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Hey friends! Today I’m a guest blogger at The Creative Penn. Head on over there to check out how writing takes the same dedication and discipline as training for an athletic contest. And now, beta readers…

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Yesterday I finished my first revision/editing pass through my novel manuscript and sent it out to seven people to read. These are the first of my beta readers (another smaller group will read it in another month) and they are going to help me see my story as, well, as a reader would the first time through.

It’s important if you ever hope for your writing to see the light of day, whether you publish it traditionally or self-publish, to have someone read it before everyone reads it. Preferably lots of someones. If you are working on something that you want to show an editor or an agent, you really don’t want that person to be the first to read your novel.

When you write a book, even if it doesn’t take too long to draft it, you are still too close to your creation to accurately assess how a first-time reader will experience it. So beta readers can give you important feedback. But if you want to get feedback you can really use (and not just your mom’s adoring praise–sorry, Mom) you need to choose your readers well. In my group of seven, three are fellow writers, one has been a book marketer for fifteen years, two are avid readers (well, they’re all avid readers), and one I don’t really know about in terms of reading and writing, but his important function is his gender. You see, I want a good mix of industry professionals and everywomen and everymen, because every reader can give me unique feedback.

My male reader is important because he can tell me if I have a male character doing or saying something that a guy really wouldn’t do or say (I read a LOT of books by women and see a lot of movies and TV episodes where male characters say something only a woman would say).

Two of these readers are African American, which is important because I’m fairly sure there are more black characters than white in this novel. They can point out where a character may fall into an unintentional stereotype.

One of my readers is a historic preservationist and knows everything there is to know about old houses, furniture, and American history in one of the time periods in which the story takes place. She can tell me if there is a historical inaccuracy.

The reader who is a marketing professional is used to evaluating books for publishing boards and therefore knows what weaknesses might keep it from publication.

The readers who just LOVE to read can tell me if the book held their interest, dragged, was confusing, etc.

To guide my readers into giving me feedback I could use, I asked them to keep some simple questions in mind:

1. Note any place where the story is dragging or you find your mind wandering because it’s getting a little boring.
2. Let me know if something is confusing.
3. Let me know if you saw a surprise coming a million miles away.
4. Note anywhere where you are jarred out of the story for any reason.
5. Don’t worry about commas, but if you see a typo please mark it.
6. Are there characters you particularly like or dislike? Why?

And I gave them an ideal deadline for comments so that I could move on in the revision and editing process. My next group of readers will include a friend who is a sociology professor who studies race and class closely and another author who is both male and African American and has written books that have urban settings and urban problems. These readers will offer me an important critical view of the social structures in my novel.

If you’re thinking of having others read your work, I encourage you to do some thinking about what sort of feedback you need most. And then give your readers the okay to be critical. We don’t improve when we’re only praised (though it’s nice to be praised). Divorce yourself from your story a little and trust that the reader coming to it fresh is going to see things you can’t, and those are things you need to know about and take into account when you revise.

How about you? Have a good or bad experience with early readers? Care to share?