On Writing || Beta the Devil You Know (featuring Courtney Summers)

Please Note: This post will not feature a Kylie Minogue duet between the absolutely phenomenal Courtney Summers and I. I know, I know. Look, I’m really sorry but it’s difficult to organise something like that because you can’t do a duet of Ms Minogue half-arsed. You have to plan it, you have to learn the lyrics, dance moves. You have to get costumes. You can’t plan a Kylie Minogue duet over email and there’s a huge ocean between me and Ms Summers. So, yeah… I’m sorry. One day.

ANYWAY.

Of course we’re here to talk about beta reading. I’m presuming you all know what beta reading is- when you send your WIP to someone to read it and they give you feedback. That’s the gist, anyway.

This is a really important subject for me because I value beta readers so much and, based on personal experience, they can help me completely change my outlook on a WIP.

I’ve just recently finished the first draft of part one (there’s two parts, if you’re wondering… half way through! Huzzah!) and I recently decided to start recruiting my beta readers. Beta readers are so important to me and their feedback is vital in my writing process. Sure, when I see an email from them with an attachment full of comments and track changes and I skim through it, I do have a mini heart-palpitation… but I go and get a brew and settle down properly and it’s so completely worth it.

I know that some people don’t tend to use them for their own reason but I can’t imagine not using them so with this post I wanted to start a bit of a discussion. I asked Courtney if she’d help me out with this subject because I know that she uses critique partners/beta readers/whatever you want call them a lot and she’s one of my most favourite writers and I couldn’t really have an On Writing feature without getting her involved.

[By the way, the pictures you see are screen shots of the comments my beta readers have given me about my current WIP!]

Who should you send your WIP to?

Courtney Summers– It can be so hard to find a good critique partner, a lot of trial and error. I think it’s good to have a basic understanding of what you want and need from a critique partner (finding someone who writes in your genre is a good place to start) and once you know that, it’s mostly swapping your work and hoping it’s a fit. Writing the same or opposite genre is not always going to be a guarantee of that.

I have a few writer friends who get early reads on my work, but the people that see it through all stages, besides my agent and editor, from yucky first draft to shiny final version are my best friend, Lori, Emily Hainsworth (author of Through to You) and Tiffany Schmidt (author of Send Me a Sign). I met Emily on a writer’s forum. We clicked and eventually decided to swap manuscripts and that turned out to be a success. Through Emily, I met Tiffany. We became friends and when Emily suggested we might have the same sensibilities when it came to critiquing, we swapped manuscripts too, and that also worked out wonderfully. It was a pretty painless experience for me, which I know is not always the case for everyone, and I haven’t looked back since. These people are my core readers from book to book. More important than whether or not my critique partners write the same genre as me is whether or not they can see the book I want to write and am trying to write and that they help me to achieve that.

Writers have such individual processes, I don’t think it’s up for me to say if one should always choose another person–writer or otherwise–to read their work. Some people successfully self-edit and work better on their own. Sometimes, whether or not a writer needs or wants a critique partner can depend on the work itself. I think there’s value in trying out a critique partner at least once just to be sure if it’s truly for you.

Jo – This is something I always struggle with. I’m not part of a writing group and the majority of the people I know “real life” don’t really know that I write and I wouldn’t be comfortable with them reading my work. I have my definite “go to” people because they not only know me but they also know my writing. They know that I have a tendency to spew words out and leave sentences left unfinished because my brain has already skittered onto the next idea already and they know I use “I” far too many times in a sentence.
With my first completed work, I think I sent it to every single person I knew… it felt like it anyway. I think I just wanted as many opinions as I could get but when they all flooded in and I attempted to cobble them all together, I realised they didn’t fit. It was like trying to piece together a puzzle where the pieces are all wonky and jagged and, no matter how many times you rearrange them, they’re not going to fit. As a reader, I know that what works for one person doesn’t work for others… so why wouldn’t that be the same with writing?

