In earlier installments, we discussed finding beta readers, getting them to read while respecting their time, and extracting useful feedback. Today we'll continue the "beta reading as experiment" analogy. The final sections of a research paper are the results and discussion. First I'll share what I learned about my own manuscript, and then I will generalize to some broader lessons. Also, I promised Jake that I’d have charts, and I aim to deliver.
So how did my beta reading experience go? These are the major themes.
What I did well: People kept reading. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of readers who finished in one or two sittings, stayed up late reading, or otherwise deviated from their normal routines. As expected, the closer a reader was to my target audience (young women who enjoy Tamora Pierce), the more she tended to like the manuscript. One definite high point was receiving an e-mail from a beta reader’s sister saying she felt like the book was written just for her. I'm counting that as my first successful word of mouth referral :-)
What needs improvement: I was so focused on trying to keep the plot moving that I sacrificed depth. My readers found room for character development, world building, and scene setting. In my next round of revisions my focus will be on fleshing things out -- developing relationships, backstory, and world details. Much of it is convincing myself that I don't need a cliffhanger ending or knife fight in every chapter to keep the reader engaged.
Most controversial issue: My beta readers were pretty low key, but one particular subject brought out strong opinions of all possible shades. I had a slightly nontraditional romance thread, and here's a sampling of the reactions.
“EWWWWWW… Are you really going to put that in?”
“It was really really awkward.”
“I really liked the tension between those two!”
“F---- Yeah! It made my stomach tingle.”
(And no, it’s not what you think. This is YA, folks. Get your mind out of the gutter. Besides, we’ve established already that my love scenes are very tame.)
Not only were reactions all over the board, but people were very quick to attribute character flaws to fellow beta readers who disagreed with them.. Has anybody else had this experience? And if so, over what kind of passage?
So that was what I learned about my own manuscript. But what did I learn about writing in general?
Actually, it was a lesson I wasn’t expecting. The beta reading process opened my eyes to the reader landscape. I really got to see how personalities and tastes affected someone's reading experience.
If you could represent my view of book quality before I did the experiment, it would've looked something like this.
The y axis represents a book's quality, and the error bars represent subjective differences in opinion.
After the experiment, my understanding is something more like this.
Here, the Z axis represents how much someone enjoys a book, and the X and Y axes represent reader characteristics, anything from their favorite genre, their attention span, their worldview, the number of traumatic childhood experiences they've had involving killer pigeons, etc. All come into play when they read a story.
Now I knew this already, in theory. In fact, I published an essay that talked at length about what a reader brings to the table. But I didn't really internalize this until I sat down (or e-mailed) with 14 different people and had 14 different conversations about my novel. Hopefully this epiphany will give me some psychological resiliance when I enter the land of queries and bad reviews.
So readers, what lessons have you learned from your beta readers?
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