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Archive for the ‘Beta reading’ Category

I’ve done a series of blog interviews on the topic of beta readers previously. Recently though, I’ve had some thoughts on the timing, or better still at what stage of your drafting/writing/revising process it works best. This was sparked by receiving some excellent feedback on a work in progress.

Not everyone uses a beta reader, but if you look in the author comments or acknowledgements in your favourite books you will see people who  have been thanked, usually as first reader etc. For myself, I need beta readers like I need air. God forbid that a published work of mine was raw and that my first feedback was from a reviewer or a bunch of readers. Thankfully, mostly everything except my blog posts have had a reader, editor etc before being published. Even my Indie published fantasy, Argenterra, had beta readers and an editor before being published. I also beta read for author friends. Not all of them return the favour them being busy with contracted deadlines etc, but I get something out of it. I get to read their books before everyone else and sometimes I get a present of a nice shiny book! I also learn!

I have also used the services of a manuscript appraisal service when I first started out, also I have workshopped a novel with Envision (a fantastic program that no longer exists), that was Argenterra BTW! I also won a Longlines Fellowship to Varuna Writers’ House for Dragon Wine back in 2006 and part of that was feedback and also sharing with other writers there. For Dragon Wine I used the services of a continuity editor which was really useful too.

The ideas and the words are my own but feedback help shape ideas, perspectives etc which are all valuable. Even reading your book aloud to yourself will pick up stuff. Really! Read it to someone else and then heaps of things will jump out at you even when you’ve proofed and polished the text within an inch of its life.

Maybe because I’m an extroverted thinker that beta reader comments work for me. I need a sounding board and I work fairly quickly too, which means I can’t play with one story for ten years with no fertiliser from other people. I usually have several novels or short stories going.

An important consideration in having a beta reader is to have someone who gets what you are doing, who has some interest, sympathy, knowledge, way of thinking etc that gels. Your mum is probably not the best person. Even your kids…although mine usually pick up typos etc after the fact. You need some distance, someone you can trust to be honest and helpful at the same time. More importantly, you need to be ready for feedback. You need to be able to accept criticism because that’s what it is all about. If you want a beta reader to say “OMG! This is the best book on the planet ever!” Give it to your mum. Not that it is not great to get positive feedback, it is…

So it is hard to get good beta readers. If you write a lot it is even harder to share the work around them. Also, you need to return the favour, unless you are paying for a service. If you are paying for a service expect a detailed report and expect to pay upwards of $500 (more these days). Remember you want to be a beta reader that your reader buddies can respect. This means you have to give feedback on things like structure, character, pacing, setting etc too. Your beta reader doesn’t have to be another writer. A reader who likes the genre you write in can be very helpful. I mean they are a sample of your audience right? Your feedback might be a lengthy document, an annotated MS, an email or even just a conversation. It all goes into the mix.

Also different readers have different strengths. You might get a reader who is instinctively good with pacing. Another with character development. So having more than one is helpful. I was going to say essential but we can’t have everything.

I have trusted beta readers for a range of stories. I probably have one who reads anything I write and I read hers. I believe we trust each other, although we have different perspectives.

Timing! Finally I get to the point. This is interesting. The timing varies for me. I might send my MS off just before I send it to submission, when I think it’s fairly polished, but not finally polished just to check that it’s not fatally flawed. Or I might send a tidied up first draft. I never send a story with a gaping hole in it (unless I didn’t see it). I may have a few x in place of names, but usually the story is fully formed. At a minimum a tidied first draft. My older work needs a few drafts before they are ready for beta readers. I’m finding that with The Crystal Gate, the sequel to Argenterra. The third installment is an incomplete rough draft and a nightmare!

You see, Argenterra has been worked on over many years, had many revisions, cut backs etc. The sequel has sat in the hard drive minding its own business and stagnating. Essentially it is a tidied first draft, maybe a tidier second draft. More recent work for me means that the first drafts are much better. I used to be a panster! Now I straddle the fence and plan a bit. Older drafts can be a lot of work, especially if you didn’t make notes!

So the minimum I believe is a tidy, good first draft, where you have  a full story etc and there is something to comment on. I sent The Crystal Gate for a beta read and it’s a tidy second draft. Why?

