Survey for my Beta Readers

For my 3rd Draft Beta Reading of Power of the Mages, I decided to include a survey to ensure the commenters addressed items in which I am particularly interested. Because they are doing this on a strictly volunteer basis, it was important to me to make the survey easy for them to fill out. To that end, even though essay answers would probably be more revealing, I made the questions answerable by numeric ratings, though I did instruct them to feel free to elaborate.

The first question is the most important. My marketing strategy is based on having a product that is so good most readers will recommend it to others, so I needed to know if the beta reader thinks the book is worth recommending.

Question 1: Would you recommend this book to others? Choose an answer from the following list:

a. Absolutely. I loved it and will proclaim its awesomeness from the rooftops.
b. Probably. I liked it and will tell friends about it if I think they’ll enjoy the content/story.
c. Maybe. It was okay, but nothing to write home about. If one of my friends is a hardcore fantasy fan, I’ll tell him about it.
d. Unlikely. It just wasn’t that good.
e. No. Your writing sucks.

I consider myself an author who writes character driven stories. Thus, it’s important to me to learn how my readers feel about my characters. Note that the reader loving or hating a character doesn’t matter to me as much as them feeling something strongly. Even if I want them to love the protagonist, I’d accept a “1” as being a good thing while feeling that a 5 or 6 is a failure.

Question 2: Please rank the likeability of the following characters on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 means you hate that character. 10 means you love that character. 5.5 means you are completely apathetic about, or can’t really remember, the character.

I then listed each of the 7 major characters, the antagonist, and 4 minor characters.

For my final two questions, I wanted to find out how the readers felt about certain character and story arcs, both if they liked the story line in general and if they felt I depicted it consistently.

Question 3: On a scale of 1 to 10, please rank the following story and character arcs in regards to how much you enjoyed them. 1 means you hated the story/character arc. 10 means you loved the story/character arc. 5.5 means you are completely apathetic about, or can’t really remember, the character/story arc.

I listed the major character arcs, plots, and conflicts between characters — 17 in all.

Question 4: On a scale of 1 to 10, please rank the following story and character arcs in regards to how consistently you feel they were represented in the book. 1 means it was confusing and all over the map. 10 means it flowed logically from beginning to end. 5.5 means you really didn’t notice that particular story element.

I listed the same items as for Question 3.

Once I get the results back, I’ll compile them and do a post about the results.

Have any of you done anything like this? How’d it go? Are there other questions I should have asked?

The 5 Things I Most Need from Beta Readers

Writing a first novel is a huge learning process, and how to deal with beta readers was one of the biggest lessons. Before I get to my 5 Things, here’s a bonus 2 procedures that I’ll change:

1. I sent the 2nd draft of Power of the Mages out in 5-chapter increments. While I’m glad I did it that way because the comments I got back improved my writing, I’ll send out only complete drafts in the future. There was simply too much loss of continuity. I’d change character traits, story arcs, and names of things and places from one section to the next, so the beta readers never got a true sense of the book as a whole.
2. In addition to getting comments for the 2nd draft, I’m sending out the 3rd draft to beta readers, mainly because of the continuity issues mentioned above. For the sake of efficiency in the future, I’ll send manuscripts out only once.

Now, on with the actual post —

In any endeavor involving working with people, communication is key. Define the feedback you most want from the critique process and relate that desire to your beta readers. Here are the 5 Things I think are most important:

1. My biggest goal is to engage the reader, and, to that end, I need to know if there’s anything in my writing that draws you from the text. Did you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I was trying to say? Did you get confused over who was speaking? Are there any formatting or punctuation issues that made you spend mental effort being annoyed rather than experiencing the story? Did you get irritated because I overexplained something?
2. Tension and pace are hugely important and are difficult for an author to judge correctly. If the pace is too fast or the story too tense, the reader can get worn out. I read a book one time with Energizer Bunny battles; they just kept going and going and… On the flip side, if the pace is too slow or the story not tense enough, the reader will get bored. I need to know if/where these problems occur in my text.
3. Emotion is both crucial and difficult to get right. My second draft was flat because I didn’t include enough. I fear I’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way and induced eye rolling in the 3rd draft by making the characters too melodramatic.
4. Where did I screw up? Did I have the group journeying north, turn right, and say they’re now heading west? Did I make a character do something that completely contradicts who I’ve established that person to be? Did I refer to the same town by different names?
5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how insidious typos, homonyms, and grammar/punctuation mistakes are. They bury themselves in the text to actively try to hide from me. Each one of these that a beta reader points out is one that doesn’t make it into the final version.

