Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The drawback of beta readers

There are two things to be aware of about beta readers:

(1) they read all of what you give them; and
(2) they read with the idea of giving you feedback.

Agents do neither.

I stop when I've decided the query or the pages don't work for me.
I don't read carefully, parsing out what works and what doesn't. I read your query and pages to see if I want to read more.  I'm not skimming, but I'm not reading with the idea of giving feedback.

In other words, if you don't catch my attention I don't spend any time figuring out why, I just pass.

The point where people stop reading is entirely subjective. There's no way you can know where that point is for each and every agent.

Your take away from this: on the final pass, ask your beta readers where they'd stop reading if they were just reading for fun.

And if your beta readers love your work, but you're not getting requests for fulls, find new betas to read as though it was just for fun, and then see what they say.

Bottom line: find betas to read as though they were agents before you type FINAL on that manuscript.


AJ Blythe said...

I've been to conference sessions where they do this. Someone reads out the first page/s of manuscripts (anonymous) and agents hold up a sign to say when they would stop reading. It's scary how little is read before some say stop. The agents then give their reason for stopping - and they are often all different. Scary stuff.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I printed five copies of my manuscript and gave them to beta readers. They all loved it and, for whatever reason, were hesitant to criticize. I thought my work was brilliant. A NYT bestseller for sure. Finally I had climbed the ladder to fiction success.

Um...that was eight years ago and I haven't even lifted my leg to the first rung. I recently, reworked, rewrote and revitalized that manuscript and shredded the old copies. That so much work filled two huge black garbage bags should have made me feel sad, or at least disappointed, but I actually felt liberated.

I have propped up the ladder again and am going for another climb. Sometimes we just can't give up on the rungs.

Gigi said...

Yes! Such great advice!

Jennie Nash actually had a great blog post a year or two ago about doing a first chapter test - getting some total strangers (and non-writers if you can) to read your first chapter and answer only a couple questions, one being: if you picked this up, would you keep reading? Even though in that case she was just talking about first chapters, seems like a super smart tactic - especially if anyone has been struggling with not getting full requests and wondering if it's a first chapter issue.

Amy Schaefer said...

It makes sense to have different beta readers for different purposes. We all have our own strengths, after all. When I gave my dad one of my books, I was surprised to find he could have had a fine career as a copy editor. A friend was excellent at latching onto timeline errors. And others gave a wonderfully squishy: "It was fun." "I liked Character X." or "Yeah, not my thing."

The danger of using beta readers is taking back the manuscript and trying to please everyone. Look for consistent feedback, and listen to your gut in sorting the wheat from the chaff. And make sure YOU still love your manuscript when you're done.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

What wild timing. I just sent chapters 1-8 of my WIP to beta readers yesterday with the following instructions.

1 Read as if this was for fun
2 If you stop reading, where and why?
3 If you really like the story, you must request the next 8 chapters

My thinking was my last round of beta readers were way too kind. I gave them the whole book and none of them said they stopped reading.

In this round, if none of these 3 readers ask for the next chapters, I know I am in trouble.

I am really scared as I think this approach might result in feedback (or lack thereof). What if this book is garbage? What if I am the only person in the entire universe that likes it?

So, I followed this advice before it was given. I fear this is really spot on. Oh, the other facet of this is none of these 3 beta readers are friends or writers. I work in a huge school district and sought out 3 readers who 1. Read my genre and 2. Spend money on books. Likely buyers in other words.

I hope this yields more useful feedback than the last round. If I get silence, then I can only think I will get silence from agents as well.

Julie Weathers said...


I've been to conferences where they do this. I usually submit because I genuinely want to know why the agents decide they are or aren't interested. I went to one conference where it turned into such a bloodletting, I swore I would never submit my first page again, but was assured this was unusual. For whatever reason, that year there were some very witty agents on the panel and they decided to use it as a forum to showcase their rapier wit by slicing and dicing every submission and there were some very good ones. It turned into a one upsmanship contest for them.

