Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Betabaloo


What do you do when all of your beta readers have totally different advice?

I've traded beta reads on the first section (approx. 50 pages) of my manuscript with four other writers. I was expecting the beta read to unearth any overarching issues, but instead the feedback barely overlaps. A scene one person loved another hated. A line that gave someone an ah-ha moment is tagged by another person as unnecessary. There are a couple small overlapping points, but for the most part I'm having trouble finding patterns.

Obviously, to some degree this is how books are. A book I love might not be someone else's cup of tea. A scene that speaks to me might not speak to others.

But in the context of polishing a manuscript till it shines, how should I interpret this?If there's no consistency in feedback, how do I proceed with editing?

Do I just go with my gut, taking each piece of feedback individually?

Do I go solicit a few more betas to see if they add any consistency to the mix (or just continue to complicate it)?

Do I focus on the one or two consistent things (two of three people wanted to see more of one of the scenes - an easy fix) and assume a lack of overlap means there aren't any glaring red flags in those first 50 pages and it's time to get some full manuscript reads?

Or something else entirely?


This reminds me of a very old, but always painful comedy sketch in which a lady trying on her new hat says to her husband "I'm going to wear this to the Ladies auxiliary meeting today; what do you think?" and he replies "Shouldn't you put on a dress?"

Because of course, she was asking about the hat whilst wearing her only her slip.

Her failure to ask a specific question led to the very unsatisfactory answer.

So first: what are you asking your beta readers to do?

"Do you like this?"
"Do you think this works?" might be too general.

"Where did you stop reading?" or "where did you get confused?" are often what I ask my interns to tell me when they're reading something for me.

As to your question: beta readers are useful for pointing out problems, but not fixes. If there's no consistency in what they say, you've probably got a book that doesn't have big problems. Not every reader likes every book.

But only probably.
In  reading only a chunk, rather than the whole, you might not have all the info you need.  A lot of structural problems show up after page 50 and I've got the editorial notes to verify that on a lot of novels.

Time for some whole-novel reads.


I'm sure our coterie of enlightened commenters will also have contributions on this topic.







59 comments:

Kitty said...

Since we're on the subject, where do you find beta readers in the first place? When I reach that point (not if), I don't want my friends or family critiquing my ms.

french sojourn said...


"That's no lady...that's my wife."

I know within 50 pages if I'm going to finish a book, but that's probably not a beta's job. I would imagine after the second round one could narrow down the questions. But the first round isn't about the kind of books you like but more subjectively, where does the beta trip over story bumps. (Which is all inclusive, plot, character development, pacing, and tangential tips. )

Great question, good luck.

DLM said...

Janet: "With THAT slip? Are you sure?"

Kitty, my two BEST betas are women I met through James River Writers. They are indeed very good friends of mine, but the context in which we met and the sensitivities we know how to work with with one another were front-loaded, so they're not "my friends" when they read, and know how to give good advice. I've had others who were good, but the people I met through the writing community are the ones who have stuck with me the longest and who provide the most useful critique.

Of course, take that for what it's worth; I was fortunate to find wonderful people I trust, who understand both my work and publishing too. And I'm not wearing a slip.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I've only had one beta and she read my whole story. I'd given her a small list of questions in general about plot and character. Janet's two questions were included. And because I'd had critique partners, chapter-by-chapter, I was aware of potential issues and asked questions specific to my MS.

Kitty: I found critique partners via Janice Hardy's Fiction University website. She hosts twice a year. My first beta is a long-term best friend who's analytical about novels. My next beta will be from an online writer's support group.

Theresa said...

Yes, this sounds like a full manuscript that's ready to go out to betas. And this time, as Janet said, ask specific questions about it. It's an exciting stage to be at--and a critical one.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Kitty, I get your point. Problem is when friends and family read your stuff two things happen. Emotional ties sway opinion, (depending on whether they want you to still like them) or the in-laws finally get to say what they really think.

Regarding what you need to hear - it doesn't work out well.

Problem for me, the last time I wore a slip it was at my daughter's wedding six years ago. The image of me, in a hat, my compression knee-highs and 18hr Playtex, is a chapter all to its own.

