“Show your piece to a number of people – ten, let us say.”
Fourteen people volunteered to beta read the first 100 pages of my novel. (I asked for feedback on 100 pages, not the entire manuscript, because an agent at the Loft Pitch Conference invited me to send her 100 pages.) Fourteen is a bit over what Steven King recommended, but three readers had to rescind their offer for various reasons, leaving me with eleven. Close enough.
“Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot.” – Steven King
My beta readers made it easy for me to listen carefully and to smile. The best thing a novelist can hear first is “I love the story! I love the characters.” My readers gave me that. Then I want specifics about what exactly they loved; my readers gave me that. Finally, I need to know what wasn’t so lovely, and my readers gave me that, too.
Their enthusiasm was an ego-boost of course, but it was more than that. They reassured me that this is a good story and these are complex characters that readers care about. Sometimes when I’m revising, my Saboteur likes to make suggestions. I’m sure you can imagine how helpful those are. My beta readers reinforced my capacity to ignore that inner critical voice.
I can also get myopic when revising. My readers refreshed my perspective of the big picture. They let me peek through their eyes to see what the novel might look like to someone who’d never read it before.
“Then review what was said very carefully.” – Steven King
My readers’ appreciation gave me heart. They made it possible for me to stay curious and open-minded as I read all the comments, including the ones about where the story clanged (as opposed to humming along), what wasn’t clear enough, what was over-explained, and where a character strayed from what would be true for that character.
This, by the way, is why I insist that the first level of feedback should always be acknowledgement and appreciation.
My beta readers also made it easy for me to review their comments because they followed the instructions and format I gave them (for the most part – they wouldn’t be my friends and colleagues if they didn’t have some degree of creative “I did it my way”).
If you’re wondering how I juggled ten different versions of my manuscript with comments and questions sprinkled throughout (one person wrote an overview only), here’s my method. I printed a clean copy of the 100 pages and put it a three-ring binder. I read one person’s comments on chapter 1 and made notes on my hard copy. Then I read the next person’s comments on chapter 1 and made more notes. I did that for all ten copies before moving to the next chapter. Fortunately, eight of the ten reader manuscripts were electronic copies, which kept the piles of paper on my desk manageable. After I read all comments and questions on a chapter, I mulled over my hand-written notes, finalized them, and entered those changes to my manuscript in Scrivener.
Of course, my beta readers didn’t agree on everything. Where one person wrote “Nice. I like the world building here.” another wrote “TMI and too technical.” One person loved a metaphor; another thought it was authorial editorializing.
Everything my readers gave me was helpful. The contradictions were particularly helpful. As Steven King advises:
“If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story – a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles – change that facet. It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it.
“But if everyone – or even most everyone – is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.”
I kept this in mind as I mulled over my readers’ responses. Even when the comments/questions were different, three or more readers writing something about a particular passage told me to give that section a long, discerning look. Sometimes I let my original stand, usually I changed it to some degree.
The contradictions didn’t bother me because I wasn’t trying looking for the “one right answer” to make the manuscript “correct.” The loving eyes my beta readers gave my novel helped me stay out of defensiveness and hyper-criticism.
I have confidence in my story and confidence that this is my story. I didn’t defy any observation even though I didn’t comply with them all. Feedback has (finally) stopped being about being praised or criticized. There isn’t “good or bad” feedback (although there certainly is inappropriate feedback that writers need to refuse to take in) – it’s all information I can use to improve my story.
May every writer be as blessed with beta readers as I am. Please share your experiences with beta readers in a comment.