So, you’ve finished the first draft of whatever piece of literature you may have written: a novel, screenplay, memoir, biography, self-help, or erotic fanfiction that you feel brave enough to share outside of Tumblr or An Archive of Our Own…first off, I want to tell you congratulations!! You’ve just accomplished something major that not everyone else can claim to have done, and that deserves to be rewarded. I say, go for that extra slice of chocolate cake, eat that gigantic plate of carbolicious pasta, have a whole bottle of wine, sleep in or whatever you prefer to do when you treat yo’self!
***Act responsibly, of course!***
One thing you absolutely should do is take a step back and separate yourself from your draft and give your mind a mental vacation. A few days to a week, maybe two, is the best amount, but honestly it’s up to you!
After the celebration is complete and you’re ready to get back to work with a fresh pair of eyes and rejuvenated mind, you can then start editing. One great method of doing that is to gather a small batch of people called “Beta Readers.” For those that are not familiar with the term, they’re basically a small group of people—similar to a focus group—who read your work and give you feedback on how it is: what works and what doesn’t, are there major plot holes, and what the overall impression of your words look like for someone other than yourself. They can give valuable perspective from an outside source, and give a whole new perspective to make your work even an even stronger piece of literature.
Going about gathering those readers is also important. Ryan J. Pelton wrote a similar article to this topic on writingcooperative.com—the link is HERE—but for those that want to stay loyal to my URL, he gives some guidelines on who would be a great candidate:
- Beta Readers shouldn’t be writers, if possible…basically, it’s a tricky spot because each writer has their own voice, their own method of how things work with written word, and it’s likely they’d focus too much on switching things around to however they’d write it. Beta Readers shouldn’t be correcting grammar (unless it’s a universal no-no); they’re to help figure out story flow, character impressions and development, pacing, and plot. Grammar is something you’ll worry about later!
- Only choose 1-2 Beta Readers…Everyone reads at a different pace and interprets the words differently. Ryan also uses the quote: too many cooks in the kitchen to help emphasize the point that too many people at a time giving feedback could be counter productive. I gave my five beta readers two months to look my draft over (which may or may not be more than enough time), and you want to make sure you’re selected readers you trust will actually do it and give honest, constructive criticism. Imagine my disappointment when the two months passed, and I get back to my some of my readers on their progress, and I either get some of them didn’t actually read it or the greatest response ever: “It was good.”…that’s it.
For this article, I focused more on the types of questions to ask if you’d written a piece of fiction over a piece of nonfiction like a memoir, biography, or self-help title. You really want to leave the questions open-ended so you don’t just get “Yes” or “No” answers, as those don’t really help. There are also plenty of other questions you may want to ask your readers that pertain to specific components of your story, and that’s totally okay! Go with that gut feeling, I am all about that journey for you. Just remember, you also don’t want to overwhelm your readers with too many questions, so I’d probably stick to twenty questions maximum; the twenty questions are entirely up to you on whatever answers you seek.
Below is the list of questions (in no particular order) that seemed to be broad enough to cover all the main aspects of what the Beta Reader is supposed to look for:
“At what point did you feel like the story had really begun?”
This question is about when they sat down and started reading, and you want to know where it was when they’d first gone “Awh yeah, now it’s getting good!” What was that first initial part that was (hopefully) early on in the story that really pushed it along and raises the call to action. Ideally, the introduction to the main conflict of the story should be introduced within the first 1-3 chapters, and I’ve had some fellow readers even say they give a book only the first twenty-five pages to grab their attention, and they’ll toss it aside if they aren’t interested by then…so if need be, get to the point!
“What parts did you find yourself skimming over?”
Basically, what were the boring parts? What parts seemed slower to the overall story, and if possible, how can you make them better? Maybe you don’t even need them at all, and could probably axe it from your story entirely. If you’re an artist, you’ve probably heard the phrase “kill your darlings,” which means to not get too attached and be prepared to trim off anything that needs to be. One suggestion that I’d like to give is to not actually delete any parts you decide to omit from your story, but instead to cut and paste them into a separate document–you never know if you might actually need them later on in the same project, or a different one!
