How do you know your book is good? You ask someone to read it and tell you what they think. Or several someones, if you’re feeling brave.
The first time I encountered the concept of beta readers was in Stephen King’s “On Writing” where he said his wife had always been his first reader, followed by a close group of trusted friends as the second readers. Well, I thought then, that’s too bad because there is no way I will subject Big C to this. You see, I know my husband’s literary tastes, which are extremely specific and do not include urban fantasy. I had to look elsewhere for first and second readers.
I looked no further than friends and people who I knew read urban fantasy. I picked four and sent them the third draft of The Lamiastriga. I’d picked four beta readers, two friends and two online acquaintances who volunteered. I mean, the friends volunteered, too, I didn’t shove it down their throats.
One of the friends was useless. She said she loved the book and had no constructive feedback to give me. I have since stricken her from my short list of beta readers. The second friend was constructive, pointing out plot gaps and inconsistencies, which is exactly what I had not paid her to do. Then the acquaintances spoke up.
One hated it and I was fine with that. She said she had find it hard to finish the book at all, so I apologised and said she should never waste time with something she doesn’t like. I meant it. She said she had a lot of feedback to give me if I was willing to take it. Of course I was willing, that was the point. She never gave me that feedback, however, for technical reasons called my former internet supplier. She thought I was upset and all in all communication broke down.
The second acquaintance managed to get her feedback through to me. Five pages of a detailed dissection of the book and the story the reader thought I had written. Basically, the feedback came down to her outlining a whole new — and different — book she thought I should write. And this, friends and neighbours, is how I learned two things: one, how severely subjective reading it; and two, how I should lay ground rules when I reach out to beta readers.
From what I see on Twitter, which is my online writing hangout, I gather a lot of writers go for quantity. One fellow writer had reworked her novel half a dozen times based on beta reader feedback. I can only admire her pain tolerance but I can’t help asking: why?
If you give a book to a dozen people, they will read a dozen different books. I used to think this was a figure of speech but no, reading is indeed that subjective I’m learning now that I got some personally shared reviews of The Lamiastriga. In other words, if you give your book to a dozen people, you cannot reasonably take all their feedback into account when revising.
Certainly, there is the argument that if a lot of people tell you there is something specifically wrong with your book, you would do well to listen. Neil Gaiman says so, and I expect he’s right. But if a lot of people tell you many different things are wrong with your book, who do you listen to? Enter the trusted beta reader.
For Second Skin I decided to be smarter. I picked two beta readers, one a very close friend with similar to my literary tastes and the other an online friend with whom I share a surprisingly similar way of thinking. They were both great. I got exactly the type of constructive criticism I needed (though not the amount and yes, Phil, I’m looking at you). I even made a bullet-point list of their notes and worked on the manuscript from it. You know how sometimes you can feel your book or painting, or whatever it is you’re doing is getting better? Yeah, that’s how I felt then.
Beta readers are, I think, an essential part of turning a decently written book into a good one. Of course, it will never be perfect. Of course, it will not be universally loved (I sent out the final draft of SS to two friends and I haven’t heard back from one of them, which I take to mean she hated it but is too nice to tell me. Don’t be too nice! Tell me! I can take it.). Of course, you won’t always agree with the feedback (I happen to love the omniscient narrator, which some mockingly call head-jumping). This is all perfectly fine and normal. Abnormality begins when you put too much faith into beta reader feedback and start rewriting your book again and again ad infinitum in the mistaken hope you will ever satisfy everyone’s expectations. That way madness lurks in wait.
So, scant as my experience with beta readers is so far, I think I’m on to something, thanks to King, as well as Margaret Atwood, who notes specifically that your first beta reader should be someone close to you (though preferably not your spouse if you want the marriage to survive).
Beta readers shouldn’t be just some people you met online and chat with on a daily basis. And they shouldn’t be people who would say they love everything you’ve written — because they like you as a person — because this won’t help you at all. Friends is the word I’m looking for. Friends with similar reading tastes and close enough to not feel bad about criticising your work. And keep the numbers small. Too big a sample and, unlike with statistics, the picture begins to blur and, from what I see, you end up in a vicious circle of revision-beta readers-revision-beta readers. Who needs that? No one, that’s who.