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Critical Role of Beta Readers

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Geoff Le PardLittle did I know that when I slung the “ranch open” sign on a literary project called Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge that I would find some of the best writers in the world. As a Rough Writer, Geoff Le Pard has been one of the most prolific flash fiction contributors, writing an entire saga week by week, 99-words at a time. His dedication and enthusiasm for craft is inspiring! He’s the author of two novels, and joins us today to discuss the importance of beta readers to his second novel, “My Father and Other Liars.”

Welcome guest blogger, Geoff Le Pard, to Carrot Ranch.

***

My beta readers have been critical to me: how did I find them and chose them and what does having informed and knowledgeable beta readers mean to me?

I learnt early that no book can be created in isolation. It needs to be read and read by people who haven’t lived, eaten and breathed it for months, years maybe. Even writing for yourself, you will not spot what doesn’t work, you will misdirect yourself over plot errors, character inconsistencies and unbelievable story lines. It is easier to suspend one’s own belief than have others do it for you.

That’s where Beta readers come in. And they are gold dust.

Let’s just get a definition out the way. Beta readers don’t edit. Sure they may spot typos, may be grammar nerds, may be brilliant at spotting clunky dialogue, fantastic at picking up continuity errors but, for me, this isn’t why you use them.

For me they do two things.

Firstly they replicate your final reader. They are the one time reader who needs to be drawn in, wants to turn the page and see the story with the clarity of a committed reader. Therefore asking someone who is a fantasy nut to read a piece of kitchen sink human drama is rather pointless. Clearly countless people read widely but they aren’t always available. Just be a bit careful who you choose because you want someone who has the chance to be engaged in your story.
What you want is an honest appraisal. And that is difficult to give. People don’t want to offend. We read about a number of people who say they won’t post a review for an Indie author if it’s less than 4 stars. Which is fine and grand but would be useless in a Beta reader. For me at least. If it’s two stars I need to be told.

The people who can eviscerate my novel are perfect for me. Sure I don’t want gratuitous criticism but if it’s pointing out a failing I’m not that concerned if it’s wrapped up in brown paper or in nice jolly wrapping paper or unwrapped. I have between four and six people I’ve learnt to trust but with every book I try and involve someone new. You never know. And those who give it a try, often not sure if they’ll be any good, turn out to be excellent.

Because My Father and Other Liars has taken about five years to reach this point, it’s probably been read by upwards of ten people. Of those, four have given it a nod and nothing much more and the rest have done me the biggest favour someone can do a writer; they’ve given their work detailed attention and spent time articulating what they thought about it.

The second use for me, is the specialist reader. With My Father and Other Liars I have really needed expert help.

As I explained over at Annecdotal, there is a lot of science – and especially genetics, life sciences and biology – that underpin this book. I gave up biology in the second year, year 8 at school. When my children had biology homework I nodded in another’s direction. It was beyond me. But I researched and checked and read and listened and I thought I had it pretty clear. But still… Then the Vet mentioned one of her friends who was just finishing her Biology degree at Oxford. ‘Would she…?’ I wondered. Yes she would. Indeed a second Biology grad asked to read it. Between them I had several lectures, a deeper understanding and a much better book.

The second area, which I discussed over at The Daily Echo, was the subject of locations. I moved my story around, crossing the Atlantic. Washington, London, New York, Surrey, San Francisco and Northampton. I’ve been to these places, I’ve developed a sense of what they are like. I feel I can describe them with a degree of accuracy. But two locations caused me some trouble because in one case, I’ve not been and in a second I made the place up and stuck it in the back of beyond in Oklahoma!

Nicaragua was the first of these. It’s a Central American country and I used a real city, Leon. If people have been they may have questions for me that I may well not be able to answer. I’ve researched all I can; my son and his girlfriend visited and gave me great feedback, but at the end of the day it may sadly fall short. I hope not. People who have read the book and have a sense for Central America feel it passes muster but still I worry. A Nicaraguan beta reader would be marvellous (I still have one possibility, but that would be for the second edition!) You may ask ‘Why not change the story?’ ‘Take it somewhere you know about.’ Sadly the story demands a Central or South American setting and Nicaragua was perfect.

