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Hello again! Early this month, I wrote a blog post about how I select my beta readers and why. In that post, I broke down some basic things one might be able to expect from different kinds of people, and what value they would have for you as a writer. As I mentioned in that post, they aren't end-all-be-all concrete rules, of course, but they can give you some ideas of what to expect.
This is the second part of that series, in which I will talk about different ways to approach different kinds of beta readers, and the benefits and disadvantages of each. Again, as before, these are not concrete, immutable rules by any means, that can (and should) be tailored to each beta reader in a way that works both for them and for you.
So let's get to it!
So, one way to direct the feedback from your beta readers is to give them a list of questions or points that you are particularly interested in, with the hope that they will be able to answer most, if not all of them. There are a couple of factors to consider with this method, the first of which is that I have found that when you give someone a list, they are much less likely to get back to you. While there are probably a whole lot of reasons for this, the one that makes the most sense to me is that it makes the task feel a lot more like work. Some of the most common feedback I've gotten from my beta readers when I've given them a list of questions is that they would have been able to enjoy the book more if they hadn't had the list, since that made them feel like they were focusing on the questions instead of the story, and it took away from the organic nature of the read.
There are a couple of ways you could address this. First off, you could not supply the list until they were done reading, so they would be able to go through the selection without a bunch of distractions. If you're reading through a book and you're not letting yourself get lost in the story because you're looking for specific factors, then it feels more like a book report project than reading for pleasure. That will affect the overall enjoyment a reader will have with your work, and will definitely color their feedback. If you're looking for a reader's perspective, then you certainly don't want to change that by turning it into a job.
Overall, this is the method I use the most when I'm working with people who fall mostly under the 'General Reader' type I talked about in my last blog post. I've tried several methods for listing these questions, but I find that the most success I've gotten has been from giving them the questionnaire directly after they're done reading, and not before. This sort of balances the best of both worlds, letting them read the book without the distraction of trying to remember a bunch of questions, while still getting answers to most of the points you were looking for. The worst case is that you'll ask them a question, and you'll get a shrug in response. Sometimes readers forget the finer points of a story on the way through it, which is normal! They might not remember a minor character from the beginning of a 125,000 word novel, especially if you pulled off a powerful and engaging conclusion.
If you find that the reader has completely disregarded the questionnaire, don't fret! You can totally employ one of the other methods that I'll outline below. The one that I have had the most luck with was just having a conversation about the book with them, where you ask them about specific parts that you may have concerns about.
Now, I'm going to break down my list of questions here, and my reasoning behind picking these particular points to focus on. Here is the list itself;
Are the characters believable? Do their actions and stances make sense?
Did the plot make sense? Any gaping holes or parts where it contradicted itself?
Were there parts that made you want to skim over it or stop reading?
Were there parts where the flow was interrupted, making it difficult to keep up?
What did you like/want to see more of?
What did you dislike/would like to see less of?
Were there any particularly emotional points that made you sad, angry, elated, excited?
Were there any parts that made you cringe and roll your eyes?
Are you satisfied with the story as a whole? Would you read further in the series?
Who were your favorite characters, and why?
Now, of course, I am a fantasy author (as so many of us are), so these questions are tailored to a fantasy genre. Other genres might have different questions that are more suited to them, but most of these should fit any sort of fiction setting.
The reason I picked this question is mostly to get my readers thinking about logical characterizations. For example, if I were to have a big, powerful, sword-swinging musclebound main character, would it make sense to have him brought to his knees by a broken toe or sprained ankle? If he regularly deals with the wounds of a swordfight, why would such a thing cripple him? Sometimes, we make characters do things that make sense to us, as writers, but when someone without our intimate knowledge of the world and inner thoughts of the characters reads these actions, they seem to come out of left field and we need to know when and where that happens. This is one of the things that beta readers are fantastic for; getting an outside perspective of our world and the characters in them.
Many of us write our books in such a way as to develop the finer points of the plot as we go. When I do my outlining, I really only hit the high and mid level points of the story, and I fill out all of the minuscule bits in between while I write. Sometimes, those really close perspective parts can develop or rationalize the bigger plot points, and those rationalizations need to be consistent. If I say that the magical elements are represented in a specific order at one point, but then change that order at another point and forget to revise it, that would be something that a beta reader might catch.
