Beta Readers; How and Why?

Several months ago I was convinced that my new novel, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature was ready. I sent it to a tried and trusted beta reader who very patiently and kindly informed me that it really wasn’t. I listened, realised she was right, and tackled it again. And again. And…well, you know how it goes. Finally, a few more months down the line, I thought, okay, this is it, I’m happy, really happy! I’d addressed all of her concerns and it was definitely a much better book. I then sent it to another beta reader, quite arrogantly expecting her to gush with excitement about how ready it was. She didn’t. It wasn’t. Repeating these things to my husband, he asked a very important question. How do I know the beta readers are right?

This is an excellent question and one worth addressing. But first of all what should you look for in beta readers and why do you even need them?

You need them because you are far too close and subjectively involved in your marvellous work of art to see its flaws. It is very difficult for an author who is in love with their story, to be able to see where the pace is too slow, or the information repetitive. You may not realise how much of you and your beliefs and opinions are seeping into the book. You may not realise that there is too much dialogue, or not enough. It is your baby, your child, your masterpiece. Yes, your relationship with it is up and down. You love it and then you hate it. You are filled with self-doubt one moment, only to be surging with confidence the next. Either way, you need beta readers to bring your down to earth. You need them to tell you what is good about the book and what is not so good about the book. Of course, you don’t have to accept their advice, and you certainly don’t have to act on it, but to release a book or submit it to publishers without using beta readers would be, in my opinion, insane.

So, what should you look for in a beta reader? I think this is quite a personal thing and may also depend on your genre of writing, but here are the things I look for and require in my beta readers.

  • they need to have already read my work and connected with it
  • they need to be somewhat connected to me and my life, and have some knowledge of my beliefs etc
  • they need to be highly educated, or at least way better at grammar than I am!
  • they need to be an avid reader, someone who consumes books like an addiction
  • they need to be open to most genres, not snobbish or narrow-minded
  • they need to be breathtakingly honest and not scared to offend
  • they need to be able to understand how a book could be made better
  • they need to be prepared to read the book at least twice and make notes

What sort of things should a beta reader be looking out for when reading your work? Well, again this is very personal, but I will explain the way I often approach it. With Elliot Pie, I wrote the book quite naturally, just letting it flow as you do with a clumsy first draft, worrying about the finer details later. I finished the very first messy draft just over a year ago, and I honestly didn’t think it would need too much more work! This goes to show how blind you can be about your own writing. I did a few more drafts before sending it to the first beta. At this point I was looking for opinions on the plot and the actual story and on the characters. Did they work? Were they real enough etc? What about the structure of the plot and the flow of the narration?

What I got back was very interesting and resulted in me changing a lot of the chapters around. The beta had loved the characters (yay!) and the story but she found the pace too slow in the middle of the book and she guessed the ending. Not too big a problem, as it’s not supposed to be a real twist at the end or anything, but she did help me work out ways I could knock the readers off course a bit. She was also right about the pace. It was too slow in the middle and lots of it needed to go.

Job done. I attacked the book again, and again and again. Each time I went through it, I cut bits out, added bits, fleshed the characters out more, and wrote lists as I went which consisted of the things I still needed to do when this draft was done. I considered my work done when the lists ended. As far as I was concerned I could do no more. Yes it would need some more proofreading and a few more read throughs, but I was happy. More than happy.

I sent it to the second beta reader as she is my biggest critic and I knew she would be intensely honest. There was no way she would hold back if there was anything about it she thought could be better. We ended up having several Skype chats while she went through her very detailed notes on the novel. I made lists, nodded and listened. The more she talked, the more I realised how right she was, and the more I felt my own subconcious misgivings becoming unearthed. Everything she said about the book was true. I had written it in both first and third person. A bit of a challenge, yes, but that was just the way the story presented itself to me in the first draft and so I went with it and ended up sticking with it. This meant that all of Elliot’s, (the 12-year-old protagonist) perspective is in the first person. We are entirely inside his head. And in my opinion, that’s a wonderful place to be. I find him interesting and funny and amusing, you see. Of course I do, I created him! But would the reader think the same? Or would they find the narrative repetitive as he talked them through his little world? Was I telling them far too much detail when a lot of it could be shown rather than told, or omitted altogether?