Sometimes you do your best and then hope some!

The second location and one I feared for most was the fictional town of Beaumont in Oklahoma. My fictitious Church needed a fictitious home and it needed to be remote, and in the Bible belt states in the US. On a metaphorical toss of the coin I came up with Oklahoma. I read about the state, I did all the usual Google earth stuff but still. I placed it close to the Panhandle and wrote away.

Months, nay years later and I’m asking for some beta readers. To my American friends I asked if anyone knew anyone who lived or had lived in Oklahoma. Charli, my host today pings back. Her fellow in-law – her daughter’s husband’s mother – hails from Oklahoma. Better still she grew up in a strict Baptist environment. Better than that she wanted to be a Beta reader. Joy and double somersaults all round. Paula not only gave me a sense of place but she pointed out timing fallacies, errors in how the local airports work in practice, the ubiquity of the red dirt and the language ticks as well as lots of good stuff around food that added nice little touches to the narrative.

There. The benefit of blogging to a writer in a nutshell. I’d never have found Paula Moyer without blogging, never have got the introduction. My Father and Other Liars is a tale that romps hither and yon; its pace defines it. Yet if something like the location descriptions, just as much as the language of the characters, jars with any of the audience, it’s like driving with the hand brake on. Possible but deeply unsatisfying.

I’m deeply grateful to each and every reader. Some gave me a few sentences but each of those are like rivers of nectar from the gods. Those who sent me pages of thoughts, or a manuscript dotted with tracked changes and comments, I’m both touched and emotional at the thought of the effort involved. You all are part of this project, every one of you. Thank you.

***

my-father-and-other-liars-final-for-kindleMy Father and Other Liars is the second book by Geoff Le Pard. Published in August it is available as an ebook and paperback here:

Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com

 

His first book, Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle can be found here:

Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com

 

Geoff Le Pard started writing to entertain in 2006. He hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry and blogs at geofflepard.com. He walks the dog for mutual inspiration and most of his best ideas come out of these strolls.

Be sure to catch more guest posts from Geoff Le Pard in Week 2 of his Blog Tour at these fine blogs:

Blog Tour 2 poster 2


77 Comments

  1. Congratulations Geoff on your second publication. Thanks also for the insights into Beta readers. I have used beta readers (but not known that was what they were) but have to admit that most are known to me so I always have some reservations as to whether they are “just being nice to me.” I’d love to get some unknowns to read but if you don’t know them how do you get them?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Annecdotist says:

    Useful post, Geoff. I like how you’ve separated out the general reader from the specialist. For Sugar and Snails, I took a bit of a risk and didn’t consult specialists till the proof stage (for endorsements, which I suppose is another layer of beta readers) – fortunately for me they liked it and it’s a great boost to my confidence.
    I’m really enjoying your fabulous tour!

    Liked by 4 people

    • TanGental says:

      Thanks Anne; specialists make it much more nerve racking because they might say something that craters the plot whereas the general Beta reader may find a hole which generally you can work around. As with your professionals it came as a relief and a boost to have some endorsement of my research. And thank you fr the nice comments; it is hard work putting everything together but it has been fun too.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        Your experience and process encourage me to bring my second WIP out of the dark dungeon I set it aside in because I know the science is weak. I hadn’t thought about finding specialists to delve into those weaknesses. I might actually revive it!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. TanGental says:

    Charli, thank you so much for hosting this and the kind opening remarks. They are much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. TanGental says:

    Reblogged this on TanGental and commented:
    Today, my blog tour takes me to Idaho and the Carrot Ranch. I’m talking about Beta readers and please do pop across to see what I say. Please stay a while and check out Charil’s posts and if you ever fancied a go at flash fiction in a kind and supportive environment then this is the place for you. It’s where I started just over a year ago and I haven’t looked back.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Wow, you hit the jackpot with your Oklahoma reader, well done Geoff.

    I’ve just finished a beta read which I really enjoyed. It jumped locations a lot, and I’d been to some of them, eg Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Bombay (as was) but because it was set before both the author and I were born, that didn’t help in terms of detail. I concentrated instead on plot, pacing, structure, characters, etc. I agree it shouldn’t be an edit, it’s more of an MS appraisal, ie does this work and if it does/doesn’t, why/why not.

