Asking People to Punch You

I’d like to talk a bit about Beta Readers.

A Beta Reader is someone willing to read a draft version of a book and offer their opinions to the author. While it’s a bonus to find a Reader who is themselves an author or editor, there are no qualifications beyond a desire to think critically about a piece of writing and deliver unvarnished criticisms.  A books is tempered by the heat of focused opinions; without them, it will crack under the stresses of a wider readership. Like this metaphor, if I try to extend it any further.

For my current book, The Crosser’s Maze, I have employed over 25 Beta Readers, which is a giant horde as these things go. So numerous were my volunteers, I decided to split them into two groups, “Alphas” and “Betas.” The Alphas received an earlier draft. I absorbed their feedback, incorporated it as I saw fit, and then sent the revised draft to my Betas for another round. I’m nearly done assimilating all of their collected suggestions, after which I will send the book off to my esteemed editor with 207% more confidence than I otherwise would have.

The experience, for this humble author at least, has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received an enormous breadth of feedback at all levels of detail, everything from calling out typos, to suggestions about individual sentences, to opinions on characters and their relationships, to heartfelt pleas that I dial back my exposition, to broad feedback about pacing. The only things my Readers had in common were that they had read the previous book in the series, and had an enthusiasm for making my next book better. And they certainly have done that! I’ve made hundreds of changes, large and small, based on their honest feelings and observations. I’ve added whole chapters and cut out huge sections. I’ve fixed plot holes, killed adverbs, and removed over 600 instances of the word “was.” I overhauled the prologue and wrote a new ending. It’s been fantastic.

And now, allow me to switch to the time-honored “fake Q&A format” so beloved among bloggers:

Q: Did you give your Readers any guidelines going in to the process?

A:  I certainly did!  Here’s what I sent, in case you’re curious:

Did you find any violations of strict POV? What that means: each chapter is written from the point of view of a single character. As such, every sentence in the chapter should be something the POV character is thinking, is observing, is doing, or could reasonably infer from context. If you find a sentence that breaks POV, please make a note of it and let me know.

How is the pacing? Too fast? Too slow? Just right? Are there places where the story gets bogged down?  Chapters you find particularly exciting? If you hadn’t agreed to be a reader, was there a place where you would have stopped reading out of boredom or frustration?

Do you enjoy the characters? Do any of them feel flat or inconsistently written? Do they feel consistent with how I portrayed them in the first book? Are there any particular protagonists whose POV chapters you either look forward to or dread? Do you feel as though the characters are changing and/or growing as the book(s) progress(es)? Do you find the characters’ relationships satisfactory?

Do you find the plot interesting? Boring? Confusing? Predictable? Surprising? Are there any particular plot points you find muddled, pointless, fascinating, or otherwise worthy of note? Are there continuity errors, either wholly within this book, or across both books?

Are there any sentences/paragraphs/chapters of the book you feel could (or should) be cut out entirely?

How is the balance of action vs. dialogue vs. exposition?

Did you find the ending satisfactory?  (This is Book 2 out of 5, so naturally, like Book 1, it will leave the Overplot™ unresolved. But I still want it to feel like this book in specific came to a satisfying end on its own, while also making the reader want to read Book 3.)

Note that I did not insist on Readers answering all of these questions.  Rather, I presented them as a set of observations I would find useful, but assured my Readers that they need not be beholden to it, that any feedback they were moved to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Q: I notice that you asked for positive feedback as well as negative.

A: That’s not a question.

Q: You’re a writer; do you not understand inference?

A: Fine. Yes, I did ask for opinions on what Readers enjoyed, in addition to what they thought could be improved. While criticisms are generally more useful than praise to a writer, gathering positive impressions serves a specific purpose: balance. For example, one of my Readers disliked the talking cat character I introduce early in the book. But while I take that Reader’s opinions very seriously, him being a published author himself, I balanced that against ten others who went out of their way to mention how much they liked said cat. Two Readers went so far as to call the cat their favorite addition to the series. As such, I left the cat relatively untouched.

Also: writers are human beings. Hearing some occasional praise can be a soothing balm to one’s ego, especially during a process specifically designed to sand-blast said ego with Things Readers Don’t Like.

Q: Through what physical mechanism did your Readers actually supply you with feedback?

