Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What I Learned From My Beta Readers

Meet three of my betas: Rona, Me, Donna and Lauryn
     Meet my Beta Readers!!!
     This wonderful group of women are all dear to my heart, and I'd love to brag on them for a bit. Not only have they given their time and advice, they have been a non-stop source of encouragement and support to me. These 8 readers range from age 75 to age 23, are college educated, and all but one are avid readers of the romance genre.

Yes I know what you're thinking . . . so I'll go ahead and say it . . . I struck gold with this bunch of ladies!!!!!
As you can see they are all beautiful. In fact the black and white picture was sent because the group were undergoing Mary Kay facials and no one had on make-up. So funny!
More beautiful betas include: Darlene, Delayne, Diana, Natalie and Andrea 

What I Learned From my Betas:
At our critique party the betas gathered in my living room for a round-table discussion of the book. Each betas had listed their answers ahead of time on a worksheet. During the discussion, my beta reader, Delayne took notes for me on her computer and did an outstanding job. Here's a summary of what they said:

  • Scenes to keep: The betas took turns listing the scenes that resonated with them. One scene was consistently listed as a favorite and I couldn't have been more shocked. In this scene the hero and heroine are riding double on horseback when they are caught in a terrible rain/hail storm. The betas praised the description of this scene, so I knew I had to keep it in the book.Various other scenes touched various beta's hearts and I made a tally sheet of all they mentioned as favorites. All of these will probably stay in the book.
  • Scenes to alter or change: Once scene bothered two betas as being too intimate too soon into the story. The heroine comforts the hero when he breaks down and ends up on his lap. Others liked it, but during the discussion we all agreed the same tender effect of the scene could be achieved in a different way.We also spent time discussing scenes that could be cut. In one scene, I had my hero daydreaming during a board meeting about the first kiss he'd shared with the heroine the night before. I loved the scene, but it was cut since it didn't propel the plot. 
  • Errors and problems: This was so enlightening, because the betas caught a lot of things I hadn't thought about. Number one on the list of things that bothered my betas, was my villain was not nearly as threatening or evil as expected from the set-up. In addition, they didn't feel the villain's blackmail scheme was solid enough to do any real damage.The second topic brought to my attention was too much "hot and cold" plotting between the hero and heroine. However, the betas admitted it kept them reading. One wise beta commented , "Frustrate your characters, not your readers." A few, very honest betas admitted that the religious aspects of the book were too heavy-handed. The prayers and religious discussion were too long and needed to be condensed. Another beta pointed out a security breach on the hero's property that I had overlooked. A few readers voiced concern that the heroine never bothered to call the police for anything. "If she's so smart, why doesn't she report this guy." Well, believe me, my heroine is much smarter in the revisions and so am I.

What I've Received From My Betas: 
I'll admit it took a certain amount of courage to share my "baby" with the rest of the world. Two years of my life were in that manuscript and I didn't know if I had what it takes to be a writer or not. I had written a story I would like to read, but I didn't know if it would resonate with others. During the March-June process, I learned the truth. The payoff far outweighs the risk.  Here's the gifts my betas gave to me:

Unbridled enthusiasm and on-target advice: From the start, the readers were excited to be a part of the critique process. When I sent chapters in emails, their sweet comments and excitement about the next installment kept me smiling. Their eagerness to help still astounds me. Because of their honest comments and suggestions, I am busy revising and I can tell the book is already better.

Encouragement and support: During the three months the betas were reading, we would cross paths at parties and gatherings.They were so eager to talk about the portions of the book they had read. Discussions involved actors and actresses they saw in the movie of my book. Movie??? One beta wrote, "I’m ready for it to be made into a movie.  The scenes would be spectacular—at least all that my mind imagines…. I am so enjoying your story." Wow, that was encouraging shot in the arm.

 Free advance publicity: Although the betas "assignments" officially ended at the critique party, their support of the novel has not. This surprised the pants off me. At reunions, graduation parties, camping trips, Mary Kay parties, you name it . . . one of these betas will spread the word to anyone within earshot about my book. I sit there in blushing mess as they eagerly tell complete strangers about the book I've written. I don't have to bring up the topic, they do it for me. Their belief in me is so overpowering, I can't let them down. I can't be lazy and give up on this project. The betas have done their job, now I have to do mine. Where God leads, I will follow. Whatever happens, I know I'm not alone on this journey. My betas are watching . . . they are waiting . . .  they are praying for my success.

