The Importance of a Beta Reader with Heidi Skarie

Heidi Skarie BRAG

I’d like to welcome back B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Heidi Skarie today to talk with me about the importance of Beta Readers. She writes visionary novels that are an intoxicating amalgam of action, adventure and romance, featuring strong, spiritually inquisitive heroines. Star Rider on the Razor’s Edge is her first science fiction novel. She previously published Red Willow’s Quest, a historical novel based on a past life, about a Native American maiden training to become a medicine woman.

In the fall of 2015 Heidi plans to publish her new novel: Annoure and the Dragonships, another historical novel based on a past life, about a young woman kidnapped by the Vikings. In 2016 Star Rider and the Ahimsa Warrior, the second book in her Star Rider series will be published.

 Heidi, do you use beta readers?

Yes, it’s wonderful to get feedback on your book.

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?

I write the first draft of my novel without any input so I can create a cohesive story without being influenced by anyone else. Then I work with my critique group and go through the manuscript chapter by chapter.  After I’ve gone through the manuscript with them, I use beta readers for feedback on the entire book.

On my last book I used three beta readers, but I’d like to have more.

What is it that you look for in a beta reader? What is the importance of them?

I look for people who like novels in my genres, which are science fiction and historical fiction.  People who read a lot are best so they have a good sense of story and can give me constructive feedback.  I want to know both what they liked about the book as well as the areas where they think it needs work.  An author gets so close to the novel that it is hard to see it as a whole. My critique group is helpful, but they only critique a few chapters at a time. A person sees different things when they read a novel through in its entirety.

I want feedback on the plot.  Are there are any inconsistencies? Was the ending satisfying? Did the story keep you engaged, so you didn’t want to put it down?  Did you think about the story after reading it?

I also want feedback on the characters.  Did you relate to the protagonists and their problems?  Were the main characters three-dimensional, including the antagonist?

I’ve found that beta readers are good at seeing different aspects of the book.  Some beta readers give very detailed feedback and others give their overall impression of the book.  For my last book, one of the readers pointed out the timing in one scene was off.  It was morning in the beginning of the scene and a few paragraphs later the sun was setting.  Another beta reader said there needed to be more references to the minor characters.  Both these points were well taken and easy to correct.

It’s also important to find people who have the time to read the manuscript fairly quickly so I can meet my deadlines.

Star Rider on the Razor’s Edge

How do you choose your beta readers?

I asked a few people who I know well and trust, but in the future I’d like to get feedback from people who I don’t know.  They might be more objective.

What has been your experience with them?

It’s been a great experience.  They are usually supportive and happy to read what I’m working on.  They often tell me they get emotionally involved with the characters and storyline.

Is it always helpful to get feedback?

Not always.  You can’t change your story to please everyone.  Not everyone is going to like it. It’s like a painting: some people like modern art, some impressionistic and some classical.  If your book is space opera and they like hard science, they aren’t your best choice as readers.

How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?

I try to keep my vision and the theme of the novel in mind as I go through the comments.  If the comment is just pointing out a mistake, I fix it.  If the comment is subjective, I think about it.  If different readers have conflicting ideas, I go with what I think will best fit the characters and overall plotline.  In the end I have to trust my own inner voice.

Do you use them for every book you write?

Yes, and I plan to continue to use them.  Many successful novelists find beta readers helpful and constructive.

Author’s Links:

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The Importance of Beta Readers with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Marisha Pink

Marisha Pink - Headshot

I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree  Marisha Pink to chat with me today about Beta Readers. She is a rat race escapee turned author and entrepreneur. Born and raised in London, from a young age she had an unhealthy obsession with books. She always dreamed of one day writing stories with the power to take readers on a journey, but somehow she wound up studying Chemistry and working in marketing instead.

In September 2012, after five years of climbing the corporate ladder, she decided that it was finally time to take the leap. Backpack in hand, she left everything behind to travel Southeast Asia and complete her debut novel, Finding Arun. She’s been on a mission not to live life by the book ever since.