Another thing that could pop up would be an abandoned sub plot. If you start building intrigue with one character arc but then completely forget about them, that's something that you need to know! In my first novel, I was building a small sub arc about a sea elf that had been educated on the mainland before returning to his ancestral island. I gave him a small introduction and revealed a little of his backstory, then promptly forgot about him for the rest of the book. When my beta readers went through it later, they all asked me about Aurelius, wondering what happened to him, if he was going to show up in other books, etc, and I had nothing. I ended up cutting the character from that book and repurposing the name into a different character in Book 2. These are little things that we, as writers, tend to forget, while our readers can pick them out like sore thumbs.
This is some of the easier, more common feedback you'll get. Most of the time, you won't even have to ask for it, as the readers will tend to remember quite well what didn't interest them. In my most recent manuscript, which is currently out for beta read, I have a section where my character goes through a bit of scouting and setting up certain plot points that will be used in book two of her trilogy, but the way I implemented it was a bit uninspired, to say the least. Two of my beta readers told me that they found themselves becoming bored and wanting to move on, which is a fantastic sign that I need to do something to make that section either shorter or more interesting. By making it shorter, I can use the momentum of the previous section to coast on through it, and before the reader has time to get bored they'll be through it. If I rework it entirely to make it more interesting, then I'll have an engaging scene that adds more to the story than just filler. However, by asking this question, it helps me winnow out places that I felt were necessary, but my readers felt were boring, which is absolutely invaluable.
This may sound similar to the previous point, but it is in fact a distinctly different problem. Whereas the previous question addresses parts that were either boring or simply not engaging enough, this question asks about sections where the reader may have had to re-read a section multiple times to understand what was happening and/or why. In my first novel, I had my main character break out of his chains by using an oar handle for leverage against a set of shackles that kept his ankles chained to the floor. I had to figure out how to describe him being able to position himself with the oar handle under the chains while still passing between the anchor point of the shackles and the character's ankles, so that he could pry up on them.
The first way I did it was awkward. The second way I did it was awkward. The third way I did it was awkward. Each time, my beta readers brought up that it was difficult to understand exactly how my main character was positioning himself, it became a tedious mental exercise to try and figure it out, so they just moved on, pulling themselves out of the immersion of an otherwise engaging point of the story. By identifying these interruptions of flow, you know here you need to polish and smooth your storytelling.
Again, this is going to be one of the parts where you almost don't have to solicit an answer. Most readers will be able to tell you where you excelled in your storytelling, so that you know what methods and techniques you used that were particularly effective. One of my strong points is my combat; I've developed a considerable fan base on that aspect alone. Another one of my strong points is my description; I am decent at setting the scene within which my characters act. By knowing when and where my readers were particularly engaged, I know what is working and what to continue working with.
I have a tendency to broach difficult subjects in my writing. Sometimes, these subjects are uncomfortable for my readers. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you tend to hit the same point over and over, it can start to get a little sore. By identifying these parts of your storytelling with an outside perspective, you know where to pull back a little and let up of certain aspects of the story. They might seem like they need beaten to death by you, the writer, but perhaps the readers feel that they had been adequately dealt with the first go around, and thus could stand to be cut down on.
An example; mature content. In my first draft, I had no fewer than one hundred swear words and slurs, one rape scene, two graphic sex scenes, a fade-to-black sex scene, and the aftermath of a chain of brutal rape/murders during the destruction of a village. While most of my readers were just fine with the content, a sizable portion gave me feedback stating that some of it made them uncomfortable enough that they would hesitate recommending the book to someone else. With the revision, I cut the first rape scene back from being witnessed to being implied, I scrubbed the vast majority of the swearing and slurs, replacing them with actions and emotions, and changed the focus of the aftermath of the battle from the sheer carnage of what happened to the reactions of those involved and the effects of the loss of life. The second round of beta readers were significantly more accepting of the changes.
By asking your readers about specific scenes that stood out to them, you can reflect on what about those scenes made them engaging. Did the scenes in question achieve the desired emotion reactions, or did they pull something else from your readers? I wrote a scene in my second book that was meant to instill a sense of awe towards one side character, and instead my readers were universally angry with my main character for failing to act. I got an emotional reaction from my readers, but it wasn't the one I was going for. By identifying these sections, you can learn a lot about how your writing will affect the people experiencing it, which will allow you to tailor it towards your desired results.