Your Turn: The gift of our Savior is the sweetest present of all, but there are other gifts too. What gift(s) have you received lately that didn't involve a gift bag or box? 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beta Party Time: "Booking It" Behind the Scenes!

     My nerves were a little on edge. In less than 48 hours, all eight of my beta readers would converge in my living room for a critique session. I wasn't so worried about their opinion of  my book . . . I was more frantic about the party itself. See, I tend to be a perfectionist-- you know--the kind of hostess that can't relax enough to enjoy her own parties? 
     This time I was determined to break that pesky hostess habit and organization was the key. With a little behind-the-scenes help from Pinterest and my novel, this was the BEST party I've ever thrown! And the MOST fun, too! Here's some simple and thrifty ideas for your next beta critique party or book club party.

Party Theme.
  Let your party theme be determined by the book or manuscript you will discuss. My novel is a contemporary romance set in the rugged mountains of Colorado. My hero is a horse rancher and cowboy, so a Western theme worked well for me. My heroine is a Texas architect with  unusual, Columbine-blue eyes. So, my primary color for the party decorations was a deep violet-blue, or as close as I could come to it. Of course, romantic elements such as hearts, roses, and chocolate were a must. 

Dinner Menu

     I told my beta readers in their invitation, the dinner menu would be based around one of the meals mentioned in my book.That kept them guessing until they walked through my door. I picked  an episode where my characters shared a meal at a Mexican food restaurant and built my party menu around it. Like my hero and heroine, my beta readers munched down on chips and salsa for appetizers. For the main entree, I served homemade sour-cream chicken enchiladas with re-fried beans and Spanish rice.
      Iced tea is my heroine's favorite beverage and it happens to be my my betas' favorite choice as well.
      At one point in the book, my heroine makes a chocolate cake and tops it with homemade icing. Although her cake falls, I'm glad to say my chocolate cake did not. It was totally yummy . . . and yes the icing was made from scratch.  ( I am making myself hungrier with each paragraph I type! So let's move on.)


Party Decorations
     Keep it simple and use what you already have around your home.

  •       Table Lanterns. In keeping with the Western theme, I dug out several Mason jars and drinking glasses from my cupboard. After all, I do live in Texas, so these are always on hand. I ran off copies of my romance scenes onto card stock paper and cut out two heart-shaped holes in the paper. I inserted the paper inside the jars and trimmed it to fit. I placed a battery operated LED candle in the bottom of the jar so the light would shine through the heart-shaped hole.It gave off a nice glow without fear of flames or smoke from a real candle.Then I screwed the lids and rings on the jars and wrapped the neck of the jar with blue ribbon. Western-themed stickers helped fill some blank spots.

The LED candles were inexpensive and quite a hit.
  •      Table Centerpiece. In my book, my heroine receives two bouquets of yellow roses, one from the hero and one from the villain.  I placed one vase of yellow roses in the center of the dining table. Around the roses, I positioned some of my favorite Julie Lessman romance books, along with some of my  writing books.  I printed some of  the love scenes from my book onto red paper and cut them into numerous confetti-style hearts. These decorated the table from one end to the other, adding a splash of bright color against the blue tablecloth.

  •      Coffee table Centerpiece. At one point in my book, the heroine mentions to the hero her love of chocolate. Later, she finds a vase of flowers on her coffee table, surrounded by a wide assortment of chocolates.When my hero sends flowers to my heroine, he writes a short poem on the card. I couldn't resist this romantic touch from the story, and I placed a second bouquet of yellow roses on the coffee table. Then I  included some of my favorite chocolates.( I'm sure my heroine would approve.)

Party Favors
     I made a variety of Christian themed book marks and placed one beside each beta's place setting. 
Simplest party favor for a book party!


