Well readers we are lucky to have Kate Elliott answer a few questions about beta reading and how it assists with her writing process. Kate Elliott is a prolific and top selling author. She has previously written a seven volume fantasy series called, Crown of Stars and the Crossroads Trilogy. She is currently working on her Spiritwalker Trilogy. Currently, she lives in Hawaii. For more information about Kate and her books, check out her website here.
Thank you Kate for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer questions.
1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?
To some extent I have always used beta readers if by “beta reader” one means a person besides the editor who reads a draft of the book before it is published at any stage of the process when I can still make changes to the manuscript.
How many beta readers I have varies according to the project. In some cases, the only person who has read the book besides me and the editor might be my spouse or perhaps one or two other writers who have had time to read before I do the final line and copy edits. In the case of COLD FIRE (Spiritwalker #2), I used seventeen beta readers all told, through various versions of the manuscript. I think that’s the most I have used so far on a single manuscript.
2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?
I think it depends on how one defines the phrase “developing your novel.”
I’m generally not looking for help in developing my novel in terms of someone helping me figure out in what direction to take the characters or plot and definitely not the world building.
Until my most recent novel, my spouse has read at least some and often all of my novels in draft form and made comments (he hasn’t had time for the most recent one). I have in the past often consulted him–and certain very trusted writing friends–on plot problems I am struggling with. “Should she go over the bridge or through the tunnel? What obstacles would each choice involve, and how would it impact her arrival at the bakery?” Such people have the ability to “talk me through” the process, usually by asking me key questions that allow me to figure out the solution on my own although occasionally they may come up with a perfect solution.
The key with this particular process is that the person I am consulting must be able to remove his or her own inclinations from the story. They might in their own fiction not have a bridge or tunnel choice at all but rather a street, but their input and interaction is useless to me if they simply want me to do what they would do.
For me, this is always the biggest issue with beta readers. An excellent beta reader reads the story that is there and comments on how well it works. A poor beta reader reads the story and comments on the way they would want it written. That’s of no use to the writer.
In cases where you vehemently disagree with your beta reader’s comments?
Don’t argue and don’t explain. Don’t say anything unless you are specifically asking for clarification of a point you don’t quite understand. Every single comment by every single beta reader is not going to be useful, and that’s all right. The important thing to remember is that your beta readers have generously invested a great deal of time reading your manuscript. They deserve your thanks. It doesn’t matter if you use 100% of their comments or 5% of them. In the very rare cases of running into a toxic beta reader who is trying to undermine and undercut you, let them go. Don’t argue and don’t explain and don’t engage. Let it go. We all come at things with our own issues. As a writer, we have to try to look past our own issues to see if the critique being offered to us can help us improve the manuscript. Sometimes it is hard to accept what someone has said (see below for the 100 pages I cut), and sometimes we have to stick by our guns and NOT change something to fit someone else’s preconceptions and issues.
3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?
Or, to rephrase, if they do, then I generally know that “it” is something I absolutely definitely need to fix. Normally, I find that beta readers will flag different things because they are different sorts of readers with different relationships to the manuscript’s story.
What this also means is that sometimes a beta reader is right and you are wrong, and sometimes a beta reader is totally wrong and you are right to ignore their suggestion.
It’s important to trust your instincts. I usually get a sinking sensation when a beta reader flags something that in my gut I know is a problem or, if not a sinking sensation, I may rather nod my head resignedly or even excitedly since I suspected or already knew all along I was going to have to fix that issue in a later draft. At the same time, sometimes I just roll my eyes at a suggestion, and that’s okay, too. In the end, it’s my novel and my responsibility.
4. Do you sometimes target your beta readers to particular areas based on the experience you had with them in the past? For example, one reader is good at plot holes, another reader is good at grammatical issues and another might be good at style. Or do you take what comes?
If I use a beta reader more than once, I tend to know what they are good at (and, for that matter, what they are not good at and likely to miss), so that is the feedback I am hoping to receive from them. I find that a mix of beta readers is useful because it will theoretically cover more bases.