I have trouble listening to the little voice in my head that says things like “You’ve said that twice now. Maybe cut that.” or “You’ve written the action but what is the character feeling? What is the character’s emotional journey?” Or “That’s all well and good but could there be too much going on in that scene?” But because I’m focussed on my end goal of getting through the revision I don’t stop to deal with those things. I need a second opinion. (Insert LAZY here). I need a kick up the bum. I need to know what’s working and what’s not before I invest too much, before I make a wrong decision. This is where beta reading comments come in. I got some this morning. Some were the kick in the pants stuff-the stuff where I should know better but didn’t. Other comments point out flaws I didn’t notice or thought I could get away with, others highlighted aspects that I hadn’t thought of at all. I know that in addressing these comments I’m going to make the work better. I don’t have to agree with everything that my beta reader says. I’m going to wait for the other beta reader’s comments before working on the MS again.

Essentially the comments have filled me up with enthusiasm, ideas and identified trouble areas where I need to do more thinking. I love this.

I think I would be less likely to be accepting of feedback if I had polished the story to the nth degree and thought it was amazing and gorgeous and nothing could be improved. Nothing could be worse that having someone say-this is fatally flawed, you need to restructure this. You might take that from an editor maybe if you could see their vision. So far I haven’t had to restructure anything majorly at all. For this reason, I think getting feedback on a good draft is better than a polished draft you have no brain power to accept feedback. It can be done. I’ve worked with someone who had been edited and a reader picked up something which meant it had to be edited again and the issue addressed.

Of course, the timing is individual. Some people I know won’t let me read for them until they think their MS is perfect. Naturally enough I don’t get to read for them very often at all.

Now I wrote this post because I’m working on a rough draft of The Ungiven Land, Silverlands book 3. It’s hard work even thinking about this story so procrastination helps. This blog post is brought to you by procrastination!

 

 

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The first month of 2013 is almost over. Wow! That went quickly.

University starts next week. I’m doing two of the subjects that are the compulsory core subjects of my masters in creative writing. One is a manuscript writing unit and the other is cultural research. Looks like both are going to be online so easier on the petrol but intensive as far as time goes. I need to start planning and committing to the novel I will write for the course. I had two ideas and then I had another. It’s a toss up whether I should do the literary SF post-apocalyptic novel, set in Australia and examining feminist issues (Bearded Women), or the dark, SF novel featuring future societies take on incarceration (Prison Ship) or the new idea for a slip fantasy, darkish steampunk/romance ( Into the Dark Glass). I’ve got till next week to make up my mind, write a pitch and cough up some wordage. (votes here will be cool)

I’m back at work. I’ve whinged on Twitter/Facebook about being sick on 2 writing days in a row. Today I’m not sick. I had some errands to run but I did get up early and write (ooh over 2500 words-just checked) on new chapter. This new chapter was as a result of beta reader feedback. When I didn’t write it before I was in half a mind to, but thought I’ll leave in some suspense. My beta reader felt cheated!

Today, I went down to Queanbeyan and spent money. I came upon a hat themed calendar and bought it. When my eyes alighted on it, it jolted me a bit. I’ve enrolled in a millinery course but I haven’t had any correspondence from the technical college. So I had to add that into the mix, along with Conflux 9 and work! I really must put up the scheduler and fill it out.

I had an episode of aching hands over the new year period. It was intense and weird. I went to the physio late last week and she said my RSI is controlled and I don’t have to keep coming. However, we discussed my hands and I had to go to the doctor for further assessment. Blood tests and xrays. I’ve been a bit worried that it’s rheumatoid arthritis and then I tell myself it can’t be. That can’t happen to me!  I know I have osteoarthritis but apparently it doesn’t have flare ups. I had aching hands about 6 weeks before that and I thought then it was the lack of vitamin D. However, I have been taking supplements religiously for 3 months now. So that’s two flares up in 3 months. I tell myself when I’m not obsessing that it might be a virus. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the results and then deal.

I am desperately trying to polish at least one of my MSs before next week and life starts dishing it up. I am looking forward to the second half of the year when I don’t have so much on. I might have World Fantasy Convention in my sights. I have tickets. I have the will. I might even have the time off. It’s the $$ that is preventing me at the moment.

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Yesterday was a bit of a loss in the writing or doing anything stakes. A quick trip to the mall for coffee ended up taking 4 hours and when I finally got back  it was so hot I completely flaked the whole day. I was meeting a new friend for coffee and she had a turn and is now in hospital. I went without a car and caught the bus home (a new experience). That’s why it took so long. In the evening, I watched Vampire sucks and read JR Ward’s Lover Revealed and finished off an MS I was beta reading. Come to think of it, maybe I’m being hysterical. The day doesn’t seem that wasted does it?

