Maybe it’s my paranoia talking, but I really didn’t like the idea of just attaching my big-ass manuscript to an email and sending it to strange beta readers with a smiling emoji: hey, read my shit, why don’t you? Look, I’m smiling!
That didn’t seem like the safest bet because a) stranger danger, and b) how are they supposed to know what I want them to tell me?
I thought about listing some general questions in the email, but that was too vague. Were they supposed to answer each question about character arcs and plot holes for each chapter? Or just sprinkle in answers throughout?
So, I sat down and read my statistics textbook.
Okay, I skimmed my statistics textbook.
Well…maybe I just read the table of contents.
At any rate, I got my thinking cap on, and I realised that I was thinking about this all wrong- the question wasn’t how to make them get specific; it was how to make my beta readers hate me.
So, with the thought of torture firmly implanted in my mind, I quickly found a way to get what I needed. Basically, I asked my beta readers to relive elementary school. In other words, I fed my story to them one chapter at a time, and attached some questions to each chapter.
Having everyone answer the same questions helps compare feedback. For instance, in my first chapter, I needed to know if a bomb-defusing scene was detailed enough, and if it made sense. So, I asked my beta readers what they thought was happening as Jay (my protagonist) defused the bomb.
Obviously, I can’t spell out which questions you should ask your beta readers- if depends on your story- but I can tell you which questions you should definitely ask your beta readers. I’m going to tell you which questions I always put in my list, because they’re always relevant, regardless of what story you’re writing.
It’s also worth mentioning that although I said it was torture that motivated me, a lot of my beta readers actually prefer the questionnaire method- it’s faster.
Also, you should only use this method if you’re looking for specific feedback; if you just want to know if your idea is compelling, the questions are useless to you. You book is also useless to you. I suggest sending a detailed synopsis.
So, let’s get to it.
- What’s your favourite scene? This is the scene that people found most compelling from your chapter. The knowledge can tell you two things: a) what you’re doing right, and b) what to do more often. For instance, if people consistently enjoy the scene where you’re world building, you know that you’re really good at it, and that you should do more world building. Include more characters from different cultures, and make them suck on “lollipops” with your protagonist. It has the added benefit of increasing the sexual tension in your novel. Or, if you don’t like lollipop-on-lollipop action, have your protagonist chat with the new culture guy about the weather. Maybe your world has cool cumulus clouds.
- What’s your least favourite scene? This is the more useful constructive criticism question (although in my experience, it’s more rip-my-heart-out-and-scream criticism, because those scenes are invariably the scenes I put in to clarify shit. I am not good at world building. Or rule-making. Basically, call me up if you need a torture scene.). It tells you what you suck at. Then, you just have to figure out how to stop sucking at it. Or you can press the delete button. Your choice. I think I might just “accidentally” delete my entire manuscript at this point. But I’m fine, don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit in this corner and cry for a second. Maybe a minute. Or a month.
- Who’s your favourite character? Should probably be your protagonist, but that depends on what sort of story you’re writing. I once had to tell an author that I hated their protagonist, and boy, she was not happy with me. At any rate, if the beta readers concur that their favourite is not who it’s supposed to be, you’ve got some work to do.
- Who’s your least favourite character? At a guess, it should be the bad guy. If it’s not…ummm…that’s a problem.
- What do you think will happen next? You’re probably expecting me to say that if they guess what’s going to happen next, that’s bad; I’m going to surprise you today. Depending on the situation, it’s not bad. My story is about a dude going through a series of trials-to-the-death with a bunch of other dudes, for the sake of the Internet’s entertainment. It’s a non-consensual reality TV show, which is always fun. Now, just based on that one line…you’re gonna get some trials-to-the-death. People are gonna die. You know that, just from the synopsis. I set it up so there’s a trial every day; in a chapter where Jay just went to sleep, my audience is probably going to anticipate another trial in the next little while, or else they’re a lot stupider than I planned. On the other hand, in a chapter where I left Jay hanging from the edge of a cliff (I made that up, there are no cliffs…but there are other things that hang! If you got that joke…yeah, I’m not deleting it. Let me live my life!), I’m going to strive to come up with a solution to the problem that my readers don’t expect. If people tell me that he’s going to pull himself up, you bet I’m going to rewrite the chapter so that he falls off and breaks a leg, because I’m a writer, dammit. Twists are in my blood.
- Rate your interest level on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is zero interest. You should be hoping for a 9 or 10; if you get a 4, you should make your chapter more interesting. Refer back to favourite scene. Usually, when chapters are boring (I’m lucky- so far the lowest score I’ve gotten is a 7), the other questions are peppered with passive-aggressive snark. It’s not hard to figure out why your chapter sucks. If you’re really dense, and can’t figure it out- go ask your beta reader. They volunteered for your writer presence, so go abuse the privilege.
- Any notes? In case you forgot a question, or the beta readers caught something you didn’t realize was an issue, here’s your safety net.
What do you do to your beta readers?