Finding the Right Beta Readers by E. B. Davis
I read a myriad of genres and mystery subgenres. To me, the writing is the most important element of a good read, and variety is the spice of life, isn’t it? When I thought about what I wanted to write, my thoughts turned to fun reads—entertainment, summoning books of the supernatural variety. The manuscript I wrote and am now querying fits into many shelf categories. It’s a mystery, but it also has supernatural, romantic, and police elements. It hadn’t occurred to me when getting beta readers that my subgenres would affect reviews because I like different subgenres, but I found that I am not the average reader. What your beta readers write and read will affect their critiques of your book. I went into the process ignorant of this fact.
Most writers I know write cozy mystery. When I submitted my manuscript to those writers, the reviews I received were not helpful. The responses fell into two categories: Cut the supernatural, or cut the mystery and make it romantic suspense. I wanted to do neither.
Was my script bad? Did those readers’ comments have validity? I decided before butchering my manuscript to find other beta readers. My need for expedience led me to hire a professional—a conceptual editor.
The letter I wrote her prompted an immediate reply. She read my first chapter and wrote back asking why I was so negative about the manuscript. I told her of my beta readers’ responses. She said she’d get back to me. Her review found problems with the execution of the mystery in the second act, the investigation, but she had no problems with the supernatural subgenre. Her suggestions forced me to portray the supernatural world in a more definitive way, but, as I suspected, getting rid of the supernatural would have killed the best of my novel. Hiring a professional gave me confidence in my work.
But even a professional’s opinion is only one opinion. I looked to authors and readers of fantasy to beta-read my work. Two responded to my call, read my manuscript, and gave me suggestions that were constructive. Their reviews provided further edits in defining the supernatural world, providing more clarity for readers and improving its credibility. Another, more academic reader, who writes traditional mystery, provided more edits to the romantic relationships from a male point of view. Not only did it increase the validity of the romantic relationship, it cut the manuscript by two thousand words—a plus since an unpublished writer has little chance of selling a ninety thousand plus word novel.
Lesson learned: Don’t blind yourself to beta readers’ comments but also don’t believe everything you read, not even reviews of your work. Look at what your beta readers write and read before submitting your work to them.
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E. B. Davis writes mystery stories. Her current novel manuscript, Toasting Fear, is a supernatural mystery set in the Outer Banks, NC. Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays presented her short story, “Compromised Circumstances.” A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman included E. B.’s “Wishing For Ignorance.” “Ice Cream Allure” a romantic crime spoof, was included in Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing. More of her work is featured on her website. (www.ebdavismysteries.com) She blogs at Writers Who Kill (http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com), and is a member of SinC and The Short Mystery Fiction Society.
0 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: E.B. Davis – Finding the Right Beta Readers”
You’ve brought up a terrific point, and one that’s I hadn’t thought about before. Being a cozy writer, I wouldn’t be the best person to comment on a thriller riddled with violence and bad language.
One of the best bits of advice I’ve heard is to write the book that you want to write. If, against our instincts, we follow the advice of well-meaning beta readers, we could end up with something that we wouldn’t be happy with. That’s not to say that we should ignore a beta reader’s advice, but we need to make sure their suggestions don’t send us off into a direction in our manuscripts where we no longer recognize or like what we’ve written.
Grace, I agree that E.B. has made a terrific point that writers, especially new ones, tend to ignore in the face of self doubt.
The mistake in the first sentence shows you how badly I need beta readers and editors.
I like blended genres, Grace. Too bad they defy easy categorization for the “shelf.” The novel that I presented for beta readers, Toasting Fear, is a bit cozy, but also has elements of horror, romance, comedy, and mystery. I don’t see anything wrong with mixing subgenres. Any subgenre can be a wonderful read if well written and artfully drawn, but I have to admit that more often than not, I find the standard genre book to play out by formula, which is why I read many genres. I love cozies, but I have to mix them into other genres or else I’d stop reading. (PS–We all need editors, Grace, says an auditor learner and the queen of homonyms!) Thanks for dropping by.