Eventually returning to London in February 2013, Marisha raised the finance to publish the book through crowdfunding, and joined the self-publishing revolution. Released globally in September 2013, Finding Arun has earned a 5* Readers’ Favorite review, a B.R.A.G. Medallion, and a shortlisting for the inaugural Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction.

Marisha has been featured on BBC London 94.9FM, The Literary Platform, and across several popular blogs and podcasts. Her second novel, Last Piece of Me, the prequel to Finding Arun, was published on 5th March 2015 and is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook.

Marisha, do you use beta readers?

Absolutely! I wouldn’t dare skip this phase of the process now that I know how valuable it is.

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?

For my first book I just had three beta readers, and for my second there were eight. In the past I have used them after the professional copy-edit, but before the proofread. I like to receive their general comments, but I find that it is a good way to assess whether or not I have adequately addressed the concerns raised by my copy editor, before proceeding to the proofreading stage. I had some really interesting feedback with my last book, however, so I am considering having two beta reader groups in the future – one before the professional copy edit, and one after. This would allow me the flexibility to make bigger changes earlier on because by the time the WIP has reached beta readers in the past, those things have usually been pretty set and it is difficult to make such large scale changes right before publication. In terms of numbers, it is more difficult to manage eight sets of opinions, but I think it gives you greater confidence in the responses if more people are saying similar things.

Finding-Arun-3D-book Marisha Pink BRAG

What is it that you look for in a beta reader? What is the importance of them?

Complete honesty and punctuality! It really does the book (and me!) no good if people hold back on the things that they think and skirt around issues just to be polite. I would much rather have brutal honesty (however soul-crushing it might be!) in the form of constructive criticism, so that I understand exactly what the issue is and have an idea what it would take to improve the manuscript. Getting comments back on time is also really important and I know that my books are not everyone else’s priority, but beta reading is a commitment. It is much more difficult to assimilate the feedback and look for commonalities if you receive the feedback in dribs and drabs, and it can delay the overall publishing timeline if you find out you need to make huge changes late on. Beyond that, I like having a mix of people, not just my target readership. I think this can help you spot things that you might not otherwise see, because your work is being viewed by different eyes with very different reading habits, and it is also a good indicator of whether your work is capable of “transcending boundaries”. Overall, beta readers are central to the writing and publishing process because they are often the first non-professional observers of your work.

How do you choose your beta readers?

I will usually send out a request to my mailing list and also post on my social media accounts. This means that beta readers are already familiar with my work, so they know roughly what to expect. I’m not usually inundated with offers, because I am quite clear about the timelines and expectations, which not everyone is able to meet, so it’s often a case of first come, first served. I think the optimum number of beta readers is probably between six and eight, but you don’t always receive responses from everyone, so I err on the side of caution and pick ten, with the expectation that I will receive feedback from only a percentage.

Marisha Pink Second book cover

What has been your experience with them?

I love my beta readers! I find that they are so enthusiastic and excited by the opportunity to get involved with shaping something before it’s published, that we often enter into long debates about characters and plots etc. once they have finished reading. My beta readers have really helped me to improve my storytelling and my books are undoubtedly a better reading experience because of their involvement. For me, it’s also great to finally be able to talk to people about the things that I have been working on and to have the support and reassurance that I have produced something worthy of people’s time.

How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?

If I see several beta readers making similar comments then I will usually take their advice. If there is a standalone comment then it is more of a judgement call, but I do consider all the comments I receive. The impact on my writing has been huge, particularly with my last book. Taking on board advice from beta readers can really lift your work up to that next level, because you have an opportunity to get rid of all the little niggly things that, on their own, aren’t much, but collectively can lower the standard of your work. With my last book, one of my beta readers was another writer and his observations were incredibly insightful, but, moreover, he gave me great suggestions on how to improve the things that he called me out on, which was a great help when I began to edit again.

Do you use them for every book you write?

I do and I will continue to do so. For me, it is a no-brainer!