  •     Photo Gallery Guessing Game. Over the course of writing my novel, I had clipped pictures that best matched the visions I saw in my head. Now that my betas had read the book, I wanted to know if they could match the correct picture with the correct characters, settings, rooms and homes I described in the book.Using the same blue ribbon, I strung up the pictures over the blinds of my sliding glass door, allowing lots of room. This was a great filler between the appetizer and entree dishes. The betas had a lot of fun speculating and taking their guesses as to who was who.
Guess who is who and what is what?
  •      Trivia Quiz and Prizes. After dinner, we gathered in the living room and I provided paper and pens for the trivia quiz over the book. The questions were simple such as: "What are the names of the heroine's niece and nephew?" This was a fun icebreaker and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners got to choose their book prize from among a basket of my lightly-read book collection. 
When it's too hot for a fire, use candles in the fireplace for ambiance.  But don't set your books too close!

Discussion time
     We began with a prayer, inviting God into our discussion. I urged each beta to be totally honest and not hold back their opinions. I can't get better as a writer, unless I know where I'm making mistakes. Using the completed worksheets they had brought with them, we began our discussion.( More about what I learned from them in the next post.)

Your turn: Have you ever thrown a book club party or been to one? Any cool ideas you'd like to share? 

Coming up: What I learned from my betas. 


Friday, July 20, 2012

Steering Beta Readers in the Right Direction

  "What do I want my beta readers to critique in my manuscript?"

 That is the first question an author should ask before enlisting the help of betas. Communication is key to a successful experience with beta readers as discussed in the previous post, 10 Tips To Enrich Your Beta Reader Experience. According to survey results obtained from both authors and beta readers in the  Beta Reading Survey, the breakdown of  author preferences included:

  • 21% want betas to focus on spelling and grammar errors only 
  •  5%  want betas to focus on characterization and plot only
  • 74% want betas to look and comment on all of the above (spelling, grammar, characters and plot)

  "What method of reader feedback do I prefer?", should be the second question an author asks.While most of the authors in the survey, preferred that their beta readers critique and comment in Microsoft Word's Track Changes, several claimed they were unfamiliar with the track changes editing feature and so were their beta readers. 

 I found this to be true in my own experience. Few of my betas were familiar with the track changes feature and I that is why I chose a different method of feedback.

Advantages to The Critique Worksheet:    After the betas had completed the full reading of the manuscript, I sent them a two-page Critique Worksheet along with a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. The betas were asked to complete these worksheets before we all met together to discuss the novel. There were several advantages to this method:
  • The worksheet contents steered my betas to the information I most wanted to know.
  • Betas were able to provide their most honest answers before entering a group dynamic. (Subtle peer pressure can change opinions and ideas and I wanted to avoid the "jumping on the band wagon" effect. )
  • Betas had time to reflect on the contents of the worksheet and mull over their answers. 
  • The chapter synopsis jogged their memories and saved them a lot of re-reading time. 
  • The worksheet served as the outline/agenda for our 3-hour discussion of the book. 
Critique Worksheet Contents:
 In my case, I did not want to bog down my betas with line-by-line edits so I asked them to focus more on plot scenes, characterization, plausibility and pacing. I knew the manuscript was too long and needed to know what scenes to cut. Here's what I asked:
  1. List your favorite scene or scenes. List any that touched you, stood out, made you laugh etc. What did you like about the scene? (Excel chart was provided)
  2. List any scenes that bothered you, seemed implausible, or didn't like. What was it about that scene that bothered you? (Excel chart was provided)
  3. Briefly list any spelling errors, repeated phrases, words that you felt  were overdone.
  4. Time to vent! List anything about the book, plot or the author's style that annoyed or bothered you.What are the author's weak points?
  5. In your opinion what are the book's strong points? What are the author's strong points? 
  6. Use the following scale to rate the manuscript’s elements:
1= Consistently worked for me
2= Worked most of the time
3= Could use some tweaking
4= Had concerns, bothered me
5= Needs help 

Pacing of the plot:

Realistic Dialogue:

Use of Christian/Inspirational elements:

Balance of action vs. introspection:

Believable Heroine:

Believable Hero:

Believable Conflict:

Believable Romantic Elements:

Believable Villain- Marcus:

Believable Villainess- Kristen:

Motivation or Goals of Characters:

Story Held Your Attention:

Rate the Introduction:

Rate the Middle of the Book:

Rate the Ending of the Book:

 I hope you have enjoyed this post. I believe it is always wise for authors to do their homework, before we ask our betas to do theirs.
Your turn: If you enlisted the help of beta readers, what would you want them to critique in your manuscript?