This time, I calmed down a bit and I’ve only sent it to a few people. I think I’ve got over the novelty of “I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK! EVERYONE, READ IT!” and I’ve narrowed it down. I respect them all as writers, readers, people and I know they’ll tell me if something is crap, which is so important to me.

Story of my life…

Should you always send your work to the same people?

CS – I always send my work to the same people. I’m really lucky to have critique partners that are into and get my style of writing, just like I’m into and get theirs. I trust them with whatever I’m working on. Any time I have expressed branching out into different genres (like zombies, even though that wasn’t really a surprise to them!), they have been nothing but supportive. I just haven’t reached a point where I’ve questioned whether or not they’re the best people to read my work, which is lucky, I know! (Knock on wood.)

Jo – I think I might have to differ with Courtney here. I have my core people that I would send no matter what I wrote because they’ve pretty much read everything I’ve written. But if I ever get around to writing my ‘Werewolves in Manchester’ book (I wish I was kidding. I’m desperate to write this book), I’d have to think about who I’d send it to. This is probably one of my downfalls in this whole beta reading scenario… even though I love and accept constructive criticism, of course I’m going to want my betas to like it, even if it is a bit strange or something completely different to what I’d normally write.
I think I need to get over this hang up because one of my main aims in writing is to convince people to be interested in the story I want to tell. I have to get them to want to read it so only sending one genre/type of writing to one beta reader and another to another beta reader is a bit silly. But that’s something I’m working on… because my current WIP is pretty angsty and I’ve got a few betas that refuse to wear an angst bonnet and are brilliant at telling me when I’ve gone too wishy-washy feeeeeelings.

Crap, I’ve been rumbled.

What do you send them?

CS– I have sent them everything from scenes to first drafts to almost final drafts to final… it depends!
We’re all on various deadlines most of the time, so a lot of how we approach each other can depend on that as much as what we might need from each other at certain points in our novels. I never want to get in the way of what they’re working on.

Jo– I like everything to be perfect before anyone reads any of my stuff but with my current WIP, I’m still testing the waters about what works and what doesn’t because it’s a bit of a change in pace for me so this time I’ve sent them the first draft of part one. Hopefully it doesn’t end on too much of a cliffhanger… but I just wanted to know what the problems were early so I didn’t stumble head first into the second part and get tangled up in the same problems.

If there’s a scene that is particularly annoying me, I’ll probably send it out with an email full of capital letters and exclamation points saying “HELP ME!” I think sometimes it’s good to get a pair of fresh eyes on something if you’re struggling with it, it lets you take a step back and see things from a different perspective.

Yes, it really should.

What if your beta doesn’t like a scene you wrote that you absolutely adore?

CS– If I feel super strongly about something that my critique partners might not like, I will wait to see what my editor and my agent say. If I’m getting the same feedback from multiple sources that’s a good indication there’s a problem with the material and I need to revisit it. If I’m getting mixed feedback, I definitely consider what the problem is carefully, reexamine the text and let my gut make the call. I have to figure out if I’m being too protective of a darling I need to kill. Sometimes, I will need a moment to shrug off something I love that a critique partner might not, but the longer I do this writing thing, the easier it gets to shrug off. I know they have my book’s best interests at heart and that helps.

Jo – Ha, this whole idea of being protective of your darlings is something that’s always relevant. There’s always going to be the issue that you wrote the thing, so you’re undoubtedly going to love it. But like Courtney, if everyone is saying “this isn’t working” it’s always good to take another look.

I think it’s really easy to get too close to your story and your characters and when you’ve just received an email full of comments and issues and you just can’t see what their problem is and you end up being extremely stubborn and “I know best”. And I know I do this so I turn off my laptop and have a breather, read a book or watch a film, and then when I go back to it I look through their eyes.
I often find, and this might just be me, that the scenes I end up getting rid of paves the way for even better ideas and more fluid scenarios because I’ve removed myself and by seeing the bigger picture… you see what’s missing.

What if you don’t like something they’ve written? Should you always be honest?

