Beta readers and why they are a good idea…

On Saturday morning, I decided that this novel-writing gig had got out of hand.
I was watching an episode of Bookaboo, as you do…

Okay, maybe I should explain.  Bookaboo is a wonderful English TV show that celebrates and promotes children’s books.  I don’t have any small children in the house.  I watch it for my own amusement and delight, because:

  • good picture books rock
  • they’re read by interesting people who obviously love it and
  • the star (Bookaboo) is a puppet rockstar dog who can’t play the drums unless he gets his story.  Do I need to explain more? I don’t think so.

Anyway, moving on…

So, I’m watching Bookaboo and they’re reading a lovely story called Don’t Wake the Bear, Hare.  It’s a gripping tale of a group of animals setting up for a picnic, preoccupied with the need not to wake the nearby sleeping bear.  Naturally, they assume that he will break up the party if he wakes.  (For those who worry, I should tell you that when he, inevitably, wakes up, he turns out to be sweet and a honey-bringing party animal and all is well.)

This was all lovely.  But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering why they had set up the party right next to the bear in the first place.  There was a whiny actor voice in my head saying, ‘but what’s my motivation?’

I think I have been writing this novel for too long.

But… (You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?  Is that effective foreshadowing, or telegraphing punches? Paranoid writer wants to know…)

While it may not be necessary to worry about such things in a child’s picture book, it’s very important in novels for grown-ups (and young adults, I’m sure).  If you rely on co-incidence, or characters behaving stupidly, or in ways that are inconsistent with their character, just to serve your plot, at least some of your readers will notice and they will not thank you for it.

Real life is chock-full of things that make no sense, people who act with no clear motive and co-incidence.  But use them in your fiction at your peril.

There are many ways to guard against this.  Your own instincts are a good place to start.  If you feel uneasy about a circumstance in your plot, trust your gut.  Take a long hard look at the action that led to the circumstances.  Do they ring true for your characters?  Is it what they would do?  Is it how they would act, or react?

And if the circumstances aren’t the result of any character’s action, if they just ‘happen’ and it is more than a quarter of the way through your novel, then you’re in trouble – at least in any kind of genre fiction.  Plot is important, but if it isn’t driven by characters, it’s hollow and will be unsatisfying to the reader.

One of the reasons we read fiction – or genre fiction at least – is to reinforce our sense of agency.  In other words, we like to see that actions have consequences; that good is rewarded and evil punished.  It’s hard to see that if your characters just drift along, buffeted by fate.

It’s also hard to like them.  We like to see characters who are brave and noble and strong.  Not ridiculously so, and not all the time, but we identify with characters who, when the going gets tough, act the way we wish we would, in the circumstances.  Or at least (because we don’t have to like every character, even main ones) act consistently and understandably.

So how does this link to my title?

Simply, sometimes it’s hard to see these things clearly in our own manuscript.  As writers we know much more about our characters than will ever get on to the page and that is as it should be.  But sometimes, that can lead us to make mistakes.  It can lead to actions on paper which make perfect sense to us, with what we know, but which don’t ring true for the reader because we haven’t put enough – or the right things – about what we know on the page.

This is where an intelligent, clear-sighted and plain-speaking beta reader can be invaluable.  I have two and I value them more than rubies.  I set up an agreement with them at the start that they would tell me what they liked and, more importantly, they would tell me without fear or favour what wasn’t working for them.

If it doesn’t make sense, if there are weird time or space jumps, if the writing is lumpy or the story dragging, they tell me.  They aren’t crit partners.  They don’t tell me how to fix it.  They just tell me TO fix it – and to get it back to them because they want to know what happens next.

This is not meant to downplay the value of critique groups or partners – they are also wonderful.  But sometimes they have the same problem that the writer does, in that they know too much about the characters.  I am very careful not to talk to my beta readers about my writing process for this reason.  I learned the hard way that it is really important that someone read it who has only what is on the page to go on.

My wonderful beta readers are a kind of insurance – a reality and sanity check.  They’re people who can answer the question, ‘does it make sense?’

What about you?  Do you have beta readers?

How do you make sure you aren’t losing the plot?

39 thoughts on “Beta readers and why they are a good idea…

  1. Crit partners and Beta readers are invaluable. They say by putting a manuscript away for a few months you can see its errors but you don’t always have a few months and sometimes you’ve been over those beloved pages so many times… Slaving. Kissing. Licking. Editing. You know. That didn’t get out of hand at all. Let me just say bless Crit Partners and Beta Readers everywhere.

