Saturday, March 7, 2009

Beta Readers—Are They Useful?

I have a rough draft of new novel completed (yea!), and people are offering (wanting!) to read it. One offer is from a somewhat well-know writer who will give me a good blurb if he likes it. And the other offer is from a fan/editor who will give me good feedback if it needs work. Great news for me on both.

The novel is completed, a fully developed story, and I'm a little nervous about sending it out. What I didn’t do this time was have beta readers review the story as I was writing, offering their input on the story development. When I was writing The Sex Club, I sent the first 100 pages to a story consultant and got great feedback from her. When I was writing Secrets to Die For, I sent the first hundred pages to several beta readers—because a lot of people seemed to think it was necessary to getting published—and the comments from them were so contradictory, they were useless to me.

One reader said, “I love the date/time references at the beginning of every chapter because it adds to the sense of urgency.” Another said, “I found the date/time references annoying.” One reader loved the cliffhangers at the end of chapters. Another hated them. One reader didn’t like that the mother was a drug addict, which was the underlying premise for the opening of the story.

When you have beta readers offering completely different ideas about what they like and don’t like, ultimately, you have decide how you want your story to go. In another blog discussion, several writers said they often ignore what their writing group suggests because it’s not how they see the story.

I write rather unusual crime stories, so maybe that’s a factor. Maybe beta readers are more useful in some genres than others. I'm thinking about this now because I'm outlining my next novel and wondering if I should get some feedback.

What do you think? Are beta readers useful? Has a beta reader ever improved or saved your story?

17 comments:

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Anytime you get feedback that makes your brain churn in good directions, it's helpful.

Of course, I say this as someone who came through the writer's workshop model, at both the undergrad and graduate level. Especially at the graduate level, it was difficult: I'm by nature a novelist and graduate writing programs are all about the short story.

One thing I learned about contradictory feedback: if three people out of ten are saying the same thing, you ought to listen up. But if you've got one person insisting you should switch to YA, that's someone whose feedback isn't valuable. Maybe they shouldn't be in your critique group.

Also, one thing I've learned: the best critique groups/partners are the ones that spring up organically. And sometimes, readers make better critiquers than fellow writers.

Meg said...

I don't know yet.

I'll be sending mine out to my first readers sometime in the next two weeks.

I'm hoping they'll be helpful. I do know you're supposed to take any advice with a grain of salt, because it is your story, not theirs.

Gayle Carline said...

I'd really like to say that beta readers are useful, because in theory I think the practice works. Unfortunately, my only experience with someone reading my completed work and commenting was not a good one. She's a friend of mine and I adore her, but she loves to read romances. So, by the time I had incorporated her suggestions, guess what I had written? And not a good romance at that.

The advice I've gotten in read & critique groups at writer's conferences has been the most helpful. Susan is right - if 3 people told me something, it was usually a good and helpful suggestion. Unfortunately for those groups, they could not read my entire novel to give me feedback.

I'd still like to enlist beta readers for my next book. Maybe after the first one gets published (this fall!), I'll have more volunteers.

Gayle Carline (aka GeeCarl)
http://www.gaylecarline.com
http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

David Eric Tomlinson said...

I absolutely think they are, as long as you find the 'right' reader or group of readers. If you find someone who's only reading YA, romance, etc. and you're writing literary fiction ... they might not be the best reader for you.

I've asked my wife to read several chapters of the book I'm working on, and her feedback has validated a 'gut' feeling I've had about wanting to change a few things.

Bill Cameron said...

I like early readers. They often see things I may not see, ask questions I may not have thought to answer. I'd say the process of listening to early readers has generally helped my work, even if I didn't always make changes as a result.

Karen Olson said...

I don't tend to send my manuscript to any readers until I've got a completed first draft. I used to belong to a writers group and I'd give a chapter at a time, but usually someone forgot what happened three chapters ago so we'd spend time trying to catch everyone up. Sort of a waste of time.

©DGreer said...

I think you have to pick your beta readers carefully. Well, just like editors. Your betas and editors shouldn't be interested in changing your story, only commenting on whether the story hangs together.

It's a bit like judging art. You don't have to necessarily like modern art, but someone with understanding and experience can still judge its merits based on solid criteria. Same goes for in-process novels.