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Author Links:

Twitter: @marishapink

Author Website

The Insightful look of Beta Readers with Debrah Martin

Debrah Martin -BRAG

I’d like to welcome back Debrah Martin to talk with me about beta readers today. She shares valuable information on the subject and gives great insight. Debrah writes under three different pen names and in three very different genres. She plots fast-paced and compelling thrillers as D.B. Martin, with the first in the Patchwork trilogy, Patchwork Man, having been recently awarded a coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion. The explosive conclusion to the series, Patchwork Pieces, is to be released on 13th April 2015. As Debrah Martin she writes literary fiction, where often the truth IS stranger than fiction, and two new titles are due to be released in 2015/16. And not to be overlooked is her YA teen detective series, penned as Lily Stuart – THE teen detective. Irreverent, blunt, funny and vulnerable. Webs is the first in the series and Magpies will follow in 2015.

So why not stick to just one name and one genre?

‘Variety is the spice of life,’ she says. ‘And I continually have all these new ideas – they have to come out somehow!’

Debrah’s past careers have spanned two businesses, teaching, running business networking for the University of Winchester (UK) and social event management. She chaired the Wantage (not just Betjeman) Literary Festival in 2014 and also mentors new writers.

Do you use beta readers, Debrah?

Yes, always. In my view they’re an essential stage of the writing process. They are the ‘real’ readers who tell me what works, what drags, what excites and whether anyone else will want to read the book.

Patchwork Man

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?

I have various types of beta readers/ beta reader processes. First of all, I belong to an extremely committed and professional writers group. The group meets twice a month and we read short extracts from work in progress – a chapter or a few thousand words at a time. This enables us to focus on the fine detail chapter by chapter. Over the course of a few months, quite large sections of a manuscript can be critiqued in detail this way.

Once my manuscript is complete – and generally after the second or third edit – it’s beta read by a group of about five or six, followed by a meeting in which they discuss and feedback to me, together with their written notes. From this, I then review what they feel didn’t work, or needs revising and work on a fourth and possibly fifth draft. My last beta reading stage is to give that almost-final draft to my most trusted reader, my older daughter – who I know will be absolutely brutal (bless her!). I have one exception to the final stage – and that is to pass the manuscript to a specialist reader first to check on credibility and readability from a specific angle. I will be doing this shortly with Chained Melody, which is to be re-released later on this year since it is about gender reassignment. Only once the manuscript has survived all those tests, and after it’s been proofed is it feasible to consider publishing it.

Patchwork People

What is it that you look for in a beta reader? And what is the importance of them?

My beta readers are generally all writers themselves so I’m confident they are not only avid readers, but that they also understand why a book reads well too. My daughter isn’t a writer per se but as she is studying at Oxford University, she’s had to master an elegant writing style for her theses and essays, and she has always been a prolific reader. I value my specialist readers for their individual knowledge base and personal experience. Put them all together and I think they make a winning team – and an essential one. Readers come in all shapes and sizes, from all angles and with an immense range of personal viewpoints and experiences. Whatever I write needs to satisfy the criteria of being good, literarily, well plotted, pacey, accurate and credible. I need all of my beta reader team to help me achieve this.

How do you choose your beta readers?

In a way, my beta readers choose me. It’s quite a task to read and critique a whole manuscript for someone – and a commitment. It’s very important, therefore, to have the service volunteered. Having said that, of course I do pick and choose who I feel is going to be most helpful, but the basic requirements for me are commitment, time, and understanding of what good writing is, an ability to be analytical, and not to merely be ‘nice’ about the manuscript because they know me. Put objectively, no matter how pleased you are with your work, it can always be improved on and beta readers are the tool that enables you to make those improvements. Put subjectively, these guys are absolute stars!

Patchwork Pieces

What has been your experience with them?

At times, uncomfortable – no-one enjoys criticism. On the other hand, it teaches you how to distinguish yourself from your words; after all, my beta readers are critiquing my words, not me, even though each book I write is my ‘baby’. On the whole, they’ve all been exceptionally helpful – and my daughter and I are still speaking six books down the line!

