What beta readers want you to know before you send them your novel
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the bonus episode of the fifth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full episode above and/or scan the transcript below.
The Pen Garden Podcast is usually about writing productivity and mental health. I say usually because today I will be sharing a discussion with my friend Flora Kittle, who is a fellow author and beta reader. The both of us together oversee the Pen Garden Beta Reading Program, a project which provides writers the opportunity to receive extensive feedback on their current book.
Briefly, a beta-read is a preliminary read of an edited manuscript with the purpose to provide feedback which will improve aspects of it. A beta reader will look at your story from the eyes of a critical reader and identify places that are confusing or inconsistent. Some beta readers might help you improve your writing style too but it depends on their own skills.
The Pen Garden Beta Reading Program provides feedback on four areas in the shape of a letter. There has been one round so far, and all the participants have been thankful. If you have a self-edited, complete manuscript you’re seeking feedback on, the Program Round 2 is a good opportunity for you.
Applications opened on Saturday 24 April and will close on Tuesday 4 May 2021.
Hi, Flora, welcome to the podcast. Do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, Lainey. Nice to see you. I’m Flora. I’m a technical writer by occupation. And I have yourself Lainey to thank for challenging me to turn my writing skills to creative writing. This past year, obviously, it’s been a bit of an odd one. But it’s given me time to, to challenge myself. And I’ve drafted a couple of novels. And I’m actually in the editing stage of the first one. I’m an avid reader, and I host a book group. And this last year, I’ve discovered the great joy in beta reading other people’s stories.
Great. Welcome. And as you can all hear, Flora is very well placed to give feedback on your books. So keep listening. Why do you think beta reading is so great, Flora?
I think it’s a great thing to do, both for the author themselves, but also on a really personal level. For me, it’s been great to see examples of other people’s writing. And also to see the very, very common writing stumbling blocks that everyone makes in other people’s work so that I can appreciate them in my own, because I’ve definitely learned through beta reading other people’s, where I’ve made mistakes.
I agree. For me, as a writer, it’s that and also the fact that it’s receiving safe, nurturing feedback. It’s constructive. And it’s really different from say, receiving a scathing review, after the fact, when you can’t really change anything; it’s a chance to grow in many ways. And I’ve received lots of beta reader feedback. So for me, it’s a chance to pay it forward as a reader, and this is why we’re offering this program, it’s rewarding. But it’s not always easy, of course, and it’s really hard work sometimes. As readers and writers, we all have pet peeves, for example, mine is adverb overuse. If I see more than two or three on a single page, I can feel an itch to scratch them out. Sometimes there’s a few in a sentence, or even in the same line. And yeah, I guess that’s something as a beta reader that I wish I was spared from.
Why do you hate adverbs so much?
It’s a technical issue. Really. They’re like shortcuts. And I believe writers can always find more imaginative ways to convey what they want, their story. For example, if you have someone saying something angrily, I would much rather read a line about how this anger is manifesting. Maybe they’re clenching their fists or gritting their teeth, whatever it is, it’s more food for my imagination as a reader. What about you? Any technical issues you wish writers considered before submitting their book for beta reading?
This may sound a bit nitpicky, but a technical issue that I think would be worth considering as a writer when you submit your manuscript to a beta reader is the formatting. Now, I appreciate that you will all use different software to write your story. And there’ll be the old school Word, the convenient Google Docs, or the writer’s delight Scrivener. But when submitting your manuscript it’s worth assuming a standard Word document or PDF should be shared. But beyond that, make it easy for your beta reader. The average reader will not read a whole novel in one sitting. With a paperback you can use a bookmark on your page, or with a Kindle or equivalent, a digital bookmark is added. This won’t necessarily be an option for an early draft beta read, but you can use formatting to help your readers to navigate through your lengthy document, have a table of contents and easy links to chapters. Your reader will thank you.
That’s a very good point. But what about plot then? Any specific things you would advise writers to just focus on when doing self-edits?