I sat and nodded grimly and knew that my beta was right. I had climbed inside his head and got lost there. I was way too close and way too involved. I loved him too much but I needed to get back out and get some distance. I suggested changing his view to third person and the beta had thought the same thing. The more we thrashed it out, the more I realised how many problems this would solve. I actually began to get excited. There were other issues too, aside from POV, but I won’t go into them now as they will probably pop up in another blog post.

We talked about how I’d had a similar problem with The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. (Again, this is where history, friendship and connection aid the beta/writer relationship) Originally written in the third person, from all the characters point of view, it was eventually rewritten into the first person, and from two points of view. At the time I was both terrified and excited to take this machete to my work, to slice it up and stitch it back together again, to tell the story in a totally different way. I knew I would lose tons of scenes and perspectives and dialogue and this saddened me beyond belief. But it worked.

With Elliot I have the same problem but in reverse. I need to lose the first person, get some distance from Elliot and tell the story in a different way. There is a lot of work to be done, but the groundwork is all there. The second beta also loved the actual story, the plot and the characters and found the pace just right.

I am so glad I gave it to her to dissect. But back to the original question? How do I know she is right? How do I know either of them are right? I know because as soon as they voiced their opinions, I knew I had been thinking the same thing all along. All they did was confirm what I already knew deep down inside. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself, because admitting it meant even more work, even more drafts, even more editing and proofreading, and it means the other books that are on hold waiting for this one to be done have to keep waiting and waiting and cramming my mind and driving me insane! I wanted the book to be ready so badly I had convinced myself it was.

But I can’t let a book go until I am sure it is the best it can be, and in my case, my betas are there to help me get to that point. I can’t thank them enough for the time and effort they invest in me and my books. I trust them implicitly and I know I am extremely lucky to have them.

But what about you? Do you use beta readers and if so how did you find them? What do you look for in a beta? Have they ever felt differently to you about a book being ready for release? How have they helped your books reach their full potential? Have they ever been totally wrong? Please feel free to comment and share!

 

It’s Not Done…Until It’s Done!

I often get asked how I know when the book I’m working on is finished. If you’ve been following my struggles with The Tree of Rebels, you will know that I have now lost count of the amount of drafts I’ve done of this book. It’s got to be up to ten, at least! The same applies to The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. There were so many rewrites and drafts of that book that I lost count completely, but at a guess, I would say it easily passed twenty.

This is not true of all my books however. I think there were five or six drafts of The Mess Of Me, only three of Bird People and Other Stories, and probably around five or six for both This Is The Day and This Is Nowhere. For some reasons, those books were just all kind of done by the third draft, and just needed proofreading and polishing after that.

So, how does a writer know when they are done?

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Well, I sort of have a system. If you can call it that.

I’ll explain it using my current work in progress, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. As you may already know, Elliot Pie has been written almost alongside The Tree Of Rebels, with me jumping back and forth between the two novels. If one was with beta readers, then I was working on the other one. If I needed a break from one, then it was the other one I’d stick with. Well, it now looks increasingly likely that Elliot Pie will jump past The Tree Of Rebels and become the next release. This is because I’ve decided to stick with it until it is done, and stop jumping between the two books. I also feel it is very close to being finished, much closer than The Tree Of Rebels, which requires a bigger rewrite, with added storylines.

But back to Elliot Pie. How do I know I’m nearly finished? Why is it likely to have a  lot less drafts/rewrites than other books? And how will I know for sure when it is truly ready?

It works a bit like this;

The first draft; ugly, clumsy, galloping, mad, hungry and glorious. An outpouring of ideas with a basic sequence of events, a strong theme, developed characters, all held together by an accompanying notebook of notes, dialogue, bios and so on. While writing, I constantly added items to a list in the notebook; things to add, (extra scenes or dialogue) things to question, research, embellish and so on, or things to reword or cut out. In other words, things to sort out on the second draft!