Colin Smith said...

Hank: Actually, that's a really good page 50 question: "Do you want to read more?" If the answer is no (and a good beta reader will tell you honestly), then you've got problems.

I don't look to beta readers to fix issues with my stories. If they want to offer suggestions, that's okay, but as the writer I believe the burden is on me to fix the problems, not the reader. I want my betas to tell me things like "I love this line," "I fell asleep here," "This made me cry," "I laughed," etc. And then I like to have some overall observations to do with pace, the characters (too flat, likable, relatable, don't care...), and the plot (predictable, interesting twists, hard to follow...). As Janet says, a simple "like" or "hate" is too vague to be useful.

Kitty: Where to find beta readers? Wherever readers and writers hang out. I'm sure there are plenty of such places. I hear a bunch of them enjoy shark-infested waters... ;)

Robert Ceres said...

OP, having your beta readers all over the place is not a good sign. Do you know what kind of beta readers you have? A romance reader is practically useless if you are comp-ing your book to Jason Bourne. Regardless of what kind of beta reader you have, you should get strong reactions.
Ten beta readers that all say meh, even if for very different reasons, is really, really bad. It’s impossible to have a great book that all readers love. (Some people don’t like Pride and Prejudice, I’m not even joking.) Out of ten beta readers it would be far better to have two that love, love, love it (because of a specific reason or two), six that say meh because it’s not their tea, and two that hate it (because of the same specific reason or two as the readers who love it).
Janet’s question of where did they stop is the best one. Second best is the simple reason why. At this point maybe focus your betas on these two basic questions.

Joyce Tremel said...

In addition to the previous comments, it's also helpful to have at least one or two beta readers who are NOT writers. Strictly readers who love the genre you're writing in.

Lennon Faris said...

I think Robert brings up a good point -

I have one beta who is easily distracted and won't catch 'clues' if I make them too subtle. But she can tell me if I nailed a romantic scene (or not).

Then another beta who has the focus of an Australian Shepherd and will analyze and guess what he thinks will happen, and often gets it right. BUT he has no clue on romantic tension.

So take the individuals into account!

Susan said...

Lennon: As someone who appreciates subtlety in writing, that would drive me crazy. I had an author friend who was like that. She was constantly wanting me to be more--whatever the opposite of subtle is, sorry, my brain is fried--and explain away everything. I actually almost considered listening to her before realizing that was her style, not mine. We shouldn't be so subtle that we lose our readers, yes. But subtlety brings its own nuances to the work. And readers are smarter than we give them credit for.

When I beta-read a friend's fantasy manuscript, I live-texted him as I read it. That was fun. "Wait, did you just kill off the brother? You just killed off the brother!" And "seriously, if you kill off the dog, too, I'm gonna be pissed." I had fun pointing out things I liked (and didn't) and then going over the manuscript as a whole after, and he had fun seeing it from a reader's perspective. I try to do something similar with all my beta-reads and clients now--I read it first and make comments about the phrases that catch my eye, the characters who surprise me, the parts of the story that move me. Then I move on to any problem areas.

For writers, having a list of questions for readers is invaluable. For me, it's always "how is the pacing" and "what scenes do I need to flush out." This gives the readers something to keep an eye on, and I know my concerns will be either validated or--whatever the opposite of that is.

OK. I'm stopping now because my brain is clearly a mess today. Sorry. If you can make sense of any of my comment, you win a prize.*



*There is no prize.





Donnaeve said...

Spent some catch up time on previous posts. I'm glad I'm not the only one who was stumped by Yog's Law.

OT: There's the need for the Hello Kitty spam flame thrower at 5:37 a.m. (today's date) on yesterday's post btw.

For OP's question today, QOTKU said what I thought. What do you do with inconsistent feedback? Time to give them the whole shebang and get specific about what you want to know.


C M said...

I miss the old Orange color scheme on the blog. Easier on my aging eyes....

Julie Weathers said...


Well, thankfully my main two beta readers understand me and my writing and they are also brutally honest. I've had a third person offer to read and will taker her up on it as our third partner got swallowed whole by life.