CS – Yes, you should always be honest. There’s no value in a critique partner otherwise.
If I ever come across something that I think needs major revision in my critique partners’ work, I’m not afraid to tell them just as they’re not afraid to tell me. The first thing I want to do is make sure I understand what the scene wants to achieve so I can (hopefully) give them feedback that helps them accomplish that. I make sure to ask questions about motivations etc if it’s not immediately clear to me (the times I’ve failed to do this and made assumptions, I have failed to give constructive feedback! Luckily, my CPs are very patient…). I make sure to be clear in my reasons why I feel a scene didn’t work because sometimes the success of a scene can hinge on a really minor detail vs. a complex overhaul and being clear with my issues will highlight how extensive or not the fix might need to be. I’ll make some suggestions and then we’ll bounce ideas back and forth.

Jo – This is such a tricky one because if you’ve written a book you know how bloody hard it is and you know how close you get to it and the last thing you want is for someone to be like “Bleh, this is a bit crap”. But I think there’s a difference, a very big one, between saying that a scene isn’t working than absolutely trashing it. This is something I’ve learnt while I’ve been reviewing books, I’ve always thought that if something is definitely wrong (like a fact or history or geography, that kind of thing) you should definitely correct them. If it’s not to your taste, you should still tell them but it’s not a correction, because it’s not wrong it’s just not for you. They’ve asked for your opinion, so as long as you can justify it then you should always share.

I really love what Courtney said about asking questions about motivations and question that I want answered because I think it’s a great way for them to consider their characters and scenarios. For all I know, and this is definitely the case for a lot of things, they know the answers but they just haven’t put it down in their words and by asking the question, they’ll realise that they need to add a bit more information to that scene.
And it goes both ways, when my beta readers ask me a question, I know it’s something I need to answer because it’s not been made clear. If they have to ask it, you have to answer it.

The highest of brows… ha… buts.

What are the benefits of having/being a beta reader?

CS– They make you look at your work in ways you might never have considered looking at it–that has never turned out to be a bad thing in my personal experience. Critiquing other work has helped me hone my eye and identify issues with my own stuff faster.

Jo– Basically what Courtney said. Your beta reader is the first reader of your work. If you want to get published, whether traditionally or self-published, you have to take into account that people will be reading your work. They’re the perfect way of catching the things that you may have missed.
Also, they’ll probably be a lot nicer about the stuff you’ve got wrong than agents, editors, publishers and, yes, those pesky reviewers.

This is really becoming a pattern…

What are the cons of having/being a beta reader?

CS– Sometimes having too many cooks in a kitchen can hurt a writer’s work more than it helps it. A con of being one–I think it’s the time. You cannot half-ass a critique–equal give and take is SO IMPORTANT–and you want to make sure you are fully available to people who are so good to be fully available to you. I think everyone has moments where it can be hard to find the balance between their own work and someone else’s, especially if you’re all on similar deadlines. It’s the suckiest feeling ever if I have to tell my critique partner, “I can’t read this just yet.”

Jo– I think it’s difficult finding the right way of critiquing someone’s work. Some people like tough love and you can say straight off “This is a bit crap because…” and they will take it on board and you know they’ve taken into account what you’ve said. Other people you have to be a bit more careful because you can be as constructive as possible but, at the end of the day, they only want you to say lovely things about your work. Which is fine, if it works for them, but it doesn’t work for me. I would much rather them say things that make me grimace and sob into a large hot chocolate because well I’ve pulled myself together (and wiped chocolate off my nose) and rewritten the scene with all their suggestions and you send it to them again and their response is full of praise… that’s when I realise I’ve picked the right beta.

Oh… how did THIS one get in there? ;)

So, what do you reckon? Do you use beta readers? Do you find them useful? How do you pick who to send your WIP too? Are you ever nervous about who you agree to be a beta reader for? How do you tell someone if a scene they’ve written isn’t working for you? Do you find it difficult when your beta reader says “This isn’t working”?

Let us know in the comments!