“Was the overall premise of the story exciting enough?”
Did the conflict seem big enough? Are the stakes high enough? Is the conflict something the main character(s) absolutely can’t walk away from? If not, maybe you need to go back and rethink a few things about the plot…Think about Frodo and his task of taking the one ring to Mordor in order to destroy it before Sauron can fully return to power! Think about Harry Potter needing to defeat Voldemort in order to save the world. Your premise doesn’t necessarily need to be end of the world level of excitement, but it does need to be big enough to be a story worth telling.
“Did the conflict(s) your main character(s) deal with seem big enough or relatable at all?”
Besides the outer conflict, there’s also the inner conflict that your character is dealing with as well that’s a driving force for the whole story. Maybe they’re just looking for an adventure, or maybe they seek acknowledgement or glory from everyone, or maybe it’s to come to terms and move on from a past trauma, or it’s falling in love; it could be anything! What does your character want more than anything, and what are they willing to do to get it? Also, is their desire relatable in any way? Is it a desire anyone else could have in their own life, even if it’s not the same as the Beta Reader’s? If you have a main cast of multiple main characters: if their story arc doesn’t seem strong enough, if their development doesn’t seem strong enough, should they even be a main character? Maybe they’re better served as a minor character instead.
“Which characters(s) felt the most fleshed out, and who wasn’t?”
Obviously, some characters are going to receive more attention than others, especially if you have a cast of multiple main characters. For my WIP, I have a cast of six characters as my main cast, and I will say: it’s tricky… I relate to some of my characters more than others, and it does show in the writing with how in-depth you are able to get with their inner turmoil and their overall story arc. Do they have their own personality, or does it blend too much with someone else, and your readers may even get the two confused.
“Were there any moments in the story that felt really confusing?”
When you’re writing a scene in your story or maybe it’s just describing a person, place, or object, you may have a clear image in your head of what it all looks like. Unfortunately, no one is a mind reader–at least as far as I’m aware of–and they might not actually understand what you’re saying or trying to get across. Or, maybe you got some facts mixed up, or you screwed up a name somewhere, and need to go back and fix it. Maybe a character did something that’s completely against what they represent or it was so out of the blue, maybe rethink it if it’s purely for shock value.
“What were your thoughts on the pacing of the story?”
For this question, it’s all about how well your story flows. Is it really choppy and inconsistent, or do the scenes transition really well together? Is there a definite beginning, middle, and end? Does the tension rise as you read further along? With that, are the stakes continuing to rise and is the character being put in more confrontations that they can’t simply walk away from?
“At what point(s) in the story did you start to care about the main character(s), if at all?”
It’s referred to as the “Saving the Cat” in the story, but what it means is was there a specific moment in the story that really showed the characters moral code in a simple moment. If they’re being chased, would they take a longer route to avoid running over the little old lady across the street, or would they not care? Would they stop to save the cat stuck up in a tree, or would they say “screw you, beast, I’m out!” It’s usually how the character reacts to a certain situation that shows what kind of person they are, and the main character(s) need to be likeable to some degree, whether they’re the hero, the antagonist, or even the villain.
“Was the storyline too predictable?”
Maybe your story needs a few more levels of excitement to boost it up, or some major plot twists that no one could see coming. It would still need to make sense for the sake of the story, but readers need a delicate balance between what is expected to happen, and something that comes along that they’d never experienced before or never would’ve expected to happen. Maybe a character experiences a major betrayal from someone they’d trusted most of their life? Maybe a belief or myth that everyone had believed true for thousands of years turned out to be a lie? Maybe the villain turns out to be the father? Maybe someone’s gay? Be sure to add some foreshadowing moments so it’s not completely out of the blue, but to also add some sizzle to that steak!
“Did the characters sound like actual people with their dialogue?”