Before it goes to the beta readers, though, I run it through the B&W workshop where the comments might vary radically.

"I loved the war of the roses scene! It popped off the page and had me laughing so loud my dog woke up."

"The war of the roses scene was great, but I don't think it serves a purpose. You should cut it."

That's when I have to decide do I need it? Yes, because it lays the foundation for xyz.

So it goes. When you get conflicting advice, you have to dig a little deeper to find the truth in it and make a decision or compromise.

I like the variety of comments in the workshop because they focus on different things, dialogue, grammar, flow, overall reading experience unless I ask for specific things. For beta readers, unless you're worried about a particular problem it may take a bit of sifting to find the ones who are really soul mates. Someone who's used to reading fast-paced thrillers is going to get irked at the pace of some historicals and fantasies.

Sorry for the long comment.

Too long didn't read version, take what you can from the comments, but you may need to keep looking for more beta readers.

Peggy Larkin said...

Kitty, I think you're 100% right that you don't want friends and family beta-reading! I have very smart family members including several English majors, one of whom is also a lawyer, and I would definitely NOT ask them to beta! (Lawyer is Mom, who helped me with an essay ONCE in school--it bled red ink and I never asked again! Turns out we have very different styles.) The thing is, beta-ing and reading and writing are all very different skillsets, and people have them in various amounts.

I have two groups of betas--one is two ladies I've been in a beta-friendship (our friendship grew out of beta-ing) since my fanfic days (like, late 90s/early 2000s), and 2 of the three of us now write original fic. Like Robert Ceres and Lennon Faris said, I have to listen to one of them for tips about setting/description (I am not great at including details on the first pass) and the other one about plot (but never about grammar, as she often "corrects" it incorrectly). I ignore them both on dialog. They're both great a looking for their strengths but weak at spotting problems in the areas where they're weak.

My other group is a writing group that one of the PTA moms from the school where I teach brought me into after her kids graduated. There, too, I know from practice (and from looking at their writing, too) whose feedback is worth more--and they're all over the map. So if they ever agree on anything, then BOY is that serious!

From time to time friends have asked to read what I'm writing, out of curiosity, but they basically never give useful feedback--or any feedback at all. I find it best to keep 'em separated.

So my advice is to seek people to exchange work with: that way you're both invested in the process and you can get a sense of what their strengths are to help you weigh the feedback they give. Other people have already mentioned some good online places to find them; I've only ever found mine through sheer luck. But Colin's right, it's wherever writers hang out! Maybe a local NaNo meetup group would work?

To Susan: I adore getting those reader reacitons, usually as margin comments (although live-texting would also be fun!). They help me figure out if it's doing what it's supposed to. Figuring out why it ISN'T is my job and I usually can't trust betas to fix the problem, just to find it (like Her Majesty the QOTKU pointed out).

Verna Austen said...

Kitty, here is the link to Maggie Stiefvater's famous google doc for CP's. I found my awesome CP here:

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup

Colin Smith said...

Verna's link: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup

Julie Weathers said...

Colin

My beta readers actually do suggest solutions, but we've been together so long we're on a different level of teamwork. Sort of like this.

"If you shuffle this scene closer to this one, I think you can up the tension and bring in this character sooner, which will solve that problem over there."

"Ah, yes, that's perfect."

Lennon

Then another beta who has the focus of an Australian Shepherd and will analyze and guess what he thinks will happen, and often gets it right--

We used to have to put Vicks on the nose of one of our Aussies when we showed him because he would lose focus and decide to go visiting in the middle of a working trial, but he was getting old. And he was a guy.

"If you have a picture fall off the wall and break and break when she slams the door, then she'll actually have a reason to go in that shop instead of just meandering around."

Mark Thurber said...

I've found both agreement and disagreement among beta readers to be very useful. Agreement shows in a clear way what is and is not working. Disagreement has helped open me up to entirely new possibilities for the story. (That makes the process sound far less painful than it is, of course!) After all, the important thing isn't to figure out which beta reader is "right," it's to figure out where to go in the next revision. Ultimately, no one else can make that choice for you.

