Hey, all! Today’s post focuses on Beta Readers. Oddly enough, I have met several writers who have submitted to agents (TO AGENTS!) without ever letting anyone else read their book. This is crazy, and a pretty sure path to rejection. If the concept of Beta Readers is new to you, read on. If you are an old battleaxe like me and already have a trusted critique group…move along, nothing to see here.
At a certain point in your early drafting stages, you’re going to want to get feedback on your book. It’s extremely easy to get trapped working in a vacuum, with no idea if what you’re writing makes sense to anyone other than yourself. Usually when I feel the mounting frustration of “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING ANYMORE?!?” I know that it’s time to get outside opinions.
Good Beta Readers are crucial to any writer’s success.
Note: I call my readers at every single stage of this process “Beta Readers” because I am the Alpha (AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT) and everyone that comes after me are Betas. But you could get totally cool and fancy and call some of them Gammas or Deltas, and throw a college-frat party for READING. YEAH.
Ahem. Let’s continue.
For feedback in the early drafts, you need to make sure you choose people you trust. This is a vulnerable stage for both you and your book. It’s still in its ugly phase, and you are naturally going to be defensive. Therefore, you need to find readers who can be honest but constructive, and will look past the crummy writing to focus on the “bones.” Nobody enters their gross-looking, slimy, seconds-old newborn baby into a beauty pageant, right? You show it to your close friends and family, who ooo and aaa and make you feel good about your nasty-ass spawn because they know it’ll be cute in a few months. Your book is a slimy newborn. Show it to the right people.
Personally, I have three trusted readers that I rely on for my early drafts (all hell breaks loose in the later drafts and at that point I use about 10). I know that my Core Three are going to be honest, but I also know that they understand the process and won’t be expecting a “good book” yet.
So, how do you choose readers? I started with family members, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you know you can handle it. One of my relatives was a great reader because he was constructive but positive with his feedback. But I learned the hard way that I have waaaaay too much baggage to let certain other family members read my work. Our relationship made it difficult for them to be objective and unbiased when giving feedback, and made it difficult for me to accept their feedback. So before you go the family route, make sure you know that person well enough and can handle them critiquing you. Otherwise it’s a shortcut to tears and resentment and super awkward Thanksgiving dinners (as if those aren’t horrible enough as it is).
Eventually I went to a few writer’s conferences, where I met some writers I immediately “clicked” with. We exchanged work and they’ve been my go-to readers for years, now. I also have a non-writer friend who is an avid reader and enjoys the same types of books that I do. You can also go online and find or start a critique group, or find writers in your local area.
If you choose another writer, it helps to find someone that understands and loves the genre you’re writing (whether or not that’s what they themselves write). Critiques become frustrating when the person reading your work doesn’t like it simply because they don’t like ANY crime novels or romances. Pick a writer who falls into the audience you are writing for.
When you’ve found your Beta Readers, it’s important to tell them that they’re getting an early draft, so that they can adjust their expectations and critique accordingly. I give very different feedback on a second draft than I do on an almost-done about-to-submit-to-agents draft. Personally, I find that it helps if I make a short list of what I want my Betas to “read for,” such as:
- Does the plot “work”?
- What makes sense and what needs more explanation?
- Which scenes resonate and which fall flat?
- Does the “world” I’ve built feel real? Are its “magical mechanics” consistent throughout?
- What characters do you like? Which do you hate? (if my readers all hate the main character, it’s a problem, and I need to massively re-write, unless that’s what I was going for)
- What areas could be better developed? Are there any characters you would have liked to see fleshed out? Any plot-threads that petered out that you wish were better resolved?
Then, let them read. Make sure you give them plenty of time to get through the book without badgering them. I usually take a month or two off at this point to “fill my creative well,” but I make sure to tell my readers when I’d like to have their critiques back.
Taking criticism is a skill that must be learned and honed. It’s not easy, and can be painful, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to get into a creative field. The path to publication is filled with rejection and criticism, not all of it fair or “kindly worded,” and learning to accept the feedback from your readers will prepare you for the often much harsher feedback from agents and editors. Learning to listen and apply suggestions will also help you to better yourself as a writer.
The most important thing you can do when getting feedback is: SAY THANK YOU. Whether the comments are helpful or not, whether the reader was vicious or kind, is irrelevant. Regardless of the quality of the criticism they are providing, they have spent time and effort on you and your book. Be gracious.
The second most important thing is: DON’T BE A DICK. Look, getting criticism is hard. It sucks. I hate it. As thick as my skin has become, I still don’t like hearing that my book needs major revisions. But it is 100% necessary. And whether you agree with what is being said or not, every comment is valid. So, don’t be a dick. If a reader says something you don’t agree with, don’t argue. Say thank you and move on. If you need clarification on a note, ask politely. If they didn’t understand something, don’t be condescending and point to the explanation on page 84. If they missed it, others will too, and it’s YOUR job to make it clearer.
Here’s what I do when getting feedback:
- Listen to all comments with an open mind. If I’m having a phone chat or in-person meeting with my readers, I take notes. If I receive them by email, I print it out. I will be referring to them often when I revise.
- When the conversation is over, I thank the person. Then, when I’m alone, I read over the comments several times.
- You are going to feel defensive. You are going to be resistant. I let myself be a pouty whiny “I don’t wanna” baby about every single negative comment (I keep it to myself, of course. Never let your readers see you pout). I give myself time and space to be mopey and hurt and act like a dramatically misunderstood creative genius. Then, when I have comments back from ALL of my readers, the time for being resistant is OVER. Whiny baby writer steps aside and brutal great-white-with-chum-in-the-water editor takes her place.
- At this point I read over all of my feedback again. I start looking for patterns. If I have 3 readers and 2/3 hate something, I know that I need to consider changing it. 1/3 on the hate-scale might warrant some re-wording or better explanation, but the section itself will likely stay.
- Oftentimes, the feedback I absolutely 100% disagreed with when I first received it will start making a whole lot of sense when I have all of my readers’ notes in front of me, or have given myself enough time to think about it. Allow yourself to be wrong. Allow yourself to suck it up and make changes you told yourself you would never make. Recently I cut a scene that I was dig-in-my-heels adamant I Would. Not. Change. Eventually I saw the light and the book is SO MUCH BETTER without it. Sometimes you’re just in too deep. Remember that famous quote everyone spews when they want to feel like a morally-superior writer: Kill your darlings. Do it. If something isn’t working and you find yourself bending over backwards to make it fit, it should go. And if one of your readers said it months ago and you refused to listen and they were right all along, YOU GIVE THEM A HIGH FIVE.
Criticism becomes easier to take over time. If you’re like me, you’ll eventually have to stop yourself from over-editing based on feedback (I aim to please, what can I say). You’ll begin to hone your ability to distinguish opinion from fact, subjective criticism from objective criticism. “I don’t like that character” is very different from “that character’s motivations weren’t clear enough—-why did he do X when it’s so against his nature?” Follow up with questions if you need to. Ask your readers to be specific. It will help you decide whether their reaction is fact-based (something wrong with the book) or opinion-based (they really just don’t like the character because it reminds them of their shitty sister). Don’t just ask WHAT they didn’t like. Ask WHY they didn’t like it.
That’s it for now. Until next week, when we talk about GOING DEEPER: The After-Reader-Feedback Draft!