Gotta Have Those Perceptive Beta Readers

Without Them, Your View May Be Too Limited

By Jeff Salter

Topic: How many people read your books before you submit them? What kind of feedback do you ask for?

Our Monday Fox said it “takes a village” to get a book ready to submit… and I agree with much of what she wrote. She is fortunate, indeed, in having critique groups with responsive, cooperative, perceptive readers who will do the reading and provide their feedback in a timely fashion.

Many authors are not so fortunate.

I began writing novels in late 2006 and it was a struggle to find people willing to accept a reading copy of a manuscript… much less get their commitment to actually read the book. My first few novels went to several readers, some of whom were not particularly helpful and some of whom apparently never got around to reading the ms. at all.

By about the point of my fourth novel manuscript, I recognized that was too much of a shotgun approach. I also realized that I’d been sending out manuscripts that lacked the organization and polish they needed to be worthy of a reader’s investment.

By that time, I’d also wasted three years entering contests, with the misguided notion that I’d receive useful feedback to help me revise my manuscripts into a more publishable product. But the ratings and comments I got from judges was all over the place… and I consider the effort nearly useless [except that it convinced me contests (for me) were a waste of time, entry fees, and the stress of waiting].

Change in Strategy

I changed my strategy to spend more time and care on revising drafts before I started begging people to read them. I also narrowed my list to the small number of individuals who I knew I could count on for prompt, perceptive, and honest feedback.

My two primary beta readers are my brother and my wife — Charles typically reads Draft 3… and after I’ve incorporated his pertinent revisions, I’ll often get my wife to read Draft 4. Of course, that doesn’t work out exactly for every single manuscript I’ve written… but it’s a pretty good indication of who I turn to and when.

Furthermore, instead of printing out scores of pages (during my initial drafting phase) and begging someone to read them, I turned to brainstorming. My wife – an avid reader across many genres – has been quite good at helping me brainstorm characters, plot threads, plot direction, etc.

With my brother – a multi-published author in non-fiction, fiction, technical writing, and professional papers – I’d sometimes brainstorm, but I could also confer about various technical aspects among his varied fields of experience (e.g., my short story featuring Vietnam Era medical care / facilities in-country).

With the input I’d received by brainstorming and conferring, I’d go back through my manuscript and revise it until I considered it a complete, readable draft. [Early on, that may have been Draft 5 or 6… but as I began writing “smarter” it was more typically Draft 3 or 4.] That’s when it goes to the beta readers as a complete draft.

Kinds of Feedback

Here are the kinds of feedback I’ll typically request:
Does this scene work?
Does the pacing bog down here?
Does their dialog reveal too much at this point?
Does this situation need more explanation… or have I provided too much?
Is this scene in the right place?

Examples

As one example (of the latter), in my novel published several years ago, my brother noted that one scene interfered with the “building” flow of the characters’ relationship. He suggested that I dump it. I felt I needed that scene, but agreed it was in the wrong place… and asked for his advice on where it might fit better. He found a spot where it might work, if I altered the time line and made some other changes. I did all that and moved it. The flow was MUCH better… and I could not have done that switcheroo without his assistance / input.

Along the way, I’ll often ask my wife for specific details that are among her many strengths and areas of interest, such as: what kind of flowers would this character have? What does her house look like? What would she / he be wearing at this point in the story? Is it believable for her / him to be aware of this [whatever]? What kind of job does this character have?

Summary:

You’ve gotta have a few really good, trusted beta readers. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a view of the story that’s far too narrow — tunnel vision. No “parent” can be totally objective about their own “children.” But, often, an “aunt” or “uncle” can point out problems that you need to fix. [Even if it might be quite painful to hear.]

[JLS # 559]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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8 Responses to Gotta Have Those Perceptive Beta Readers

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I think there is a process we go through as we grow as writers. What we needed in the beginning isn’t necessarily what we need now. For me, I was lucky enough to find 3 critique partners from an online critiquing platform. Though we wrote in different genres, the 4 of us just melded both as friends and as valuable feedback providers. (A little fun fact, it was because of and out of our learned experiences that the blog Musetracks was born. It started out as the 4 of us contributing, but over time, it became my sole project.) Now, I’m the editor for 2 of the 3 from the group. (The 4th no longer writes.)
    I also feel like contests can be helpful, too, depending on what you are looking for. Like you, Jeff, sometimes the feedback and scores were not helpful at all. Other times, I got an overall sense of if the opening scene (or whatever scene I submitted) worked. I have gained some good insight from contests, though I don’t enter them much anymore.
    Over the years, I have had one consistent critiquing friend who always made me work harder. I’ve valued her input and she has made me a better author. Sadly, she doesn’t write much anymore. So now that I have 2 books in my new series completed and working on the 3rd, I need to consider finding a few really good betas. Great topic, because this has been on my mind lately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      It sounds like you’ve had some great experiences — with betas, critique partners, and even contests. In my case — with those contests — the other factor is that I didn’t have my best work available (at that point) to enter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I used beta readers, I didn’t receive much constructive help.

    Since joining ACFW Scribes and using that organization for critiques, I’ve found my writing to be much improved. They offer comments on all areas, plot, wording, corrections in grammar and spelling, catch problems, etc. And although I always have a few regular critiquers, new ones come in and read my chapters as well, so I get other perspectives. They not only point out problems, but often give ideas on how to fix the problem and tell me why they made the suggestion. They let me know what they really liked in the writing and why. I wouldn’t exchange my critiquers for anything. Thanks to them, all eight of my books have been getting 5 star reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Sounds like you have a terrific arrangement with a varied array of critiquers. I think it’s great that y’all have the flexibility for new faces to check in and provide feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You have taken one approach to your post that I have in mine for tomorrow, and you have a lot of the same concerns.
    You are fortunate to have Charles and Denise giving you the right kind of support.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elaine Cantrell says:

    I agree that we need help such as you describe, but ultimately I’m the one who makes final decisions on everything. For example, when my son read my Blue 52 manuscript he wanted the assassinated president’s son to be a bartender. No. Just no. Too cliched. I wanted him to be a lawyer, and I stuck to my guns. Would it have been a better story if he’d been the bartender? I don’t know, but that wasn’t my vision, and I’m glad I wrote it the way I did.

    Liked by 1 person

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