Certain beta readers I can trust with earlier drafts of a novel because they know how to look past the things I’m not trying to deal with at this stage of the revision (some instances of sloppier writing that will get smoothed out in the line edit stage, for example) while other beta readers I deliberately give the last pre-copy edit revision because I’m looking for reaction to any potential confusing action sequences or odd logic errors that beta readers reading the earlier draft may have missed because they’re dealing with “big picture” elements like pacing or character consistency or plot shape.
5. Do you always want the same thing from the beta reader for each novel? For example, when you have deadlines and only have time for high-level feedback?
I have a couple of trusted “alpha readers” who, when called upon, will read early manuscript. This is often very raw draft and I am sure it can be in places quite hard to read.
Sometimes I ask them to read because I simply need cheer-leading, and if so, I will say so. In such cases, they will find things to praise, and that’s the feedback I need to move forward.
Other times, as with my most recent manuscript COLD STEEL (Spiritwalker 3, forthcoming in 2013), one of my alpha readers kindly told me that the 100 page sequence I had just sent her was a detour from the main focus of the plot. She was right. I cut all 100 pages and ended up figuring out a far better transition.
Some beta readers will ask what sort of a read I want from them, and this may indeed depend on what stage the manuscript is in. I may then say, “anything, I haven’t done editorial revisions yet,” or I may say, “this is the final revision and I’m looking for errors, pacing problems, and confusing descriptions” or something like that. Obviously if a huge gaping plot hole was still present at the copy edit stage, I would hope it would be caught, but I’ve not found that to be a problem. Again, a huge gaping plot hole is a really different issue than saying “I didn’t like plot choice X you made, it felt cliched to me” — which is an honest and potentially useful comment, but which may reflect the beta reader’s tastes. Again, the writer has to trust her own judgement. It’s easy to get caught up in feeling defensive about one’s work, and at the same time, it’s possible to let an inappropriate remark sway the vision you have in your mind. The balance always lies in trying to sort through your own biases and tastes to figure out if the comment will improve the story.
Because that’s what it is fundamentally about: improving the book.
6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?
I think it is hard.
First, I’m going to repeat what I said above: An excellent beta reader reads the story that is there and comments on how well it works. A poor beta reader reads the story and comments on the way they would want it written.
Second, and I don’t know how to explain it, but some people are just really good at reading drafts and figuring out what isn’t working.
Often, they are (as you say) good at certain aspects. I’m a good beta reader for certain elements but not for others. I wouldn’t be a good beta reader for someone looking for a line edit, for example, but I think I’m fairly good at analyzing pacing and focus.
I do think it is important for me as a writer to get a variety of beta readers so that I have people who don’t read and write just like I do looking at the manuscript. If I only use beta readers who approach fiction in the same way I do, they may miss things that other sorts of readers stumble over. So a variety of types of readers can be helpful.
It’s okay, I think, to try someone out on a manuscript and, if they don’t work out or give useful feedback, thank them profusely for taking the time and then not using them again. I really think there is no use in telling someone that their feedback is not useful. It really takes a long time to beta read, and a lot of concentration, so thanks are always in order regardless of how much of the critique you were able to use.
7. Do you have any advice for readers who want to be beta readers or even editors in the long run? For example, what type of commentary to you prefer?
Critique the story that is being written, not the story you think should be written. This is the third time I’ve mentioned this point, so I hope that with this third mention, it will sink in. You, the beta reader, are not writing the story. You get to write your own story.
Read and analyze the story that is being written, looking for such things as pacing problems, infodump, detail errors, confusing description or action sequences, sloppy writing (although I don’t ever consider it the responsibility of a beta reader to correct bad grammar and punctuation), inconsistency in character behavior, awkward plot sequences, logic errors, and scenes that are too short for the emotional weight they need to carry. Comments like those help an author improve her story. Ultimately, improving the story is the goal.
Thank you so much Kate for that in-depth response to the questions. You have provided some great insight and advice there on the beta reading process.