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!


Final Draft? Patience is the key…

Last Friday I finally finished the final draft of my YA novel The Tree Of Rebels. Yes, yes, yes, it is done! It is finished at last! Or is it? I’ve lost count of how many drafts and rewrites it has been through now. I’ve blogged about a fair few of them! I decided to change the tense from present to past, and I also added some new scenes. Then I went through it all again, with what felt like a very gentle and enjoyable edit. Correcting typos here and there.Small corrections. Nothing major. And I finally liked it!

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this novel since I first got the idea for it. I ignored the idea for a while because it would mean writing a book way out of my comfort zone. When I finally started it, I suddenly got another really good and important idea for another book, which wanted to interrupt this one. I didn’t let it, and forced myself on, which in hindsight, was probably the wrong thing to do. I do wonder if I ought to have listened to the loudest voice, put Tree of Rebels to one side and gone with Elliot Pie when he was at his most demanding…

But anyway, I didn’t. I wrote this book, and then started a second draft, sent to beta-readers, drafted again, hated it, drafted again, loved it, left it for ages while I wrote Elliot Pie…drafted it again, hated it even more and so on, and so on. It was like having a constant argument with myself. This book is brilliant! No, it’s not, it’s a total waste of time!

I’m pleased to report that during this last, final, never to be messed with again, draft, I really and truly fell in love with this book. I got the feeling I had been waiting for. Everything clicked. I knew what it was and I was proud of it. Changing the tense worked wonders, and the extra scenes I added seem to work really well too. I was so into this book by the time I finished it, I even carried on and drafted the synopsis of the sequel, and wrote the first two chapters of this!

So when will I be releasing it then?

Hmm, not yet. Because I still don’t think it is finished! I decided that after so much doubt, it would be worth sending it back to my top beta reader/editor for a final read through. I know she will be honest and scathing if she needs to be. I am curious to see what she thinks of the change in tense and the extra scenes. Waiting for her to read it will give me some head space from it, and a chance for the book to breathe. I thought this was a sensible idea. If there are any lingering typos or things that don’t make sense, they will be picked up and sorted and being patient will help me decide if it really is finished.

The problem is, I am already getting more ideas. Just little bits here and there. Just bits of dialogue, and brief scenes or moments that have suddenly popped into my head. I really didn’t think this would happen! I really did think I was done…

But I’m glad that it has, even if this does mean once it comes back, it will be getting another going over by me. You see, it’s all too easy these days to write something, do a few more drafts and then self-publish it and move onto the next one. Believe me, it is very, very tempting to do this. I have so many other books to write, but I have to resist the temptation to rush things. Patience is the key. A book is done when it is done, and not a moment before. I could release this book now and see if you like it, or I could wait to see what my favourite critic says first. I could release it after that, after any last lingering mistakes have been mopped up, or I could wait a bit longer, see if it can be any better. It’s surprising how you feel about a piece of writing if you leave it alone for a while. You might think its the best it can be, but give it a few months, during which hopefully your writing skills would have improved even more, and quite often you can already see that it can be made better. And if it can, then it should.

So, apologies folks. The Tree Of Rebels is done…but not done.

The really good news is that I have finally fallen in love with it, which is how it should be in my opinion. I’ve had a strange relationship with this book, and I’ve nearly given up on it several times. It never felt quite the same as my other books, like the connection was not quite right. But this feeling has well and truly gone now. I’m even writing some more of the sequel tonight!



Final Draft Struggles

Last week I blogged about the difficulties I had experienced writing my YA novel The Tree Of Rebels. I was just about to dive into what I hoped would be the final edit of the book, and I was looking back on the struggles I’d had so far. There was more than one issue, but in last week’s post I was examining the difficulties of getting to know your characters. I was trying to figure out what had been bothering me about this particular novel, which had not bothered me so much in my others. At least I now felt like I knew my main character Lissie Turner better, properly, finally. So I could begin…

I’m a few days in now, and I have to report that the struggles remain. Not necessarily with the character, but with something just not being right. I have tried to think back to the final drafts of my other books. Did I feel the same about them? Is this all completely normal? It begs the question, how do you even know if it is the final draft? I guess I feel I have already done so many drafts and sent the book out to beta readers, amended it, let it sit and stew, and now know, or at least think I know, how to finally make it work. So it feels like the final draft…or is it more like the last chance?

Because over the last few days I have been plagued by the feeling that something is just not right. I thought it was the characters, and not knowing them as well as I wanted to, but now I think it is more than that. The most frustrating thing is not being able to quite put my finger on whatever it is! And how do I know if this is the book telling me something is wrong, something does not work here, or if it is simply, normal writers self doubt? Because lets face it, writers are swimming in self doubt the majority of the time! You kind of get used to it. You learn to shut it up, push it aside and keep going.

