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.

The Only Ironclad Rule of Writing

Most of the “rules” of writing are merely guidelines to point you in the right (write?) direction. Truthfully, there’s only one that you absolutely must follow:

You can do anything you want — as long as it works.

The first part is simple; it’s just what you wanted to hear. The second part, there’s the rub. How, exactly, do you go about figuring out if something works?

My first suggestion is to follow the “rules.” They’re not there to constrain you. They exist as helpful guides to keep you from screwing up. If you’re going by the acceptable standards, you’re probably going to be okay.

Sometimes, you simply have to be true to your artistic vision, or, maybe, you just want to be contrary. Basically, sometimes you just gotta break all the rules. In that case:

Use your discernment as a writer. There is absolutely no one better qualified than you to determine if your vision is being translated onto the page because no one else knows your vision. With experience comes discernment. Flag any areas where you felt you’ve went off the beaten path. Continue writing. Once you’ve gained some distance and perspective, go back to those sections and ask yourself, “Did I really accomplish what I wanted?”

The problem is that, while you are the best person to determine if you’ve translated the story in your head correctly, you’re also the worst. You know exactly what you meant to say, and your mind will trick you into reading what you meant instead of what you wrote. In that case:

Find good beta readers. In the absence of good ones, bad ones will work. Remember, however, the cardinal rule of dealing with such, good or bad, as the old saying goes — they’re usually right when they say you’ve screwed up but usually wrong in telling you how to fix it. What I’ve found is that there will be long stretches of text with no comments. Then, they’ll be a section where multiple readers have placed a comment. These remarks may be sentences or paragraphs or even half a page apart. They may critique different things entirely. One may question my word choice while another mentions character. The thing I take away is that the scene didn’t work, and I need to fix it. And not necessarily by changing either of the things the commenters brought up.

The problem with beta readers is that it’s a bit like the blind leading the blind, and it’s sometimes hard to trust them completely. That’s why you need an expert.

Pay an editor who you trust. For one thing, the fact that you’re laying out cold, hard cash gives the comments you get back instantly more weight. What you get for free (or even as an exchange) is not nearly as valuable as what you pried open your wallet for. Your editor should be the most experienced expert you can find and afford. Don’t skimp on this step. He’ll be your best friend in that he’ll take your work to the next level. He’ll be your worst enemy in that he’ll see all the flaws you hoped you had hidden.

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.

How to Find Beta Readers

I’ve well-established how I feel about the importance of a writer getting constructive feedback; I think it’s absolutely crucial. An author is simply too close to his work to catch everything, and the process of trying hard to create something perfect and having that work picked apart is the fastest way to improve.

That being said, where you do find critiques?

1. What helped me the most was a critique group. The live interaction and meeting face to face with other authors provides me with input and motivation that no other source can match. Go to meetup.com and search for writer’s groups in your area. If there isn’t one, consider trying to start one. Note that you’ll be required to critique others just as they critique you.
2. Every writing forum I found has some kind of method of displaying your work for critique. These are a great place to get a variety of opinions on chapters or short pieces of work. Don’t be a user, though. If you’re going to get benefit from the community, give back in the form of helping others and generating content for the forum.
3. I offer detailed coaching for short pieces on this blog (see Submissions). Frankly, I’m surprised that more people don’t take me up on it. Flourish Editing also offers to critique small samples for free every Monday. Take advantage of these kinds of offers. (If you know of any other blogs or editors that offer this kind of service, please comment with a link.)
4. There are many online critique groups. I haven’t used any of them, but a simple Google search can start your research.

All the methods above are best for short pieces or portions of your novel, and, even if you use any or all of them, you still need beta readers for the complete finished draft of your novel. Here’s how you find them:

1. Ask friends and family. I know that some say this is a bad idea, but it can work as long as you use this resource as only a part of the feedback you get. That friend or aunt may spot a mistake that you and your other betas missed or come up with a cool insight. You probably need to send your manuscript to four or five people, and supplementing other sources with this one is an easy way to increase the quantity.
2. Writing forums have hundreds of authors in the same position as you. The best way to get a quality beta reader is to become one and do an exchange of services. You read his novel, and he reads yours.
3. Editors are expensive, but there’s no better source for professional input on your work than paying for it. It’s my opinion that you’re best served waiting until you have an advanced draft that has already passed through several layers of revision and beta reading first. You want to maximize your money spent, and, if your uncle can point out your grammar mistakes, the editor won’t have to spend his limited time doing it. (Look for my two part series on editing coming as early as next week after I receive feedback on Abuse of Power.)

It’s the End of…My Second Draft

Yes, I did go for the lame apocalypse tie-in.  I feel you; it’s not my finest hour.  On the other hand, I’m going to have “It’s the end of the world as I know it…” stuck in my head all day, so, if I’ve managed to inflict the same upon you, it makes me feel better.