Beta readers are the best. (And both of my brothers have been excellent ones, so I wouldn't entirely discount family!)


Julie Weathers said...

Robert

"I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Mark Twain

You're correct. Some people hate Pride and Prejudice.

Now, I've gone over word limits as well as hit my 3 comments. I should get to work on my own masterpiece.

Claire Bobrow said...

I think exchanging manuscripts with others who write in your genre/category is pretty key. The best critique group I've been in was run like a class, with detailed forms we had to fill out based on the pages we read. The questions were designed to make you think hard about what was working or not, and offer suggestions for moving forward. I'd like to come up with something similar for my own critique group. One caveat is that it's very time-consuming if you do it properly, but that pretty much sums up life.

To me, 50 pages is the bare minimum "acid test" for a novel. Two of the best things I've ever read did not click until page 100. One of those was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Good luck OP! And thank you Verna Austen for that very cool link!

John Davis Frain said...

Janet said it here, and Neil Gaiman said it also:

When people tell you something is wrong or doesn't work for them, they're almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong.

Set their comments aside for a day or two. Then go back to your manuscript. It takes time.

Robert Ceres said...

Julie, I’m rereading P&P now, as I do every few years. It should be the first book in the canon for every writer writing in English. My favorite scene, well one of them, is near the very end. Because everyone thinks Elizabeth and Darcy hate each other, they send them off together to chaperone Jane and Bingley, allowing both couples some amazing (and highly illicit) time alone. These scenes, though lightly described, are like the Regency/Victorian era version of 50-Shades.
And even though I tell my mother-in-law that it is the first real feminist novel, she absolutely refuses to read it. I just can’t understand (unless its because those last few scenes are too racy!).
But anyway, sorry for the diversion. This comment is actually related to todays blog. A good questions for beta readers (before they start reading your book) is what’s your favorite book, and why? Alternatively, what do you think about my favorite book (P&P, obviously) and why?

Beth Carpenter said...

When I first started writing, I had my husband beta-read. His advice was basically to turn it into a Michael Crichton novel. Not that I don't love Crichton, but this was a middle-grade cozy mystery. So choose betas carefully.

I've found better betas since. One thing I've learned is when they say "He's a pilot? You never told us that," and you did, on page two, don't argue. What you're learning is that the information didn't stick, so maybe you need to amplify the paragraph or repeat the information later. Unless, of course, slipping it in unnoticed is what you're trying to do.

Good luck.

Peggy Larkin said...

Claire Bobrow, I'm very interested in knowing more about this form... Would you be willing to share it?

The Sleepy One said...

Are your beta readers the right readers for your manuscript? If you write in a specific genre, and your beta readers aren't familiar with it, then their feedback will be less helpful. Plus not every beta reader for every author.

Finding critique partners is like dating and for the OP, these might be a bunch of frogs that never turned into princes (or princesses).

Kitty said...

Thanks to everyone who addressed my question!

Sherry Howard said...

Beta readers are golden! Wherever readers and writers swarm, so shall the betas swim. I've found that a combination of critique partners and mixed beta readers works well. I had my beta reading done in rounds. After the first round, I fixed things and sent to the next round. Rinse and repeat until the final edit.

I think the 50 page read is a great start early in a manuscript's birth. If you pay a professional especially, because you can apply what you learn throughout your ms. But I agree, 50 pages can't really be considered a beta read.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

CM
I'm with you on the color change.

Claire Bobrow said...

Peggy: unfortunately I can't share the critique form because it was developed by the group leader and she asked us not to share it. I'm sorry! However, in very general terms the form had us answer questions about our favorite/least favorite elements of the submitted portion of the ms; tone; theme; plot; character(s); language; POV; and how we thought the author could improve the ms (although I think John Frain/Neil Gaiman/Janet have a point about that).

Hope that helps!

Barbara Etlin said...

My critique group is unusual in that we will critique the whole manuscript. (We also look at queries and partials and synopses, but we feel the best way to get a grasp of a novel is in its entirety.)