Coming up: Behind the scenes: Critique party ideas.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

10 Tips to Enrich Your Beta Reader Experience

 Beta readers have the enormous potential to steer out manuscripts right down the path to publication. They are often that first voice of reason to find the flaws we authors simply cannot see or have overlooked in the maze of revisions, additions and edits. 

However, in my research, I was shocked to find so many authors were disappointed, angry or hurt by their experiences with beta readers. Some of their complaints included: too little or no feedback from the reader, harsh or hurtful critiques, readers that back out or quit the project, readers that tried to rewrite the story, and readers that shared the author's manuscript without permission. (See Beta Reading for helpful survey results.) 
       Surprisingly, we authors may be most at fault here. If we haven't done our homework, how can we expect the betas to do theirs? I believe with a little preparation and planning, authors can head off these problems before they start. Based on my research and recent encounters with my 8 beta readers, here are 10 tips to create a worthwhile, productive experience between the beta readers and the author.

1. Choose wisely! Choose beta readers that either write or read your genre. No matter how much someone likes or supports your writing efforts, they may never connect to your manuscript if it is not in their preferred genre. "Paranormal-vampire" readers may be bored with the slower pace of a regency novel and never finish it.

2. Choose beta readers that represent your target market and have time to critique. Your betas should know up front, the length and word count of your manuscript, so they can decide if they have the time to devote to your project. In addition, I would suggest that you use readers of various ages. My beta readers ranged from 23-75 years old and the differing viewpoints offered a rich source of information. 
     Something that worked quite well for me was a "book club approach". When I enlisted their help, I let all 8 of the betas  know they were reading the same chapters at the same time and all had the same completion date, after which we would schedule a critique session. Knowing we were all in this together, sustained the focus on the manuscript. 

3. Complete your manuscript before enlisting the aid of beta readers. Don't keep your betas waiting for chapters or installments,  or they'll lose interest. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible, otherwise, beta readers may be turned off by numerous mistakes and errors they find in the early chapters. Before my betas saw the manuscript, I had done two rounds of editing. I was finally to a point where I was proud of my effort and needed more pairs of eyes to look it over. 

4. Clarify your expectations to your beta readers. Communicate to your betas what you want them to do. Are you looking for help with grammar and spelling? Do you need more feedback on plot movement? In my case, I asked my readers to ignore grammatical errors for the time being, and focus on the flow and continuity of the story. Were the characters engaging? Did they care about them? Was this a plausible plot?  What scenes could I cut? I needed to know these things more than spelling or passive voice errors.
      I suggest authors don't bog down beta readers with detailed requirements. That is a professional editor's job and probably out of the scope of most beta readers. Keep it general. This will increase your chances that your betas will complete the entire manuscript. 

5. Clarify your expectations for beta readers' feedback. What is your preferred format? Will it be a face-to-face verbal discussions with your readers, or do you  prefer Microsoft's track changes feature? How often are you expecting to receive feedback from betas? Be specific.

6. Discuss and clarify amount of manuscript you will be sending to your readers, then stay on schedule. Do your readers prefer one big chunk of manuscript up front or would they prefer smaller doses?  According to the "Beta Reading" article mentioned above, most readers prefer a few chapters at a time or else they feel overwhelmed and bogged down. This was the preferred method of my beta readers as well. Every week I sent 4-6 chapters to them in their emails and gauged their progress. For most, this was the appropriate amount per week.

7. Set a final deadline for completion of the reading. Deadlines are the best motivators for most of us, and beta readers are no different. However, you must be flexible on this. Remember the readers have a life outside of your manuscript and they are giving up their time, without pay, to help you. Adjust the deadline, if necessary. I didn’t confer enough with my readers as the deadline approached and found out later, that three of the eight did not finish the manuscript before the appointed deadline.

8. Stay in contact with your readers. This is crucial for maintaining the morale of your readers and touching base on their progress. But don't bug them! An occasional email asking if they have received the appropriate chapters or if they have any questions will suffice. They need to know that what they are doing matters and their efforts are appreciated. Thank them every chance you get, don't  just wait until the end to thank them for their time and effort. A kind word goes a long way when it comes to cooperation.   

