Stephanie: Quite often I have writers who get in touch with me about Beta Readers. They want to know how useful they are, what using them involves and so on. After much thought I decided to start a Beta Readers Series on Layered Pages and have asked authors who use them to share their knowledge in the practice. Today with me is Jane Davis to answer a few of my questions pertaining to this subject.
Do you use beta readers?
Jane: Beta readers are an essential part of my editorial process. I couldn’t do without them.
Stephanie: I know of a few authors who use beta readers for different phases of their manuscript. How many do you use and in what phase of your WIP do you require them?
Jane: I use a core of about twelve, all at the same stage. This comes when I have self-edited my manuscript to within an inch of its life and think it is nearing completion, but before I sent it to my copy-editor/s. After making changes, I might test them on a second group of beta readers to see if specific issues identified by the first group have been resolved.
Stephanie: What is it that you look for in a beta reader? And what is the importance of them?
Jane: I look for evidence that they are reasonably widely read, have a critical eye, an enquiring mind and subjectivity. Sometimes I look for a specialization or area of expertise. They need to be unafraid of causing offence and have confidence in their convictions. I try to make this easy for those I think are holding back, taking them out for a coffee and teasing out details they didn’t want to put in writing.
I specifically seek out perspectives that I don’t have. A Funeral for an Owl involved many medical details so I used someone with medical training to correct any inaccuracies. By way of another example, my last release, An Unchoreographed Life, told the story of a ballerina who turned to prostitution when she became a single mother. I used dual narrators, the mother, and the daughter, who ages from six to eight during the telling of the story. Although I researched child psychology and developmental stages carefully, I don’t have children of my own, and so I put specific questions about those beta readers that did. Was the speech age-appropriate? Had I captured a child’s priorities and fears accurately?
Interestingly, those with children were far more sympathetic to the mother in my story, and said that they would have done all that Alison (my main character) did and more to provide for her daughter. Several of the beta-readers without children felt that the child should have been removed by social services. This shocked me. It was the exact opposite of what I had thought reactions would be.
The importance of this stage in the process is clear. The aim is to road-test the story by giving it to people with a wide range of life experiences. The reader finishes the book, so I
am keen to know how they react to it before finally letting it off its leash. I know that my books will not be for everyone, but I want them to have as broad an appeal as possible.
I always send the manuscript out with a questionnaire. Some of the questions remain the same, regardless of the book. What worked for you and what didn’t? for example. I instruct my beta readers not to proofread – that this will come later – but many like to contribute, and they are usually right.
The other less obvious advantage is that the buy-in of beta readers is enormous. They become your first layer of people who will create a buzz about the book. I give each of my beta-readers a gift-wrapped copy on publication, but many of them want to buy copies of a book in which their name appears as a gift for family and friends.
Stephanie: How do you choose your beta readers?
Jane: Initially, from a select group of family and friends, to which I have added other volunteers. I have also approached readers who have posted thoughtful and constructive reviews of my books – particularly those who have raised points I wouldn’t have thought of and no one else had raised.
Asking is a very powerful thing. It’s amazing who you find yourself standing (or sitting) next to. My first-layer of super-fans (I subscribe to the theory that you need 1000) have become indispensible. They form my team of proofreaders, beta-readers, and promoters.
Harry. Let me tell you about Harry. Harry is the only man brave enough to attend my Keep Fit class. Think mid-seventies, dresses like a throw-back from The Kids from Fame, sings very loudly (a perfect tenor, he knows all the words, even the rude ones). An engineer by profession, Harry’s hobby is not just calligraphy, but intricate delicate gold-leaf and cobalt blue illuminations of the type found in medieval bibles. I mention these things because exercise + musicality + meticulous attention to detail + artistry = left hand/right hand side of brain balance. In other words, your ideal proofreader. (Harry is ‘old school’. He spots errors I’m not even aware of, because they have gone uncorrected my whole life. He is unable to let anything go uncorrected.) When proofreading my last book, Harry detected ninety-seven typos. My other proofreaders found an average of twelve. And, no, you can’t have his number. As a beta reader, he provides a completely different perspective to the rest of my group, who are women.
Sarah. Sarah is a shit-hot PA, super-active type. Last month she walked forty miles from Keswick to Barrow in the pouring rain to raise money for charity, slicing two hours off her personal best. She has since climbed Britain’s three highest mountains in twenty-four hours. (Not for charity, just for FUN!) You wouldn’t think she’d have time to offer her help, but when people say ask a busy person, they’re referring to Sarah. Again, how do I know Sarah? From my Keep Fit class.
Helen. My Keep Fit instructor, Helen is also an award-winning garden designer (Her first show garden at Hampton Court won gold). Referring to me as her ‘Writer in Residence’, she allows me to hand-sell my books at class. She has made it possible for me to sell my books at charity fund-raisers and annual dinners, providing access to 400 classes of approximately thirty mainly middle-aged women: 12,000 potential readers who fall within my target market! Some classes even have book clubs attached to them.
Sadly, you won’t find members of my writing group among my ‘A’ team. The issue is that I am not a novelty to members of my writing group. ‘What, you’ve written a book? Who here hasn’t?’ But lunch at an insurance conference last week turned out to be the ideal time to talk about books. Once again, I was a novelty, and there were people who asked, ‘How can I get involved?’ ‘What can we do?’
Stephanie: What has been your experience with them?
Jane: In the main, completely wonderful. I have very rarely had to seek people out. When they hear me talking about how others have contributed, people ask if they can get involved. There will always be several who have to drop out because they can’t work to your timescale. Life takes over. I only chase people up once for feedback. I don’t offer the carrot of featuring their name in the acknowledgements and then remove it. People who have been unable provide feedback in time are often the first to review it, or to help to promote it in other ways.
There is a difficulty in asking for too many opinions. You may end up with a diverse range of responses, none of which you agree with. When opinions conflict, you will have to decide which are valid, or test those opinions further. If, as I do, you refuse to shy away from the big subjects, you have to be prepared for strong reactions. Just because readers express strong reactions, it doesn’t mean that something needs to be changed. A reaction is not necessarily a criticism and it is far better to have a strong reaction than no reaction. At this stage, you have to have faith in your story and the characters you have created. Does it matter if readers don’t like your characters, for example? You may say no, but you have to provide readers with a reason to be gunning for them.
Stephanie: How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?
Jane: I accept that I can feel very protective of my books, but the point is to make them the very best they can be. If several beta readers make the same point, even if I don’t agree completely, there is obviously something that I need to address. It is important to remember not to change one thing in isolation. Even a minor change involves working through from the beginning and examining the impact that the one change will have.
Perhaps one beta reader will come up with points I wouldn’t have even thought of, being too close to the material. I like to be challenged in that way.
Initial feedback also helps me word the cover blurb. Sometimes, reactions to the novel really help me to define the nuts and bolts of what it is about. Sometimes beta-readers will compare the feel of the novel to something else they have read, something I have missed. I might then read the book they have referred to and see how that author dealt with the same subject-matter. I will also be making sure that our books are not too similar.
Stephanie: Do you use them for every book you write?
Jane: I haven’t done, no. In the past I paid a structural editor to do much the same job (sometimes more than once), and relied on critique from my writers’ group. That said, I have always tested my writing on a trusted group of family and friends, without referring to them as beta-readers. The process wasn’t formalised in the way it is now. You can never scrimp the services of a copy-editor, but my last release was the first time when I was confidence enough to skip a structural edit.
Stephanie: Thank you, Jane!
Jane Davis’s website
I live in Carshalton, Surrey with my Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. My first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ I was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Of the following three novels I published, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’