Gentle Letdowns – Beta Reading Something Awful

02112018 don-t-need-this-1529905Sometime in your career, if you decide to be as free and helpful as you can, you’ll run into it: a book that’s either so bad or so not-your-type that it melts your soul to read it.

I have read some fantastic beta books (E. Kathryn’s Fire’s Hope was one of them!), but I’ve officially just finished something I almost couldn’t handle.  I nearly put it down for good several times.  I wanted to stab small mammals every time I set my eyes to it.

I learned a lot by getting through this book, and I hope you’ll be able to glean kernels of advice from my mistakes experiences!

Know Your Limits

I beta read for free right now because I am being paid in the experience.  At some point, I may feel confident enough (or requested enough) to start asking for payment. Because I’m doing these for free, though, I have learned there needs to be an internal line that I will not cross again.  I have to put an actual value on my time.  A book that is bad enough to put down early may be better reworked by the author before someone tries reading again.

hell no

If you beta read, go in knowing how bad you’ll need to feel or how bored you’ll need to be in order to quit. If your requirements are pretty tight, consider letting the author know beforehand.  If you reach this internal boundary, embrace that decision. Don’t look back.

Give Constructive Advice

analysis blackboard board bubbleOver the past few months of critiquing and beta reading, I’ve realized that railing on someone’s work helps no one.  I’ve also learned that when a reader gives no positive feedback, it can be harder as an author to believe what they say is meaningful or true (even though it’s not their job to give positive feedback!).

When something is awful, point out what is done right, even if it is hard.  With this last book I beta read, I had sincere difficulty doing so, but I tried giving at least one good comment on chapters that were long and relevant enough.  At a point I lost the ability to keep up with what was going on, so I tried to ask questions more than point out what was wrong.  If you find the good, you will come off as more believable, encouraging, and professional.

Avoid Words like ‘Stupid’ or ‘Awful’

I am super guilty of the above.  I once said someone’s character seemed stupid.


After I received similar comments on a character from one of my betas, I realized those types of comments can be easily interpreted as ‘This character was stupidly designed’ or ‘You, as a writer, are stupid,’ neither of which are probably intended.

Using words that have little wiggle room for qualification can make your statements go from constructive criticism to seeming like stabbing, personal vindictiveness. Instead of ‘this character seems stupid,’ you can say, ‘this character’s decision didn’t logically follow from the prior events.’  Instead of, ‘This passage was awful,’ you can say, ‘This passage was confusing, and I’m concerned that a misinterpretation could cause some people to feel offended.’  It takes effort, but those kinds of statements are more specific, helpful, and don’t sting nearly as much.

Be Truthful About Your Experience

With this latest beta read, I wanted to give up after the second chapter.  I wanted to give up after every single sitting.  I struggled with the question:

Should I tell them?

Luckily, I also recently went through the beta process.  One of the things I am most genuinely worried about is if the readers who said they liked it actually thought it was a steaming pile of poop.  I have hired an editor now, and I can’t help but worry if doing so was a mistake; if the book doesn’t have publishable qualities, why should I waste the money on the editor?  Why should I continue to waste time on it?  If my readers lied, I’m out a good passel of money and a WHOLE LOT of precious time.

Anyway, if it is bad, I would have rather someone tell me from the beginning that it needed significant work.  I would rather know that it might be easier to start from scratch.  I would at least want to know that someone severely disliked it and almost quit (or did quit).

Here’s what I decided to say:

Because I’m beta reading, I will finish this book; however, if I were just reading for my pleasure, I would quit here.
Some good points I’ve noticed:

(gave 3 points)

The primary reasons I would stop reading:

(gave 5 points)

And I hope that was good enough.

Have you ever had any terrible beta reading experiences?  Tell me about them in the comments, especially if you had a clever way to let someone down.

How Many Beta Readers Do I Need?

Recently, I went through the beta reading process with a novel I wrote. I had 2 alpha readers, 5 (a 6th may or may not finish) beta readers, and a constant cheerleader.  I’m in the process of courting up an editor now, and I feel like I have had enough input from readers to do this.

Getting Beta Readers

This isn’t easy.  When people read your unpublished work, they’re not getting something finished.  They’re expecting to have to analyze it like they did in high school or college, and a lot of people (even friends!) balk.  Most people will say no.

hell no.gif

That’s why I suggest joining writers groups.  You will give, but you’ll also get in return.