Let me be clear, these are not always bad things. Sometimes you have to throw in a little bit of cringe or eye-rolling to keep the tone and flow going. In my most recently published novel, I have a scene where a condemned prisoner hits his teeth on the edge of a dock and shatters them. Everyone cringed at that, which is exactly what I was going for. Alternatively, in my first novel, I had my main character and his love interest engage in flirtations, humorous pillow talk during a sex scene, and I got a number of eye rolls, but they were good natured. These are just fine.
It's when your readers cringe or roll their eyes at parts that are supposed to be serious or impactful that you know you have a problem. If they stood out enough to be memorable, but did not evoke the reaction you were shooting for, then there is definitely some polishing that needs to be done. These sorts of things can shatter your readers' suspension of disbelief, which is something you want very much to avoid. Things like cheesy one-liners, exceptionally obvious tropes, and blatant use of obvious knife-twisting can all cause eye-rolling, face-palming, and cringing that are not conducive to telling a good story.
This one should be fairly self-explanatory. If you did your job as a storyteller, then you left your reader wanting to know more. If your world was engaging, drawing them in and immersing them, then they won't want to leave it. This creates fans who will talk about your work, spreading interest and increasing your reader base, which is definitely what you want if you're doing this for a living.
Everyone will have a favorite character, often for very different reasons. However, if a lot of your readers really like a specific character, then you know that there's something about that character that you did well. It would behoove you, then, to study that character and reflect on why they are a disproportionate favorite. In my first book, I have an older, mouthy, sarcastic but good natured mercenary named Jonas that everyone loves. He's witty, gregarious, outspoken, and bold, which makes him a centerpiece of almost every scene that he is in. When I wrote scenes with Jonas in them I had a lot of fun, and you can tell in how consistent and full-bodied his characterization is. This makes for a believable and relatable character, and that is what you want. By learning which characters I did well on, I can compare them to the characters that nobody liked, and see where I can improve.
Now, this is, of course, just a list of the things that I need, and so may need to be adjusted according to your own strengths and weaknesses. There may be questions that you need to ask that I don't have here, and there may be some questions that are irrelevant to you and your writing style. I would strongly recommend coming up with a list of questions that you can acknowledge as places where you need improvement. For example, my battle and my descriptions are strong – I don't need to ask my readers about that, it would just clutter up our discussion. However, I know that some of my characterizations need a bit more polishing, so I focus more on that. Your needs and strengths will absolutely vary.
Some of your beta readers will not do well with lists. As some people said in the original thread that inspired these blogs, if they get a list they are absolutely disinclined to read, and for these people, obviously, don't give them a list. The best way to work with these readers is to just have a conversation with them when they are done reading. You can ask them the same questions, but since they are already finished reading, it will feel less like you're giving them an assignment, and more like you're just talking about a book. I know I've had plenty of conversations about books I've read, and this can be very, very similar. You can often get more in depth answers, since you're reaching someone on a much more personal level.
I find that this method works best for the creative types we talked about in the last blog, the artists and musicians and sculptors and carvers and people like them. Let them read and experience your work without any sort of direction beforehand, and then learn what they saw and felt afterwards. The vast majority of these sorts of people will be able to retain the experience for long enough that they will be able to give you accurate and useful feedback, so just trust them on it! There was a reason that you selected them to be a part of your beta team in the first place, after all.
Generally speaking, I find that this works well for other writers. Don't give them a list unless they ask for one. Most of us are knowledgeable enough in our craft that we can see when another writer needs to work on a specific part of their writing, so we know what to point out and what to leave alone. We know how to balance our praise with our criticisms, and thus if we give our writing to another writer to critique, then we need to be able to trust that writer to give us an honest and skilled reply.
However, some writers like to have a structured list of questions to look over so that they know what to be on the lookout for. My beta readers for my most recent book include two writers now; one of them wanted a list, the other did not. Both of them have given me absolutely stellar feedback. They know how to tailor the beta read process and experience from their end, as well as me working from mine. When they do end up agreeing to read for you, it's a good idea to let them hold the reins a bit more than some of your other beta readers. They are, after all, in the same line of work, so they know the ropes a bit more.
This has carried on a bit longer than I was hoping for, but I think I've hit all of the points I set out to hit. If there are some parts that any of you would like gone into with a little more depth, by all means, let me know in the comments below, and I will do my best to expand upon them!
As always, thanks for reading, happy writing, and happy new year!