How to Win Friends and Influence Beta Readers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) was, of course, the French novelist known primarily for his masterpiece, Madame Bovary. He was a man of tremendous passion and ambition. His greatest desire, from a young age, was to become a world-class novelist.

At the age of 24, Flaubert was mesmerized by a painting depicting the temptation of St. Anthony. It inspired his first attempt at a novel. Flaubert worked on it off and on for the next five years, finally completing a 500 page manuscript in 1849.

Now what?

Flaubert had two close literary friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet. He called them to his home in Croisset on the condition that they listen to him read the entire manuscript out loud, not uttering a single word until he was done!

Yeesh.

Just before the reading began, Flaubert declared, “If you don’t cry out with enthusiasm, nothing is capable of moving you!”

Then he began to read. Two four-hour sessions per day!

Flaubert ended a little before midnight on the fourth day. The exhausted would-be novelist put down the last page and said, “It is your turn now. Tell me frankly what you think.”

Du Camp and Bouilhet were in agreement that the latter should speak for them both.

Bouilhet cleared his throat and said, “We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.”

Now that is what you call a short and sweet critique.

The reaction, as described by Prof. James A. W. Heffernan in a lecture on Flaubert, was as follows:

Flaubert was flabbergasted. And of course he did talk about it—the three of them argued about it heatedly all through the night, right up until eight o’clock the next morning—with Flaubert’s mother listening anxiously at the door. Flaubert defended it as best he could, pointing out fine passages here and there, but fine passages alone don’t make a good book. His friends saw no progression in the story, no vitality in the figure of St. Anthony himself, no real grip on the theme. Essentially, they argued, Flaubert had taken a vague subject and made it vaguer. He had fatally indulged his own Romantic tendency toward lyricism—toward the fantastic, toward the mystical. To get a grip on these tendencies, Flaubert needed something that could not be treated lyrically.

Flaubert’s two friends did not let him wallow in despair. Instead, they gave him some advice that would change his writing forever. Don’t try to tackle some big theme in a lyrical manner, they told him. Write about something down-to-earth, and do it in a naturalistic style. Prof. Heffernan recounts:

On the day after the long night of the argument, the three friends took a walk through the gardens of Croisset by the River Seine. According to Maxime du Camp, Bouilhet suddenly proposed that Flaubert write a novel based on the true story of a public health officer whose second wife committed adultery, got herself into debt, and then poisoned herself.

Flaubert took their advice. In 1851 he began writing his second novel, Madame Bovary.

The lessons here:

  1. Good beta readers are those who will be completely honest with you, but also are capable of giving you specifics on what doesn’t work.
  2. Don’t overestimate your prowess by telling your beta readers, “If you don’t cry out with enthusiasm, nothing is capable of moving you!”
  3. Perhaps it’s best to give your beta readers a manuscript, rather than reading it to them out loud. But that’s entirely up to you.

Do you have trusted beta readers? How have they helped you?

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28 thoughts on “How to Win Friends and Influence Beta Readers

  1. I’m glad Flaubert didn’t invite me to his house to ‘listen’ to his story. I do not now nor have I ever processed writing spoken aloud, which is one of the reasons I don’t do audiobooks, despite their increasing popularity. It’s one thing to read your own ms to yourself aloud to catch awkward lines, but otherwise, no.

    I’ve been part of crit groups in the past that wanted you to read your selection aloud. For me at least, it’s not effective and would cheat the writer out of good input.

    • About two thirds of the books I enjoy during the year are audiobooks, because I listen when I drive.

  2. I rely most heavily on my two critique partners, who read the early chapters while still in the draft 1 stage. I’ve used beta readers for some of my books. They get the second draft. I’ve had mixed results, but have had excellent feedback from some. I try to find beta readers who’ve never read anything else in that series as well as those familiar with the books to see if I’m confusing the former or dumping too much on the latter.

    I can’t handle the reading aloud system, whether it’s a scene, chapter or — gasp!–the whole manuscript. I can barely tolerate proof-listening to my audiobooks.

  3. Flaubert had a couple of TRUE friends if they sat with him four days and then over night on the 4th day!

    I don’t have anything completed and polished enough for beta readers, but I do have 7 brave people who have volunteered, God bless ’em.

    You know what else is wrong about reading your manuscript aloud? You put in the inflections as you tried to write it and not as a stranger would read it.

  4. Thanks for this insight. Madame Bovary is my favorite novel. I love irony and recurring symbols—the torn up paper, tossed into the air like butterflies.

    I suspect my 2 beta readers are the opposite of Flaubert’s—too kind. I’d like to find someone who doesn’t know me. Is that a good idea, and how do you do that? Do they ask for money?

    • Madame Bovary was a real accomplishment for the young author, walking a fine line between naturalism and lyricism.

      As for finding beta readers, if you’re paying someone it’s an editing job. A beta reader is someone who’ll read you for free (though a gift card or lunch or something along those lines is apt). One place to look for potential readers is at a writers conference. Get to know other writers, offer to exchange manuscripts (be a beta yourself!)

