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How To Find and Work Successfully with Beta Readers

I’ve written two novels:  Camino Wandering, which is now published and another called Beneath the Surface. The latter has been written, edited and now I face the decision whether to scrap it completely or keep on the editing train. It needs a lot of work.  

But there’s something about Beneath the Surface that compels me to keep going.  It is a coming-of-age mystery, and it’s been in my head now since 2016. I love these characters. I love Grace’s journey of self-discovery, especially with her background. And, I had to admit, I am really proud of this story and it is one I want people to read. 

That’s when I begin to wonder what my beta readers will think of this story.  But let me answer that niggling question first, a question many ask me.

What are beta readers?

Beta readers are gold to my writing process. They are my test audience.

Writers use them at various stages in the writing process. I like to leverage their insights after I’ve written an entire draft of the novel and have personally sent it through two rounds of edits, but before I get too far deep into it. 

Beta readers provide feedback on the overall story, as well as on the characters, setting, and plot, via questions I pose to them (which I’ll get to shortly). Essentially, pointing out any glaring issues. 

What the individual beta reader responds with varies. For my beta readers for Camino Wandering, some provided detailed feedback, providing much more than I asked (looking at you, my amazing grammar police). Others returned stating they weren’t offering much but posed questions that had me pondering a subtext for weeks. And others did exactly as I asked, but offered insights I never even considered.  

If it’s not clear yet, I LOVE beta readers.  I could not have published my novel, Camino Wandering, without them.

How I Find Beta Readers

Once I’ve written the novel, I put a call out for anyone interested in being a beta reader on my social media groups.  I know it’ll take some time to get a good mix of readers, so I edit the novel while I gather my people. 

The kind of beta reader I look for depends on the novel itself. When I looked for beta readers for Camino Wandering, I looked for a mix of people who had walked the Camino de Santiago and those who had not. Since my book was fiction, it wasn’t necessary that all of my beta readers had the experience of walking the Camino.  In fact, I purposefully wanted people who hadn’t. 

There are certain things I look for in a beta reader, no matter what the storyline:
  1. They have to be readers. It may surprise you just how many raise their hand who aren’t readers. Sadly, many are only looking for freebies. 
  2. Are they reliable and trustworthy?  I source from people I know or have a working relationship with.  I’ve been burned before and because of that, I have a handful of people I won’t use, despite their (stated) best intentions. 
  3. Do they like my style of writing?  I don’t hold back on my writing.  I swear like a sailor. Sometimes I go into deep, dark areas.  I need to make sure they okay with that. 
  4. I look for people who are honest in their feedback.  Hearing ‘great story’ or ‘I liked it’ is not what I need to hear from a beta reader. I need details and I need people who are honest in their feedback. But, I also ask them to be kind when providing that feedback. I’m trusting them to help me be a better writer and for the book to be one worth reading. If I get harsh, negative, pointless feedback, it’s not going to be well received, not like it would if were well delivered, constructive feedback.  I don’t need to see “I hate this” or “this doesn’t work” comments please. That’s not to say I want them to sugar coat everything. No, not at all. I simply ask the beta readers to they tell me why they don’t like it or why it doesn’t work.

How I work with beta readers

I have a list of the questions defined and ready for beta readers, no matter what the story is.  There are twenty questions and they are specific for a reason.  To start, the questions are about plot, pace and scenes. I ask them then about the characters. I get their take on the setting and the mood and, at the end, I ask for their overall impressions.  

Once the questions are complete, I add instructions on how to be a beta reader and add specifically what I’m looking for, because all authors are different. And, not everyone I select may have been a beta reader before. This way, the instructions are clear and consistent.

Before I deliver the questions for the novel, I ask one very important question first. This question is KEY: Can you realistically meet the deadline?   

I give my beta readers a month to read the novel and answer the questions.  But I make sure at the very start that they are committed, because I know life gets in the way. I ask them to review the questions, then assess the timeframe and let me know BEFORE we begin if they have any doubts of finishing the task. I usually have one or two drop out at that point and that’s completely normal in the process.  

Once I know who my beta readers are, I send them one email. The email includes the story in MS Word, the questions, guidelines and instructions, then I try not to disturb them for the rest of the month. Most beta readers get back to me in the first two weeks. 

I ask the beta readers to keep the manuscript in Microsoft Word. Using other applications screws up formatting as I go, which is something I learned the hard way. I ask them to do a ‘save as’ with their initials so I can keep track of everyone’s feedback. Then, most importantly, I ask them to ensure ‘track changes’ is turned on before they dig in.  Some betas may pick up grammar, typos, spelling, all of which I would have tried to capture beforehand, but there’s always stuff that gets through.  (Camino Wandering, went through eleven rounds of editing.)

Finally, I ask beta readers to not share the novel with anyone else.  This is a trust-based relationship and without that, this process would not work. For an author, we’re pushing our baby out into the world, asking people to judge it.  If they shared that baby with some flippant comment or, god-forbid put it on the internet, it would break that sacred tie between author and beta reader.

Questions I ask my Beta Readers

These questions would work for any fictional novel.  

PLOT, PACING, SCENES:
#1 Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?  Where did you stop reading the first time?
#2 At what point did you think, here’s where the story starts?
#3 Was there a point at which you felt the story lagged or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
#4 Was there anything that confused, frustrated, or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?  
#5 Conversely, what parts did you like (and why)?  Which scene do you remember most vividly?
#6 Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?   Please be as specific as you can (if you have this in your tracked comments, that’s best.)
#7 Did you understand every phrase / term I used? If not, which ones?
#8 Which parts did you find yourself skimming over?  If you could change anything to make the story better, what would you change?
#9 Was the ending satisfying?  Was it believable?
 
CHARACTERS
#10 Were you interested in the main character? Did you feel her pain, joy, fears, worry, excitement? Did you find the characters relatable? 
#11 Which character did you enjoy the most? Why?
#12 Is there a character you wish to see more of? Less of?  Why? 
#13 Did the dialogue sound natural? Did it keep your interest? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not as a person would speak?
#14 Could you see what the characters looked like clearly? If not, who/why?
 
SETTING
#15 Did the setting interest you and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?  
#16 Were you able to visualize where and when the story is taking place?  If not, where do you feel they were lacking?  (Specifics please)
 
MOOD
#17 Did you get emotional at some point?
#18 Do any scenes feel emotionally detached? 
 
GENERAL
#19 Has this book reminded you of other books you read?  If so, which ones?
#20 In your opinion, what are the main strengths of the story? The main weaknesses of the story?
 
  
Anything additional you want to add?

What happens post review

…because it’s not over yet!

I set up a Facebook group for my lovely beta readers. (Because these are now my people. These people shared their honest opinions, told me what I needed to hear and that is GOLD.) Since I source my beta readers through social media, this gives me an easy way to communicate with the general group after everyone’s feedback is in.  Since this is a group of readers who have actually read the manuscript, I can ask general questions, or ask about changes their feedback may have prompted, as I continue finishing the novel. I can give them updates on progress too. 

In the end, every beta reader receives a published copy of the novel. It’s only fair. They worked hard too. 😉 

 
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