A: Several different ones. Some used the Comments feature of Word. Some sent e-mails listing all of their observations. Some made hand-written notes on a print-out and sent me scans. One even mailed me a physically-marked-up copy of the manuscript! And they all worked just fine. Authors shouldn’t lose sight that Readers are doing them a huge favor; make their lives as easy as possible as they make your book better!

Q: How did you find your Beta Readers in the first place?

A: Shameless solicitation on social media.

Q: Did you incorporate every piece of advice your Readers gave you?

A: Heavens, no. I did read every word of it, and gave each piece of feedback due consideration, but ultimately this is my book we’re talking about. An author should reserve the right to disagree with Readers, though always with at least a little bit of suspicion. One advantage of having twenty-five Readers is that I can sift for trends. If three or four (or more!) different readers all tell me they don’t like a particular scene or chapter, that’s a huge red flag, even if my instinct is to think I know better.

Also, it would be impossible to incorporate every last suggestion because, like the cat example above, plenty of Reader opinion is contradictory. Here are some pairs of actual quoted observations from my Reader team.  (Warning: minor spoilers)

Regarding whether the books feel like a role playing game in book form:

“…the books read very much like an RPG written out.”

“As a general thing, I’m struck in a good way that this doesn’t feel like a D&D campaign.”

Regarding using the aforementioned cat to slide in some Book One Recap:

“…very clever interweaving of recap into the narrative.  Well done!”

“Overall this chapter seemed a little too much “exposition cat’ for me.”

Regarding the addition of an intelligent rat named Visciv:

“It’s thoroughly exciting. LOVED the Visciv chapter btw… Eager to see how this new plot thread plays out.”

“What? A rat???? Please no.”

Regarding a burgeoning relationship between two of the characters, Tor and Aravia:

“OMG! … BEST CHAPTER EVER. The ending brought tears to my eyes.”

“The Tor/Aravia ‘love affair’ seemed a bit stiff.”

Regarding whether the characters have it rough or not:

“I am finding the continual kicking that the party are getting a bit of a downer. It seems as if everything which could go badly goes horribly terribly badly. I want some light amongst the shade.”

“Much of the book feels like it is all fated to work out for the best.”

And there were plenty more examples I could have listed. For instance, while most readers had positive things to say about the pacing, two in particular listed specific chapters they liked/didn’t like in that regard—and they were exact opposites! Sure, that kind of thing can be mildly frustrating, but it also serves to remind me that every reader is different, that every reader comes to a book from a different place, in a different frame of mind, and with different expectations. Trying to please everyone would be a fool’s errand, and when the dust settles, what’s most important is that I’m satisfied the book is what I want it to be.

Fortunately, regarding the unasked question of whether Readers genuinely enjoyed Book 2, the overwhelming opinion is that they did, even more so than Book 1. So, there’s that.

Q: Wait. Your book has a talking cat AND an intelligent rat? Is it…is it a Talking Animals Book?

A:  No! I mean, yes, a little, but the rat and the cat are both minor characters.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, I promise! Not that there’s anything wrong with Talking Animal Books if that’s your thing.

Q: Anything else you want to say about Beta Readers?

A: Hm. Let me think. Oh, yes! One nice side effect of individual reader feedback is that the opinions you collect are unsullied by “groupthink.”  Everyone is giving you their highly personalized feelings, which can be difficult to gather in a group setting.

Q: It’s entirely likely that some of your Readers are reading this blog. You should thank them!

A: You’re right, I should. Hey, Readers, every one of you is wonderful! I hope you sign up a year from now to forge Book 3 in the fires of your criticism, to beat the steel of my prose against the anvil of…oh, you get the point.

Questions about any of this?  Observations you’d like to share?  Please make liberal use of the Comments section!

8 thoughts on “Asking People to Punch You

Add yours

  1. Great insight into the process! You forgot one question…When is the ETA of Book 2, or is it still too early to tell?

    1. Best guess right now is that The Crosser’s Maze will be published in July or August. Probably August. It depends largely on my editor’s turnaround time.

    1. August is still my best guess. Editor’s marks are coming in this week. Process then is: I fix/change a whole bunch of stuff -> My proofreaders get it for a few weeks -> I fix some more stuff -> I get the cover art and maps incorporated (already in process) -> I upload to Amazon -> They send me a print proof copy which I then read carefully cover to cover -> Assuming everything looks correct: PUBLISH!

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