I've found, with other beta readers, that the best comments come from people who read or write in that genre.

About subtle hints:

In my animal fantasy, I wanted to foreshadow a character trait that my hero would use during the climax to defeat the enemy. But I didn't want to be so obvious that the reader would say, "Of course! He'll just do such-and-such." I was so subtle that two of my three critique group partners said, "Huh???" at the climax, because they weren't prepared for that plot twist. I still didn't change it...until my eventual agent said the same thing. I added another early scene using this character trait, and that was better.

Jessica said...

I'm in the same boat OP!! It may be the science side of me, but I doggedly seek betas for data's sake. The more data you have, the more you can separate the opinion from the true problems. I've had close to thirty people read my book. Also, in my opinion, you should always recruit other writers to read, and swap with said writers. It provides accountability (they're getting something out of the exchange so they won't ghost you) and editing other manuscripts will help you see your own mistakes. It can also help you see what kind of writer they are. If they tell you "this has too much description!!" but they write bare bones stuff, now you know why they gave you that advice. It's a long process, but worth it :) Good luck OP!!

OT: Sorry I haven't been talking in the comments much! I've been faithfully reading the blog every day, but I've been too busy to comment...because I just graduated college!! I'm sorry if it's bragging haha, but I'm so proud of myself. I have two degrees, one in English Literature and one in Animal Science. I never thought this day would come :')

Claire Bobrow said...

Congratulations Jessica!!! I'm proud of you, too. That is wonderful news!

Casey Karp said...

One vote here for, yes, using family members as beta readers. If and only if they also write and thus understand the benefit and purpose of a beta.

Specific questions, yes. I always ask whether the characters are distinctive and if there are places where it's hard to tell who's talking. Where did a plot point come out of nowhere? And the opposite: Where did you think I was setting up a twist that never came? What scenes drag on and on, and which ones whizzed by too quickly?

And then I wind up with a bunch of contradictory feedback and comments that trigger a "Thanks for pointing that out, what the heck are you smoking?" reaction. As others have said, use what makes sense to you.

And yeah, take anything that's only based on the first 50 pages with a big block o' salt. Things that don't make sense or that seem pointless will (if you've done your job properly) click later on in the book.

french sojourn said...


Julie, I also had an Aussie, great design, herding mentality, but such a wonderful soul. You cracked me up with the Vicks comment, plus he was older. And a guy. Epic.

Colin, I agree with " if they're honest, they'll tell you." I plead for the most constructive criticism, but it's sometimes just compliments. and no my writing is not that polished as yet.

Great post, and comments today, par for the course.

Scarlet Billows, good luck with the fabric hunting, I liked the Jackson Pollacky blood "splatter and drip", but I would recommend more of a red and black Rorschach pattern....what do you see?

Cheers Hank

The Sleepy One said...

Barbara Etlin, I also have a full manuscript critique group. We only meet when we have a full manuscript to discuss, so we'll go months without a meeting. It's really valuable to get feedback on the project as a whole. A 5-pages-every two weeks group *really* didn't work for me unless I just wanted a grammar polish.

Jessica said...

Thank you Claire!! Now to find a job haha!

I thought of another useful thing! Specific questions are a must, because some readers won't have anything to say until you prompt them. Pages and pages of silence, but when you ask "hey, what did you think about Mrs. Peterson?" they have paragraphs to say! Also, I get all my readers from the goodreads beta reading forum. It's the most active and most reliable website I've seen so far. The Nanowrimo site is also active right after November ends, but I've had mixed results there.

Beth Carpenter said...

Congratulations, Jessica! Books and animals - a girl after my own heart. Best of luck on the job search.

Ashes said...

I'm going to hit a note here that's already been hit but can always stand repeating:

Make sure your beta readers read the genre you are writing.

People who don't read in the genre you write often give feedback that feels inconsistent with the people who do.


I tackled my beta reader feedback very systematically. It arrived in all forms, some betas did editorial letter style feedback, some commented on chapters or chunks, some made inline comments. It was overwhelming.

The first thing I did was break down all the feedback into bulleted lists. Then I combined the lists, highlighted ideas that were reoccurring and deleted suggestions I had chewed over and decided not to act on.