    • Amen! Especially for me, as I learned from my first couple of manuscripts that there were things that were important about the characters that just weren’t on the page. I NEED those other eyes. They also are wonderful when I have got to the point where I think that if I read those words again I am going to commit a felony of some sort…

      • You really do just stop seeing it after a while. I was writing the last one for almost two years. Talk about zombie. Crits suck but they’re a necessity. Thanks for the thanks! That was just lovely. 🙂

      • Yes, well I admire writers. One of the reasons I love your blog is that I’ve learned a lot. I love your confidence, wit and charm. I’m sure my books are a writer’s cringe-fest at this point, but I like to think they have some redeeming value.
        It’s taken me bit to respond to this because I’m back in the Design saddle. It’s an MOW and so far, so good.

        • I hate to ask when I know you are up against it, but what is an MOW? Forgive my movie ignorance (it’s all part of my wit and charm *batting eyelids*). If you have finished any manuscripts, Resa, they are automatically better than what most people manage. Many people want to write a book. Relatively few even finish it, much less make it good. You’re already over the hardest part!

          • Dear Charming Imelda,

            MOW means “Movie Of The Week” These are popular on cable channels, and are picking up again on the networks.
            Apparently I’m doing 2, back to back.
            Thanks for the writing encouragement!

  2. I don’t have specific beta readers but I have employed some folks who’ve read some of my work for their opinions on sequels and such. I definitely need to expand my horizons in this area. Nice post! Thank you for sharing it!

  3. Hi Imelda! I would love to have a Beta reader – I currently have a crit partner and a group and I just don’t feel right handing over my 55K novel and saying ‘hey, read this, can ya? Oh, and I need it back in three days.’ Because I’d also feel obligated to return the favour and I just don’t have the time 😀 (gosh, that sounds selfish!) I have, however, asked a writer to read a specific scene to see if it works, but that was a long time ago. I tend to ask my group about plot structure and flow and “does this sound reasonable to you?”

    • Hi Paula! It doesn’t sound selfish – I know just what you mean. Do you have any non-writing friends who are keen readers? That’s who my beta readers are and they are brilliant. If they aren’t writers you don’t need to return the favour and if they are keen readers they might see it as a favour to them to get first look at your next book!

  4. Nice post Imelda.
    I’ve tried to get people to read my work, but no one i ask ever comes back to me.
    Confidence rocker? Aye. 🙂
    What are these crit groups of which you speak?

    • My readers are friends, Nick, and they’re a good place to start. It helps if you are writing the sort of thing they like to read, of course. It’s probably counter-productive to ask someone to read something out of their preferred range. They will find it more of an imposition and you are less likely to get good feedback.

      Re crit groups, they are groups of writers who provide critiques for each others’ work. They can be formed in a number of ways. You might find that your local area has a congenial writing group that works for you. But most of the people I know who are members of crit groups have found them through membership of a sympathetic organisation, such as the Romance Writers of Australia or Sisters in Crime or whatever.

      Different groups work different ways, and some people just have a one-on-one relationship with one other writer, rather than with a group. Either way, it’s wise to have a clear idea of what is required of each member before entering the arrangement and the option of any member politely ending their association if it isn’t working for them.

      I hope that helps! If you have more questions, please ask!

  5. Imelda,
    Since I write YA fiction, I had my neighbors and friends teenage daughters read my ms. After being passed around (all the Moms read, too), we had what I called a book talk. With a chocolate fountain, plenty of strawberries for dipping, and wine for the Moms, we discussed the book. I was bombarded with questions, most about what would happen in a sequel, and I was able to see where I might have failed in getting the story across. I tweaked the ms a lot after that night. Now, I’m busy writing the sequel and look forward to our book talk, again. Though most of the teenagers are now in college, I have recruited a few new readers. Beta readers are invaluable and it helps if they enjoy your genre. Thanks for posting!

    • What a wonderful idea, Karen! I love the sound of the chocolate fondue book talk. I reckon this would work for anyone with a niche and might be a way for people to round up some beta readers if they don’t have any suitable ones in their friendship circle. You could put up a note in the library, or approach your local book club to find people who like what you write and offer them a wine and cheese night (if the library drew the line at chocolate fondue) if they’ll read and discuss. I’m sure you got a lot more interesting feedback this way than you would have if you talked to each one separately.

      Thank you for coming by and for sharing your fabulous idea!

  6. Great post! My husband is a surprisingly good beta reader, even though he’s not much of a reader ordinarily. He’s a software programmer, so he’s *astonishingly* logical, and will always pick out any hazy section in my manuscripts (the ones that I secretly know are a problem but don’t want to acknowledge). His “but why?” questions are brilliant!