    It’s not easy saying, this section doesn’t work, but to be of any value, a beta reader has to do it rather than saying everything is great. And, depending on the editor, they may also take on the role of generalist beta reader before they actually tackle the MS.

    I think it’s helpful if either a) the author gives the beta reader a clear brief or if not, b) the beta states what they will be doing in their report/feedback which is what I normally do.

    A couple of my clients use author writing groups and they seem pretty helpful and honest ie they say when they do/don’t like something.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. paulamoyer says:

    Wow, Geoff! I was just tootling around sending in my weekly flash fiction and found your post! How kind, and it was really fun to do! Never beta’s before! My copy of My Father and other Liars came in the mail Saturday and I’m enjoying seeing the changes you made, all for the better!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. A. E. Robson says:

    The need for beta readers, regardless of whether they are used for critique and feedback or endorsement, in my opinion, is critical in this industry.

    Geoff, your insight into the subject is informative and definitely should give cause for consideration for those who have thoughts of not using them.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Ula says:

    Geoff, you are really good at finding beta readers. Shamelessly asking is a good method. I like your approach as I’d never heard of other writers doing this before – getting beta readers that know something about an aspect of the novel. Definitely going to keep these tips in mind going forward.

    Liked by 5 people

    • TanGental says:

      I never thought of myself as braze but I suppose if the cap fits… And I’m two thirds the way through my Salisbury Square edit with your so helpful comments next to me. You are amazing too, Ula!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Like Una, I really didn’t think of specialists as beta readers, although I’ve contacted many experts who have graciously advised me on specific aspects of history with Rock Creek. I have a gun expert, a historical food expert, a pioneer expert and even a fiddle expert. Now, I will ask them if they’d be willing to beta read.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Reblogged this on Maegan Provan, Author and commented:
    Found this thanks to The Story Reading Ape! I love this post!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. jan says:

    Great suggestions!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. jeanne229 says:

    Excellent post today Geoff and thrilled to see Carrot Ranch participate in a blog tour. I am working on a second version of what was originally a life story for my client, a retired neurosurgeon. When we thought THAT version was going to be our end book, I used both his connections and my own less (un) stellar contacts to find beta readers (and petition blurbs). Needless to say, my personal connections, while providing small pointers, largely served to bolster my ego. They were much too appreciative and unequipped to really critique the flaws. One of his connections however got it front of Bret Easton Ellis (I must blog about that experience someday. Strange fit indeed!). While surprisingly gentle for BEE, his comments were the first real eye-opener. Then, when we began to seriously consider commercial opportunities for the book, first a publicist did us the favor of reading through the whole thing, pointing out things that bogged the story down, and then recommended a professional editor. Long story short, your point about not relying on personal connections is crucial, not only for those reasons you mentioned–authentic details, accuracy, plot holes, but for overall readability. Thanks for sharing what you have learned. And congratulations on a second novel! The second book is supposed to be the game-changer 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • TanGental says:

      Such a helpful addition Jeanne. I think I will go on learning for some time and I’ll have to be careful not to exhaust my Beta’s goodwill. It is tempting to find someone with the forensic eye you need and want them all the time. And Let’s hope it s a game changer. We’ll see!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        What an experience, Jeanne! I asked people I know that are prolific at reading commercial fiction just to find out if it was my first MS was readable. Surprisingly, they were good at pinpointing where the plot or characters faltered. I also hired an editor to do an analysis and afterwards to do line edits. With my next two MS drafts, though, I need specialists. I’m more hopeful after reading Geoff’s experience and process.

        Liked by 3 people

  12. ruchira says:

    Great suggestions, Geoff. I have usually asked my friends to be beta read but not all friends. Friends whom I know have a knack for my reading style and can give justice to the plot…

    I am always open to honesty so I hope and pray they were/are honest with mine 🙂

    Good luck in your publishing journey and congrats on your second book 🙂
    yay!!