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16 thoughts on “On Writing || Beta the Devil You Know (featuring Courtney Summers)

  1. Usually I lurk in silence, but…thank you, Jo, and Courtney, for such a relevant post. I’ve been in both Authoress’s CP roundup and the one hosted by the Pub Crawl girls – I currently have five ‘test’ CPs I’m exchanging with, and three that I actually feel are getting me at this point. Not sure how I get into messes like this, but well…

    Anyway, thanks – especially for pointing out that too many cooks spoil the soup.

    • You’re more than welcome, Kaye! I’m so glad you found this post helpful.

      It’s such a subjective and difficult subject sometimes, isn’t it? I guess as soon as you send your work to someone and you get their feedback, you know if they get what you’re trying to say… even if they don’t always like it. I think that’s the difference when looking for beta readers!

      I hope everything goes great for you with your beta readers :)

      Thanks for letting me know about those other posts, I’ll definitely be checking them out!

  2. A fascinating interview with the excellent Courtney. Beta readers really can change the whole outlook of your novel. I’ve just gone through having my first manuscript read by a beta reader and their brilliant advice caused me to change about 45% of the novel and I think it really has been for the better. You can sometime get lost in your own work and you don’t want to find faults but once you get great feedback you can almost pull yourself out of the work and look at it with fresh eyes.

    Thank you for the very relevant article!

    • Thanks Sam!
      Yeah, I completely agree with you about how much you change when you see their advice and feedback. There are so many scenes that I’ve written that have been shaped by my betas! :)

      I’m glad you liked this one! Good luck with the writing!

  3. Oh this is really awesome. Thanks for this, Jo. I’m currently taking a Creative Writing class (writing for Children) and my fellow students are all MFAs so I was initially verrrry intimidated but having people read your work and tell you what works and what really doesn’t just gives you a whole new perspective on the entire work. I have learned to completely disassociate with the work in question because you know, it wouldn’t do to burst into tears every time you hear a criticism (close calls though,haha). I have had moments where people have tried to push me in a certain direction that I didn’t want to go but as Courtney said, it’s best to go with your gut – sometimes you have to sacrifice clarity for your vision (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Anyway, I hope you find awesome CPs. (What genre do you write?)

    • Thanks Nafiza, glad you liked the post :)

      Gosh, I can’t even imagine taking a creative writing class! I always feel like I should join a writing group (though I’d have no idea where to start looking for the write one). Is it odd to have complete strangers reading your work? I guess, in a way, the expectation and preconceptions wouldn’t be there. And they wouldn’t owe you anything so they wouldn’t have to sugar coat things if they didn’t want to!

      I think what you said about disassociating yourself is really interesting and yeah, I definitely agree with you about sticking with your gut. I think if you’ve got a story in your mind and your betas are, like you said, shepherding you into a completely different direction… you need to have a serious think.

      I write contemporary YA (though it’d probably be classed as New Adult because the ages of my characters are a bit older) :) And you?

  4. This is such an awesome and fascinating post! I’m bookmarking it for future reference ;)
    PS I would totally read Werewolves in Manchester. It sounds awesomesauce.

  5. This is fabulous! And I love the addition of the comments :) Even though I’d find the idea of sharing something I’d written completely terrifying.. I totally see how beneficial it is.. Fresh eyes and all that. Love your work, Jo!

    • Cheers Rey :)

      It IS terrifying that first time but I think when you get back the feedback (as long as some of it’s good. Luckily I’ve never had someone say “Jo, this is actually terrible. Please never write again”… though I guess there’s always a first time!

      If you ever need some fresh eyes for your stuff.. *grabby hands* ;)

  6. “a mini heart-palpitation” !!! hahahaha Oh, so true ! :)

    Btw, you’re so lucky you got good beta readers! I really would like to get some as well. Not really sure where to start though. Like you, I don’t really want to show my writing to just anyone. Plus, there’s the tiny problem that most people I know wouldn’t really take the time to read it anyway. :'(

    BTW, Jo, missed seeing you here and I’d love to hear from you again!! Was re-reading your last email and happy thoughts came to me :) Have a lovely weekind, lovely fellow writer/blogger friend !

  7. Getting feedback on your writing must be so difficult, but it must also be great! I loved the format of this post, Jo!

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