Thanks to the teenager, I had a 2.00 am trip to the cop shop and so today is not looking too crash hot either. Well I thought it wasn’t but I wrote an outline for the next Rayessa story and that’s an excellent thing! I wrote Rayessa in 2003 originally and back then I did have an idea about the next story and the opening scene. Things moved on. I wrote other things and Rayessa was having a snooze in my hard drive. Like a backpacker, she changed nesting places as computers were replaced or died. Now with Rayessa coming out into the world, I need to think about putting more words to paper. The first step was to do an outline. It’s not a careful outline. It’s rough and meant to get the ideas that have come to me recently meshed with the ideas of old. It also means I can now swill it around my head (something like mouthwash) and then when I’m ready I’m going to spit it out, possibly into a word document. Writing the outline also stops me from carrying the ideas around in my head, relieves me of the guilt that I just don’t sit down and do it and allows me some freedom to play with my other projects.

So today I’ve opened up The Sorcerer’s Spell and I’m revising, polishing, tweaking etc. You know, I’m really enjoying it. I’m putting no pressure on myself to get word count. I’m happy if I get through chapter one and really happy if I make it through chapter two. I want to savour this, enjoy the process of taking something a bit rough looking (maybe a cake that doesn’t look pretty) and smoothing it out, embellishing and making it beautiful (like putting fondant on a cake and decorating it).

It was probably very therapeutic to read a bit between finishing Bespelled and diving into revisions of another novel. Reading something like JR Ward’s Lover Revealed, makes me appreciate the complexity and the thought that is going into that book and that series. It is also very cool so it’s great fun to read it. Beta reading Nicole’s MS was a good experience too. She does her characters so well. They have depth, darkness, a past and that’s a good thing for me to be thinking about when I work on all my work. I want to make my characters as real on paper as they are in my head.

Anyhow, time to saunter off and pretend I’m working and not having a fun time. I must keep the image up.

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This series of interviews on the use of beta readers in the development of manuscripts for publication has been interesting and informative. While the range of usage of beta readers is varied, it is heartening to see that published authors also need input into their manuscripts as well as the new, unpublished novel writers.

For new writers, it is worthwhile to note that those more experienced novelists find critique useful in the writing process. It is also important to understand that accepting feedback on our work is part of learning the craft. To be able to take frank and fair feedback and look at your work dispassionately, is essential for growth as a writer. Few of us, I think, are amazing geniuses whose first act of putting pen to paper reveals a masterpiece. It has taken me quite a few years to realise that. (I knew I wasn’t a genius but it took me a while to figure out there are people who can just create something fantastic with seeming little effort.)

More established writers find that there are other challenges awaiting them such as looming deadlines and the continual time poor situation that creates. Writers who have deadlines and publishing schedules (and all the other things like family, friends and events to go to) do not have the same amount of time to sit on their manuscript and ponder various aspects of the story, characters and narrative as they did when they were trying to get published. For example, I began writing Dragon Wine in 2005 and while I have not consistently worked on it I have had seven years to think about it.

Experience grows with each publication and it is heartening to know that the humble reader can contribute something to the creative process as well as assist the writer to make the manuscript the best it can be in the short time available. For example, both Glenda Larke and D.B. Jackson mentioned that they did not use beta readers as much in their early careers but are finding them more essential at their careers develop. Also, other writers such as Margo Lanagan, Maxine McArthur, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Marianne De Pierres and Richard Harland have benefited from a consistent and professional approach to critiquing each other’s work through their ROR group over many years.

As a writer myself, I find receiving critique useful on many levels. For example, my big, gaping need to know if my story is working on some level and then to find out what’s not working so I can think of ways to fix it. Sometimes, talking to people about a story can identify a problem, which can lead to a raft of ideas to improve the story. Like many of the writers interviewed said— they were happy to hear what the issue might be, but don’t necessarily told how to fix it. Also writing is a very solitary occupation and when unpublished provides all too few rewards or acknowledgements. Feedback in this respect can work as a stopgap, a sort of pat on the back when hearing the good things and reminder that you have more work to do on hearing the bits that aren’t working so well. If you think about it, writers write stories to share and to provide enjoying to their readers generally (well some write to scare the bejesus out of them). So having someone read your work is sharing the work and finding out they enjoyed it can imbue one with an inner glow. I was chatting to Glenda Larke recently after I sent her some feedback. I really didn’t have too much to say, just a few thoughts and feelings, but she said she welcomed them because it helped her make the story the best it can be.

