writer’s lucky, you get up, dust yourself off, and return to the world he wanted you to experience. But if you don’t, he may have lost you for good. That’s a writer’s nightmare.

(Actually, we have lots of nightmares. But I think losing readers is one of the worst. In the dream, they usually go on to post damning reviews that go viral and every media outlet is trashing you, including your family and friends on Facebook and Twitter. Even worse, your mother learns how to post a video on YouTube and denies any relationship with you.)

Sometimes, it’s as simple as a word we don’t know. This happened with one of my beta readers. In Death Out of Time, a crime scene analyst says there was an anomalous reading on a radiation detector. My reader wasn’t familiar with “anomalous.” She picked up its meaning in the following dialogue, but it still took her out of the story for a moment.

Other times, a passage might make perfect sense to the writer, but something about it makes the reader say, “Wait a minute. Where did that come from?” Readers bring a lot to a book. They form their own images of the characters and events, sometimes colored by their own experiences. But most of them don’t bring telepathic skills.

If calm, cool, and snake-owning Main Character suddenly freaks out in the middle of the book when he sees a worm, the writer better make it clear why that happened—either in good foreshadowing in an earlier section or right then and there when Main screams and climbs the nearest tree. Otherwise, readers will start to wonder what they missed.

Readers also stumble on inconsistencies. In an earlier version of my work-in-progress Summer at the Crossroads, Kathryn and Mikhail were asked to bring a bottle of red wine to a dinner. When they got there a few sections later, I had Mikhail open a bottle of white. Oops.

There’s probably nothing wrong with momentarily confusing the occasional reader in different parts of a story. And one or two unfamiliar words in a gripping story shouldn’t cost you a reader. But there’s a problem if lots of people are getting pulled out in the same places. We haven’t done our job as storytellers if that happens.

So before you release that story to the world, check your manuscript for trip wires. Listen when your beta readers describe their confusion about a scene and then sit down and make it clearer. If necessary, take some of the back story out of your head and put it in the book. Don’t give people a reason to put down your book for good—unfinished.

Has a published author tripped you up so badly that you stopped enjoying a book? Or worse, stopped reading it? Have you writers in the audience found trip wires in your drafts?

Don’t Do What I Did – But If You Do. . . .

Don’t touch that – it’s hot.

I’ll bet your 3-year-old self didn’t listen. Mine didn’t. It hurt. And I cried.

Mom’s advice was based on experience. She learned the hard way that her mother was right. So did I. And I’ll bet you did, too.

That’s being human. Experience is our best teacher. No matter how often others try to help us learn from their mistakes, we’ll do the same thing. And then we tell others to learn from ours. And they don’t. The cycle continues.

The Book is Done! It’s Query Time!

You read it in every writer’s magazine. Every how-to-get-published book tells you the same thing. Agents warn us not to do it. Award-winning authors tell us they made this mistake with their first novels – many of which remain unpublished. Learn from us they say:

Don’t send queries until your book has been through so many rewrites and readers that your head is spinning. Then set it aside for a month or more and look at it with a fresh eye.

I took the advice to heart – most of it. I edited multiple drafts of Summer at the Crossroads. I had readers critique it, and I incorporated their comments. I’m lucky enough to know a professional editor. In addition to a thorough copy edit, she suggested dialogue revisions and plot points to consider. It was all good advice, and I did more rewrites.

As I did, I prepared my query letter and short synopsis. I researched agents who take mainstream novels with a “different” concept. And some of those agents accepted sample pages.

I took a deep breath and sent out some queries – twelve in all over the first few months of 2011. That’s not many, but it was enough to let me know something wasn’t right. No one asked to see more of the book. You could argue the problem was my “hook,” and it wasn’t working. Or I didn’t query the right agents, or enough of them. Maybe.

But through it all, I had a nagging feeling the book was too different for anyone to take a chance on it. So I set it aside and focused on completing a draft of Death Out of Time. When I sent that manuscript to my readers in October, I picked up Summer at the Crossroads and looked at it again.

And the colored pens came out. Why wasn’t there more action in my opening scene? Where did those passive sentences come from? Why were there so many adverbs and double adjectives?  [Note – this is my single-spaced working copy. The sample pages to agents were all double-spaced and formatted to specific guidelines.]

You see what happened, right? I never set it aside or looked at it with a fresh eye. I knew I was supposed to. But I had edited it so carefully and incorporated all those critiques. I’d done so many of the things we’re supposed to do. I didn’t need that “cooling off” period.

Don’t touch that. . . .

I have a new opening scene. Existing scenes have been revised and re-polished. Characters have had to open up more about their lives. The book is getting better. But it’s not done.

Will you learn from my mistake? Only time will tell. But before you query, put the book away for a month or more. Then read it again before you send it out.

But if you don’t wait, you’ll find time eases the sting of agents passing on your queries. When it does, look at your book again. Revise, edit again, but above all, if you do what I did – don’t give up on it or your writing. Learn from the experience. And keep going forward.