Becoming a Better Beta Reader

As I wrote in Monday’s blog post, there’s almost no escaping the fact that, if you want good beta readers, you’re going to have to do some beta reading. If you’re like me, you’re going to want to become the best darn beta reader that you can be.

Here’s my advice on how to do so:

1. Become a better writer – When I started critiquing other authors, literally the only things I could comment on were grammar, style, and technique. As my ability has increased, so has my range of comments. Not only can I now give much better advice on items, I can make worthwhile observations on story telling.
2. Remember the key question, “Does it work?” – The author doesn’t need to know whether or not they broke a rule. The author needs to know if what they did works. Focus your comments on answering that question.
3. Until you develop a relationship with the beta readee, follow the Golden Rule – Your best bet is the beta read as you want to be beta read. For example, I’ve heard that some people think it’s a bad idea to offer suggestions on how to fix problems. Personally, I love it when my beta readers offer a fix for micro problems such as proposing a different wording. On the other hand, I hate it when a beta reader tries to change my plot. Until I’ve developed an understanding of the wants and needs of the person I’m beta reading, I’m going to make micro suggestions but not macro ones because that’s what I like. If I find the person hates micro suggestions, I’ll stop making them. Or, if I find out he wants me to propose macro fixes, I’ll certainly do so.
4. Know your limitations – Understand where you’re weak. If you don’t know comma rules very well, you probably shouldn’t make comments about commas.
5. Know your pet peeves – Realize that some things are going to bother you more than they would bother the average reader. With these items, make sure you let the author know it’s probably more of a personal issue than a huge problem.
6. Try to relate the degree of a problem – This advice goes with the point just above. Provide some clue as to whether you think the issue is a major problem or a tiny hiccup.
7. Accentuate the positive? – My goal when beta reading is to help make you a better writer. Period. It’s not to help your self image. If your writing sucks, I want to convey to you that you need to improve, not make you think that you’re ready to foist your crap on the world. On the other hand, telling an author what worked particularly well is just as valuable information as telling him what he did wrong. So, if the author succeeded at something, let him know about it but don’t search for something positive to say simply to make him feel better.
8. Don’t be afraid to say, “No.” – Recently, one of my regulars sent me something that just didn’t do it for me. The author had tried to write a piece using a unique voice. My focus in writing pretty much follows along the lines of creating popular fiction. I simply have no basis for helping someone with creating that kind of voice and, frankly, don’t enjoy reading it. Because I didn’t feel I could be of help, I politely declined to continue beta reading that piece.

Do you have any further tips? Feel free to add in the comments section.

Why Beta Reading is a Soul-Crushing Experience

Admit it: when you send your work to your beta readers, all you really want to hear is, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read!”

What you actually hear is a litany of what you did wrong.  The whole process can crush your soul and put a muzzle on your production.

My advice is to get over it.  You are too close to your work to see your mistakes, and it’s much better for your friends to point it out than for random strangers to tear you to pieces in Amazon reviews.

These are some of the things a beta reader can find for you:

  • Confusing passages – Of course it made sense when you wrote it; you know exactly what you meant to say. Your beta reader only has to go by what you actually wrote.
  • Inconsistencies – From characters who don’t behave as expected to huge plot holes, a good beta reader is going to spot these for you.
  • Wording and phrasing – Probably realized you didn’t how worded weirdly a sentence that was.
  • Overused words – Sometimes we use words overmuch when we don’t even realize we used that word when another word could have been substituted for that word.
  • Pacing – It’s hard to determine for yourself where the work drags.

If you go into the process with the expectation that it’s going to suck but it’s going to make your writing better, you’ll be much better off.