Personally, I found Ian McHugh’s interview as a beta reader very informative (as I thought I would)  and I borrowed some of his ideas for my most recent feedback on a novel I was beta reading.

As part of the wrap up, I would also like to thank the writers who gave freely of their time to answer the questions.

I hope this series of blog interviews on beta readers has been useful and as interesting to you as I have found it. The feedback I have received has been positive in this regard. I will have to put my thinking cap on about other interesting blogs. I have a couple of author interviews in mind so we will see.

Warning. The bulk of this post was dictated. I try to make sure there are no glaring errors but sometimes they slip my guard.

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Ian McHugh is an accomplished writer, winning the Writers of the Future award. As well as selling short stories to professional and semi-professional publications, he is also is very generous in sharing his experience and writing insights with others. He is a key figure in the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and basically a really good guy.  He is currently coordinating the CSFG novel critiquing group, among other things. I wanted to interview him because we had beta read the same novel and his comments were extremely insightful so I thought his views would be helpful to writers and those thinking of using beta readers or becoming a beta reader. Ian McHugh keeps a blog here.

1. What do you see as the key role for a beta reader?

To help the author find the problems and potential in their book that they’re too close to see for themselves, and to affirm the strengths in their writing and storytelling (that they may or may not be aware of, or entirely convinced of).

 2. What are the types of things you look for when beta reader?

I tend to structure my feedback under a number of headings:

– Plot and structure

– Characters and relationships

– Conflict, tension and threat

– Worldbuilding

– Writing Style

(We’re using these headings in the CSFG novel crit group this year, and it seems to have been useful.)

I tend not to go looking for particular stuff to write under each header. I wait to see what stands out – eg, an aspect of the world that I find implausible, a character I don’t find sympathetic, a plot device that I think is too obvious. Or, of course, a character I think is awesome, an action sequence that kicks arse, a well-executed plot revelation etc.

Often I find that it’s the apparent absences, rather than what’s there, that most catch my attention – eg, a lack of tension at a certain point, an undeveloped relationship between two characters, no obvious protagonist.

I find that structuring my crits under headings helps me to organise my thoughts, although a lot of comments cut across the different sections, too – a lack of strong plot direction and lack of a protagonist go together, unsympathetic characters undermine tension.

Yeah, characters affect pretty much everything, actually.

I also jot down my reactions while reading, particularly to anything that jolts me out of the story, and provide these as well in a line-by-line list.

 3. What is the most difficult part of providing feedback when beta reading?

A) Tempering my inclination to be a smart-arse when saying something uncomplimentary about someone’s manuscript, and expressing myself purely constructively and with sensitivity to their feelings instead.

It’s a lifelong battle and I don’t win every skirmish.

B) The other most difficult part is, when I see and am excited by (what I think is) unrealised potential in some aspect of a story, staying on the right side of the fine line between (i) offering constructive suggestions in case they spark something for the author, and (ii) re-writing their story for them. So:

GOOD: I think there could be some more tension when the ranger and the barbarian go into the dragon’s cave, for example, if you draw out the uncertainty more over whether the dragon is asleep or awake, or the dragon isn’t where they expect it to be and it’s stalking them instead.

BAD: Oo, oo, instead of the ranger and the barbarian going into the cave to slay a dragon, it should totally be a horde of goblins with two or three cave trolls instead. Really huge cave trolls that ate the dragon. That’d be awesome. And the ranger should die. Awesome.

 4. What is the best part about providing feedback when beta reading?

A) Reading a story that is already awesome, and having that to say to the author.

B) When one of my suggestions makes lightning in the author’s brain, and excites them about their next draft.

 5. As a beta reader what benefit do you get in providing critique?

Accumulating reciprocal novel-reading favours.

6. Is beta reading useful to you as a writer?

I think that in getting your work critted, you tend to learn what you need to do to fix that particular story. Whereas, when you’re critically reading someone else’s work, and thinking hard to figure out exactly what it is that seems like it’s not working and why, you’re learning about writing and storytelling generally. So, fingers crossed, critting is making me a better writer.