The year before last, two people I know had agents pounce on their work and almost get into a scuffle over who the author should send to. It was funny and heartening to see them so enthusiastic. They also chose some others and the people weren't there, so they didn't go into specifics about why they liked the work. What a loss for those people. I'm not sure why they bothered.

Last year, a new agent was on a panel and I guess she thought it was her job to be as critical as possible. Unfortunately, everyone followed suit. Nothing was chosen. Everything was ripped to shreds. I was so very happy my opening wasn't picked out of the pile. You could tell the moderator and reader was getting irritated. He finally said towards the end on a couple, "For what it's worth, I loved this and would have kept reading." He's a NYT best-selling author, so that was some consolation. I had a workshop with the moderator later and he was still irked that it had turned into a bloodbath.

I'm not sure if I will ever submit to one of those again. Had it been my work, I'd still be stinging and I know we need to get used to criticism, but some of the remarks cut pretty deep and were done publically. It wasn't a Hunter Thompson rejection, but it was close.

I have someone who has read bits and pieces of The Rain Crow and Far Rider via the lit forum. She's offered to read it in its entirety when it's done and that's one thing I'm going to ask her because she'll be reading with fresher eyes rather than my beta readers who'll have gone through it with a fine-toothed comb.

In the end, it's all subjective. You have no idea what might be aa huge turnoff for someone unless they publically state this is something they hate and you happen to run across that. I notice some agents post "I won't read anything with rape or harming animals."

That cuts down on my opportunities some. I write about war and farming. Animals die. They're characters just like the human characters and life happens as well as death.

Just do your best to make every page interesting.

John Davis Frain said...

A good beta reader is as tough to find as a quality comp.

So, here's what I've been contemplating of late: posting a note at my local library to see if any crime/suspense readers would be interested in becoming a beta reader. (Will this become an idea better suited to Janet's recent post about the overlapping Venn diagram of Writers and Craziness?)

Has anyone ever tried this? I'd be curious about your results. FWIW, I'm already in a critique group, so I get chapter-by-chapter feedback on a weekly basis.

Craig F said...

I will admit to a shortage of good betas. Maybe it is because I let them read my crap like a normal beta would. Inch by inch and line by line. Then I ask them to read it like they were on their only vacation of the year.

They take mine and two other books of their own choosing. Then I ask how far they got in mine. Then I look at that like I was bidding for a contractor. I throw out the highest and lowest before concentrating on what the others has to say.

Remember that betas can be as wrong as you were when you wrote chapter 14.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

John That is roughly what I did. I put a posting on the district website. I got lots of takers. Chose 3 and a 4th as an alternate (you should always have an alternate, right) and we will see how it goes. I sent them 1st 8 chapters yesterday. So...

It’s a good plan. I like your plan

Robert Ceres said...

Echoing with EM Goldsmith said and adding my two cents...

The problem with beta readers is we are often in a love love relationship with them, because they are also reading our manuscript. We are so happy someone is reading that we get all droopy eyed and grateful. It’s like crack. We desperately want them to keep reading and providing all that reassuring positive feedback. So, we typically do the same thing back. I’ve done it.

I’m almost ready for a new round with a new manuscript. I’ll warn my beta partners that won’t be a feel good, looks great kind of beta reader. I want critical feedback, so that’s what I’m going to give back. And what I’m going to ask from them.

Also, I’m going to specifically ask, especially on chapter one, for my readers to first read like they are a potential buyer, a customer browsing at the book store, an editor, or an agent, with the sole goal of answering just two questions. Where would they would stop reading, and why?

I think the answer to why is often symptomatic of the most important problem with the whole manuscript. A good hint that I need to do a careful review and revision of the entire book.

KariV said...

I just started reading a manuscript yesterday and went ahead and noted the point where I'd stop reading. I'm brutally honest with feedback because that's what I personally want to see in my manuscript. If a reader isn't going to make it through my first chapter, I need to know so I can fix it.

I like the idea about advertising for beta readers at the library. My betas so far have all been writers, which is great because they can offer technical advice on things like POV and show v tell, but I'd love to see what readers reading for the sake of reading think about my book.

nightsmusic said...

