Category: Writing & Editing

Beta Readers Make Books Better

Beta readers

the dragon's bladeBeta readers…. Michael Miller, the author of The Dragon’s Blade, a recently launched fantasy adventure, shares his experience of working with beta readers below.

Beta readers are a free way to improve your writing. We all know that editing is essential, but what about beta readers? Is it completely necessary to get test readers to go through your book before publication for a final round of checks? The answer of course is no, it is not a requirement, but you should do it if at all possible.

Why you need beta readers

The benefit of having beta readers is that there are many of them. If you can gather about ten or more beta readers then they can, as a collective whole, spot things that you and even your editor may not. This is essentially taking advantage of crowd theory and therefore the more beta readers you can get then the better your results will be. To take an example from my own experience in editing The Dragon’s Blade, what became clear from beta reader feedback was that there was a serious problem with what is now chapter 6 of the book. Every reader brought it up as an issue. However, they all had different opinions as to why the chapter wasn’t working. Some said it moved too fast, others said it was too slow. Some said it lacked characterisation, others thought it lingered to long on certain people. This was a headache in order to try and fix, but what was glaringly obvious was that it needed to be improved. The chapter was broken. Ignoring such important feedback would have been idiocy and even just getting this one chapter sorted out made the beta reading worth its weight in gold.

Free writers' resource pack

Want some quick and easy tools to improve your writing?

The pack contains:

  • 25+ inspirational writing prompts 
  • A list of commonly misused words
  • A beta reader feedback questionnaire

When should you seek beta readers?

As late in the process as possible would be my advice, although many big name authors do it differently. Jim Butcher, for example, likes to get his book in as good as shape as possible before sending to his editor. Patrick Rothfuss does beta reading on a rolling basis, responding to feedback from one batch of readers before sending the updated manuscript to another set of betas, and so on. There is an interesting video where these two authors discuss this here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR6-hh2fBrY) The reason I think it is worth doing it later in the process is because the book is probably going to be in far better shape post professional edit than prior. If you are getting a whole bunch of people to read your book before it is officially ready, it seems sensible that it is as close to being finished as possible. Betas aren’t there to do heavy lifting for you and they won’t be able to spot the problems you can’t if they are having to wade through a quagmire of minor mistakes and errors.

What sort of problems are beta readers good at picking up on?

Generally, the big picture stuff. If they are willing to note any clunky sentences along the way that is also great. Yet, it is the large issues of plot, pacing and occasionally world building that, as a whole, they can comment upon. Another example from my own book was one of world building and character to an extent. There were enough beta readers who felt unsure about who the main antagonist of the story was and how a certain Point Of View (POV) character was connected to him. This led to some head scratching but it also led to writing a whole new beginning to the book to introduce these ideas more clearly. This is now the prologue of the book. It is now one of my favourite parts and the opening is infinitely stronger for it. If I had skipped the beta reading stage I would not have made this addition and my book would definitely have suffered for it.

Should you always listen to everything the beta readers say?

No, not necessarily. You need to be careful and look for areas of overlap. Don’t feel you absolutely have to change something just because one person mentions it. If it is just a one on one debate, and you are one of those people, then your opinion wins out. After all, it is your book. Don’t dismiss a comment out of hand, but if you truly disagree then that’s okay. Where you ought to consider making changes is where several people mention a similar thing. If five separate people all say, for example, that a certain scene is boring, then you should think about making some alterations; even if you don’t want to.

Honestly, anyone who is willing. I had some close friends and family who enjoy epic fantasy, but I also had some people who are not big readers of the genre and just wanted to be involved. I even had friends of friends, who I’ve never met in real life, and they were some of my most enthusiastic and helpful readers. Having people who read in other genres is really valuable because it offers different perspectives, as does having readers who may have some expertise or knowledge that they can bring to improve the accuracy of your writing. I set up a private Facebook group and invited around sixty people who I thought would be interested in being beta readers. The group was also useful in giving feedback on the blurb and cover, so they can become a little hype train for your book pre-launch.

Michael’s final thoughts

Remember, your book is a product that ought to be tested. You’d expect a piece of computer software, a game, a new drug, and most products to undergo some form of testing before being unleashed on the public. So while you don’t have to do it, there really is no reason not to do it. Getting your story in front of readers and hearing what they think is probably the most exhilarating thing there is as a writer. Beta readers offer this without the danger of ruining your self-esteem. Their criticism is to be expected because that is the point, but equally their encouragement acts as a major boost and can spur you to make those final tweaks that really polish your book. Beta readers helped to make The Dragon’s Blade a better story and I fully intend on getting even more for the sequel! I can only recommend that you do the same.

beta readersLike many young boys, Michael Miller quickly developed a love for daring knights who battled evil. When this was combined with endless hours playing Age of Empires and watching Lord of the Rings, a love for both history and fantasy was born.He studied History at St Andrew’s University, dabbling in everything from Ancient Rome to Modern Scotland and a good deal of things in between. Graduating in 2014 he moved to London to pursue law. He’d rather forget that. In early 2015 he began to seriously turn attention to writing the fantasy story he had always dreamt of telling.The Dragon’s Blade is his debut novel. Download a free Kindle extract of The Dragon’s Blade here