I also strongly suggest finding people online.  When you have in-person writing groups, you’re inevitably going to end up with a bunch of people who share a similar culture.  I needed people from the internet to read my book just so I could make sure someone who wasn’t a white Southerner would read it (not that I don’t appreciate my white, Southern friends who read it!).  The internet is filled with a wider array of diverse people than your backyard, in all likelihood.

Suggestion: Do it One or Two at a Time

I did my beta reading in 3 pushes. This way, I could take action on the feedback prior to getting information from new readers.  I think I got the best work possible for the least money this way.  The problem?  It takes a LONG time.


Waiting… watching… suffering…

Overall, it’s taken me more than 7 months to get all my beta readers together, gather input, and make the changes needed.  For me, it’s not a big problem – I have no set deadline (though I would like to try pitchwars later this month if I’m ready), and I have another form of income.

Why Quit at 5 or 6?

I’m done getting beta readers now because I reached a point where I’m hearing suggestions that point out smaller issues, things that contradict other beta readers or my own sense of judgment, or things that I’m pretty sure can’t be fixed without changing what I want the book to be.  It’s up to you when you feel like you’re done.


One thing that helps is to have quality readers.  I was lucky to have access to so many awesome readers who read the book in a reasonable amount of time.  Similarly, I don’t think fewer than 4 is a good idea if you want good results.

Why Should I get More Beta Readers?

I’ve had some FANTASTIC readers for my book.  Their information has been detailed and reasonable.  However, I can see myself looking for more readers if:

  • My simultaneous readers (I usually have 2 at a time) are giving conflicting information that I can’t decide between
  • I were still receiving complaints about the same thing
  • I need to test out a major change in a revision
  • Readers in a certain phase aren’t doling out good info (this could mean that they’re just not saying anything or aren’t answering questions)
  • I just feel like it

Right now, I have a little internal conflict about number 2 – I had one thing that multiple, but not all, readers caught and my changes took multiple iterations to improve.  In this last iteration, I finally think I fixed all the main issues.  This means it’s on to copyediting!

Thanks to My Beta Readers!

Thanks to everyone who has beta read for me, whether I met you in real life or online.  You’ve done fantastic work, and I couldn’t have done it without you!

Beta Reading – The Interview Style

I recently found Dolls Don’t Cry, a YA book, to beta read on Tumblr.  A couple months ago I beta read E. Kathryn’s Fire’s Hope, and I talked about that marvelous experience here.  While the author of Dolls Don’t Cry would prefer I not share her story ideas here, I will share her chosen beta reading style and its pros/cons!  This was the first time doing an interview style beta read, so I definitely learned a lot.

Interview Style Beta Reading

Last time, with Fire’s Hope, I talked about ‘Question Style’ beta reading – giving the reader either a chapter or host of chapters followed by some pointed questions aimed at eliciting the information you want.

The Interview Style has a similar idea behind it, except the reader doesn’t know the questions beforehand and answers the questions during an interview after each section is complete.

Pros of Interview Style Beta Reading

When you aren’t speaking with your reader directly, you may not be able to elicit an answer you need.  If you need more information, you have to wait – and, by then, your reader may not remember enough about the previous chapter or give you what you need.  During an interview,  you can instantly press for additional information and tweak your questions in real time.

From a reader’s perspective, I think I give different answers on the spot than I would if I have the opportunity to study.  When doing an interview, I have to rely mostly on what I remember rather than what I can look up.  If I can look up information, I may do so in order to seem smart, or I may question my memory rather than how obvious an earlier piece of information may have been.

Cons of Interview Style Beta Reading

When you do an interview style beta read, both you and your reader must put forth the time and effort to chat.  For me as a reader, this often felt hard to do – I’d schedule a time and it worked out well, but it added a significant amount of time to what I already had to do.  For the author, you’d similarly have to set aside time for interviews.  Right now, I’m doing an interview every chapter, and they take between 30 minutes and an hour – that would get really cumbersome with multiple readers!

When you ask questions on the spot, you run the risk of not allowing your reader to tell you something important that they pick up.  I’ve found that I must forego thoughts on smaller issues, like specific sentences or paragraphs, and sometimes the questions don’t really get around to some of the things I find pressing.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t really like the interview style.  It felt forced, and I’d rather my reader have ample opportunity to plan what they want to say.  I also didn’t like the scheduling part – even though I didn’t often have anything pressing to do in the evenings, I did have to arrange things such that I could talk with the author.

As a whole, I’m glad I got the opportunity.  Now I know that I’m not suited to this kind of beta reading, and I’ll be better able to direct my energies.