I'd also add that I find it dreadfully difficult to judge the merits of a manuscript without reading the entire thing. This scenario is different for me from reading submissions, for example, when the first 10-50 pages might give you the clues you need to toss or consider a ms. Part of what a good beta reader does is offer suggestions for improvements, and you have to read all of it to give decent feedback and advice.

I guess I should also confess that the coolest thing about being a first-reader is you get your hands on the next book in a series before anyone else. Yay!

LOL,

Dani
http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com

Marvin D. Wilson said...

Do not trust any beta reader, or any pre-pub reviewer, or any member of a critique group you belong to, more than your own mind and heart. Consider the advice, yes - especially if you have chosen your designated readers well. And rewrite if the admonitions have true merit. But in the end it comes down to, did you write honestly and truthfully? Does the manuscript hum within and electrify your atoms? Then it is good.

Patricia said...

I happened upon this while reading Facebook and thought I would peek in and see what the opinions are. I am not a writer, I am just an avid mystery fan. I like the comments I am seeing here and think it would be great to combine all the best parts and hopefully that would produce a great book as the end result. I think the term beta reader says it all, this is a person that is reading a completed manuscript for the first time, not an editor but someone that should be able to supply a valuable opinion on whether the story appeals to them and why. I don't think I like the idea of reading chapters as I would forget, a whole book seems logical.

Of course being just a reader I can only speak for myself as a single entity and if an author is looking to be validated by someone saying it will be the next runaway bestseller really needs to rethink the whole notion of a beta reader.
Just my .02cents worth ;-)

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks everyone for weighing in. I'm hearing that a beta reader can be someone who provides feedback on a finished draft and not just a work in progress. I'm certainly more comfortable with that notion.

Chester Campbell said...

Okay, L.J., I'll be the contrarian. My critique group has eight members, most of them mystery writers. I have received valuable feedback from them as they read a chapter at a time. However, it only works for part of the book, since mine run 40 to 50 chapters. I give the completed manuscript to a select few. But as Marvin said, it's your book so you need to carefully consider the advice you receive.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Beta readers can be helpful, depending upon who you choose. I like to send mine to one or two whose opinion I value because of their ability to be honest and have the skills to see if trouble is looming. Indiscriminate readers? No and for the same reasons you mention.

Angie Ledbetter said...

All depends on the readers. If you've got a trusted writers/crit group or a "Tabitha" (a la Stephen King and his wife as his primary audience), then it's really helpful. Lots of trust involved in being a beta. I say go with whatever formula worked with your first book!

Lisa Logan said...

I've found the same problem. With polar opposite opinions, whose do you trust? It drives me crazy, because you can't please every reader. Even the world's greatest novel has readers who hate it.

Reader preference is a rather dodgy prospect. But like Susan mentioned, if you can manage to get a consensus, that kind of feedback is useful. These days, I tend to get editor friends on board for pre-reads, and as a last resort I don't underestimate the value of rejected-with-comments letters from pubs. Their insights are nearly always helpful when readers haven't pinpointed a problem. Nearly.

Charlotte Phillips, Co-Author of The Eva Baum Detective Series said...

LJ, When I use beta readers, I usually ask them to read for something specific. This helps me receive the kinds of comments I'd find useful.

If I don't ask for something specific (are there any logic holes, for example) I read and consider all the comments, but what I'm really looing for are those comments that tell me if certain passages are doing what I intended.

For example, if I write something intending the reader to see that a character faces a moral choice and is genuinely torn between options adn the comments come back saying he's a flake, air head, weeine, etc. - anything very different from my intent, then I know I've got a problem that needs attention.

When the comments are very different around specific passages, I check to see if I wrote something ambiguous. Anytime that happens, readers interpret from their own experiences and the comments show it.

Charlotte Phillips
http://charsbookreviews.blogspot.com/

Shadows said...

Normally when I present anything to a Beta, I have a list of prepared questions focusing on things I'm not sure of. Of course I want to hear of any generalized issue the reader has, but when you draw their attention to a few focal points it really helps standardize the resulting feedback, making it far more useful than random commentary.

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