Here’s the thing about beta readers

Some writers hold their words close, perfecting phrasing and punctuation until their hearts are content and their minds are sure that this, their very best work, is ready for the world to see. Some writers labor for days and months and years over a work of art before letting anybody else see it. They are private with their stories, intimate.

I am not this way. As soon as I write anything I think might turn into something I send it off. “Is this good?” “Do you like this?” “Would you read a story about these people in this place?” “Should I keep writing?”

The thing is, I am an awful judge of my own writing. I cannot tell what is good and what isn’t especially when it comes to fiction. Apparently I have no idea what people are interested in. So I send it off! Before it’s complete, of course, so I don’t waste my time on a story that nobody wants to read and while I’m waiting for feedback I start a new story. Or at least that’s how its gone since I became an actual writer of fiction seven months ago.

While taking a break from the second draft of my NaNoWriMo novel (it’s totally boring me lately), I started what I’m calling “New Idea.” Clever, I know, but I have no idea what it should be called. I usually refer to my NaNoWriMo novel as Grayson because she’s the main character but I wrote like, three chapters of this new novel without using the main character’s first name and then someone went to address her and I realized she didn’t have a name. She has a name now but I’m planning on changing it so we’re going to stick with New Idea.

Not THAT kind of beta. Or is it betta?

Well, I wrote about 13,000 words and then decided to send it out, you know, to see if it was worth finishing. While I was waiting on feedback, I started a third story called The Adventures of Bryan Martinez because Grayson and the gang are still boring me (obviously something else needs to happen in their world, but I have yet to figure out what that something is – besides an explosion, which I had and may or may not keep).

Today I got back my first real beta reader responses. This time when I sent out New Idea I sent it with questions for my dear reader friends to answer. Sending someone 50,000 words and then being like, “Tell me what you think of it!” is kind of overwhelming. Should I be correcting grammar? Should I be criticizing character’s decisions? Should I circle every time you use the phrases “heading to”? There’s a lot to focus on in a crappy first draft, so I wanted to narrow it down, both for my friends’ sake and for my sake.

I sent the beginnings of my story to three willing friends who are all intelligent and well read women. They also have varying tastes and personalities so I’m counting on some varied feedback. In addition to these beta readers, this story has a beta listener. While on Spring Break I told my friends I had started a new story and one of them asked if I could read some out loud. She enjoyed the first chapter so well she kept asking me to read more. Reading the story out loud helps loads. I can easily hear when things didn’t sound right or flow, when sentences drag on, or when things are just confusing. It was very nerve wracking at first to hear my own words out loud, not trusting that they were any good and all, but after a few chapters we got comfy. It also helps that now there is someone pushing me to write more of the story, especially since that someone is leaving the country in a couple of weeks!

Sending questions along to beta readers is not a novel idea (heh, novel – get it?) but this is all new to me so I thought I’d share the list of questions I came up with. There are so many questions a writer could ask. Since I only had a portion of the story to send, I kept the list short and focused on general observations.

  1. What questions do you have about the story?
  2. Which characters do you know really well?
  3. Which characters would you like to know more about?
  4. Are there places/people that are hard to picture in your mind?
  5. Which places/people can you see most clearly?
  6. Is there anything you wish had been left more to your imagination? Is anything over-described?
  7. If you had to cut the piece in half, which scenes would you cut?
  8. Which of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) do you miss most?

Which questions would you, as a reader or writer, add to the list?

(Here’s a longer list of beta reader questions and another specifically for thrillers.)

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