As of this Monday, June 4th, the beta review phase of my novel came to an end. This wasn’t my first time allowing people to beta review my novels, but it was the first time I took on so many beta readers at the same time, and so early in the writing process. The end result? Over the past month, I think I learned far more about the beta review process and mediation than how to improve my novel. 😅
I know a lot of authors have gone through, are going through, or are planning to use the beta review process, so here are some of the highlights—good and bad—of what it meant to throw my novel out there to be picked and poked at.
(Bear with me: this Moreau Witches update will be longer than usual, but hopefully well worth it!)
Many People Didn’t Finish
When I was writing the novel, I had more than my fair share of readers who wanted to get their hands on that first rough draft. I had half the list before I ever tried to look, and got the other half without lifting a finger. I started out with 10 readers, and gave a full month for reading, as I expected that would be enough for a novel I wrote in 2.5 months.
Plot twist? It was not! As the month dragged on and very few people even started it, I decided to give it to some others who had asked to read it from early on. By the end, a total of 13 people had the full beta copy—an auspicious number for a witches’ tale, I believe. How many actually finished it and returned feedback by June 4th? Only four! I did, however, receive bits and pieces from others, as they worked their way through. Next time, I may need to give more than 31 days!
I also had three other people read just the prologue to tell me whether or not they would continue reading—or buy—the book based on that alone. All said yes. In fact, one of these readers loved it so much, she pre-ordered the novel half an hour later, and then called to let me know. I’m beyond flattered to have made my first book sale before the book is even edited! 😆
Reading as an Editor—Not a Reader
When I get a project to beta read, I slip into reader-mode and generally give my feedback from that standpoint. I received a very intriguing diary-styled short story from a writer acquaintance of mine, who I did this for, recently. I realise now that this ability is a rarity. Once you give the license to criticise, people tend to read your book as an editor, not a reader.
The problem with this is that you may not get the feedback you’re looking for that should mirror readers who will explore your book for entertainment—which is the point of the beta review, at least for me. Often, what you get is the feedback you were waiting to hear from your editor. Some of this is useful, but when entire scenes are likely to be rewritten, nit-picking over word-choice can become distracting.
If my readers ever had access to each other’s feedback, I am almost certain World War III would erupt. There were probably only three critiques given where more than one person (remember, this is of 13 readers!) was in agreement, and there was no critique shared by more than two people.
I would have one reader asking for more character descriptions, while another praised me to high heavens for not following the usual route of focusing on physical appearances. One reader would ask me to trust my readers more and describe less, while another’s mantra was “more details, more details, more details!”
I had one reader telling me to stick to the melodrama and dark Gothic symbolism in-keeping with literature written and/or set in that time, while another complained about the melodrama. Likewise the British liked my Victorian English and readers of colour praised the racial tension, whereas some White Americans were thrown off by both.
I basically sat at my computer and watched emails and text messages roll in with readers playing tug-of-war with my book—popcorn in hand. What else can you do, really?
Different Perspective of Characters
Another intriguing difference among my beta readers was how they perceived the characters. In the short story, Mamie and Charlotte were even better received than Madeleine.
But for the novel, there were far more variations. Some people didn’t like Charlotte at all, while others counted her as a favourite. Some were confused by Mamie, while others praised her wisdom. And, most now counted Madeleine as their favourite. Yet, very few made mention of my favourite character—the assassin!
This was a stark reminder that characters are people on paper. Even our best friend, who we love and admire, will nonetheless attract enemies who see them in a completely different light, based on their personal experiences, preferences, and prejudices. The same is true of characters.
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checkers
A few of the people who received my beta copy did so, because they assured me they were experts in a particular field that was related to my book. As I am regrettably not omniscient, these were very handy people to have around!
Unfortunately, that full license to criticise meant some were often critiquing areas that were not in their line of expertise, and were often wrong. It is one thing to pose a question, and another to assert a fact.
Thus, I found myself not just quietly fact-checking the novel during the beta review process, like I planned, but also fact-checking some of the fact checks submitted by some of my beta readers.
Writing the Novel You Want to Read
At the end of the day, while my readers’ opinions are important, I must write the novel I want to read. That way, when I am attacked—as I inevitably will be—I can stand my ground from a place of personal strength and confidence in why I chose to write my book the way I did.
