April 15, 2011

Indie Adventures – Part 3 – Evaluating the Beta Read

If you missed it, See Indie Adventures – Part 1 – The Starting Line and Indie Adventures – Part 2 – Beta Readers or “How the Hell Do I Know If This Book is Any Good!?”

So you did your homework and setup up your beta readers (see part 2). This includes, in brief:

  1. Picked good, enthusiastic readers that would read the kind of book you wrote.
  2. Set them up with your manuscript (printed with red pen, or electronic with “track changes” on)
  3. Gave them a critique to fill out.
  4. Gave them simple instructions and lots of gratitude.

Now you wait, on pins and needles, desperate to find out whether you really have a book. And if this is your first time out, believe me, it is a valid question (one that you can’t answer, thus the beta readers).

This process took a while for me (about 5 weeks total), and I let it. Some of the readers got back to me very quickly, some took a while. When I was about 5 weeks out I did send out an email and ended up shifting one reader to Beta Round 2 (oh yes, I am doing two rounds of beta reads).

Interview With a Beta Reader

The day has finally come, your first reader has let you know they are done, what now?

  1. Thank them, and keep thanking them.
  2. Meet with them in person (if possible) or by phone. You want the highest bandwidth communication you can get. Email or IM isn’t going to work that well.
  3. Meet with them as soon as you can after they are done, so the story is still fresh. If practical, buy them lunch or coffee, or beer, or whatever.
  4. Look over their critique, and their red-lining and make sure you can read it and it makes sense.
  5. Chat with them about what they liked and what they didn’t like. Ask questions of you need to about their critique comments. Use the face-to-face time to get a better sense of how they viewed your story.

If all goes well, your reader liked your novel, and found it to be a “Novel”. Some of my readers expressed surprise at how fully formed my novel was. I took it as a compliment. Really they didn’t know what to expect (and frankly, neither did I).

My main concerns with the interview was:

  1. Is it really a “novel”? In other words, did it “feel” like they were reading something they could have gotten at the bookstore or library
  2. Did they enjoy it?
  3. What was the experience like?

Do these interviews as your readers finish up.

Dealing with Feedback, Some General Rules

OK, so not everyone will love every word you write. Got it? Each of your readers will have an opinion about your book, some you like and some you don’t like.  This is not rocket science. Of course it logically makes sense, but emotionally it can be complicated.

Keep in mind: This is not writing by committee. This is your baby, and you make the call. Your obligation is to listen with an open mind and consider what your readers are saying.

None of this is about anyone being right or wrong. This is a very subjective experience for everyone.

While all my readers really liked the book, some didn’t buy certain things, some didn’t like certain parts, some characters where not quite there for them. And that is fine. What can be hard is sorting out what is true for them, and what might be true for the audience at large.

You will also find some of your readers going to town with the smallest of things in the book. I was surprised by what some choose as their favorite part. It was really interesting, and will inform what I do if more books are written with these characters.

Evaluating the Quantitative Critique

In Part 2, I presented a two part critique, the first part has 8 elements that are evaluated 1-5. After they are all in, start with them.

Joe Konrath, in his original presentation of this, says you need at least 35 on the crit sheet to be ready.  And yeah, this is a pretty high bar.

So, take a spreadsheet put in the numbers for all your readers, and calculate the averages (or if you don’t like those new-fangled spreadsheet thingies, do it by hand).

The scores for my book ranged from 35 to 38.5, with an average of 36.5. Wow, was that a relief. Woop! Woop! There be a book here.

I see one factor here (and only one) that is easy to change: Grammar / Spelling. My average there, is not bad, 4.13. This is one area you can, and will, nudge your score up while working on your book.  For this book, I expect this to come up about half a point during this process. That takes the average to 37.

The most important mark in this critique, for me, is “Overall Enjoyment”. If the books is not enjoyable, the rest just doesn’t matter. And this is interesting, there I got my highest marks. It came in at 4.88 (I got three 5s and one 4.5). Now it really is time to celebrate!

I don’t have enough data to say why “Overall Enjoyment” was higher. Many of the critique elements are very subjective, but perhaps that one is more so.

Beta Edits

So, now you know. Either you have a book people are enjoying, or you don’t. If you don’t, it maybe time to go back to the drawing board. If you do, then time to incorporate the edits.

They come in two varieties:

  1. Red-lined corrections.
  2. General feedback (from the non-quantitative portion of the critique, or the interview).

The first one is easy: go forth and put in the changes that make sense. If this is spelling or typos, this is really easy, just do it. For other, more subjective changes, do it if it makes sense.

When I am unsure about a suggested change I read it aloud, before and after. I take whichever one sounds better.

An interesting aside: I was worried about all my beta readers finding the same typos. This did not prove to be true. My two best typo finders only had about 30% overlap in what they found.  I had worried that maybe I should be doing one at a time (with corrections in-between, which would take a long time), but if this experience is indicative, that is not necessary.

The other feedback (this character was a little thin; this part was confusing; this part was boring) is harder to deal with. My best advise, use your gut. A more complete version of that would be: take it in with an open mind, give your subconscious some time to chew on it, and listen to your gut.

Confessions and Bit of a Rant

I should make a confession here. Well maybe several:

  1. I am not a professionally trained writer (and glad of it).
  2. I hate to rewrite.
  3. I am young to this game.
  4. What I am saying works for me, your mileage may vary.

What I got from my beta readers did not leave me thinking I needed to rewrite (thankfully). What changes I made were small and delicate. This book was being enjoyed, and the last thing I want to do is screw that up.

I think that what makes a book a “good” book is, actually, a bit of a mystery. There are, certainly, some well understood basics (character, plot, quality of the prose, etc.), but beyond that why does one book stand the test of time and another one doesn’t? Sure, some writers can hit the best seller lists over and over, but most can’t. There is luck, and timing, and a lot that I don’t think we understand fully. I only say this to suggest that if your novel is well received, maybe you don’t know exactly why. And if you don’t, tread carefully.

Everyone writes differently so do what works for you. I can tell you some very professional writers out there don’t do much, if any, rewriting on their own books (for example check out this blog post by Dean Wesley Smith). Dean’s basic premise is this: you use a different part of your brain to write vs. rewriting. They are different skill sets, and not many are good at rewriting.

For me the process is about getting out of the way and letting it come to me. That is why I give things time, and go slowly and carefully when doing anything beyond basic grammar and typo fixing.

There is this “where the hell did that come from?” that happens a lot in my writing. It is, in fact, one of my favorite parts of the process. I sometimes put the most casual reference early in a story, when I don’t know where it is going, and somehow in the end it is very, very important.

I am not saying I never rewrite, just almost never.

Each story is different, each writer is different (i.e. there is no “right” way to write a book).  Honor that.

What is Next?

So you did a beta round, used that to evaluate, and hopefully, improve your book. What is next? For me, it is on to Beta Round 2.

Next up: Beta Round 2 (or One More Time for Good Measure)

Don’t Miss: Indie Adventures – Part 1 – The Starting Line and Indie Adventures – Part 2 – Beta Readers or “How the Hell Do I Know If This Book is Any Good!?”

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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