    PS, maybe the partygoers were Aussies in Canada, and the thought of a bear being in the woods was completely alien to them? 🙂

    • ROFL! I love that you actually answered my motivation question! Hehehe! Should we ever be in the same room, I owe you a drink! (Or a chocolate something, if you don’t imbibe).

      My husband is an engineer, so he is likewise very good at the logic things (and yes, I too, grumble when he finds things that I know are there but was hoping would slip past). We tend to do that by talking things through, though, rather than reading. But it’s the same principle. He’s very good at helping me think my way out of plot problems, too. I am writing a scene right now which uses an idea he gave me.

  7. Bookaboo sounds a lot like Reading Rainbow that was on when I was a kid, except with a rockstar puppet dog instead of LeVar Burton. It’s always fun to have someone read a book to you, even though not many people will once you are over the age of ten. That’s what makes those kinds of shows fun.

    As for beta readers, I have always used my mom as one. All through school she would read my essays or short stories and point out when I would skip a whole chunk in logic (or repeat it) along with the few grammatical and spelling errors that inevitably popped up. If I ever finish a manuscript (at least four drafts, I think), I will probably try a few other friends as beta readers as well. I love the idea of getting feedback from someone on just the story on the paper.

    • Mums are great! Especially if she is willing to actually tell you what’s wrong, rather than just say how wonderful it is because YOU wrote it. 😀

      I find the feedback immeasurably helpful, especially since I sometimes have a disconnect between what I THINK is there and what is actually there! If you TELL your friends you are going to use them, they might encourage you to finish a manuscript. Just sayin’… 😉

  8. Great post! I am in the research stages of my first book — but as I start to write, I am certainly going to take your advice and have beta readers! Thank you!

    • Good on you for starting out!

      I feel I should say, though, that you need to be sure that you are ready for feedback before you ask for it, especially from friends. Criticism is always hard to take; it can be even harder from people who you want to approve of your work. I have been writing long enough that I am confident that my stuff is not rubbish, so I’m happy to get any feedback that can help me improve it. (I was also a copywriter for several years, so my skin is like a rhino’s.) If you are still at the trembly ‘is it any good?’ stage, and a friend or loved one, even with the best intentions, tears it to shreds, you may never write again!

      So choose your beta readers with care. And if you aren’t sure that you are ready to put your work in front of people whose opinion matters to you, enter some competitions. Competition judges are impartial, so you can trust their feedback (although take it with a grain of salt – they’re not infallible). And if you hate their comments, you can rage and cry as much as you like, because they will never know.

      Best of luck with your book and with finding the right review partners – whether they’re in a writing group, or judges or beta readers – to make it shine!

      • Thanks Imelda! Technically this is “starting out…again” for me. I’ve been part of critical writing groups before (who had no problem at all giving their two sense). I took a pause on my writing due to work (of which I was an arts administrator for many years and ran my own online cultural magazine –which I also wrote for). I feel very fortunate to be in a position right now that I can focus my energies on writing again.

        Thanks again for the feedback and look forward to checking out more of your blog.

        • Oh, thank goodness! I was just afraid I had thrown a raw newbie to the lions! I am old and hardened now (translation: I do my swearing and crying in private) but when I was new at the writing game I was so sensitive it doesn’t bear thinking about.

          In that case, yes, get thee to a beta reader or three. Fabulous help!

    • Thanks for visiting Angela! Yes, I wouldn’t be without mine, they’re gold. So easy to get a disconnect between your head and the page and they help to point that out. Thanks for the link, too. I’ll have a look!

  9. Bookaboo ROCKS! He he he, I have a 2yo so I know exactly what you’re talking about…

    Interesting article as I’m on the verge of ‘beta-reading’ myself and anxious that I should be able to provide some constructive feedbacks (my first!! *exciting*) 🙂

    • Yay! Another Bookaboo lover! PERFECT for your two-year old and for many years to come.

      That is exciting about your beta reading! I’m sure you can help. For me, the best thing that beta readers can do is note where they got swept up and where there were things that dumped them out of the story, or made them think ‘wtf?’ or when they couldn’t tell who was talking – things like that. I ask them to do it with a red pen in hand and just mark the spot with enough of a note so they can tell me what stopped them. But for me, I don’t want them to think too much about it, as that’s not what a reader would do. I want them to read it as they would a book that they bought and just tell me what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, rather than a particular spot. They might say, for example, that one character came off as a little whiny. Or that they wanted to slap another character (this is generally not good).

      Did it drag? Did you cry? Did you laugh? Did you want to slap her? Where you scared of him? These are the sorts of things that I want to know from a beta reader. But if you are concerned, ask the person you’re reading for what they are looking for from you before you start. It’s the best way to know. Hope you have fun with it!

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