Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Cheat Sheet for Beta Readers

In May, I discussed critique etiquette on behalf of both the critiquer and the critiquee.

Since then, I've been privileged to have several people beta read two manuscripts of mine. I've also beta read a handful of manuscripts for others.

(When I say "beta," I mean "The reader who has the manuscript I think is ready for querying & sending out to industry pros." I consider a manuscript ready for a beta reader when I've been over it with a fine-toothed comb, love it in its current condition, and am too close to the forest of its words to see the trees that may need trimming.)

Some beta readers are airy-fairy, pat-you-on-the-back types. They're great for the writer's ego, but do little to improve the work. Others are overly critical. Their comments make both writer and work feel like this phone book:

I asked writers on Twitter what they found most useful in a beta reader.

@BJMuntain summed it up best: I'd want to know if they enjoyed it, if they felt bored or 'taken out' of the story anywhere. [I'd also want to know] If anything didn't seem to fit properly or if a plot question was not resolved in a satisfactory manner, [and] how they felt when they finished.

That's it in a nutshell. I agree 100%. For instance, I ask my beta readers such questions as:

* Did you like the book? If so, what worked for you? If not, at what point did the story lose you & never regain your interest?

* Was there anything you expected that was missing?

* Was there anything included that you thought was out of place?

* What could be done to make each of the main characters more interesting / compelling / memorable?

* In your opinion, is the story worth rewriting, editing & pursuing, or does it need more work than it's worth?

* What was your favorite scene or scenes?

* What was your least favorite scene or scenes?

* If you had bought the book or e-book, would you feel cheated? Would you loan / recommend it to a friend? Why or why not?

Many of my cherished betas have actually responded and provided insightful answers to these and other questions.

I realize, however, that answering questions with regards to what they've read resembles an essay test too much for some people's comfort. Which is why without further ado, I present the Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet.

Simply print out and circle the most appropriate response the next time a writer pursuing publication asks for your opinion:

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------

Beta Reader's Cheat Sheet

* The author this book most reminds me of is:
A. John Grisham
B. Stephen King
C. Beverly Cleary
D. Jodi Picoult
E. Dr. Seuss
F. Stephanie Meyer

* This book would be better if it had more: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Talking Dust Bunnies

* This book would be better if it had less: (circle all that apply)
A. Sex
B. Death
C. Zombies
D. Vampires
E. Ghosts
F. Mermaids
G. Sandwiches

* The primary male character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Harry Potter
B. Sherlock Holmes
C. Frodo Baggins
D. Darth Vader
E. Edward Cullen
F. Huck Finn
G. Jay Gatsby

* The primary female character should be more like: (circle all that apply)
A. Lady Chatterley
B. Fanny Price
C. Junie B. Jones
D. Hermione Granger
E. Mrs. Tiggywinkle
F. Eliza Doolittle
G. Cruella DeVille

* Reading this was the entertainment equivalent of:
A. Winning the lottery
B. Oral surgery
C. A hands-on TSA search
D. Recreationally ingesting prescription pharmaceuticals
E. Eating dust-bunny sandwiches
F. Defending myself in traffic court
G. Listening to paint dry

-------------------------------CUT HERE---------------------------


RedHeadedQuilter said...

LOL! I love your lists!

Actually your list of questions is really helpful and if I ever get off my butt and *finish* a manuscript I'd be delighted to know your answers to all of them!

P.S. the captcha to post this comment is "spermic". Eww!

Ami Hendrickson said...

RedHeadedQuilter: Making a note to self AND the Mother Ship to fire Captcha-writing minions. Eww indeed!

Thanks for taking the time to post. And for taking even MORE of your time to beta read. You're one of my cherished few!

Onward & upward. If (and WHEN) you finish your ms, I'll be happy to read & respond.

Especially if it has dust-bunnies in it.

Anonymous said...

Having experienced the pat-you-on-the-back beta reader, as well as the overly critical one, I find this post PERFECT in every way. And I'm not just saying that to make you feel good. :)

alexia said...

I love both of your lists! Critiquing is tricky for sure...

Ami Hendrickson said...

vvdenman: because you said "perfect in every way," I have now included you in my will. :)

Thanks, all, for commenting. Here's to the Beta Readers (in the vein of "That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger").

Samuel_Clemons said...

If I could get a job testing sound equipment while simultaneously contracted out to test EZ chairs, that would be the ultimate. Basically, they wouldn't know if I was working or not.

This Beta Reader? Does this job come with benefits? I require chocolate bars, and a masseuse in a french maid outfit. You can read any comment I've ever left and this is in my contract. Now, having settled that, Ami, you are one tough negotiator, by the way; we have to move on to the all important ferret negotiation stage... which is non negotiable.

The naps and dancing. Please have your people contact my humans, and work that out, I'm about ready for a nap now, but I smell blueberry pie a-bakin' in the neighbors oven. I am sure a certain grin, and begging look will do the trick.

Of course, chocolate bars, naps and dancing are a small price to pay for such exotic advice as I shall give.

I'm just concerned about the sanity clause.

I tweet at Samuel_Clemons

Ami Hendrickson said...

Ah, Sam, my ferrety friend, of course Beta readers enjoy many job benefits. One of the biggest joys of beta reading is the access to a manuscript nobody else has read. The possibility of being the first to read something that will one day take the world by storm sends us into paroxysms of joy.

Incidentally, most betas I know are fueled exclusively by chocolate bars and blueberry pie. Another benefit!

Malin said...

I love the cheat sheet ;) Seriously, your question list was real good. I'm copying it to a file now, and intend to put it to good use when critiquing and being critiqued. Thanks!