Great thoughts. I’m getting ready to send a book to a couple of beta readers. It’s a traditional mystery, so I’m asking some colleagues who are law enforcement officers to read it. But neither of them are mystery readers. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not – I guess I’ll see. I certainly want their take on the way I describe their processes. Jane
Jane–when I had a short in Fish Nets (a Guppy anthology), Ramona Long, the editor, asked a retired police officer to review our stories. I found his comments anal–but now I realize that he improved my story. I changed the situation of the police officer so that his character had more authencity. However, remember that whatever your police reviewer says, the police are human, too. No matter how much they claim that a police character in your story “wouldn’t do that because it doesn’t follow procedure,” the police break procedure all the time. I cite as evidence my daughter and her aunt’s crying when pulled over by the police when driving–and getting off without a ticket! But, like all comments on your work, give those comments serious consideration. Discuss them with other writers and take note of their reactions so that you don’t do yourself a disservice of allowing your own defense mechanisms to override your best manuscript. Writing is more personal than we, as professionals, would like to believe.
Jane, Thanks for stopping by. I think E.B.’s reply hits it on the nose….be willing to weigh the take/suggestions of the beta readers with an open mind vs. throwing up a defense mechanism, but remember that not every suggestion will be perfect or applicable to your manuscript — although procedurally, a blend may improve the technical aspects and therefore the credibility readers will give your writing.
Every genre has its conventions, and readers in that genre have certain expectations. The challenge–especially in the mystery and thriller genre, which I know best–is to meet expectations without lapsing into formula. In my opinion, even some of our best-known and most-revered and award-winning writers in these genres can become stale. My writing group is a bunch of literary fiction folk, and they can comment on many things, but I turned to a mystery editor to take a whack at my novel, and, boy, was that revelatory! Best decision yet!! I also hired a retired NYPD detective to go over with me the scenes involving the police–not the whole book. He’s not a book reviewer, and people’s time is precious. (Note the word “hired.”) So, I choose my beta readers carefully–including my cousin who is an A-Number 1 proofreader and saved me from saying “Parthenon,” when of course I meant “Pantheon”!
LOL, V Weisfeld–editors are wonderful! I look at hiring editors as an investment. No school I ever went to was free (even public education is paid for in tax dollars) and hiring someone to learn is worth the price.
When I found beta readers that were fanasy writers, the conventions were something I hadn’t thought about. I’ve read my share of Alice Hoffman, not sure where she fits in the fantasy genre, but I didn’t think “convention” had a place in fantasy. But you must build a believable fantasy world no matter what it is. One of my readers pointed out that I needed a hero. She was right, but I had to qualify the hero’s role to make it believable for me. It was a tightrope.
Did you get your manuscript published? Where are you in the process? Do you think a first time author needs to be published in a specific genre first before getting published in a multi-genre?
I’m still working on my manuscript, thanks for asking! Changes in one area reverberate throughout, as you know, so it needs one final read. I don’t think an author needs to be published in a specific genre first, though perhaps that’s easier than general “literary fiction,” because the audience is better identified. Most of us (me included!) are not necessarily good at defining our audience.
Hopefully, if you’re at the final read, we’ll all soon figure out which audience you defined for this book. Looking forward to reading it – especially after noting how well thought out your selection of editors/readers were.
You are so right that even the best or most famous can become stale (we’ve all seen examples of that to a point that even a die hard like me will question whether to buy the next book of a series) and that it is important to realize that a beta reader’s time is precious, too. New writers have a tendency to turn to friends or the first name (editor) they hear of and in doing so often miss obtaining the expertise that would make the manuscript better — whether in terms of punctuation or credibility.
Thanks for sharing this. It is a good point. I too have a ms that is out of the norm for my readers and am struggling to find good editing perspective on it. How did you find your professional editor because I would think the same thing applies there.
I chose Ramona Long because I knew her from blogging, the classes she gives, and from working with her professionally, first on Guppies projects, later from hiring her. From her own writing, I know Ramona isn’t stuck on any one genre. We have respectfully disagreed on various things such as on open-endings, etc., but I value her opinion! She has a website: https://ramonadef.wordpress.com/
E.B., you make some great and very valid points here. My own local critique group gave me some scathing comments on a short story and it’s taken me a year to look at it again, to realize they made some valid points, but that the concept was still sound. I wish you all the best with your queries. From having read your shorts, I know you always leave me wanting more. Looking forward to reading your novel!
