I’ve done a series of blog interviews on the topic of beta readers previously. Recently though, I’ve had some thoughts on the timing, or better still at what stage of your drafting/writing/revising process it works best. This was sparked by receiving some excellent feedback on a work in progress.
Not everyone uses a beta reader, but if you look in the author comments or acknowledgements in your favourite books you will see people who have been thanked, usually as first reader etc. For myself, I need beta readers like I need air. God forbid that a published work of mine was raw and that my first feedback was from a reviewer or a bunch of readers. Thankfully, mostly everything except my blog posts have had a reader, editor etc before being published. Even my Indie published fantasy, Argenterra, had beta readers and an editor before being published. I also beta read for author friends. Not all of them return the favour them being busy with contracted deadlines etc, but I get something out of it. I get to read their books before everyone else and sometimes I get a present of a nice shiny book! I also learn!
I have also used the services of a manuscript appraisal service when I first started out, also I have workshopped a novel with Envision (a fantastic program that no longer exists), that was Argenterra BTW! I also won a Longlines Fellowship to Varuna Writers’ House for Dragon Wine back in 2006 and part of that was feedback and also sharing with other writers there. For Dragon Wine I used the services of a continuity editor which was really useful too.
The ideas and the words are my own but feedback help shape ideas, perspectives etc which are all valuable. Even reading your book aloud to yourself will pick up stuff. Really! Read it to someone else and then heaps of things will jump out at you even when you’ve proofed and polished the text within an inch of its life.
Maybe because I’m an extroverted thinker that beta reader comments work for me. I need a sounding board and I work fairly quickly too, which means I can’t play with one story for ten years with no fertiliser from other people. I usually have several novels or short stories going.
An important consideration in having a beta reader is to have someone who gets what you are doing, who has some interest, sympathy, knowledge, way of thinking etc that gels. Your mum is probably not the best person. Even your kids…although mine usually pick up typos etc after the fact. You need some distance, someone you can trust to be honest and helpful at the same time. More importantly, you need to be ready for feedback. You need to be able to accept criticism because that’s what it is all about. If you want a beta reader to say “OMG! This is the best book on the planet ever!” Give it to your mum. Not that it is not great to get positive feedback, it is…
So it is hard to get good beta readers. If you write a lot it is even harder to share the work around them. Also, you need to return the favour, unless you are paying for a service. If you are paying for a service expect a detailed report and expect to pay upwards of $500 (more these days). Remember you want to be a beta reader that your reader buddies can respect. This means you have to give feedback on things like structure, character, pacing, setting etc too. Your beta reader doesn’t have to be another writer. A reader who likes the genre you write in can be very helpful. I mean they are a sample of your audience right? Your feedback might be a lengthy document, an annotated MS, an email or even just a conversation. It all goes into the mix.
Also different readers have different strengths. You might get a reader who is instinctively good with pacing. Another with character development. So having more than one is helpful. I was going to say essential but we can’t have everything.
I have trusted beta readers for a range of stories. I probably have one who reads anything I write and I read hers. I believe we trust each other, although we have different perspectives.
Timing! Finally I get to the point. This is interesting. The timing varies for me. I might send my MS off just before I send it to submission, when I think it’s fairly polished, but not finally polished just to check that it’s not fatally flawed. Or I might send a tidied up first draft. I never send a story with a gaping hole in it (unless I didn’t see it). I may have a few x in place of names, but usually the story is fully formed. At a minimum a tidied first draft. My older work needs a few drafts before they are ready for beta readers. I’m finding that with The Crystal Gate, the sequel to Argenterra. The third installment is an incomplete rough draft and a nightmare!
You see, Argenterra has been worked on over many years, had many revisions, cut backs etc. The sequel has sat in the hard drive minding its own business and stagnating. Essentially it is a tidied first draft, maybe a tidier second draft. More recent work for me means that the first drafts are much better. I used to be a panster! Now I straddle the fence and plan a bit. Older drafts can be a lot of work, especially if you didn’t make notes!
So the minimum I believe is a tidy, good first draft, where you have a full story etc and there is something to comment on. I sent The Crystal Gate for a beta read and it’s a tidy second draft. Why?
I have trouble listening to the little voice in my head that says things like “You’ve said that twice now. Maybe cut that.” or “You’ve written the action but what is the character feeling? What is the character’s emotional journey?” Or “That’s all well and good but could there be too much going on in that scene?” But because I’m focussed on my end goal of getting through the revision I don’t stop to deal with those things. I need a second opinion. (Insert LAZY here). I need a kick up the bum. I need to know what’s working and what’s not before I invest too much, before I make a wrong decision. This is where beta reading comments come in. I got some this morning. Some were the kick in the pants stuff-the stuff where I should know better but didn’t. Other comments point out flaws I didn’t notice or thought I could get away with, others highlighted aspects that I hadn’t thought of at all. I know that in addressing these comments I’m going to make the work better. I don’t have to agree with everything that my beta reader says. I’m going to wait for the other beta reader’s comments before working on the MS again.
Essentially the comments have filled me up with enthusiasm, ideas and identified trouble areas where I need to do more thinking. I love this.
I think I would be less likely to be accepting of feedback if I had polished the story to the nth degree and thought it was amazing and gorgeous and nothing could be improved. Nothing could be worse that having someone say-this is fatally flawed, you need to restructure this. You might take that from an editor maybe if you could see their vision. So far I haven’t had to restructure anything majorly at all. For this reason, I think getting feedback on a good draft is better than a polished draft you have no brain power to accept feedback. It can be done. I’ve worked with someone who had been edited and a reader picked up something which meant it had to be edited again and the issue addressed.
Of course, the timing is individual. Some people I know won’t let me read for them until they think their MS is perfect. Naturally enough I don’t get to read for them very often at all.
Now I wrote this post because I’m working on a rough draft of The Ungiven Land, Silverlands book 3. It’s hard work even thinking about this story so procrastination helps. This blog post is brought to you by procrastination!