How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?

Often, but not always. If all my readers make much the same comment, I know I need to give it some serious attention. However, at the end of the day, beta readers are still only readers, and I’m still the writer. Sometimes you have to have the courage of your convictions and sometimes you have to bow to reader’s preferences. The difficult part is deciding which way to go – and as I’m as human as the next person, sometimes that’s really tough. I have learned not to take criticism personally now though, and be able to take a more objective view because of it. I hope overall, it’s made – and will continue to make – me a better writer. Only time will tell on that – and my readers…

Do you use them for every book you write?

Absolutely! Bring ‘em on!

Patchwork Man is available on Amazon

As is the sequel, Patchwork people

And the conclusion to the trilogy, Patchwork Pieces, is available for pre-order

For YA fiction readers, my first YA fiction, Webs, is available here

You can also find Debrah’s website here

Her blog

Facebook Page

And she’s on Twitter as @Storytellerdeb

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My Guest, Author Jane Davis

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.

Jane Davis

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.

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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

About Jane:

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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.’

Q&A About Beta Readers with Author E.M. Powell

Stephanie: I would like to introduce Author E.M. Powell. She is here to take part in my series about Beta Readers and has some very interesting and helpful things to say….E.M. is the author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, The Fifth Knight, a medieval thriller based on the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The next book in the series, The Blood of The Fifth Knight, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in late 2014. Visit her website or her facebook page . The audio version of The Fifth Knight can be purchased here: Amazon

Do you use beta readers?

E.M.: Yes.

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?

E.M.: I am also one of those authors! First reader is my long-suffering spouse. Many people would think that this is a recipe for domestic turmoil. But he’s extremely sensible and he knows the importance of getting things right. If he thinks something’s not working, he says so, and more importantly, why. Next is my agent, the peerless Josh Getzler. You could argue that an agent is not a beta reader but he certainly meets the definition. Again, he is completely honest and probably over-kind with some of the stuff I have put before him. He’s also brilliant with editorial suggestions. At this early stage, it’s asking them to read on a partial. Then a full. And once a whole lot of changes have been made, it’s over to my team of three other beta readers.

Stephanie: What is it that you look for in a beta reader? And what is the importance of them?

E.M.: I think the important word here is reader. None of the people who so generously help are writers. As for importance, it’s impossible to quantify just how important they are. Something that I think might be working fine in my head can get a universal thumbs-down. And they’re always right. I don’t use beta readers for grammar/spelling/typos specifically. To me that’s a different request and if they’re looking for those issues, then the chances are, they’re going to be thinking less about the characters and the story.

Stephanie: How do you choose your beta readers?

E.M.: It’s a tricky decision and one which is probably individual to every writer. I don’t have a choice about my agent seeing early versions- which is good! For me, it’s all about trust. So yes, I have chosen my spouse and three friends. But all of them know how much this matters to me and all of them understand the importance of my manuscripts working as novels. I know they won’t say things are great when they’re not.

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Stephanie: What has been your experiences with them?

E.M.: All good. And when I use the word good, I don’t mean that they say everything is good. But good in the sense that I have been told where I’m going wrong. And you know what? They’ve been right. Right to the extent that I deleted 20,000 words out of the first 30,000 word partial of my current novel. Yes, it was painful, but I was weirdly happy to do it. I had a little voice in the back of my mind telling me things weren’t working. My first-round beta-readers confirmed that.

Stephanie: How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?

E.M.: See above! In terms of the impact, it was about me recognizing my strengths (fast-paced action) and delivering more of that. And it’s so much more fun to write! In the ill-fated partial. I was even boring myself.

Stephanie: Do you use them for every book you write?

E.M.: Yes, I have used other writers for my unpublished novels (which will never see the light of day!). I have had tremendously useful feedback from different individuals over the years and honed my craft that way. But I think the group I have now works and I don’t want to change it. And they’re very good value for money. Only Josh sees a commission- the rest just have to help me drink wine!

Thank you, E.M.!