Note from I_AM

What a great post from Michael Miller. It has been a joy to work with him as he has been so focussed on creating an enjoyable reading experience – we even met him at a writing group. Hopefully, he has inspired you to send your work out to beta readers. If you want to give this a go, then you need to make sure you are asking for structured feedback. There is no point persuading people to read your work if they are just going to come back with a “Yeah, well done mate.” On the other hand, readers can feel awkward about giving negative/constructive feedback – yet ironically that is the most valuable. To get round this,we have created an author feedback questionnaire, which has been designed to elicit the most constructive feedback possible in a delicate way (so people don’t feel like they are being impolite). Fill in your details below and we’ll email you an editable questionnaire template that you can send out to your beta readers.

Free writers' resource pack

Want some quick and easy tools to improve your writing?

The pack contains:

  • 25+ inspirational writing prompts 
  • A list of commonly misused words
  • A beta reader feedback questionnaire

25+ Writing Prompts to Make You a Better Writer

Writing prompts to make you a better writer (2)

The Benefits of Writing Prompts

Building writing prompts into your writing routine will make you a better writer. Not only will writing prompts get the creative juices flowing, but they can also help you warm-up for a productive writing session and even enable you to develop a wider writing skill-set. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut or stick to what you know, but writing prompts are all about chucking you out of your comfort zone and getting you thinking and writing very quickly. Our editors have put together a worksheet of 25 failsafe writing prompts – fill in your details at the bottom of this post and we’ll email it over to you straight away.

Writing prompts enable you to:

  • Explore new styles and content in a small, safe test environment. Try something new…
  • Be more creative as you are led by the prompts rather than any of your own story ideas.
  • Focus and concentrate at a high level on a relatively short writing task.

Writing prompts as warm-ups

Mo Farrah doesn’t run marathons without warming up, Adele doesn’t take to the stage without warming up, so why do so many writers go straight from the stresses and strains of their daily life and try and pick up where they left off in the middle of a tricky scene? In the real world, the answer is probably that they are struggling to find enough time to write and want to hit the ground running. However, this can be counter-productive. Sometimes taking a break from your novel and writing a little scene about the man in front of you in the coffee shop can give you a fresh perspective when you return to your work. Not only that, but it means you can actually be honing your craft whenever you have a spare 10 minutes, whether you are stuck on a commuter train or in a post-office queue. Good writers never stop improving.

Below I have broken down my favourite 3 online writing prompts to test your skills on.

Free writers' resource pack

Want some quick and easy tools to improve your writing?

The pack contains:

  • 25+ inspirational writing prompts 
  • A list of commonly misused words
  • A beta reader feedback questionnaire

Top 3 Writing Prompts Online

1, Writing prompts: short and tweet

Source: Twitter’s 1 line wed

If you follow us on Twitter, you will know how much we love this. This writing prompt will force you to create a powerful opening sentence.

What is it?: Every Wednesday, on twitter, writers try to intrigue the audience with the opening line or two of a story. Because you are limited to 140 characters (and that must include the #1lineWed hashtag), it’s best to start in the middle of the scene or in dialogue.

Why does it work? Because you are so tight for space, you have to cut down to the nitty gritty straight away. Plus you are testing material in a live environment. If readers like it they will favourite it, retweet it, or even give feedback. If you don’t get any engagement, try writing the same scene in a different way next Wednesday and see if that gets more traction.

How do I get started? Head over to twitter right now and search for #1lineWed. You will see a list of other writers’ attempts from last week. Have a good scroll through them. Usually, this sort of writing prompt will result in the good, the bad and the ugly. Filter out the erotica (unless that’s your thing), and have a look at who is doing well and why. Which authors would you want to read on and why (tweet the authors who have gripped you and give them some feedback, start interacting with the community).

If you have a go next Wednesday, please tag us at @iamselfpub so we can see how you are doing.

Here are a couple of great examples:

2, Writing prompts: visual

Source: Gratisography

This exercise can be slightly more leisurely, depending on how much time you have, it’s all about building descriptive skills – conveying atmosphere and unfamiliar settings.

What is it? An exercise where you use a photograph of a person, scene or object as the starting point for an opening chapter. This opening chapter doesn’t have to be in the same genre in which you normally write – use this as an opportunity to test something different.

Why does it work? We react instinctively to visual prompts. They stir up very strong emotions. How many of you can say you have not been moved by charity adverts with suffering children? Just the sight of it has most of us reaching for our wallets. Similarly, how many of you have suddenly turned away or closed your eyes during a thriller movie? Of course you can see images of pretty much everything if you search on Google, but the act of typing in “pictures of kittens” has already got you in a fluffy mood and whatever you write has already been influenced. This is why the element of surprise can work to your advantage.