Next I turned each bullet point into an actionable item. I divided my actionable items into what Veronica Roth describes as "local" and "global" issues: things that could be fixed in a scene or chapter (fight is confusing) and things that stretched out large sections (sidekick is unlikable). I ordered the local list chronologically as it appeared in the story. And then, I rolled up my sleeves.

BJ Muntain said...

When it comes to critiques (or beta reads), not everyone will agree. And that's okay.

It sounds like your first 50 pages are pretty clean. Time to get the whole thing read. Personally, while I might give a critique group only a chapter or two at a time, I wouldn't bother with beta readers unless I were giving them the whole manuscript. In my opinion, a beta reader is just that - a reader. You want a reader's point of view as to how your book is doing, and readers read full books, not partials.

Remember that if only one person mentions something, it's probably opinion. If two or more mention it, then you need to look at it.

And you say you've tried looking for patterns, but they don't seem to be there. How deep are you going for the patterns? Why does one reader hate that scene while another likes it? Could it be that the second person likes the characterization happening there, while the first person doesn't think a plot point works? Does this plot point affect any of the other criticisms here or later in the novel?

But really, 50 pages isn't a beta read. It's a critique. And if your beta readers aren't writers, then they don't know how to properly critique. Which is why you give them specific questions, like Janet says. Especially if you're only giving them 50 pages.

Jessica: Congrats!

Julie Weathers said...

I'm poking my nose in again, but celebrating finishing a chapter.

My critique partners and I exchange chapters along the way so we can make adjustments as we're going. The same with the workshop. You can't tell everything about a story in 50 pages, but you can give some valuable feedback. Plus, it's not so daunting to critique it in smaller chunks and giving some in depth comments as opposed to receiving a 700,000-word manuscript all at one time or even a 120,000-word one.

After the puppy is done, edited, revised, polished and slept on, we do the final "Here's the whole thing. What do you think?"

The Rain Crow has a completely different opening due to some early comments and it's a lot stronger. This works for us. It may not work for everyone.

roadkills-r-us said...

I've never considered the 50 pages thing. My wife reads each chapter (or however many I write at a whack) as I print them. I get instant feedback this way, she gets instant gratification (to an extent), and her frustration ("Where is the next chapter?!?" 8^) helps keep me motivated.
When I am ready for other eyeballs, I send out fulls. I am going to start encouraging feedback along the way, though. Two readers beside my wife tend to do this; it's both instructive and entertaining.
I tell them what I am looking for at that stage.
One hundred words!

roadkills-r-us said...

Kitty,
Where do I find beta readers?

- Some people ask if they can do this. This implies you are deiscussing your WIP with friends who like to read.
- I ask readers whose mind, reading habits, etc. I like and think will be helpful in some way.
- I ask on social media. (I make it as clear as I can what I'm looking for.)
- I asked work colleagues in Scotland (because my series is mainly set there) and friends in Albania (because the third novel spends time there).

Peggy Larkin said...

Jessica, congratulations!!!

Claire, I totally understand, and thank you for what you did share--very helpful! I'm working with my creative writing students on fiction and am always looking for ways to improve our Peer Editing worksheets.

Ashes, I am in awe of such an organized revision process... as a dedicated pantser, I am taking notes for the someday day when I finally have a whole MS to polish, lol.

Julie Weathers said...

"Make sure your beta readers read the genre you are writing."

This keeps coming up and I think to an extent this is true. BUT, someone who has a good eye can catch things in a work whether they read your genre or not.

At B&W, one person who is a lovely epic fantasy writer has been posting chapters of her novel and she's been getting feedback from a variety of people, many of whom don't read fantasy. Some of the advice she discounts simply to people not being familiar with the genre, but some comments have had some interesting insight. Fantasy readers or not, these are people who read a lot and recognize things.

One man posted a short piece that is absolutely not something I would normally read, but it was so beautifully written it was like reading poetry. I couldn't get it out of my mind afterwards even though it was quite off balanced and the MC was a killer.