9. Construct and distribute a critique worksheet for your readers. One of my best ideas as confirmed by the betas! After they had completed the reading of the manuscript, I sent each of them a critique-group discussion worksheet asking for their honest opinions on things like "scenes they loved and why" and "scenes that bothered them and why". I provided a chapter by chapter synopsis as a reference guide. I wanted the betas to reflect individually on these points, before we discussed these together, thereby reducing peer pressure. (More about the worksheet in Friday's post.) 

10. Host a Beta Reader Critique Party.  This may not be possible for every author, but I am blessed to have all my betas living within a 30-mile radius from me. A critique party thrown in their honor, seemed like the perfect thank you for their efforts. From the dinner menu to the decorations, the theme for the evening was based on the book. Each beta brought their completed worksheets to the party and this served as an outline to help streamline our  critique discussion . (More beta party ideas in a future post.)

These are my best tips, but maybe you have more.

 Your turn: Have I left anything out? Do you have any more tips you'd like to add?Any positive or negative beta experiences you'd like to share? Which tip or tips do you find the most helpful?

Coming Up: The Beauty of the Beta Reader worksheet.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beauty of Beta Readers

     Okay. I admit it. A year ago, I didn't have a clue what the term "beta reader" meant. I could tell you more about a betta fish than I could a beta reader. After several childhood years tending our family's fish aquarium, I was well acquainted with the beauty of the betta fish--but but not the beauty of the beta reader.

     What a difference a year makes! Although I'm a newcomer to the writing world, I'm a fast learner. Recently, I enlisted the help of 8 wonderful beta readers to critique my  first completed manuscript. Over the next four posts, I will be sharing all I learned about the process and what I've gleaned along the way.

     For those unfamiliar with the term "beta reader", it refers to someone who voluntarily reads an unpublished manuscript in order to give the author constructive criticism. "Betas", as they are often called, are a wise author's first stop in the critique process, before going on to the next level of professional editors and paid critiques. I've noticed several published authors, and writers in the blogging community recommend the use of trusted beta readers to not only test a new author's storytelling ability, but also to edit manuscripts for grammar, punctuation, plot and characterization problems. That's a tall order!

     Did you know the "beta reader" is a fairly new term and is derived from the software industry. According to
 www.wisegeek.com,"beta" refers to imperfect versions of software given to testers for the purpose of  detecting and finding flaws. The tester's purpose is to "break" the software if possible, so the manufacturers can correct the problems and make a more perfect product. Beta readers serve much the same function.

    While some authors struggle to find reliable beta readers, I was blessed that my betas sought me out.

My Bit of Back Story: 
      Originally, I began my novel as a gift to my mother. She'd asked me so many times when I was going to write a book for her, so I began a book I never really expected to finish. But God had a different agenda, and I began writing for Him.
      For 18 months, only my immediate family knew I was writing a novel. Last fall,  my husband let it "slip" to his family, after I won second place in my first contest. He was proud of me, but it was an uncomfortable time. When friends and family members wanted to know more, I couldn't even discuss my plot or characters without blushing and stammering. I couldn't see myself as an author, but they could. Their genuine interest and support spurred me to finish and edit my manuscript.
      Earlier this spring, my  three sister-in-laws and a niece asked when they could read my book. By now, I was ready to let them. I had edited "my baby" to the best of my ability and was proud of my progress. It was time for new eyes to take a look at it. My two daughters, my sister and my mother also joined the group, bringing the total to 8 beta readers. Best of all, they were all experienced readers of the genre.
       From March through late May I sent 4-6 chapters each week to my betas until they finished reading the manuscript. Then I planned a beta critique party for early June, while the story was still fresh on their minds. I learned so much from the process and their feedback, I can't wait to share it all with you in future posts. 
     Before I close, check out the gift I received from my beautiful betas. One of my readers, in cahoots with my husband, printed all 678 pages of my manuscript in binder form, including a lovely front cover scene. As you can guess, when they presented it to me, I blubbered like a baby . . . but I wasn't the only one.
Coming up: 10 Tips to Enhance the Beta Reader Experience!