One thing that I’ve noticed in all of the stories that I’ve beta read, and let’s be honest, in some traditionally published novels as well, is that there are promises made early that are not necessarily fulfilled. This can be anything from an interesting character trait that is not explored, a quirky world dynamic or setting that is underutilized, or a plot thread that is not completed. On the plot thread, it’s not necessarily a plot hole, which is an event that is improbable or unbelievable, but just something that isn’t followed through. So in every piece of feedback I wrote for stories I beta read, I referenced Mary Robinette Kowal’s MICE Quotient. It was Lainey that shared the resource with me first and maybe because I am a scientist at heart I find the MICE Quotient a really good way of following through with all of the many elements needed to make a good novel. Mary Robinette Kowal uses the idea of nested promises, each concept that is opened should be closed by the end of the story, preferably in the order that they were introduced. Lainey will provide some resources in the show notes for a fuller explanation and all I will say here is that it is a powerful tool for plaiting in all the threads. From the manuscripts I read, you all had some really exciting promises and concepts, make sure you don’t throw them away!
Yes, definitely a very good point and also a pet peeve of mine. On that I do want to add on that there is another similar thing that I’ve noticed in the books I’ve read, which I will come out and say I’m also guilty of as a writer. And that’s not having some vital scenes in because the writer may deem them boring to write, or think that they’re implied, because obviously, writers have their whole book in their heads. So they may think that some things are very obvious. But when the reader reads the story for the first time, they may never know certain things that are just left in your head as the writer. So the connections between all the actions and all the action moments are very important because they break the pace, and they give the reader a chance to rest and reflect on the story so far, to sort of check in with how they are feeling subconsciously. I would recommend writers study novel structure, and particularly rising and falling action and tension. I will drop a resource in the blog post about this, which explains things better than I do. So now you all know a few things that beta readers want you to consider. Obviously, not all of us are the same. But generally if you think about what you love and hate as a reader and try to implement that in your self-editing process, you’ll be well on your way to having a clean manuscript to give to your beta readers. As a reminder, the Pen Garden beta reading program is open now until 4 May. We accept romance, fantasy, women’s fiction, thriller, crime, and historical fiction, and all of their sub genres. If your completed novel fits any of those, and you’re looking for feedback, make sure you fill out the application form on www.thepengarden.com. Now to close off our discussion with a light topic. What’s one of your favorite tropes, Flora, and why?
I’m not sure if it really counts as a trope. But I’m a sucker for interconnected stories that span timelines. I love a story that’s essentially a mystery through time, with old artifacts or spirits influencing a modern-day quest. I don’t know why I like it so much. But to me, it feels really clever, to be able to tie in those two different timelines. How about you?
Well, for me, one of my favorite tropes has to be genuinely good bosses and managers, it is so satisfying seeing a main character get into trouble of any kind, and then know that their boss has their back and supports them emotionally and professionally to get through their rough patch, that they’re not going to betray them. It’s really empowering to have an honest caring manager who sees employees as people. I watch a lot of Korean dramas, and there for some reason, often the people who have power are the baddies so I have this involuntary reaction every time I meet a new boss or manager character to just very vigorously hope that they’re a consistently good person in the story, or if not consistently good, at least, you know, reasonable, and that they’re not like a villain in disguise. Um, so yeah, thanks for doing this podcast episode with me Flora. Any closing thoughts before we wrap up?
I would just like to thank you all for listening. And I really look forward to reading some of your awesome stories in the coming months. So please apply.
Yes, we’re both really looking forward to all the applications for round two. Thanks again, Flora and speak to you soon!
To apply, you need to provide some information about your completed manuscript and a 500 word sample. Click THIS LINK to go to the application form. The deadline is Tuesday 4 May 2021.
Next Tuesday, I will talk about a favorite topic on this podcast – the writing routine. I will discuss how it fits with all the other routines you might be juggling on the daily. For me it wasn’t easy to slot it in, and I’m still struggling some days, so if you do too, you’re not alone.
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If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening/reading everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
Sources list to explore beta reading & writing advice:
- What are Beta Readers — and How to Find Them (website article)
- Short Stories — With Special Guest Instructor Mary Robinette Kowal (MICE Quotient explanation video)
- Plot your novel with MICE Quotient Nesting Codes and Try/Fails (website article)
- How to structure a novel (website article)
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