After agonizing over my second draft, rewriting my final two acts, and going through page after page of revisions, I knew it was time to do the thing I was dreading most. It was time to show my manuscript to other people. Even though I’ve been writing off and on for many years, I’d never completed a full draft of a novel and I knew it needed outside eyes in order for it to become the best it could be, sex scenes and all.
So it was with a sense of tentative vulnerability that I enlisted fourteen brave souls to read my manuscript. It was pretty easy. I just put a post out on Facebook and Twitter. Three of my friends who are also writers volunteered, as well as several avid readers I could trust to give me genuine feedback without fluffing me up.
I sent my draft out in early March, and within a day or so, I started getting people messaging me telling me they couldn’t put the book down. Well, this made my ego happy, of course, but I have super strong imposter syndrome and I figured heh, they’re just being nice! But it felt good, and for the first time since I started the process of writing my novel, my characters came to life and I actually felt like I might have a decent story.
As far as the organizational bits, this is what I did after I’d gotten my recruits:
I set up a private Facebook group where I could discuss my manuscript with my readers
I created questionnaires on Google Docs for each reader, personalized with their name
My readers got a new questionnaire after every three chapters to avoid spoilers
I followed up via messenger/email to discuss their feedback
At the end of their reading, I sent them an exit questionnaire with general questions about the entire novel
After the majority of my readers had finished, I was left with a bunch of data that I read through and organized in my writing journal (longhand, because I’m old-fashioned)
This was my system for tackling feedback:
If only one reader mentioned something, I considered it an opinion and didn’t change it
If two readers mentioned something, I examined the area of concern more closely
If three or more readers mentioned something, it was a top priority revision
Luckily, my feedback was pretty consistent. I had a couple wild-card comments, but for the most part, the issues I’d already self-identified were the same issues my readers mentioned. Fortunately, none of these problems would require a major re-write. Phew! They mostly had to do with characterization and description. I was delighted to find out that my readers wanted more descriptions of the lush settings I had my characters interacting with — something I was happy to provide. They also wanted more interaction between two of my favorite characters, which is what I was hoping for. I’d given myself leeway, being an under-writer, to build my narrative with the third draft, so I happily set to work on the items of concern, and decided to leave the rest for a developmental editor to help with at a later date when I can afford it.
Some advice for those of you seeking beta readers:
Ask more people than you need! I asked 14, and I had 2-3 readers ghost on me. People are busy, and they are doing you a huge favor by reading for you, so keep that in mind.
Give your readers time to read. Don’t pester them or rush them, but if you’re on a deadline, let them know that up front. I’m not, so it wasn't as big of a deal for me.
Ask specific questions. Get to the nitty-gritty.
When someone gives you what you might perceive as negative feedback, take a deep breath and look at it objectively. You have to grow a thicker skin during this process. Your manuscript still needs work, which is why you’re asking for feedback.
It’s best to have beta readers after you’ve finished your second draft, when you’ve worked out the major issues with your story, but you’re not so attached to any aspect you feel you can’t change.
You will probably end up feeling better about your work, not worse. Every time I got an “Oh my God! I can’t believe he did that!” message, or when one of my readers read my entire manuscript in a single day because she said it was such a page-turner, it gave me the steam to keep working.
Don’t be afraid of people stealing your work. Seriously. Do you know how hard it is to get published in the best of circumstances? No one is going to be able to traditionally publish your slightly-less-than-shitty second draft. You wouldn’t be able to trad publish your second draft, which is why you need beta readers! If they do self-publish your work, then you have a case, but that would be insanely stupid on their part and you’d sue them. Sometimes we get in our own way as artists. I have found the Dunning-Kruger effect is as real for writers as it is for photographers. Don’t let fear hold you back. If you’re really concerned, have them sign an agreement/contract letting them know the work is copyrighted. It is, you know. From the moment of origination. You have dated drafts. You’ll be fine.
The best thing I learned is that stories come alive in the hands of the reader. Plot and character arcs I’d considered cutting became my reader’s favorite scenes. They felt such a deep connection to some of my characters they became angry and sad when I put them through hardships, and were relieved when they overcame them. Better yet, after they’d finished, they wanted to know what happens next, which showed me the novel has series potential as a family saga.
It still has a long way to go, this book, but my beta readers showed me that I could write something people would want to read. You can bet, if this novel ever does makes it to publication, a big chunk of the acknowledgements page will be dedicated to thanking my beta readers by name. I couldn’t have done it without them.