I hope that the author of Dolls Don’t Cry got good answers from me, but I worry that I may not have answered terribly well.  I hope she lets me know what happens next with her publishing adventures!

Do you have any books you’d like beta read?  Do you have experiences beta reading that you’d like to talk about? Let me know in the comments!

Sneak Peak of The Mercury Dimension

This is the first scene from The Mercury Dimension, my recently completed sci-fi novel.  Beta reading is closed, but you can go to the old sign up page here and check out a summary of the novel.

The Mercury Dimension

Chapter 1 – The Orders

“And what makes you think I’d sell anything to a human, at any price?”  My computer translated the noise of the merchant’s clacking pincers to Terran words that ran across my HUD.  The HUD highlighted the creature’s buzzing rear as a universal sign of Tronderian fear.

Tronderian.  The creature probably considered itself Tronderian as well as fuel merchant, but I couldn’t let myself focus on that.  If I wanted to bargain well, it had to be a merchant first and only.

I pushed the air out of my torso and fumbled around with gloved fingers for a small computer in my plastic messenger bag.  “I think you’ll give me that fuel because you already accepted payment.”  I swiped up from the hologram emitter to bring up a dark sheet of holoparchment with silver lettering, then opened the receipt and showed it to the merchant.  “You are to deliver it to Victurus as per the purchase agreement.  Money is money, even if it’s from Earth, and the humans didn’t spend it expecting nothing.”

The merchant’s rear buzzed as it put nearly half its weight on the forward two legs.  “From Earth?  Money doesn’t come from Earth!  It came from the blood of the Gujus, or the Ralpins, or the N’wargoots, all the dead races you’ve left in your poisonous wake!”

I smiled and held up the hologram emitter.  The bulky, white breathing suit restricted my movement more than my normal black uniform did.  “You’re wrong on several counts.  The Gujus were economically enslaving others using drugs.  I was at Guju as my Admirals ordered, and destroying their farmland was necessary.  I didn’t kill the entirety of the Gujus, I can assure you.”

“But you murdered thousands, bloodthirsty scum!”  It used two of its limbs, white and slender, to make an ‘X’ across its chest while gesturing to the doorway with another set of limbs.  It pounded on the curio cabinet, forcing the glass to emit tiny, crackling noises.  “Out!  Get out!”

My training from the marine academy kicked in.  I put my empty hand to my thigh and felt of the sheath where a knife waited ready.  My fingers, deep in the bulk of my white gloves, curled around the hilt.  I backed away and held my empty hand up to ward off the merchant.  “I’m not leaving without that fuel.”

The merchant’s legs crumpled inwards, the massive torso retreating from the counter.  “Is that a threat?”

“Not yet,” I answered.  I straightened my stance and let go of the knife.  Steadying myself, I took a step forward with my holographic sales receipt, glow of the hologram reflecting off the merchant’s white chitin.  “I’ve brought up the records that show you already sold the fuel I to the human military.  My ship can’t leave station until I get the fuel, so I suggest you follow through on your sale.”

The merchant’s compound eyes twinkled and scanned the holographic receipt.  Repetitive clacking of its vestigial wings translated as a growl on my helmet.  “I don’t want you killing anybody, not on my fuel.”

I took the hologram emitter back, killing the transmission as I replaced it in my bag.  “I don’t need your fuel to kill people.  If I don’t receive the fuel peacefully, the air from Victurus will eventually leak into this station.  I assume you know about the air quality on a human ship and what would happen to you?”

“It would be an atrocity.”  The merchant put its legs up to its eyes and hid them.  “I… I’ll pack up your order and have it delivered, but I don’t want you or any of your dirty crew stepping foot on this station again, understand?”

“Perfectly.”  I turned away from the merchant and to the marble door set in gorgeous gothic arches.

A sudden clack of leg against the floor grabbed my attention.  “And… please don’t tell the IESU or the Tronderian Fuel Commission this happened.  Any of it.  Especially that I sold highly enriched fuel to humans.”  It wiped its face with one hard claw, hiding itself from me.  “I was desperate and didn’t expect any of you would come this far to pick it up.  I don’t want to lose my license for this.”

I gave a smirk and turned away from the merchant.  “As long as satisfactory fuel arrives at Victurus within a reasonable amount of time, I see no reason why I can’t meet your demands.”

No nod, no shake, no further agreement was made.  I didn’t assume it necessary.  The merchant on its eight, bug-like legs followed me to the door of its shop.  It was broad enough to fill the entirety of the door.  I fully expected the creature to summon its own computer and order the station to keep an eye on me while I returned to my ship.