I have beta readers, usually people I don't know or who will be brutally honest as to why they threw what they were reading against the wall if they did, and a critique partner, who is also brutally honest but about the technical aspects of the story, grammar, what doesn't work where, which chapter needs to either be rewritten from the ground up or removed completely. The beta readers are reading for pleasure, at least I'm hoping they like the story. The crit partner is reading almost like a line editor would. The beta readers are great but for me, the crit partner is essential. I'm sure not everyone feels that way, but it's made a huge difference in my getting a great story on the page.

MB Owen said...

I prefer honesty without the "brutality." Truth is sharp enough to cut into a writer's understanding and work without being bludgeoned into humiliation. What good, really, does that do?

Brendalynn said...

I'm beta reader gun-shy. I found:
- one author who was priceless. Her work is at the 'on sub' stage in a different genre.
- one author who is just getting underway. I've enjoyed watching his skills improve almost as much as I do my own.
- two authors who each have several books in print. I tried to be tactful but it was a train wreck. They both wanted cheerleading, not critique. Afterwards I had a look at their published work. They each have a better rating average than Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. Lesson learned.

The ironic one is my first query letter. It received an 8% request for fulls or partials. I subbed it to a critique group who shredded it. I took their advice and my request rate dropped to 2%. Over time I sent it to fifty agents.
Apparently, my mama raised a slow learner.

The next book is on track to be finished in June and I hope to find someone at or above my skill and work ethic level.


CynthiaMc said...

Life is way too short to read boring books. I probably go through fifty for every one I finish.

I don't do beta readers. I've noticed that there's a tendency with writers wanting to change things as we would have written it.

I've noticed on blogs that do critiques, they often say "If (insert name of latest mega-selling author here) had sent us (insert name of their best-seller) we would have trashed it." And they would have.

I think once you have the basics down, it's time to get on stage and see what happens.

Sarah said...

So agree about needing to know when someone would stop reading! Years ago, when I was teaching Creative Writing, my (high school) students were shocked when I mentioned that I'd mark where I stopped reading. We're so used to assuming that the reader will push through.

Also, I think it helps to know what your beta readers are good at. I have a wonderful longtime crit partner who is spot on with feedback about whether personal interactions ring true. But ... she also doesn't like/get fantasy, which I write. If she tells me that something between characters not working, I'm all ears. If her feedback is about part of the fantasy, I make sure that someone else felt the same way before attempting a revision.

Joseph Snoe said...

My early readers were very complimentary. Since I liked my story, too, I was relieved. Later when I realized they were were wrong, I wrote one. She said she saw those problems. I asked why she didn’t tell me. She said she wanted to be supportive.

Second point: I submitted my first page to one of those blood-letting (often unfair in my opinion) agent review sessions at a one-day conference. My first page was one of only two in the 90-minute session that made it through to the end of the page. That accomplishment got a long ovation from the 100+ writers in attendance. Made me feel good, but that good feeling has long passed.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

That's been a part of my Beta Reader survey since before I had one! Not that anyone actually fills it out... but it gives them a guideline of things to watch for while reading.

And I agree with those above--each new revision needs a new beta reader for fantasy -- you need to be sure the world building is clear for new readers, without being info-dumpy and readers who've already read about your world can't tell.

AJ Blythe said...

Julie, the ones I've seen done here have all been anonymous, so no author is associated to the work, even if the work is requested (the author is asked to meet the requesting agent after the slushpile reading is finished. But none I've seen have been a bloodbath, thank goodness.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I like the idea of E.M. Goldsmith VERY much. I might do the same one day. Thanks a lot for sharing this here!!!

Oh yes, "one day"... things feel so far away all of the sudden, out of reach.. I am preparing my return to Europe, have a couple of weeks left in North America and then...? Who knows.

Anyway, happy writing and beta-reading and so on everyone. I wish I could hand the things I can't take with me to you. Anybody in need of a kinda brand new printer for example. Or a Christmas tree holder, ha ha 😉?!

