I can’t believe it’s been almost three months since I posted about finishing the draft of my first novel. There’s been a lot going on, but the most important experience for me has been working with beta readers for the first time.
As much as I looked forward to bringing more people into my story world, I made sure to set aside my story for about a month (so I could have some distance when I looked at it again) and then wrote some changes to fill in gaps and tighten my sentences. Finally, I sent the whole mess over the fence, because there comes a time when you can no longer see your story, and you need other people to tell you where you’ve gone wrong (and hopefully where you’ve gone right).
It was a nail-biting moment, because it was my precious book baby going out into the world, but I also knew I was going to get great feedback because I was fortunate to have so many lovely people volunteer to read it who could come at it from different perspectives. I had a mix of
- Professional editors (I’m soooo glad right now to be a member of Editors Canada, where I have met so many fantastic editing peeps)
- Readers who love urban fantasy (my target market)
- Readers who could comment on the accuracy of my character portrayals
- Readers whose first language is not English
- Readers who are not my target market but love fiction
The feedback is still coming in, but I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far, in case anyone else is thinking of going through this process.
First off: Beta readers are the best people. Hands down. They are volunteering to take time out of their busy lives to read your work, not knowing if it’s going to be boring or poorly written, and then they are carefully writing diplomatic feedback on the places where they think you need to change your story. (There’s a reason why I didn’t ask for feedback from my family. Even if they could be thorough and objective and not just say “I love it,” I knew I wouldn’t find it easy to take any criticism from my folks, no matter how well intentioned.)
I knew it would help my readers if I was clear about what I was hoping to get out of this process. So I made sure to tell everyone that my story was going to be sent for a professional stylistic/copy edit in February, and that I was only looking for story feedback at this point. Otherwise I knew people might focus on typos and spelling and sentence construction and all of those other things I’ll be dealing with later. I also sent them some specific questions—the items I was the most interested in knowing about so I could improve my story:
- What did you like best about the story?
- Did the opening chapters intrigue you and make you want to keep reading? If not, why?
- Who was your favourite character? Are there any characters who seemed flat or unrealistic? Why?
- Is there anything you’d like to see changed about the dialogue of any of the characters?
- Were there any places where the story felt slow or boring?
- Did the plot make sense? Were there any places that could use more explanation?
- Were there any words, phrases or scenes that pulled you out of the story?
- Was there any place where you would have liked to see more description?
- Did you like the ending?
- Is there anything else that you think could help make this a better story?
I admit I was kind of sneaky when I made this list.
For one thing, I made sure my first question asked about what my readers liked best, partly because it’s good to know your strengths, but mostly because I would be able to bask in some kind words rather than inhaling chocolate after learning about all the changes I needed to make.
I also put my most important question in the middle—whether there was enough description.
I mentioned in my previous post that I write lean. I’m always worried that I’m not describing things enough, because I’m not a visual person. So I was bracing myself for lots of feedback on how I needed to add more words to character and setting descriptions. I figured that would be where most of my comments came from.
What actually happened?
I had one reader tell me she loved the words I used because they helped her see everything.
I had another reader tell me that I focus a lot on hair as an identifying characteristic and that I could maybe mix that up a little.
Everyone else (so far) has said they could picture everything just fine. People who have never experienced life in a Canadian lakeside town in late November said they felt the damp cold as they were reading.
It just goes to show we’re not very good at identifying where we need help, which is why we need beta readers before we send our stories to a wider audience.
The good news: So far, everyone loves my characters, the setting, and the overall plot. This is beyond excellent, because it means I don’t have to rip up all my pages in a dramatic gesture and lock myself in my basement.
Instead, I have received thoughtful and detailed comments on individual scenes, plot points, and character actions where things could be tightened, clarified, or made more real or exciting. Some of my readers have commented on the same things and some have not, but I can already see that even without a consensus at least 90% of this feedback is going to be used as I make changes to my story.
And I am thrilled! I find myself going “Yes!” and “Of course!” and “Why didn’t I see that?” and “Oooh…what if I also did X?” I’m not feeling negative about any of this in the least. Instead, I’m feeling energetic as I look at diving into some rewrites to make this the best story I can. So in between holidays and spending time with my family, I’ll be in front of my computer over the next two months honouring the feedback I have received.
Then we’ll see how much more my editor will catch. 😉
Cheers, and thanks for reading.
All of you.
P.S. Have any of you used beta readers or given feedback on someone else’s writing? What has been your experience? Did you enjoy it, or find it stressful?