Paula — I bet when you pick up that story now you are able to find a happy balance with it. I know from experience that when beta readers we respect torpedo (or at least it feels that way) something we think is pretty good, it sometimes is difficult to overcome feeling gunshy to a project. When and if we do, it often becomes a far better manuscript. The key is divorcing our feelings when we are simply too close to the manuscript or how precious we think our words are versus picking and choosing the best and most applicable criticisms. I think it is important to realize that sometimes the beta reader may not know best, but usually the point made is well worth considering. Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks, Debra. You’re right. Distance can help you view things more clearly and help you understand what has to go. I’m looking forward to reading your new novel soon!
That was a horrible experience, Paula. No reviewer should be scathing. What help is that? Unless you have some inferiority complex and need to dump on someone, why bother to give an unhelpful review? Some of the comments made about my novel were completely opposing. For example, some reviewers thought I had a gift for knowing when and how to end a chapter. One said I had no talent at all for it and thought my chapters ended arbitrarily. One review thought my dialogue stunk. No one else said that. Great inconsistancies taught me to throw out the outliers. If many reviewers commented on the same thing–I thought the comments had validity. Because there are few books like mine, I’m trying to learn about conventions.
One thing that I did want to emphasize and perhaps didn’t in the blog–I appreciate all of my beta readers for taking the time and effort to critique my work. Even if I didn’t feel some were helpful, my work took their time, and time is valuable. Next time around, I will find fantasy/paranormal/supernatural writers/readers to beta read my work so I don’t waste other writers’ time.
Very interesting blog and discussion! I heard and author speak who said he didn’t believe in critique groups because he thought sometimes jealousies came out. Although I’m not in a critique group I can’t imagine not using Beta readers!
Thanks for stopping by. I have to agree with you completely that I can’t imagine sending out a work Beta readers haven’t looked at. There is always something someone catches or an idea that makes it possible for me to improve a work.
Everyone needs beta readers, Sherry. I think when critiquing you have to put your personal favorite genre aside if you agree to read someone’s manuscript. You can’t make it what you want it to be, but try to give good suggestions based on what the manuscript is. That said, I may never get my manuscript published, but that doesn’t mean I would have changed it substantively just to satisfy others. In the long haul, it still has to be the story I wanted to write. I did learn from fantasy writers about the conventions of the genre, which she who wrote must obey. I learn so much from those writers. Thanks for dropping by beta reader–you!
I’ll say up front, I’m not an eclectic reader. I wish I were, but I’m not. I’m not sure I’ve read the book you’re talking about, but I thought the one I did read was original. I’ve been waiting for you to get to the point of sending it out, so I’m glad you’re on your way. I sent the book I just finished to more readers than ever before, and it was a rewarding experience. I’m rooting for you, Elaine.
Thanks, Polly. I knew because of my dark premise that some people wouldn’t want to read the book. I was surprised by the reaction of some beta readers. There is also that Christian element that seems rather out of fashion right now. Perhaps it is a book you either love or hate, and perhaps that’s why I’ve waited to send it out. Just yesterday I found a DEA agent who is reviewing the procedural aspect since there are three enforcement agencys involved. I so much want to get it right. Your review focused on an aspect no one else tackled, and I’m very thankful for your input because body language and actions are difficult to make varied. It’s your forte and made me focus on how the characters nonverbally came across to the reader.
E. B. – thank you for sharing this. I hired a mystery editor and it was an education – well worth every penny. Just a word about blended genres. Some of the most popular authors do this – think about Charlaine Harris. Just write the book you want to write and then contact Charlaine’s agent 😉
Funny you should mention contacting her agent. I did! Actually, I’m not sure if the agent I contacted is Charlaine’s, but the agent is in the same literary agency (and he’s from NC!) I haven’t heard back from him, so I’m taking that as good news. Then again, I may never hear anything from him since these days a “no-response” often is the response. I’m conditioning myself to stop having hopeful thoughts because I don’t want to be let down. I’ve received three rejections so far and two haven’t responded–so early days yet.