Repeat after me: my novel will not appeal to everyone. My novel will not appeal to everyone. My novel will not appeal to everyone.
This may seem obvious to some, and maybe not so much for others, but this matters in some very big ways but also some very small ones.
Some people like having romance subplots in their stories. Others don’t. Some like detailed history and political intrigue. Others don’t. Some need happy endings. Others are a bit more open.
Do you see what I mean?
This is why before you can even decide what feedback to listen to or how to interpret it, you as the author must decide what your novel is really about, what’s most important in your story, and what it is you’re trying to achieve. (Chances are if you can’t sum up your answers to these questions in a couple sentences each, you need to give this some thought. And if your blurb is well over 250 words, then you’ve probably got too much going on.) You also have to understand your readers—what they like and don’t like, what they’re used to reading, and what makes a good story in their opinions.
You can make all the changes in the world, but none of those will matter if you don’t have clear answers to these questions.
Because without answers, there isn’t enough clarity to help focus your story, which makes it susceptible to being led in a direction that you don’t necessarily want it to go—and then you really won’t be happy with the results.
Why Finding the Right Reader(s) for Your Novel is So Important
I feel like, when working with beta readers, it’s really important to find at least one person who seems to just “get” what it is you’re trying to accomplish for the most part. What I mean is if someone is giving you feedback which seems to wildly go against the grain of your vision to the point where it no longer feels like “your” story, chances are they aren’t the ideal kind of reader for your novel.
Remember: your novel will not appeal to everyone.
Everyone has opinions. Some of those opinions can actually help you craft a stronger story, and those are the ones you really want to look for regardless of who’s reading. How do you know what a “helpful opinion” looks like?
Well for one, as much as you may/may not like hearing it from someone else—after the apparent indignance of a critique has had a chance to roll off your shoulders and sink in at the back of your brain—it’ll actually start to make some sense. Mostly, if not entirely. Other opinions might inspire you to come up with better ideas that get you more excited about your story than you were before, even if you didn’t entirely agree with the original feedback given. And yet some opinions will give you an enlightenment you never knew you needed.
So how do you find the right readers for your novel?
It might take a bit of trial and error initially, especially if you don’t have friends or a writing group you already trust to give helpful feedback. I’ve used my blog and social media (Twitter) to help me find some candidates. From there, you can narrow things down a bit by providing a good, short descriptive summary of your project up front to gauge a person’s receptivity to it then find out what kinds of novels your potential readers like as well as their reading preferences and so forth. However, any other complementary or oppositional quirks of theirs that may work with or against your story can really only be discovered by letting them read a sample of your work, at the very least, and assessing their feedback with an open mind.
Not only will this make for a better beta reading experience for all involved; this can also help you better understand who your novel’s target audience might be. You may be surprised… (I’ve got more thoughts on this, but I’ll save them for some other day.)
Tips for Working with Beta Readers
This is only based on my limited experiences, but if there were 6 things I’d recommend to others who’ve never enlisted the help of a beta reader before, this would be my advice:
- Know your vision and what you want readers to get out of your novel then communicate this to potential betas before giving them your story. To be honest, I didn’t do all of this. Though, I wish I did. Oddly enough, sometimes when I read other people’s work, I’ll ask them these questions. (Why I didn’t do this for myself I can’t even begin to explain.) Why is this important? Because if you are writing a fantasy story, for example, though you also want it to feel like a noir mystery yet your readers go through it and it feels like neither to them (or one and not the other)…you need to know that. You may not even be aware that your story is missing the mark. So by sharing this kind of information upfront, you are, in a sense, level-setting with the reader(s) and “calibrating” the beta reading process to a certain degree.
- Screen your readers by asking them questions about their reading preferences & be discerning about their fit for your project. I’m glad I put together a pre-reading questionnaire for those who were interested in reading my novel. However, I probably should have been a bit more discerning. I thought it would be interesting to hear from people who don’t necessarily read a lot of same genres I do, namely fantasy and espionage. In a way, it was, but I don’t think I got what I fully wanted out of that experience—mostly because people who don’t read a lot in your genre(s) may not be fond of and/or understand its conventions to begin with. (I think this can especially be the case with cross-genre fiction.) Oh well. Lesson learned.
- Let readers sample some of your novel before giving them the full manuscript. What you can’t suss out about a potential reader in a questionnaire you’ll soon discover by getting their feedback on a small sample of your WIP. Some will straight up tell you whether your story is for them or not. Less wasting of time—the reader’s and yours.
- Set a “due date” for feedback. When I first started looking for readers, it was approaching the winter holidays. As such, I didn’t specify a date I wanted feedback by because I figured most people would be busy. Thing is human nature tends to dictate that we “set things aside” if we aren’t given a clear reason to prioritize them. I knew this in the back of my mind, but I thought I was being courteous. Really, I was missing an opportunity to determine who was truly available to read my work and actually serious about it. (Next time, I might just wait until after any major holidays, if there are any coming up.)
- Provide a clear explanation of what kind of feedback you’re looking for. In my case, I wasn’t really looking for feedback on stuff like grammar, punctuation, etc. (unless it was something I was doing repeatedly to the point of becoming distracting). Not because I didn’t care but because I know I can hire an editor later. However, I was interested in how well a reader would be able to follow my story (if it made sense to them) and whether they connected with, or at least had strong feelings about, certain characters. Personally, I’d rather not spend money on getting editor feedback on these kinds of major things. It ain’t cheap. However, I do know that copyediting and proofreading isn’t my strong point and I can truly use the professional help in that regard. Part of it is just the way my brain works. (I have a really convincing imagination and can see things that aren’t necessarily there and conveniently “unsee” things, too. Great for writing fantasy, not so much for editing.)
- Thank them for their feedback and time and offer to read their work in return. Some of this is just common sense, but if you found a reader pleasant to work with, then why not return the favor if they’re also a writer? It’s just common courtesy. They may not have a project they want feedback on right away, though they may want to cash in on the offer in the future when they do. Maybe they do already have a story to swap. Simultaneous beta reading can be a thing.
I could list more, but these are some of the important things, in my opinion.
What’s your experience with the beta reading process?
Whether as a reader or a writer, surely there have been other things that worked well for you!