How do I get started?: gratisography.com is a site where photographers can show off their best work. Often it has very interesting subject matter shot at intriguing angles. Simply chose an image that you feel an emotional reaction to. This can be positive or negative. Now imagine yourself in the picture, as if that world was your world. Write down how you feel and what you can see. Let your imagination take over. Just making these notes will help your creative brain to engage. If you have time, try to turn these notes into a couple of opening paragraphs to a story.

writing prompts

3, Writing prompts: drama

Source: BBC News

This exercise forces you to think purely in terms of action and drama. It will help you write fast-paced scenes that keep your reader hooked.

What is it? An exercise where you use a real life crime as a writing prompt.

Why does it work? A lot of good novels (and films for that matter) start in the middle of an action-packed scene. The reader/viewer is thrown in at the deep end and given the exciting challenge of making sense of it all. This works because you grip the reader with action and then maintain that dramatic tension to reel them in. This exercise forces you to lead with the action, not description.

How do I get started? Go over to www.bbc.co.uk/news and scroll through the headlines until you find a story about a crime. It can be big or small, from international terror masterminds, to local burglaries. Choose a story and really imagine the crime. You may be able to find out more about it from other news sources. Spend a few minutes researching until you have a good idea of what happened, how and why.

Now imagine the criminal in question is your main character. Really get inside the criminal’s mind and think about:

  • How they carried out his crime.
  • Why they did it.
  • How they would have prepared for it.
  • What they would have been thinking about as he did it/before/afterwards.

Now write a few opening paragraphs that start 15 minutes before the criminal gets caught. Even if you never read or write crime fiction, this is a great writing prompt to sharpen your pace and action.

writing prompts

Top tip: Make sure you save all your prompts as one day you might want to develop them into something more substantial.

25 Writing Prompts For You

Want more great writing prompt ideas to make sure your writing never gets stale? Enter your details below and we’ll send you our worksheet with 25 writing prompts.

These range from sentences to start a story with to scenarios, objects, descriptions, elements drawn from your own life experience and also exercises to practise different writing styles. So before you go back to you manuscript next time, warm up with a writing prompt – you might find a new side to your writing.

Free writers' resource pack

Want some quick and easy tools to improve your writing?

The pack contains:

  • 25+ inspirational writing prompts 
  • A list of commonly misused words
  • A beta reader feedback questionnaire

Do you find little writing exercises helpful? What other exercises work for you? Let us know in the comments box below:

Nail Characterisation This NaNoWriMo

characterisation

Characterisation: Why it matters

Characterisation is arguably the most important aspect of novel writing. Your reader is going to invest hours of their time in the company of your characters, so you need to make sure that is an attractive prospect. When I worked as a literary agent, I would read through piles and piles of manuscripts. Poor characterisation was a very common reason that we rejected manuscripts; we just did not care enough about the characters, despite the set-up we were indifferent to them (or worse annoyed by them, or even worse didn’t find them believable).

It is vital that the reader feels a strong connection with your main characters (sufficient to make them care what happens to the characters next). However, that doesn’t mean your character has to be perfection personified. There needs to be a bit of light and shade. A very good writer can make you connect with and like a character that is presented as “bad” e.g. a murderer (Dexter) or a mother who has dark feelings towards her son (We Need to Talk About Kevin). Complexity is key. Can you name one long-running detective series where the lead detective doesn’t have some kind of dark past/skeleton in the closet?

Characterisation: 3 top tips

1. Know their history.

We are all shaped by our past. Make sure you know what your character has been through and how this has affected them. Even if this backstory will not make it into your novel, it’s important YOU have a strong handle on this.

2. Know how they will change.

What does your character learn by the time you reach the end of your novel? How have they developed? Make sure there is an element of an inner journey – think of your story arc (every story has a story arc – get a piece of paper and plot out the highs and lows of your character’s journey through the book. Think about where were they at the beginning of your story, what they went through and how that changed them.

3. Know them like the back of your hand.

Your characters have to be living, breathing entities – you need to know everything about them from how they like their coffee to how they answer the phone. In order to really get into their heads, and think like they think, speak like they speak, plan like they plan etc. you need to know them inside out. I’m talking forensic detail. It is useful to have all of your information about a character in one place, so you can refer back to it. This is particularly important when it comes to rewriting a section as you probably won’t remember everything exactly and will need to be consistent e.g. if your character is left-handed but strikes a fatal blow with their right fist, the reader might start asking questions. Little things matter and readers are very observant. The best place to start is our free downloadable character checklist, which will help you flesh out your characters (as well as set you up for writing great dialogue and strong descriptions) by asking you in-depth questions about your characters. Putting all the information about your characters together before you start (or as you are just beginning with) your writing will make the writing process quicker and easier as you will have a firmer understanding of who you are writing about, what motivates them, how they contribute to the overall plot etc.

Free writers' resource pack

Want some quick and easy tools to improve your writing?

The pack contains:

  • 25+ inspirational writing prompts 
  • A list of commonly misused words
  • A beta reader feedback questionnaire

Now you have nailed characterisation you are ready to go forth and write. Good luck with NaNoWriMo. Don’t forget to tweet us to let us know how you are getting on at @iamselfpub. To make sure you write 50,000 words this month, check out our blog post on 5 Best Productivity Apps for NaNoWriMo.