Ian thanks for that. An excellent perspective to help tie up the series. I find I’m in accord with most of what you say. I have something to learn about structuring my feedback and I will take on board some of your approaches.

Donna

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Kaaron Warren and I go way back. Kaaron has published over 70 short stories in about 20 years, has had three novels and three short story collections published. She is renowned for her horror writing, but if you read all of her work you will realise that she is a versatile writer able to write across many genres. Personally, I’m in awe of her ability to think and write outside the square and placing a very unique stamp on her work. You can find out more about Kaaron here.

1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?

I’ve used beta readers for as long as I’ve been writing stories. I wrote a novel at 14 and handed it out to trusted friends for feedback! These days, I have three or four readers for longer pieces, and often only one for a shorter piece.

2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?

They identify plot flaws. Let you know if characters resonate with them. Tell you the logic flaws and the gaps in your research. Make suggestions for improvements in plot, naming and pacing.

3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

Sometimes they do, and if so you know you probably should listen to them. Other times, they pick up small things, and rarely replicate these. I think this is because we all have different experiences in life, and we have different levels of knowledge as well.

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?

I take what comes. My three main readers are honest and direct, and none of them are writers. I look to them purely for the readers’ opinion and I think this works very well for me. They are all three instinctive story-tellers, though, because they will identify issues any long-term writer would pick up.

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?

Often they’ll see a very early draft, before deadlines are looming too hard. This helps me identify issues early in the piece, rather than later when the panic starts to hit

6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

It’s tricky. You have to respect the person’s opinion, and they have to have the time to give it to you! Not everyone agrees on what makes a good story, so you need to keep trying until you find someone who will give their opinion without trying to change what you’re doing.

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?

Be honest and direct, but not cruel. I hate sarcastic comments in the margins!

If it occurs to you, note it down, but with a question mark if you’re not sure.

Don’t try to take over the story, or change it to the way you would have written it, unless the story falls very badly and you can clearly see where it should feel. Keep yourself out of it.

If you really love something, make a note. There have been times these little notes have sustained me through the next draft, and they are an indicator of what works.

Thank you Kaaron for responding to the questions.

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Karen Miller has kindly agreed to be interviewed and she has provided some in-depth answers on her views on beta readers and the writing process.
Karen is one of the most hardworking authors I know. I have known her to spend a science fiction convention in her room because she has a deadline. She is also very generous with guidance and advice to newer writers. Karen writes under her own name, ranging from her fantasy series, Kingmaker, Kingbreaker and the Godspeaker to Star Wars and Stargate tie ins. Under the name K.E. Mills she has published the Rogue Agent series. Her latest release is Wizard Uncovered. You can find more about Karen here.  Karen is the Australian Guest of Honour at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention to be held over Anzac weekend in Canberra 2013.

  1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?

The number of readers I use fluctuates from project to project. Right now I have 7 on tap for the current work in progress. I’ve always used at least one. No matter how much experience you have, no matter how many books you’ve written,  you can’t accurately assess your own work. You need an uninvolved outside perspective to help you catch the blodgy bits your brain’s skated past. And it does always skate!

 2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?

Beta readers are a mirror. Because they don’t know the story, and haven’t been involved in the creation of the story, they can give you the most objective feedback on the story. A good beta reader, someone who focuses on the reading experience,  is able to point out what doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t ring true, inconsistencies, where they got bored, where they stopped caring, where you’ve made a factual error, where they were engrossed, which characters they loved, which they hated, and ultimately whether or not the story worked for them. All of this information is crucial to a writer, because we’re storytellers, we’re crafting a tale for an audience. So an idea of audience reaction to the earlier version/s is key to polishing the story so it can shine.

3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

No, which is the beauty of a range of readers! Nobody reads the same story in the same way. What delights one reader will disgust another, what one reader finds engrossing will bore another to sobs. One reader will believe something that another reader will disbelieve. Some readers are really good with continuity, others with structure, others with timing. So at the end of the process you’ve got this amazing 360 degree view of the work. The key is knowing how to interpret the feedback. If you find there’s a consistent theme running through the feedback, as in, everybody was bored to sobs in chapter 5, you can pretty much guarantee you’ve got  a rewrite ahead of  you. But if one reader is particularly sensitive to, say, violence against children, if they complain about it you might need to consider what you do. It’s a case of weighing personal preferences against what you’re trying to achieve in the story. A personal taste vs execution issue. You can’t write your story catering to every single personal taste out there, but you can do your best to craft the work so that readers whose personal tastes coincide with yours get the best book you can write.