    Liked by 4 people

  13. This is a great article on the benefits of beta readers. Your comment in the thread about shamelessly asking around is great. I have to get over my fear because I’ve lost a few of my original beta readers, or don’t have enough for one particular genre. I agree that blogging is invaluable and, I too, have met some incredible people. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      You see this tour has opened my eyes to new possibilities for readers and I will definitely exploit that. I’ve also found the confidence to say to people ‘you really can’t hurt me so do your worst’ Often it helps to get them to have a go at say the opening. if they say stuff they worry about and you come back and say how wonderful they are (even if in truth you have no intention of making any changes – that’s your prerogative after all) then you’ll get something from them.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      I agree! Through all the blogging connections we make, we have an untapped network for finding those genre or specialist beta readers. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  14. rogershipp says:

    I am a novice of a novice at the beginnings of the writing stuff…. Thanks you so much for the bold and clear declarations about the uses of a beta reader. It respect the value of the skill and assisting my in a clearer understanding of the pursuit of a dream.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. noelleg44 says:

    A perfect description of the selection and use of beta readers! I’m on a steep climb in terms of using this information!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Do you use specialists for writing your mysteries, Noelle? I think for me, the shift is going from writers groups to defining specific beta readers (then finding them).

      Like

      • noelleg44 says:

        I have two critique groups, Charli, and they pick it apart chapter by chapter, then beta readers and finally an editor. Maybe overkill, but I learn so much from them every time!

        Liked by 3 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I’m not yet convinced there’s such a thing as overkill, but I am learning when to apply what level of feedback. As Geoff posted on his blog under the Writer’s Dictionary, “writer: your work after you write it.” Those different layers of feedback help guide us in our work.

        Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I think your approach is perfect Noelle (and rather reflected in the quality of your books!) I’ve never felt I’ve had too many comments but I think that is because have now learnt to be (politely) dismissive if I don’t agree. I have a group who critiques elements of the work but my preference is a tracked changes with comments version of the word manuscript. So far it has worked for me.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Great tips about beta readers Geoff, shall consider doing this myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. roweeee says:

    Congrats of getting the second book out, Geoff. I’m looking forward to reading it and I assure you that it will by-pass the pile and I’ll read it instantly.
    This has been a very informative read as I’m not at the stage of needing beta-readers yet and more of a cattle prod and something to keep me on track.
    I am very conscious of place and the subtleties of place and try to draw that into my writing and if you got these details wrong, for someone like me, your story would come a cropper. You don’t necessarily need a lot of detail. Just a smattering perhaps but enough for it to unconsciously pass by a local.
    I also appreciate the critic, especially before the thing has gone into print. It’s good to get multiple perspectives and tease some of these things out a bit to make a richer story, as well as getting things like dreaded punctuation right.
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Norah says:

    Very informative post, Geoff. It’s great to see the support coming from the community at the Carrot Ranch. Your experiences are definitely encouraging to others, as many of the comments show. Putting your work in the hands of others initially can be very daunting, but it’s necessary if you want to take that final step and publish. Better to iron out any wrinkles before the button is pressed. Your reputation could depend on it. Letting others know that you value their honest opinions is important.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. paulamoyer says:

    I would also like to say that, having just got Geoff’s beta-reader comments back from my book, that he is a great beta reader himself. Thorough and thoughtful, with criticisms delivered in a way that you know what to do to address the concern. Well done, Geoff!

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Funny as this sounds I don’t think I’m that good. But that’s because I compare myself to others. You’re excellent and you probably don’t think so either. It’s something that you can learn – technique, etc – and there’s a confidence you need to say what it is you are thinking. Anyway I hope it makes sense.

      Liked by 2 people

      • paulamoyer says:

        I would agree with that comparison, Geoff! Your ms. was the first beta-read I’ve ever done. I mean, I’ve been in groups and courses and given critique, and edited, but never in the official “beta” capacitiy.

        Liked by 2 people

  20. lucciagray says:

    Sorry i didn’t catch this post first time round. Geoff you’re a great beta reader, because you understand what the job entails. You’re also a great finder of beta readers because you know what you need and search for it. You’re also great at recapping and passing on the information and a wealth of ideas on the topic. Thanks You for sharing. Great idea to have guest posts Charli.

    Liked by 1 person

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