You’d want to go back and check your dialogue by reading it out loud and checking how well it sounds and flows together. I’m guilty of doing this, but characters can’t say lines while they laugh, snort, yawn, etc… It doesn’t make sense, and it’s an amateurish move in any sort of writing. Also, consider how each character sounds in the sense of their own voice. Not everyone talks the same way, and can use different words, dialects, or phrases to describe the same thing. Each character needs their own specific voice/vocabulary to help stand out amongst everyone else.
“How was the setting? Was it too descriptive or not descriptive enough in some areas?”
Going back to the question of whether something was really confusing in the story, the setting could be a specific component that may need to be edited. It may have made sense to you, but you want to make sure others can understand the image you’re trying to paint in their heads as to the location(s) your characters are in the story. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, you need to be just right in the amount of descriptions you give about the place. No one wants to read half a page of what the coffee shop looks like; they can fill in the blanks to a certain degree, and really, you should mainly stick to whatever is within the setting that pertains to the story. You want to sprinkle out little tidbits as the scene moves along, or even wait until the characters return another time to describe something. All in all, avoid info dumps but give your readers something to work with too.
“Did it feel like the main character(s)’s story arc had a strong enough beginning, middle, and end?”
Your character’s arc needs to somewhere to start, how it furthers along as the plot thickens and they have choices to make, and to have some sort of resolution towards the end. If it’s a series, maybe some part of its conclusion doesn’t happen right away, but a small chunk of it definitely does as every book within a series needs to have it’s own storyline within–Think about the Harry Potter books and how each one has it’s own journey or quest that Harry, Ron, and Hermoine work through everytime they return to Hogwarts. They deal with the sorcerer’s stone, then the chamber in the next one, and so forth as it all pertains to ultimately defeating Voldemort in the grand scheme of things. It helps to have an idea of how the story arc will end from the very beginning when you initially start writing the story, that way you’ll have knowledge of the direction the story arc is going and won’t drift off it’s path.
“If you had to get rid of at least one character, who would you take out from the cast, and why?”
You love all your characters, you don’t want to kill any of your darlings, but maybe your story is too long, or there’s just too many scenes that are filler and don’t need to be there. If their story arc isn’t strong enough, if their conflict isn’t strong enough, or they just don’t really serve much of a purpose at all except for maybe being another sidekick to the main character, maybe consider that a character should just be taken out of the story. Reminder: don’t just delete everything! Cut, paste, and store into a separate document somewhere because you never know if you’ll use that material elsewhere!
“What was the most exciting/suspenseful part of the story for you?”
You’re looking for criticism on plenty of what doesn’t work for your story, but you should also be aware of what DOES work for your story. Maybe you’re really good at writing sex scenes, or battles, or weaving between different character’s perspectives, or something else. That’s great, and you should also look into why whatever it is that works well in your writing, and remember it for future projects. Don’t fix something what isn’t broken, and it’ll even help make it easier on what components you should focus on in your writing from now on.
“What was the last book you’d read?”
This seems like a random addition, but it’s more for the Beta Reader themselves because how they critique your work can be heavily influenced by what they normally read, or even the last title they’ve read. Maybe they’re on a vampire binge, or maybe they’re looking for the next fantasy series to forget about the travesty that was season 8 of Game of Thrones, or they’re really into contemporary romance/erotica, or they’re not even into fiction at all, and instead love to read about subjects of history or political science. This can help you get a little intel into where your reader’s mindset is at when they’re looking through your work.
So there you have it, some help for anyone who feels a little lost on what exactly to do after you’ve finished writing your novel!
Look for feedback and gain some insight into where you need to go next, and honestly, remember to take whatever a Beta Reader says with a grain of salt. What they suggest may only pertain to their needs as a reader, and they only really offer another set of eyes on your work. They may be onto something or maybe they’re not; I’d at least take a closer look into whatever they’ve pointed out and give it some more thought, but ultimately it’s YOU that makes the final call! It’s YOUR work that YOU created!
Be proud, and be happy that you created something that took a lot of time and effort to do!
Thanks for Reading!
— Nick Goodsell