Oh, and I am anticipating a blog post "Meet Steve Forti" very soon, Janet! BEFORE I say goodbye... maybe I won't have internet for a while ;).

Steve Stubbs said...

If anybody wants an opinion, feel free to send your stuff to me. If you do, please send in electronic form, not printed, because I have trouble with my vision. Please also say if you want an honest opinion or rapturous psalms of praise (which may be an honest opinion if you are good.)

Please also include any other instructions (when did I stop reading, etc.)

If I am not familiar with your genre, I won't be able to tell you if it is the same old same old same old or not. But I will be able to tell you if it works.

Good luck to everyone.

MA Hudson said...

Any other middle grade writers had trouble finding adult beta readers? Getting my kids friends to read my stuff is easy enough but getting adults to read a middle grade novel is much harder. I’ve had lots of people offer, but then they don’t follow through. I totally get it though, life is way too short to read genres you’re not really into.

Dena Pawling said...

A few of my CPs are readers of this blog. And because I write MG, I have several MG-age beta readers. I ask them to be honest with their answers to questions like do you like this person, was anything funny, were you bored anywhere, etc. I don’t always receive glowing reports so it looks like they are being honest. Some of them have great suggestions. Of course I really like the ones demanding to read the whole story, RIGHT NOW! But the betas with suggestions for changes are the best. Most of the suggestions result in improvements.

I agree that bad CPs and bad betas, who just gush over the story (or conversely are hyper critical), aren’t worth the time or energy. But good ones are priceless.

MA Hudson - I'd love to be a beta or CP for your MG stories. And if your kids or their friends would beta for mine, I'd love that too! Please email me denapawling at gmail. Thanks

Megan V said...

Beta readers are essential. BUT establishing that relationship isn't easy. I like what Robert said about the love love relationship. It's actually why I rely on mostly non writer betas, but have writer CPs.

MA Hudson— I have not had that trouble. That said, if you need an adult MG beta reader, you can feel free to message me to discuss further. I'm an avid MG reader :)

JEN Garrett said...

So, I have a question for the group - what if you never type "Final" - your beta readers keep saying "I stopped here" and you never seem to get to that point of "I'm hooked all the way through."?
I don't want to waste agent time, but I don't want to lose out because I never submit (i.e. I gave up too soon).

KariV said...

@Steve - I'd love to take you up on that. 1st page or first chapter?

@Dena, @MA, @Megan V - I'm a MG reader and writer. I'd be more than willing to have a look at at pages for you. Let me know if you'd be willing to take a look at mine.


Also - how on earth are you all highlighting names in replies? Is this some coding I'm missing? When I try to "reply to comment" it just replies to the one user, not to the group. What am I doing wrong?!?! Help please!

Dena Pawling said...

KariV - just sent you email. Tried to send one to MA Hudson but it bounced back.

And I can relate to your "what am I doing wrong?" comment. I used to be able to comment here from my iPhone, but several weeks ago something happened and now I can't. My phone is still logged in to my google account for gmail, but for some reason won't log me in to comment here. Argh! I hate computers =(

Megan V said...

Kari - I'm using HTML tags to bold names. There's a hint at the bottom of the comment box. b with the arrows for bold. i for italic and so on. It looks something like this (minus the spaces) :

< b > KariV < /b >

You need the backslash on the second one to close it up.

Dena, I was having the same problem re: iPhone. I had to log out and log back in to get it to work.

Dena Pawling said...

I'll try that. Thanks MeganV!

Ashes said...

I'm going to go ahead and plug a website I don't use much anymore, but I made a lot of critique partners during my time there. It's called Critique Circle, and it has a feature relevant to this conversation called The Hook.

The Hook is a queue open once a month where users can post their first 1000 words. Most of CC is for inline critiques, but the sole purpose of The Hook is for a lot of users to tell you where they stopped reading. It imperfectly mimics a slush pile.

Worth checking out if anyone out there is looking for a 'when are people stopping' resource. Fair warning you have to go in with a thick skin and intentions to listen to the 'where' more than the 'why'.