I think I was able to give some valuable comments. I hope so.

I may not ever ride a dressage horse, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what they are and recognize a great one.

lamandarin said...

This may or may not be useful, but when I beta for someone for the first time I tell them a little about me in terms of what I like to read, how I read, and things that may help them categorize my comments (e.g. I have a short attention span. I tend to skim/skip long passages of narration but I have a very good memory and tend to pick up on very subtle details so if I miss something it's likely many others will as well. Asking / offering this type of info may help you wade through the interpretation waters.

The Sleepy One said...

"Make sure your beta readers read the genre you are writing."

This keeps coming up and I think to an extent this is true. BUT, someone who has a good eye can catch things in a work whether they read your genre or not.


Someone who doesn't read in your genre can absolutely help with issues like pacing, characterization, etc, and can be an extremely valuable beta reader.

Where they're less helpful is on tropes and genre norms. In an extreme example from my life, at a revision retreat, I read the fantasy ms of a member of my group and she hit virtually every single fantasy trope in use. She didn't read fantasy--which is crazy she was trying to write it--and neither did anyone in the group except me. She did receive good advice on how to shore up characterization, for example, but as a fantasy reader. I saw so much more to talk about, even though it put me in a hard critique situation. I recommended she read Rae Carson's GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy since it twisted the 'chosen one' trope beautifully. I've been on the opposite side of this, too, when my children's lit critique group read my mystery for the adult market.

Kate Larkindale said...

While it is definitely useful to have readers who read your genre, it's also sometimes helpful to have someone who doesn't generally read the genre go through it. My best, most reliable and longest-term CP is a horror writer and I doubt she's ever read a contemporary YA book apart from mine. Yet her critiques and suggestions are always spot on. Especially when relating to pace or plot points.

Craig F said...

I know that there a lot of books that I haven't gotten past fifty pages on. I can't say it is a break point for me because there are so many ways to get to fifty pages.

As a beta reader, I like to read stuff outside of my genres. No matter the genre a story is about the interactions of the characters. That should shine above the genre. A different perspective can help point a different direction if that doesn't quite get there.

Speaking of betas, I can always use an upgrade. I would be proud to let any of you read my stuff. I have a couple of thrillers waiting for a different phase of the moon and I am eighty nine thousand words into a sci-fi thing about the first people to leave Earth. They had to leave because they tried to hide tech that could change the face of war. When ITER failed and threatened to create a star in Provence, the world found out about that tech and governments got paranoid.

If you wish to read something, contact me at cfenner13@the gmail thing.

Claire AB. said...

I'm with BJ on this -- and Janet alluded to it in her answer if I'm reading it correctly -- 50 pages isn't really a beta read, it's a critique. I think if you're looking for an overview, you want someone to read the whole novel. Ultimately, it's hard for a reader to know if the beginning works unless s/he reads the whole thing. Also, since beginnings are notoriously hard to nail (at least in my experience), I think that's a great question for any beta reader -- does the beginning work?

And many congrats, Jessica!

Steve Stubbs said...

Your MS is probably OK. If you had any hinkies that two people would agree are problems, you would be getting the same feedback from two or more readers. Since this is not happening, odds are your stuff works as is.

It may be a bit much to expect a beta reader to pore over an entire MS, but Ms. Reid has a valid point. It is a bit much to expect readers to get an accurate read from a 50 page read. There are lots of things that could go wrong starting with p. 51.

Megan V said...

I'm afraid I didn't have the mental faculties do get through all of today's comments.

I just want to say to OP that I've been down the route of adding beta readers. It's not always helpful. It's important to know exactly what you want from betas before you utilize them, just as it's vital for writers to know the difference between beta readers and critique partners.

Lennon Faris said...

Susan - yes sometimes it drives me nuts too :)

Julie - I worked with wild bears in undergrad and when we had to handle their cubs, we smeared Vicks all over the babies afterward so the mamas wouldn't reject them. (It's a long story but the interaction was beneficial to the bears as well as the human scientists). The point is, who knew Vicks had so many uses.

kdjames.com said...

