Trusting my "baby" to beta readers

By Carol / June 6, 2013 /
The Prose Crows book club knows how to make an author feel welcome!

The Prose Crows book club knows how to make an author feel welcome!

Sound the trumpets! Strike up the band! Last month I reached a milestone in writing my novel. I had a draft that was as good as I could make it. The story was complete. The characters were developed. There was lots of conflict. The historical setting and facts were in place. It felt good.

But not so fast. What do I know? Just because I like the story doesn’t mean anyone else will. The real test is in what readers think.

So I took the next step and put my manuscript in the hands of two groups of beta readers – people I’d gauged to be thoughtful readers, representative of my target audience. One group includes members of my own book club. I looked to balance the fact that these women know me really well with other readers who were not so familiar. The second group was the Prose Crows, a lively book club that had invited me to join them last February when they discussed my memoir Growing Up Country.

Along with the manuscript, I gave these volunteer readers a list of questions for reaction. Questions that ranged from overall reaction to the story, to story structure, and character development. Because I’m writing historical fiction, I also probed whether there was too much historical detail or too little and if they spotted anachronisms. I encouraged candor, assuring them I could take it. Whatever “it” was.

Letting go of the manuscripts made me anxious. My stomach roiled. My blood pressure rose. The feelings were akin to watching my five-year-old walk off to school alone for the first time. For the past month, my heart has been pushing out of my chest and into my throat. Anticipation – eager or anxious – can be uncomfortable!

Over these five weeks, I’ve lived with my vow not to revisit, revise, or rewrite even one word of the manuscript. Instead, I’ve focused on marketing, gardening, the incessant rain, pretty much anything to keep from thinking about reader reactions. By next Monday night, I’ll have received all the feedback. Then my baby will be back in my hands again. Then I’ll know what has to happen next. I am excited!

I know many authors use beta readers for that first level of market reaction. How have you chosen them? What guidelines have you given? What has been your experience?

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  1. Richard Sutton on June 6, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Carol, since my first book’s unhappy experience with filename confusion, I have relied upon my Beta-Readers as hopeful salvation from my own worst habits and tendencies. They have come through like champs, even as my genres drift here and there. They are an absolute must for any book, no matter the direction it takes.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm

      Glad to hear the system works well for you, Richard. We might be willing to overlook our own flaws, but good Beta Readers will not be so lenient. Thank goodness!

  2. Kathleen Pooler on June 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Hi Carol, This post os well-timed for me! I just sent my “baby” to my first round of beta readers. I am looking for no-nonsense, constructive feedback on what works and what needs work as it relates to the story structure, believability of characters, pacing. tension, reader satisfaction,etc. Since I will have it copy edited and proof read at the end, I’m not looking for these edits. So far, it’s been a very helpful process and has guided me through my next set of revisions. I want my beta readers to be brutally honest so I can fix any glaring deficits. For my next round, I will be more clear on what I want them to look for. To be honest, I feel a little awkward asking busy people to take on this task but have been pleasantly surprised at their willingness. I try to make it easy for them to decline. Also I choose from a variety of communities, including friends and writers outside my genre. I’m looking for a reader’s perspective.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      It sounds like you use beta readers at different points in the writing process, Kathy. Interesting. This is my first time using them and I brought them close to what I think is the end. When I asked people, I gave them plenty of opportunity to opt out. If people say, no, I don’t take offense. It’s a big responsibility and I want them to really want to do the reading and critiquing. I, too, have found people very willing to read. Many feel honored to be asked. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Veronica Arnold on June 7, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    I was taking a course in creative nonfiction writing at Front Range Community College in 2012 when I started writing my book about my cancer journey. It began as two separate essays, each of which the class workshopped. This involved telling what they liked about the writing, telling what they thought the story was about, and then writing questions and suggestions. These were invaluable. It’s probably true for every writer, but I thought my essays were perfect when I submitted them. Come to find out, there were a lot of things that needed to be explained better; more scenes were needed; I had to rewrite cliches, and so on. The following semester I combined my two essays to create the essence of my book. Again the writing was workshopped, and again I cannot express the high value of that feedback. I also had an English teacher friend and a former magazine editor friend give me priceless feedback. I can’t imagine writing a book without that!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 8, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Additional sets of eyes are so important, as you’ve found, Veronica. I’ve had my novel “workshopped” many times by others who write. This is the first time I’ve sought out readers to approach the story as they would reading any novel. I’ll be looking for both writer and reader feedback on anything I write in the future.

  4. Penelope J. on June 8, 2013 at 2:25 am

    I understand how you must be waiting in nail-biting suspense for comments on your historical novel. As someone told me recently, “You have to trust your work” and the talent and skills you know you have. Even so, waiting is tough. My Beta readers were three professional editors and two of the toughest critics I know. Four loved my book and one of the tough critics told me she liked it but had 14 pages of comments/suggested revisions. I still go over my book, picking at it obsessively. I’ll never be certain it’s good until it’s published and I see reviews.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 8, 2013 at 10:57 am

      Four out of five is great! Since this is my first go at fiction, it’s taken me a while to trust my gut. When I found myself questioning every single scene in the book, that’s when I knew it was time to give the manuscript off to readers! Thanks for commenting, Penelope.

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