Photo Credit: Sam Howzit from flickr.
As I approach the publication of a new book and test the waters with new critique groups in the city I have started to compile tips and tricks on how to work with beta readers and writing critiques based on my recent mistakes and successes. This is a point where the dread of marketing your writing hasn’t quite come along, but you’ve truly taken action and created a piece of work that is ready for others to read.
Who better to walk us through the guidelines than the man who made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? Let’s take a look at some of the best Han Solo quotes to see what they can teach writers about beta readers and writing critiques.
Uh, everything’s under control. Situation normal.
Whether in the Death Star or working with beta readers, keep the situation normal. Maintain control for both your beta readers and yourself. Think about how absurd it is to give someone a 60,000 word book and expect them to read it. The book is still in a rough stage, and you don’t even know if it’s any good (so you pawn it off on other people). Cut the story into chunks to lure your beta readers in, and to target the feedback, so you know exactly where people get lost in your story. If you give beta readers two or three chapters and they don’t like them, those chapters can be rewritten, but if you give them your whole manuscript and they come back with bad words, you feel like your whole book is crap, which probably isn’t true. Manage the workload for them and make the revisions easier for you.
Consider finding other readers who are willing to swap a few of their own chapters with you. Although it sounds strange, try to refrain from giving anyone your entire book, unless they beg for it.
Boring conversation anyway. LUKE, WE’RE GONNA HAVE COMPANY!
Try your hardest to figure out which parts of the book your beta readers find boring, along with areas they find confusing. These are the areas that desperately need to be rewritten. Typically, if one person has to reread a sentence then it needs a revision.
Don’t everyone thank me at once.
Although it might seem logical to give your book out to everyone you know, think about using just a few people in your inner circle. This gives you a perspective from someone who knows you and might read it for entertainment’s sake. For real feedback, develop a solid group of people to create a credible sample size that you can take percentages from.
If you have ten people you can at least say that 10 or 20 percent of people in general might not like your work. When you only have two people read your book the chances of receiving true, unbiased feedback decreases. Not everyone is going to read your entire book, but try to get as many eyes on it as possible. Have one person read a few paragraphs, see if another will read half of it and then post a few lines on Reddit or Facebook to see how people respond.
She’ll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.
Although you might think that your work is the best thing in the world, expect beta readers to ditch you–even people you know. We live in a world of busy people, and most folks can’t even read a full article in the newspaper. Don’t take offense to this, just find new beta readers. Remember that if you can’t get anyone to finish your novel, you might have a problem with the story.
Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me.
Even if you pass out a manuscript to your aunt, her recent boyfriend, your wife/husband and the guy peddling cigarettes on the street corner, you are still the final decider. Too much feedback leads to questioning your own gut and creativity. To avoid this problem, choose a date you plan on shipping your product (or publishing) and stick to it.
No reward is worth this.
Since beta readers don’t usually receive anything in return for critiquing your book you can always offer rewards. If you know the person consider bringing them out to lunch for an honest review. Pay someone on a freelancer site to give a full proof of your manuscript for a small fee.
Luke Skywalker: Got him! I got him!
Han Solo: Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.
Asking a relative or friend is similar to dragging those same people to your stand-up open mic night or one man dance recital. They’ll tell you it’s amazing and interesting, but it’s really just a waste of time for them and they’re lying. Most friends and family tell you what you want to hear.
There comes I time when we have to realize that we’re not the most interesting people in the world. I noticed that my relatives don’t really give a crap about me anymore, because I’m an adult, and every adult goes to work and makes money–it’s nothing special. You lose the privilege of people asking about your time at summer camp or how the football game went when you get past your 21st or 22nd birthday. Give your friends and family a break and find a professional or other writer to critique your work. This isn’t to say that there aren’t the occasional friends who are relentless in critiquing. I know one person who takes my writing and pulls no punches. It’s great, and I use it, but we still both realize that when you know someone, the author’s personal voice is impossible to get out of the reader’s head. They will always hear your characters as you.
Great shot, kid, that was one in a million!
How do you make that perfect shot? By that I mean how do you find a beta reader, get them to do what you want and receive perfect criticism? This is my favorite technique for working with beta readers. Why? Because it works. Don’t just give them your book and ask them to check it out. Give them the book (or a chapter), a pen and a list of maybe five to ten questions that you want answered. This puts them in a position to look for answers to your questions instead of just reading the book for entertainment. To start, write them a letter asking them to mark the manuscript as they read along. Then have people fill out questions like these:
- Are you satisfied with the plot and characters?
- Were there points you could really relate to personally?
- Were there points you couldn’t relate to?
- At what points did you feel frustrated? Why?
- Do you feel satisfied with the last act?
- Can you summarize the book in a few sentences? How did the book make you feel after?
- Where would you stop reading if I wasn’t forcing you to continue (or where did you actually stop reading?)
- Was the formatting jarring in any way?
Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on beta readers and writing critiques. Until next time…