I'll second what everyone else has said about 50 pages not being enough. Also, you'll get different feedback from writers than you will from non-writers. Sounds like you're at the stage of needing non-writer feedback. Yes, be specific about what you want from them.

One additional thing: give your beta reader a description right up front of what kind of story it is. A query would be excellent, or something similar to cover copy. If someone thinks they're about to dig in to a cozy mystery when you've actually written a gothic horror story, you're going to get some really discordant feedback, even after they realize what the story is.

Beta readers who are a good fit are hard to find, and worth their weight in gold once you do. Treat them well. Only send your best work. Don't argue with their opinions. Thank them profusely for their time and effort. Good luck to you.

Jessica, that is great news! Congratulations and well done!!


OT: In case anyone might miss me [cue laughter], I'm going to be absent from most online places until after the weekend. Hope you all have a good one!


Ellen said...

My advice is to do nothing for now--don't even look at the pages. But in a month or two, start your revision without rereading your beta readers' comments. The ones that resonate with you will bubble to the surface. You can ignore the rest. Good luck!

Peter Taylor said...

Is there anything they agree on?
I only let three or four read the work at a time – if they say:
‘…The start is too slow; the plot is unrealistic; I don’t relate to the main character; you didn’t explain xxxx well enough; it’s too long; the ending is a cop-out.’
You work on it and give it to three other crit partners. They say:
‘…The start is too slow; you didn’t explain xxx and it’s too long.’
You’ve fixed the plot, main character and ending.
You work on the problems that remain and test it on other beta readers.
When there are no major problems, it’s ready to send or pitch.

There are lots of things I don't trust non-professionals to advise on, but if a close friend or relative or anyone doesn't relate to the main character or doesn't understand at some point, then I believe it needs fixing because there will be plenty more readers like them.

Brittany Constable said...

(I tried to comment on this post when it first showed up in my Feedly but then it wasn't on the site? Weird.)

I don't think your betas necessarily have to read your genre, but you should understand their taste/experience going in and parse their feedback accordingly. Like, one of my early betas offered incredibly useful feedback on weapons and the thought processes of a scientist--but some of his comments made it very clear that he didn't read much YA fantasy. It didn't invalidate his feedback in other areas, it just led me to look at those particular comments and say, "Yeah no, it's fine as is."

It can also help parse conflicts if you have a solid understanding of what you're trying to accomplish, because then you can weigh each comment against the metric of "Does this help me accomplish my goal or not?" So if you can't decide who's right, perhaps you need to do some soul-searching on what your ideal version of this book, this scene, this sentence would look like so you can place feedback in context.

And some betas (or editors or crit partners) just suck. Their styles aren't at all compatible with yours, they don't have enough understanding of the craft to explain their reactions in a way that's useful, they try to rework everything in their own image, etc. If you've got one of those on your hands, the only productive thing to do is to dump them.

Gigi said...


@Kitty - My betas were: 1) a former colleague who also writes novels and is currently querying one (we did a beta read trade), 2) Another writer about to query but who I don't really know (she belongs to an online writers networking group I'm part of and posted in the group looking to trade beta reads, so another trade), 3) a friend of a friend who finished his own manuscript last year and I was a beta reader for (so called in the favor), and 4) another editor/aspiring novelist from that same networking group.

So, for me, networking groups have been a great resource for finding non-friend betas, but definitely be ready to trade reads in that kind of scenario.

Gigi said...

Thanks, Janet! This is so helpful. (And sorry I didn't pop into the comments earlier - for some reason this didn't show up in my RSS feed this time around.)

And thanks everyone in the comments. It sounds like it's time to move onto full manuscript reads and I love the idea of using non-writer betas. I actually had an epiphany right after I sent this to Janet, so I'm starting to move past concerns over the inconsistency of feedback and back into excitement for the next phase.

Oh, and @Robert, I should probably clarify: the feedback isn't inconsistent *and* negative. It's overwhelmingly positive. But things like one person saying a piece of internal reflection really sealed a character for them vs. another person saying that same reflection felt too on the nose because they already understood the character's motivation had me questioning how to proceed. Sounds like it's off to longer reads!