Back to the Drawing Board

Or, my experience with beta readers

I revised my novel until I could revise no more. While I wasn’t completely happy with the results, I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. Clearly it was time for some outside opinions.

Through some online critique groups, I got some feedback on the first three chapters. I also read several of the early chapters to my writing group. While helpful, none of their feedback could address some of my biggest questions.

Would someone actually read to the end? Did the whole story hang together? Did I have major plot holes? Which characters were likeable? Were they unbelievable?

And so on.

Clearly it was time to find some beta readers. By this I had in mind people who would read for “big picture” issues and not get hung up on grammar. The idea is that if a few of them hated Chapter 20, for example, then I’d have to seriously think about ditching that chapter (and maybe a few others). So this draft of the manuscript isn’t going to be as polished as the final version will be.

The first thing I learned was it’s not so easy to find people willing to read your entire novel. When I posted my request, I was surprised at the number of people who responded, telling me they offered “flawless” beta reading services—for a price.

They obviously had something different in mind than I did.

As do many others, it turns out. I found a thread on GoodReads discussing this very issue. Some people see the role of the beta reader as the last read before publication, so they expect a manuscript to be free of grammar and spelling errors. Others (like myself) don’t, as they see beta reading as an exercise in looking at the bigger picture.

I did find five beta readers, which was what I was hoping for. All of these people are also authors, and we agreed to a beta read swap.

I had the joy of reading five works in progress. All very different genres, at different stages of being ready for publication. I knew that by reviewing others’ work, I would learn much about how to make my own much better.

What I didn’t expect was the diametrically opposed feedback I received.

• One thought the romance element was too sketchy, that it happened too abruptly. Another commented that she thought the romance unfolded very naturally.
• A few commented that the names of some of the characters were a little difficult.
• One thought that most of the minor characters were unrealistic. Another felt the characters were realistic, except one.
• One thought I introduced too many names right off the bat, so it was confusing. This comment confused me, as Chapter 1 introduces exactly two characters, and the names of two towns: the one they are travelling to, and the one they are travelling from. Not sure what to make of that.
• Several thought I could add more setting details, to more fully describe the world my characters inhabit.
• A few mentioned some point of view shifts in the middle of a scene. This is very helpful, as those pesky POV shifts can happen almost without you noticing them.
• A few mentioned that their favorite scenes were in the beginning. I hope that speaks to the fact that the earlier scenes were more polished.
• A few mentioned that they liked one particular character the best. I was so glad he won that popularity contest, as I wanted him to be the most likeable.
• One specifically stated she thought the book was exciting, while another said she was bored after five paragraphs.

I read through the comments, and asked myself, now what?

While I’m tempted to ignore all the comments I didn’t like, that wouldn’t help me write the best book I can. Instead, I’ll try this plan:

1. Compile all the comments, and think through which ones to act on
2. Compare the comments I gave the others, and use them as a way to strengthen my manuscript.
3. Research! Pinterest or google images are good places to find visual prompts for setting details
4. Think through minor characters a bit more, and not just use them as props

Was it worth it?

While it was painful at times, getting freedback from beta readers gave me priceless insight into what I need to do as I continue revising my novel.

What about you? Do you have any experiences with beta readers you’d like to share?

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