by Keisha Gilchrist-Broomes
You don’t know what you don’t know.
Motivational speaker Les Brown teaches that truth-filled statement in several of his spirited talks. I had never considered what it might mean for my own work until I crept closer to writing “The End” on the fourth draft of my novel.
By the time I reached the end of my novel writing journey, I had learned quite a few things. The novel had been workshopped twice, professionally critiqued once, and circulated chapter by chapter through an online critique group. In the process I wrote, cut, and revised my way through pacing issues, unnecessary tags, stilted dialogue, character arc, bland verbs, and every fiction writing issue known to mankind. But on the afternoon I sat at my wooden desk peering at the final words on my computer screen, what I still did not know gnawed at my conscience like a hungry gerbil.
What will an average reader think?
Call it a little nudge from my Heavenly Father, but two hours after I finished the manuscript for the last time, I sat on my couch flipping through an issue of Writer’s Digest. In it was an article about editing and revising; clear cut guidelines for novelists. But what really grabbed my attention was the advice on using beta readers to review a novel. I jogged back to my desk, grabbed a highlighter, sat back down, and read further.
As a technical writer, the idea of using beta readers to review a novel appealed to me. Software companies often provide beta versions of applications to persons or organizations. The reviewers find bugs, glitches, and even misspelled words on the user interface, then they report their findings to the company. So why not use beta readers to review my novel and provide their viewpoints about it. Instant feedback. Unbiased reader opinions. What a great idea! I got started right away.
First things first. I’m big on presentation because appeal is half the meal. I wanted the readers to experience the novel as though they’d bought it at their local bookstore. No sloppy sheets of paper in a wire ring binder. I had seven manuscripts formatted, printed, and bound like paperbacks with the novel title and my name on the plain cover. It cost about eight dollars a copy, but it was worth it.
Next, I located my readers. I excluded friends and family. They knew me too well and likely would attempt to spare my feelings if they read a story they did not enjoy. Instead, I thought of acquaintances I’d met in fellowship and social groups or through church ministry. I also found two women who were “friends of a friend”. All were avid fiction readers. On email I asked them simply, “Would you read a book for me and provide your opinions afterward?” They agreed and provided their addresses. I mailed out the books along with a letter and list of guided questions, and beta reading was underway in less than a week.
In the days that followed I spent some time trembling and wringing my hands. What had I just done? Would the story opening grab the readers? Was the pacing good? Was the protagonist gutsy and likeable? Were the romance scenes too sexy or too blah? Was the storyline too normal or too over-the-top? What would they say?
The first thing that happened? Three women asked me the same question. Could they write in the book? I told them they could. I didn’t hear anything else about the novel for the next week and a half. I rested easy. Then, one of the readers flagged me down in the church parking lot and spoke those magical words: “I’ve finished the book.” I got nervous all over again.
When my first beta reader finished the book, that indicated I needed to move on to the subsequent phase in the process: the feedback interviews. I set up each feedback interview to occur in the same fashion: meet the reader for coffee or a light meal, enjoy a short time of fellowship, then open up my laptop and dive into my list of questions.
I followed my beta reader question guidelines to the letter. What was the overall impression of the book? Did the middle sag? Was the ending surprising? Were the romance scenes tasteful? Were there any scenes that left you confused or bewildered? Any boring scenes that caused you to skip ahead a few pages? And so on, and so on. Each reader answered the questions thoroughly, allowing me to make notes that sent me back to my manuscript to make critical changes. One reader highlighted a mistake I’d missed in all the rewrites. After she told me about it I had to restrain myself from tackling her in a bear hug in gratitude for finding what I hadn’t been able to see myself.
The beta readers not only provided priceless feedback, they also opened their hearts. My list of questions did not prepare me for the flood of emotions that the story evoked from a few of the women. During the latter end of each interview, I would turn away from my laptop in favor of sitting and just listening closely to their stories and anecdotes. Some women related incidents from their marriages that reminded them of scenes in the book. Others laughed and cried simultaneously, talking about how they would handle sticky situations like those portrayed in the novel.
Those unexpected moments of emotion with my beta readers showed me the true reason for women’s fiction. To touch a woman’s heart. Did the novel achieve that? Well, for seven women it did.
Keisha Gilchrist-Broomes enjoyed using beta readers to provide valuable feedback for her first novel, Mrs. Jones. Keisha is a happily married mother of three who enjoys writing women’s and contemporary fiction. She is also a skilled technical writer and online content developer.