The second draft; in this case, a read through with a few minor corrections here and there with my list to help me. I was actually surprised by how happy I was with the first draft and at the time, figured I only needed to polish up spelling, grammar and maybe cut out a few bits here and there.

Beta readers; feeling exceptionally brave and over-confident, I made the unusual decision to send it out to two trusted beta readers at second draft. I wouldn’t normally do this so soon, but there were two important things I needed to get their opinions on before I proceeded. One, the tenses change. Elliot is written in first person POV and everything is in the present tense. The adults of the story are written in third person POV and past tense. Don’t ask me why. No decision was made! It just happened this way and I liked it. A lot. Luckily the readers didn’t actually noticed the tenses, but they did have feedback on other issues, such as the middle part dragging and certain bits feeling repetitive.

Third draft; scary, self-conscious, tail between legs, unsure what to do or how to do it. Slowly I came to terms with the critique offered and realised how true it was. I did a lot of cutting out, rearranging and rewriting. I also made a list as I went through, plus I was already using the list I’d made from the readers comments. Things got ticked off the list as I went, so I knew I had answered various questions, or researched particular parts in more detail. By the time I got to the end, I had a new list. I still hadn’t set up a timeline, and one was needed, due to the main character’s disappearance at the end of the novel. What day and time was he last seen and so on?

Fourth draft; list in hand, questions in mind, I tackled it again. Obviously I was correcting typos, spelling and grammar issues as I went through, as well as removing repetitive phrases or words. I had things to add and things to change, for example, I realised too many of the characters were only children, so I had to add a sibling here and there. I also added the timeline and made a list of the exact times and dates the events took place. I needed to exaggerate certain things, leading the reader a particular way, for example, making certain characters darker than they had been. I also added a new scene to the ending and rewrote the first chapter, tightening it all up and hopefully creating more impact. In fact sharpening things up and cutting things out went on a lot!

Fifth draft; (where I am now) another read through, this time on my Kindle. It’s amazing how many more things you pick up on when reading in a different format. Spelling and grammar for example are far more noticeable on an ereader! I’m making another list as I go through, advising myself to reword certain parts, cut out words here and there etc. In fact, quite a lot of my notes this time around involve just cutting words out that do not need to be there as they add nothing to the scene. There is also a separate list above my correction list, which I add to any time something springs to mind. So, for example, while out with the dogs today I realised that a certain object needed to be found and mentioned in a certain scene, as it would add impact and credibility. So far I have seven items on this list; things to add to dialogue and events, things I simply thought of while going about my daily business.

Sixth draft; I will go back to the laptop with this current list in hand, and go through the manuscript methodically correcting the issues, cutting out the words, adding the things I’ve thought of, and so on.

If by the time I get to the end of this draft, there is yet another list on the way, then I will know a seventh draft is needed. Of course there will also be an even more thorough grammar and spelling check, and a proofreading, which will involve sending it back to Kindle to pick up errors.
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So basically, I’ll know the book is as good as I can get it when there are no more things being added to the list! When the list is ticked off and stays ticked off, it will be done. But it also more than that. I have to have the right feeling about it. And as I have mentioned before in other posts, I have yet to have that feeling with The Tree Of Rebels, hence it being held back for now.

I have to feel completely happy, completely satisfied, not just about grammar and typos, but about the actual story. Are all the characters doing what I need them to do? Are they fully alive and realised? Could they walk off the page and into my house to converse with me about anything? Is the beginning interesting and powerful enough? Does it raise questions and curiosity? Is the middle doing its job; developing the story, but keeping a steady pace, keeping the reader coming back for more, making promises? And does the ending satisfy, as well as tie things up if need be? More importantly than all of this, does this book make me smile? When I read it, what is my face doing? I’m pleased to say that at this stage, it is making me smile a lot, and I simply cannot wait to share it with you. I hope all the hard work will be worth it and that you will fall in love with Elliot as much as I have!

Now, over to you! Please feel free to comment and share! Do you ever worry that your book will never get to see the light of day? How many drafts is too many? How do you know when it’s done?