Wednesday, May 29, 2013

L.J. Sellers and Ann Parker on Beta Readers

Maryann Miller recently wrote about her beta readers in this post. But what exactly is a beta reader? Sometimes called “first readers”, these are the people who freely read an author’s latest manuscript, usually after the second revision when the story has come together and is fairly solid. Sending a book out for critique at this stage gives the author a chance to break away from the story for a period of time, and then come back with fresh eyes and the help of trusted critical reviews to consider. It’s my observation that beta reading and subsequent revisions make for a stronger story in the final version, even if the author hires an independent editor (especially if only for proofreading the final draft).

Dani
Beta readers and the help they give an author make dramatic differences in the quality of a story. Today we chat with two authors who both use beta readers, and for whom I’ve had the pleasure of reading early manuscripts. Meet LJ Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson Mysteries, and Ann Parker, author of the historical Silver Rush Mysteries. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil!  Let’s jump right into some questions.

Dani: When do you send a manuscript out to be read? How many readers?

LJ

LJ: I send my manuscripts out to beta readers after the second draft, and I usually send it to between five and seven readers.

Ann
Ann: I usually send the draft out when it’s close to “finished,” right before it goes to my house editor (who is my ultimate beta reader). As for the number of people, it varies, depending on who I can beg or bribe to read it. Usually it’s five or so. I also have two beta readers that I “save” for doing an ARC read. One is a proofreader by trade, the other is my husband. Both are very detail-oriented.

What kind of turnaround time? How many rounds for each title?

LJ: I typically ask my beta readers to get back to me within three weeks, but most of them read my stories immediately and send feedback within a week. For that, I'm very grateful. I don't send the novel out for second rounds with readers. They're volunteers, and almost no one wants to read the same story again in such a short time. But I have one loyal beta reader in the UK who always reads it twice because he wants to—the first time for overall story content and the second time for proofreading. (I love this guy!) After collecting all the feedback, I do a third draft and send it to my publisher. From there, the manuscript goes to a professional content editor.

Ann: I try to give beta readers a month, but that doesn’t always happen. Like LJ, I don’t ask folks to read it a second time. Sometimes (oh, this is embarrassing to relate!), I’ll have a beta reader read through “on the fly” as I finish up other fixes. Dani, you did that for me on Mercury’s Rise… I was on college tour with my youngest, and you and I did email/phone back ’n’ forth for a couple of long, long nights.

Once I have everything within the time-frame I need, I go through the comments, do a “final” draft, and send it to my editor.

(Dani: I love how Ann always puts "finished" and "final" in scare quotes.)

How often do you use the same readers? When and why do you change readers?

LJ: A core group of people read for me every time (because they want to!), but I also work with at least one new beta reader for every manuscript, and I try to find readers who have never experienced my work before. It seems important to get fresh perspectives and to ensure that even my series books work as standalones.

Ann: I, too, have a core group of folks who read all the books, including a wonderful research librarian up in Leadville, and Ms. Dani (who has the eye of an eagle and an electronic red pen as sharp as… a porcupine quill? I’m out of similes here!). I’ll add experts as needed—an expert in historical mourning fashion and etiquette, for example, or an expert in various aspects of the Civil War or mining. If I ask an expert to read for accuracy, I will offer to highlight the particular sections that involve their expertise. That way, if they don’t want to wade through the whole thing, they can just focus on the aspects that are in their area of interest.

What kind of guidance do you give them?

LJ: I give new beta readers a basic set of questions, such as: Is the beginning engaging? Are the characters compelling? Does the story have any sticking points or things that confused you? Was the ending satisfying?
But my regulars give me all types of specific feedback, including plot points and phrasing advice.

Ann: I usually provide a list of questions/things to look for as well. For instance, I ask them to scribble in the margin places where they think they’ve spotted a clue, or to periodically scribble their thoughts on “who done it” as the story progresses. I also ask them to note places where they get lost, or have to back up and re-read a passage (which indicates to me that I probably need to re-write it). Also, they are free to note anything else that catches their attention. If they feel something is anachronistic, for instance, I ask them to circle/note it in some way. Sometimes, the bit is historically accurate, but if it causes the average reader to stop and think or wonder, then I usually try to find another way to say it, or I explain in more detail. And, of course, I ask them to let me know if I surprised them at the end, and if the mystery was “satisfying.”

That’s very useful information! Thank you for sharing with us. In coming months, we’ll explore this topic in greater depth.

Readers, how many of you have fulfilled this function for an author? Authors, how many of you use beta readers? If not, what in particular do you want to learn about this writing tool? Please leave us a comment or question!

19 comments :

  1. This is very timely for me as I have just sent out my teen science-fantasy novel to my teenage beta-readers. Hopefully I don't get too many comments along the lines of "the characters all sound like my mom!".