My question is; how do you know whether you are meant to keep going? How do you know whether the doubts you are feeling are justified? I mean, that it really is a massive turd of a book that no one in the world will ever want to read?

I think my issue with this book is how different it has always felt to the other books, and there are several reasons for this. So it might do me some good to clarify them right here.

1) Firstly it’s set in a dystopian future, and I have never set a book in the future before. I have used the past and the present, but never a future made up by yours truly. I guess this means I am winging it a lot more than I would be ordinarily. I have had to make up an entire world, a civilisation, a back story as to what has led to this, and so on. In theory, this was not a problem, because for the first time ever, I got the idea for the plot before I heard the characters talk to me. Which leads me neatly to my second issue.

2) I got the idea for the plot first. And that never happens to me. Ever. Like I have said before, it’s the people that fill my head. They come with stories, so it is easy for me. I just do what they say. I just offload for them. But this time, I got an idea. What if in the future Nature is banned? What if everything you need to survive is kept under massive domes and delivered to you when you need it? What if, after endless wars, a tiny amount of humans inhabit the earth, and because there is no more war, and no more fear, they are very, very grateful for the lives they have…What if a young girl who was born into this world one day finds an apple tree outside of the domes? Anyway, without giving too much away, the idea stuck and grew and grew and eventually I had to start writing it. But I didn’t really want to. I will explain why in point 3.

3)I wanted to write a book that would impress my daughters. This has never happened to me before either, because I have always written for me, myself and I. That was how it all began. I wrote the stories I wanted to read. I created the characters I wished were real. This was different, and very new, and scary. I have two daughters. One is an avid reader, who devours YA and dystopia at an impossible rate. The other is a reluctant reader unless it is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I wanted to lure them in, force them to turn the pages and show them what I could do. I now think this was a big, big mistake! They like the book, what they have read of it anyway, but I don’t think they love it. And I think knowing I was writing for an audience has haunted me all the way through. I’ve felt like someone has been watching over my shoulder. This is the first time I have decided upon the audience before writing the book…and I am not sure it works for me.

4) There was another reason I didn’t want to write the book. Well, a few. It was outside of my comfort zone, I knew I would have to research a lot of stuff, which I am happy to admit is not my strong point or my favourite part of writing, and I already had another book chomping at the bit, wanting to jump the queue. That book was Elliot Pie, which, if you follow this blog, you will know I finished the first draft of just a few weeks ago. I had only just started The Tree Of Rebels when Elliot tried to jump the queue. Now, as tempting as it is, I don’t let them do this. They all have to wait their turn, although they do get note books and they do get little bits written down and they do get thought about constantly! So, Elliot. Once I had him, I wanted to write his story. And I think that made things harder with this book.

5)Well, point 5 kind of sums up all the above. This book was a challenge. This book happened in a very different way to all of my others. This book scared me. This book confused me. I felt impatient with it, reluctant to do it, and constantly had this niggling little voice telling me that it was not right. It’s a fantasy, right? Almost a sci-fi, and that’s not my genre, that’s not my niche. My thing is realism, down to earth, gritty, edgy, a bit dark, that kind of thing.

Now that I know all of this and can admit it here to you, the question remains, what do I do about it? Keep going with the final draft and see what happens? Hope the self-doubts will pass, and some genuine love and appreciation will return for this novel? It has happened before. As with all my books, when I am writing them I tend to think they are rubbish, and it is only when I am re-reading bits that I smile and think hey, this isn’t too bad! This is better than I thought it was! And that has definitely happened enough with this book…even in the last few days!

Luckily for me I was talking to my 13 year old avid reader about it this morning and she made several wonderful points. She reminded me that the beginning of the book cannot be as dark and edgy as I intend to make it this time around, as in the beginning Lissie does not know anything is wrong with her world. Sure, things are suggested to the reader, but on the surface, for the reader and for Lissie, this really is a perfect, easy to live in society. Things do start to get darker very quickly, as things start to unravel and there is a fast pace, as this is by far my shortest book. I had forgotten this, and she was right. She also reminded me that my other books are concerned with ‘real-life’ problems ie eating disorders, bullies, evil step-fathers and missing mothers. The Tree Of Rebels does have some family drama, of course it does. In fact you could also describe it as coming of age as Lissie makes her journey, but it does not contain the same gritty subjects I usually handle. Again, she was right. It’s just different.

I’ve made a few decisions and I will blog again when I have them clearer in my head. Hopefully by the time I post again I will be feeling better about this book. I will have listened to the doubts, dealt with them and recognised that there is nothing wrong with The Tree Of rebels…it’s just different. At least for me!