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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12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you — but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here’s a list of writers conferences in 2015), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

Captivate_full_w_decal4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader.

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up.

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers — savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story – not someone else’s.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions

by Jodie Renner, editor & author; @JodieRennerEd

 

So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.

To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don’t write. Or, to save paper, put it on your tablet and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer. Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript for big-picture issues: logistics, characterization, plot, writing style, flow. Try to put some tension on every page, even if it’s just minor internal disagreement. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward. As you read, correct minor errors and typos that jump out at you and make notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.

Now it’s time to seek out about 3 to 6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It’s best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteer readers don’t need to be writers, but they should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre, and are willing to give you honest feedback.

So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?

5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?

6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?

7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?

8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?

10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?

14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

Captivate_full_w_decal– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Once you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers, it’s time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.

What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? And beta readers – do you have any questions you’d like authors to ask? I’d love to hear from all of you!

Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” here on TKZ.

And for a lengthy list of WRITERS’ CONFERENCES & BOOK FESTIVALS in North America in 2015, with links, click HERE.

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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