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  2. I use readers all along in the process, but my publisher also has beta readers who receive either PDF files or softbound copies to search for final glitches post-proof, post-edits, and right before release. Becalmed went to about six readers. So helpful as four of them caught little things that will improve the book (the type of soldering iron I'd used, a turn of the head that needed to be there to explain a scene several pages later, a sensory clue that would help explain something else, a comma in another place. There weren't any typos, which was good!) Great feedback. And I've got to say, if other publishers used these sorts of readers--who know what they're talking about--we might see fewer gaffes in print or e-books.

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  3. Great post, thanks. I've only had the occasion once (meaning only one "finished" book) to use beta readers. Unfortunately, they weren't personal contacts rather through a friend in the business, and only one got back to me. (Which I could consider as feedback in itself.) Fortunately, that one that got back to me was excellent; she had useful insights, a wicked fast turnaround time, and she confirmed some issues that were on my radar but that I thought (hoped) could slide. (I was tired. :-)

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  4. It was interesting to see how many beta readers you use, LJ and Ann. I just used two for my last book, although I always have a police officer read for accuracy of the police procedures. I just had never thought to call him a beta reader. (smile)

    How did you first approach the beta readers? Did you know them before you asked?

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  5. Dani:
    Thank you for defining "beta reader." Seen the term used over and over but never really defined. Recently read Buckley's fiction books on Elvis and some spy whose name escapes me. He had his kids and professional colleagues critique his early drafts. Then he used his own editor and copyeditor before another editor and copyeditor at the publisher went through the manuscript.
    Oh, to be able to afford that many sets of eyes.

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  6. Very timely, as I have a manuscript that I'm giving the second-go-round treatment and I was seriously considering asking a few folks to read it. They'd have to be fast, because of my editor's schedule, so I was reluctant to impose. But I just might do it, although I can't see finding more than 2 at this point.
    (And I'd like to thank LJ for giving my first Mapleton Mystery a read--not quite as intense as a beta read, but her comments gave me the courage to move forward and send it to an editor.)

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  7. I always use beta readers. Two want printed pages, so they get the book in a binder with a red pen attached. The others want electronic versions. I ask each to read for continuity, character interest, and plot. Their comments help shape the final version that goes to my agent, who is the world's hardest editor...

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  8. My critique group read through mine as I go along. My daughter and her friends read the YA books to make sure I've captured my targeted audience. You need people who are willing to be honest/critical.

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  9. I should also have mentioned that beta readers usually don't get paid for their help - a big boon for authors! Well, they might pay it back by reciprocating. But there is rarely cash involved.

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  10. Nobody wants to use me for Beta Reader ... and who could blame them? I just finished a book that was on the best seller list when I started it ... in one passage, the protagonist had to duck into a phone booth to call the cops ... and that wouldn't have been unusual when I got the book.

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  11. Maryann: Most of my beta readers are people I had already connected with online, and most had read one of my novels and liked it. But several of newest beta readers contacted me and asked if they could participate. So it's mixed. But I've never approached anyone asking for a beta read without knowing them somewhat first.

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  12. I wanted to add that the first time I heard the term was when a reader in Scotland contacted me after reading The Sex Club and asked if she could beta read my next book. I had to ask her what she meant! That was long ago. :)

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  13. Hello all, and thanks Dani for pulling this together. :-)

    Maryann: All my beta readers are folks I know from the past (a couple of author-types who have been my friends for ages, for instance, and my sister-in-law who is a perceptive reader and tells me "what's what" without holding back) or folks (usually experts) I have met during the writing of the book. And then, there's my critique group which reads each chapter as it's drafted... but those are VERY early readers, way before the "beta stage."

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  14. I'm almost through with my edits and will be sending off Blessing or Curse to my editor, Helen Ginger. I'm also seriously considering sending it off to some beta readers as well for additional feedback, and perhaps a blurb or two to use.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  15. Through trying a bunch of manuscript swaps I found two advance readers that suit me perfectly. One I've been working with for seven years and the other just two, but they are devoted, willing to prioritize my manuscript, willing to re-read after revisions, and notice all the right stuff. I feel so lucky to have them!

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  16. I have a great beta reader who was a part of one of my critique groups in the past. I send it to her before I send it off to the publisher/editor and it is SO incredibly helpful. A fresh eye can catch many things that I have become much too close to even see anymore!

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  17. I use readers -- just didn't call them beta readers. Their feedback on areas of need that I had totally overlooked provided invaluable assistance during the "fix-it" process.

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  18. Yes, yes, beta readers! I used them for both books, when I thought they might be finished. My readers acted like editors, too, watching out for typos and improper grammar, anything confusing or unclear. I had one reader who could check for historical accuracy, another was a librarian and former grammar teacher. The beta readers have to feel free to criticize, and I have to be able to take it.

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  19. Yes, Linda/A, your readers must feel free to critique honestly(and if they are themselves authors, they'll know what kind of feedback to give). The authors, on the other hand, must feel free to disregard or accept any feedback without fear of hurting feelings. Beta readers aren't ghostwriters - they really are just a set of fresh eyes reviewing what has already been written. There's a fine line to walk to guarantee a mutually satisfactory experience. We'll write more about this in the future. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. I'm especially grateful to LJ and Ann for taking the time to answer the questions so succinctly. Nice job!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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