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?

No. For me, the first rule of finding a beta reader is: Do they like what I do? If they don’t like what you write, even if they like you personally, there’s no point. Nothing you do will ever please them, and the feedback you receive will only be demoralising.  So with that on board, I just ask my beta readers to start reading, stop if they hate it, and make a note of things that jar for them. Every piece of feedback has value, so I try not to be prescriptive. When you know your beta readers, you know the things that will catch their attention, so I like to trust in that process.

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?

 Again, books are such complex things. If someone’s willing to give up their time to help me do a better job, I try not to tell them how to do their job. Once the first reading is done, if I need clarification on a criticism I’ll request more information. But because it’s a big job, and a sacrifice of time, and a huge personal favour, I try not to front load the request with a lot of rules and requirements. In between reading jobs, I’ll have a chat about the process if there’s been any confusion.

 6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

I’ve been blessed with my beta readers, and I didn’t find it hard at all. I think mainly because the people I’ve asked are familiar to me, they’re people whose reading skills I trust, and who I know will be absolutely honest with me. And also, I hope that I honour their hard work by staying open minded and listening to the hard stuff.

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?

The biggest thing for me is that the people reading my work are readers who have signed on for my story. If you can’t offer feedback that doesn’t morph into you trying to get the author to tell the story the way you’d tell it, then step off the bus. A beta reader and editor’s job is to help the writer tell their story the best way they can.

Once that’s established, the next most important thing is honesty. You must be able to say what you really think and feel. There are times when a writer says he or she wants honest feedback, but they’re kidding themselves. What they want is undiluted praise. That’s not what the beta reading process is about, and if you suspect the person you’re reading for is only after a shower of compliments — again, step off the bus. And if this person is a friend, before you start you need to be sure that the friendship will survive your honest feedback. My primary beta reader is a woman I’ve been friends with since 1982. She puts red lines through entire pages and says, That’s crap, you can do better, start again. And because I know she respects me and the work, and only wants me to do well, and I know that, and I respect her ability to read a manuscript critically, it’s a great partnership. That’s an ideal beta reader. Fearless, and coming from a place of respect.

And speaking of honesty, accept that the writer might not take on board everything you say. Sometimes the feedback is about personal taste and not execution, and the writer must be free to follow their own story truths. If you’re going to be offended and angry that every point you make isn’t acted upon, step off that bus. Ego has no place in the process, be it the reader’s or the writer’s. But, having said that, if it becomes clear to you that your hard work is unappreciated because all the writer wanted was praise? Chalk it up to experience and move on.

Also? Most writers don’t want you to tell them how to fix what’s wrong. They just need to know what’s wrong that needs fixing. You need to be accurate and concise. I lost interest at this point. I didn’t believe Character A would do this, because back in chap 9 you told me this about her. I don’t understand how that bit happened. HIghlight what you feel are areas of weakness in the ms, then leave it up to the writer to do the fixing. Unless you’ve noted a concrete factual error, in which case provide the right info and then leave it up to the author to act on it.

Finally, don’t ever forget that this is a huge matter of trust. Stephanie Meyers had a beta reader who leaked her work to the internet. It was a terribly destructive experience for her, a really wicked thing for that person to do. Please, remember that you’ve been given access to something special and don’t ever abuse the privilege of reading a work in progress.

As a writer, I’d be in a heap of trouble without the talented and generous people who beta read my work. And as a beta reader for other people, I am so humbled that they’d trust me to look at their work and offer an opinion. When it’s done right, everyone walks away a winner.
Thank you for the interview Karen. I have included a snap here of Karen Miller taken at Devention, (the World con held in Denver a few years ago). This was a rare glimpse of Karen at the convention because she spent most of it rewriting a novel. She will probably smack me for putting this up, but hey, considering she had hardly any sleep or rest, she looks pretty happy and good.

Donna

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After a bit of prodding, New Zealand author Russell Kirkpatrick has provided some answers to my questions. As we are friends, I can tease a little bit.

An award winning author, Russell wrote the Fire of Heaven series and The Husk Trilogy. As I have beta read his current (to-be-published) novel, I know there are some exciting things in store for readers. Russell has also published atlases and recently published an excellent (and beautiful) book called Walks to Waterfalls-100 New Zealand Waterfalls.

Russell keeps a website here.