  5. Really? No other votes for reading out loud? Sheesh. It’s a major part of my process in which the clunkers get outed and the words learn to stand on their own – without inflection carrying the day. Run-on’s get slashed. What am I trying to get across gets discussed when there’s something confusing and solved, then and there. Granted, this takes an engaged partner who wants to be a part of the story.

    So my number one beta is my partner. Then I share crit with other writers – who are my kind of reader. There’s no greater waste of your time and creative fire than the reluctant reader who doesn’t like your work. Give this a read: https://twitter.com/SamSykesSwears/status/1058093040466747392

    • I have one reader who does not normally read my genre. I always give her the first finished draft. Since she doesn’t really focus on unraveling the mystery she finds the little things none of the other readers see. She really gets into characters and make comments about relationships I would never think of.

  6. The beta readers for my novel were my husband and a few good friends. This was my first effort at fiction and I wanted real constructive criticism. “Don’t be nice,” I said. “This is a learning experience.”
    They came back with “Great story,” “Wonderful plot,” “Good read!”

    That’s when I realized two things:
    1. I have a wonderful husband and good friends.
    2. I needed a professional editor.

    My editor wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about my precious baby. But working with her was an education that resulted in a whole lot of revising, a much better novel, and — I hope — a much better author.

    I like your suggestion about finding beta readers at writers’ conferences. I’ll give that a try next time.

  7. I think it’s helpful to have beta readers who like the genre you’re writing, as well as readers who normally read other genres.

    I finished a middle grade fantasy, and was fortunate to have a local honors English class teacher allow her students to read my manuscript. It was easy to tell from the comments which students liked romance, sci fi, etc. But they were brutal and provided pages of good ideas.

    I also had family and friends beta read. Some focused on technical details, others caught grammar errors. My wife is my ending guru. She’s not satisfied until the ending resonates.

    Lots of beta readers, different backgrounds. Makes for hours of editing, but I think it’s worth it.

    • Steve, “lots of beta readers, different backgrounds” is my method also. The results are well worth it. Readers from outside your genre often see problems that are missed by “fans” who are sometimes too forgiving.

      Thanks for sharing this fascinating bit of history, Jim. Flaubert was fortunate to have friends who were both tolerant and savvy.

  8. If you are actively seeking beta readers find an accomplished 4th or 5th grade teacher. They know EVERYTHING about grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. However, save them until you are close to your last draft (hopefully), because no matter how many times you say its a draft and you dont need to make corrections it will come back all marked up.

    I prefer my reader work with hard copies, it is easier for me. Fortunately all but one prefer hard copy too. Those who aren’t local print it out on their side . For the local I print it, put in a notebook and provide pens, highlighers, along with an assortment of tea or favorite coffee and the snacks I know they love.

    Saying thank you is easy, but a written thank you note and a gift shows that you really appreciate their efforts.

    Beta readers are the best.

    • I had a critique partner who was a high school teacher. All I wanted was an overall, general viewpoint of the story, you know, to make sure the story was compelling, emotionally-driven, to make sure the darn thing made sense. Instead, I received pages of line edits. Something I specifically asked her not to do as it was not close to being the final draft. As fabulous as she was, halfway through the book, I had to end the partnership.

  9. I’ve received fantastic advice from beta readers and critique partners. The most important thing, I think, is to find the folks who’ll be brutally honest with you, rather than close friends and family who don’t want to hurt your feelings. With my last few books, I had non-writer beta readers. It’s amazing how differently they visualize a story. Where writers may concentrate on technical issues, a non-writer focuses more on how they felt while reading … if they solved the mystery too soon, the clues, the characters, the twist ending, etc. Both types are invaluable.

  10. I’m part of a FANTASTIC critique group. I wrote my first novel 12 pages at a time, bringing those pages to group. On my third book, I fought one of those readers the entire time before realizing, 48 hours before submission, that he was right all along. We don’t edit, we give feedback. We’re readers. We catch big things and little things. We’re each other’s voices. Often, this is my favorite hour of the week.

  11. I was a member of a four-person (all published but at various levels) critique group for years before I moved north. They were all great, and each brought a different talent and technique to the mix. We agreed that there would be no “line editing” or copy editing and that we would help each other on the big issues of structure and character. A good copy editor is valuable but not as valuable as someone who can aid with the big picture and who will approach your story with a cold (but compassionate eye) and tell you the hard truth.

    Two were teachers, by the way…college level. We were always kind to each other, supportive, but tough. They helped me find my way in my last three books. I miss them.

    As for reading out loud: I see where it can be valuable because the best writing is “aural” in that it has cadence and and an undefinable something that I can only think of as music. But I think you also have to critique writing as a visual thing on a page…it has to have shape and structure, just like a good sculpture or painting, that engages your eye and makes you look deeper.

    And loved the Flaubert thing…jeez, what a ham-bone he must have been! Bovary has long been one of my favorite characters and stories.

  12. Sorry to be late to the party. I have have been lucky enough to be asked to beta read a few books and several sections of books. I was also given an ‘alpha’ copy of a book. I gave honest opinions and edits. It is interesting to see the finished book and know that that paragraph on page 137, I suggested that.

    The alpha book was interesting. I had to stop noting grammar mistakes. There were other readers for that. I still ended up giving the author several pages of notes. Some changes will make it in.

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