Even so, there are a lot of changes I will make to the novel based on the beta review. A lot, however, will not include anything major. Most of the changes will be related to:
- A few name changes—as two people pointed out my “alliteration” of M names was not amusing.
- Switching around one particular scene at the end of the book, so that it comes earlier in the series.
- A few minor changes to correct historical inaccuracies, and to add further credence to the setting.
- Fixing a murder scene that was not medically accurate (thanks again, Denae!)
- Double-checking the English and dialogue for any instances where I might have accidentally or unconsciously injected modern phrases.
- Adding a few more descriptions for characters and setting.
- Changing some scenes to justify a few unpopular decisions made by characters in the novel.
Ultimately, the greatest benefit of doing a beta review was having my skin toughened for publishing. Most of my beta reviewers were honest and blunt, which I asked for and appreciated. Some were a bit less so, but only needed a bit of prompting or questioning to provide answers to questions I still had open.
One or two did cross the line from constructive and/or objective criticism into what just looked malicious. Believing that perhaps I was reading too much into it, I did share some of these with family and friends. They could not believe the words they saw.
Some of them advised me to cut ties with the reviewer(s), but why? It won’t be any better when someone else reads it, hates it, and tears it apart on their blog. I now count myself prepared.
The Best of the Betas
Despite all this, I’m glad I went through the beta review process. There were three readers especially who made it all worth it. This is not to say that no one else provided me with good feedback, but I couldn’t say “best of” if I listed everyone, now could I? 🙂
That said, I want to highlight and thank Ann, Denae, and Rosetta. They were the first three to finish the novel and submit their feedback. However, they also distinguished themselves in other ways.
Ann breezed through the book and gave her feedback in less than two weeks, despite telling me how much she was trying to read slowly so she didn’t miss anything. She gave the most positive reviews of anyone so far, and while I did love that, that’s not the only reason I appreciated her contribution.
Since she finished way ahead of everyone else, I could run other ideas by her, show her rewritten scenes that no one else has seen, and discuss some of the other feedback I received to see what her thoughts were. This helped me immensely! Her thoughts on the witches’ tale will also be included on the cover of the book.
Denae deserves an award for fast reading and reviewing. She was the last person to receive the book. Yet, she finished it and sent her review within 3 or 4 days, and promised to send more detailed opinions on chapters—some of which I have already received. Denae was very thorough in her feedback, and while I don’t agree with every suggestion she makes, I can always see the logical route she took to get there.
An interesting fact? I wrote a good portion of that novel sitting right next to her at a writing group we attend together, which is how we met. She actually brought a stethoscope and an EMT textbook to the group meeting last night, to help me add more credibility to my death scenes. Talk about dedication to my continued improvement!
She also helped me work through feedback from other beta readers to see what I should act on and what I should leave as is. And finally, she assisted with the synopsis, which will be included on the cover of the book, and the author’s note, which will precede the story.
Rosetta’s feedback was one I was looking forward to especially. She’s British and I was dying to know what she thought of my portrayal of 19th century Britain, and the use of Victorian English. She is now the second Brit to read the witches’ tale and tell me I did a good job at reproducing the language of that time. Naturally, this makes my head grow thrice its original size.
She also submitted a thorough review of the beta copy, and tied all her comments to the specific headers and questions I had provided for the review. I have since requested her assistance with the editing and/or polishing of the novel, so this was a good intro to hopefully working with her in the future.
I will spend maybe another month making the necessary changes and doing some additional fact-checking for the novel. By July 5th, I hope to start the first round of external edits with blogger and retired English professor, Elizabeth Slaughter. And yes, I’m still pushing for a release date of October 31st 2018.
Thank you for accompanying me on the journey, so far! For those of you who are interested, I plan to do a post specifically on tips for the beta reading process, which will be published on www.blackCATastrophy.com at some point, so do keep an eye out!
For ongoing updates, check out the #MoreauWitches hash tag on Twitter, where I often tweet in real-time, while working on the novel. If you’re interested in pre-ordering the witches’ tale, or would like to help with funding, please grab an item from my store! 😁
Activist. Writer. Explorer.