I’d like to thank Russell for answering the beta reading interview questions and thus providing another perspective in this series. Thanks Russell!

1.         How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?

I have used beta readers ever since I began writing novels in the 1980s, but I haven’t used them very well. At first I just wanted my friends to see how cool my writing was – and, knowing my friends, chose those who could be relied on to say nice things. Interestingly, I gave my first novel to my wife to read. Her comment was ‘They went here, they went there. When are they ever going to get where they’re going?’ Best beta reader comment I’ve ever had. I wish I’d taken more notice of it.

As for the number of beta readers I have, it has varied. In my first novel, for the reasons outlined above, I acknowledge a score or more. Since then I have used far fewer, maybe one or two per book. This is by no means ideal, but publishing deadlines mean you can’t wait very long for readers to turn the book around.

2.       In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?

It varies according to the interest and ability of the particular reader. I recently received a detailed 30-page document full of the most wonderful and perceptive comments, offering me everything from an assessment of the overall story arc and the readability of the document right down to an examination of the motivations of, and interactions between, the main characters. Yet the example from my wife I quoted above is burned into my brain because it was equally useful, or would have been had I not ignored it.

3.       Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

Not at all. There is a wide variation in how people assess a manuscript. An example from my academic career might make the point. My Ph.D. oral exam consisted of questions from an internal and an external examiner. The internal examiner thought the first eight chapters boring but considered the ninth chapter brilliant. The external examiner loved the first eight chapters enough to offer to publish it as a monograph, but thought the ninth a waste of time.

That said, here is my Rule #1 of Beta Readers. If one of them makes a point, it is yours to accept or reject. If two readers make the same point, you must address it.

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?

I very much take what comes. It is up to each reader to comment on what takes their fancy. Of course, a mix of readers with different strengths is ideal!

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?

Deadlines are the enemy of the beta-reading process. I write complicated multi-POV fantasy and I’m learning that I can’t write a whole book in a year, despite what publishers want. I’m always under deadline pressure. So I often get a half-page of comments from beta readers when I would benefit from more detailed feedback. The way it works is the closer to the deadline, the less I can change, so I need to ensure feedback on story basics comes early.

6.        How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

Anyone who volunteers to read your story and risk antagonising you by offering comments is a hero. Good beta readers are treasures. They are hard to find and must be held on to.

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?

My advice would be: if something in my story bothers you, tell me. If you can, say why it bothers you. If you can’t, tell me anyway. Conversely, if something delights you, tell me, If you can, say why it delights you. I need positive reinforcement as much as constructive criticism.

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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?

No.

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.

Regards

Donna

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Marianne De Pierres has kindly agreed to be interviewed about her experience with beta readers. Marianne is also part of Writers on the Rise group ( a number of them have participated in this series of blog interviews). I’m a bit of a Marianne De Pierres fan, having known her now for over ten years. I loved her kick ass  Parrish Plessis series and also her space opera Sentients of Orion series. She is now also publishing a young adult series under the name of Marianne Delacort. The Tara Sharp series is a crime series. You can find more about Marianne here

 

1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?

For a long time my beta readers have been my personal writing group – six other people. I also have a two other readers who beta-read my teen novels because they are more the target audience. Of recent years I haven’t had a chance to use my beta readers as much with my novels going directly to the editor when they’re finished.

2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?

 I doubt very much I would ever have been published without their critical feedback. In fact I’m sure I wouldn’t! They have been absolutely invaluable and I cherish them.

 3.    Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

No, not at all. They read differently, some focussing on the world building, others on the plot or character or the tone or the style. I find this very useful.

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?

 Sometimes. Or I send it to all of them and say “please just focus” on this aspect. It can be interesting to say that to six different people. If five of them give the same response, you know they’re absolutely right.

 6.    How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

It can take a while. I think you need to suss out their ability to give critical feedback that you can assimilate. Listen to how they talk about the books they read and avoid people who have too much emotional investment in you. It can’t help but cloud their thought processes, no matter how hard they try to be objective. You’ll find that you and your readers grow together like any good partnership.

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?

I’ve always found that if my editor and beta readers ask me questions, that works much better than any prescriptive kind of editing. I love an editorial report full of what does that mean? What happened here? Etc. I know immediately that I’m letting my reader down, and am inspired to “fix it”!

Thank you Marianne for taking time out of your busy writing and promotion schedule. It is very much appreciated.

Donna

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