Don’t Let a Few Beta Readers Throw You Off Course

In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard from no fewer than three fellow authors talk about reworking their books, second-guessing their instincts, or scrapping their manuscripts altogether based on comments from a few beta readers. Now while I’m the first to admit that novel writing is a two-way street — books are meant to be read and loved and cherished by other people or else we’re simply writing diary entries — I am seeing authors put way too much emphasis on early reader input.

I can hand Baby Grand to 10 people and get 10 different opinions about it — all of them valid, of course, because reading is very subjective and personal, but that doesn’t mean that I, as the author, should be adapting my book to honor each and every one of them. As with parenting, I think ideally we should listen to what everybody has to say, but only put into use what resonates with us. After all, these are YOUR characters. This is YOUR story. We don’t just toss our kids out the window when they aren’t to others’ liking.

Listening to input is great and helpful, but it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for your own instincts. You cannot make everyone happy. Only yourself.

This discussion brings to mind an article I recently read in the New York Times about actor Zach Braff crowdfunding his latest film, Wish I Was Here. The crowdfunding aspect aside, I loved this quote from Braff about the final cut of his film, which, by the way, received lukewarm reviews by critics: “I can say wholeheartedly that it is a full articulation of what we wanted to say.”

THAT is what I think we should be striving for as novelists. Is this book a full articulation of what I wanted to say?

If it is, and a few beta readers aren’t getting it, the answer may be to get new beta readers rather than a new manuscript.

 

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17 thoughts on “Don’t Let a Few Beta Readers Throw You Off Course

  1. Excellent thoughts on listening to critique. Sometime those giving advice forget that their view is subjective and treat their own taste as objective truth. Beyond advice on grammar and technical matters a writer should believe in their own vision. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Job! I agree that an author should believe in his/her vision. However, sometimes that vision may not be communicated effectively on the page. That is where the beta reader can be helpful. If a reader thinks a character to be evil, but your intention is for that character to be good, you may want to take a look at the passages with that character. I often find in my own work — and in my clients’ work — sometimes we leave crucial details in our heads and don’t put them on the page. But, as I said, scrapping a novel because a reader thought it was “eh” is another story (pun intended) altogether. :)

  2. Perfectly said, Dina. I am one of the guilty ones who is second guessing herself after giving drafts to a few readers, however, that’s not based on their comments. (I haven’t had any feedback yet). I got a crazy idea for a new character after I’d edited it twice!

    I also want to add that it’s important not to let your readers know what doubts you may have before you’ve heard their feedback. If you’re worried a character is too one-dimensional, don’t ask them before they’ve read the book. You do NOT want to put ideas in their heads. My main purpose for having readers is to find out whether or not it was a page-turner, whether it flowed, and how they responded to the story. I don’t mind if the responses are varied (positive or negative) and I don’t always agree with them. That’s okay, too!

    I also really like your statement that “You cannot make everyone happy. Only yourself.” Again, perfectly said. Thanks, Dina.

    • Hey, lady! One of my favorite chapters in BABY GRAND (the poker scene) is one I added at the end of the 3rd and final major edit. So I am all for crazy ideas for new stuff during the editing process — at this point, (most of) our angst is gone, because the skeleton of the book is done, and all that magic is just waiting to come out of our minds and onto the page! And, yes, don’t let beta readers know what you are worried about. Excellent tip. You’ll often find out that they don’t notice, and your worries may have been all for nothing. :) Thanks for stopping by, Kellie!

  3. This is a pretty nifty blog. I had a look at some of your older posts and, being sufficiently impressed, went to Amazon to learn a bit about Baby Grand. If I have time later this summer, I think I’ll read it.

    My experience with beta-readers has been quite horrific so far. But I think it’s more of a genre thing. Don’t get people with an unstinted passion for one genre to read something from another genre (in other words, don’t try to get a Stephen King fanatic to read Guy Davenport). Do you think this is good advice?

    • Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m so glad you find the information here helpful! (And that’s very kind of you to want to read BABY GRAND.) I totally agree with you regarding genre. When scouting out beta readers, it’s very important to choose readers who are familiar with your genre — romance readers KNOW the romance genre and can offer more insightful feedback. Same goes for crime fiction readers or sci-fi readers or readers of whatever type of genre you write. Chances are, McDonald’s doesn’t put a bunch of Burger King devotees into a focus group when trying out a new menu recipe. Gotta go to the folks who know their stuff. :) Good luck with your writing, and I hope to see you here again!

  4. I’ve seen two posts on this topic today. I’ll pretend the universe revolves around me and consider it a cosmic message. I intend to be ready for beta readers by wintertime.

    It’s tricky. We pick beta readers because we trust them, but that presents its own challenges.

  5. And yet. Sometimes lackluster beta feedback is exactly what you need to hear, and sometimes this feedback will force you to face the facts: you need to start over again. (And by “you,” I mean “me.”) Happened to me on the completed and polished draft I finished at the end of Feb. I’m now starting over again. It was painful leading up to the decision. But it was the right one.

    This supports your point, of course: you need to trust your instincts. So if the beta feedback is lackluster, you need to ask yourself, “OK. Are they right?” And then you need to stop and really listen to that little voice deep inside, the one that speaks truth, even though the ego often talks louder.

    Again, in this case, “you” means “me.” :)

    • Yep. Agreed, Robyn. This is my process with regard to feedback from people I trust (and trust and respect is key!!!):

      1. WHAT???? The manuscript isn’t perfect? You must be mistaken.
      2. You know, I looked that over, and you may have a point.
      3. OMG, how could I have missed this?

      :)

      As long as you trust your instincts, beta readers can be one of an author’s greatest assets. Just don’t forgo your vision because of a few lukewarm or “lackluster” reviews.

      Good luck, Robyn!!!! I can’t wait to read!

  6. I have had some useful suggestions from beta readers. Most of them fellow writers, and most of those unpublished. I take in all in stride. Some things they say are useful to me and some not. It’s the same with editor feedback. There have been many things editors suggested about stories that I have not incorporated.

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