On with the actual subject of the post: Yesterday, I send the last section of the 2nd draft of Power of the Mages to my beta readers.

Aside – I sent the book in (6) five-chapter increments.  Because of where I was on the learning curve, this method helped me.  The knowledge I gained from reading the comments from the first part made the later chapters better.  However, sending the work out piecemeal made life difficult for the readers.  They couldn’t really get into the flow of the book, and I made changes to the plot and character arcs (even names!) in the later chapters that made them go, “Huh?”  I’m going to have to send the finished 3rd draft out for more comments.  Summary – though doing it this way worked for me this time, I wouldn’t recommend sending out incomplete works.

Now, I have a huge challenge ahead of me.  I want to get my novel in the best possible shape to enter in Amazon’s contest on January 14.  My first goal is to get as far on the 3rd draft as I can by January 7.  To give you an idea of what this means:

  • 1st draft = word vomit
  • 2nd draft = coherent and readable
  • 3rd draft = more emotion and tension, tighter POV, a lot of little things that will more engage the reader, pick up beta reader comments

Best case scenario — and this is really ambitious — I’ll get through Chapter 10 by the 7th.  The question becomes: what is the best use of my time in the remaining week?

  1. Take another up to 3 chapters from 2nd draft to 3rd draft – OR
  2. Go through all the rest of the 2nd draft chapters and correct major errors and typos based on beta reader comments.

The arguments for the first path are:

  1. I doubt I’m going to win the Amazon contest with a submission that is only partially finished with the 3rd draft, so, rather than wasting my time making corrections that I’ll have to go back over anyway, I should just continue on with the 3rd draft.
  2. A few more complete and totally engaging chapters will give me more of a chance to win than getting rid of typos in the last half of the book.
  3. My writing improved markedly after around Chapter 14.  The last half of the book is much more polished than the first half, so my time is better served working on the worst sections.

The arguments for the second option are:

  1. The 2nd draft is really rough in spots.  If I don’t smooth it out, I have less chance of winning.
  2. Typos and mistakes will completely sink me.

That’s the debate I’m having internally, and I’d love some input in the comments section.

How Your Beta Reader Is Ruining Your WIP

Resist the Urge to Explain.  RUE.

If you’ve read this blog any, you’ve seen me give this advice many times.  How, then, did I get sucked into doing it in Chapter 2 of Power of the Mages?  A beta reader.

My protagonist is keeping something from his boss, who logically should be able to help with the situation.  The protagonist’s sister confronts him over it.  His response is that he knows as much as his boss.

One of my beta readers was bothered by the situation.  If the problem could perhaps be resolved by the character telling his boss, he should just tell his boss. 

I get the response.  Is there anything worse than a contrived plot device where everything could be resolved if the characters just talked to each other (Yes to all those wiseacres out there.  The holocaust was worse.)?

In my case, however, the situation reveals two important character traits: he thinks he knows as much as anyone else, and he doesn’t like asking for help.

I needed to solve the problem by setting up the dilemma before the scene in question and by consistently showing these two traits.  Because of the particular exchange with the beta reader, I instead wrote this really horrible scene showing the protagonist agonizing over whether to tell his boss.  It turned out dreadful, and I spent a lot of time trying to fix it.

If you’re like me, you’ll add a scene on the scantest of excuses, but removing one takes an act of congress.  That’s why it took me a long time to figure out that I just needed to delete the entire thing.

Beta readers are essential to your success and your learning to be a better writer.  You are too close to your work to properly evaluate it.  However, not keeping your beta readers’ comments in perspective can ruin your work faster than not using them at all.  Here are some of the ways:

  1. Beta readers aren’t readers – A reader is willing to let you lead them on a journey.  A beta reader is actively searching for flaws in your work and is going to discover them whether they exist or not.  Their thinking is that, if they don’t make any comments, they’re not doing their job.  Their unmerited comments can then lead you to over explain.
  2. Beta readers have preconceived notions – Whereas a reader will let you reveal the plot and characters by the events that unfold, a beta reader is much more likely to decide in advance how a feature of your society works or how a character should behave.  These notions then can cause you to change something that negatively impacts your vision.
  3. Beta readers have pet peeves – Everyone has issues that bother them much more than it bothers anyone else.  Beta readers, especially those who aren’t self aware enough to understand their own pet peeves, will vehemently argue against you doing something that remotely approaches these issues.  This vehemence can lead you to make changes impacting plot lines and story arcs for no good reason.

Your best bet is to get to know your beta reader.  Analyze the comments to detect their hot button issues.  Use your judgment.  Don’t take a single person’s advice if it seems wrong to you.

I’ll follow up this post next week with advice on how to become a better beta reader.