Paul and I recently realized that our position orchestrating BetaBooks gives us an interesting insight into how Betas work. While many authors have done betas on their own work, maybe even a lot of them, it's not as common to be involved in someone else's beta, and it's certainly not common to be involved in hundreds of other people's betas. This got us thinking, who else do we know that has seen a hundred betas, and what have they learned from that experience?
Today is the first of a few posts along those lines. I asked Elise Edmonds, host of the Novel Exchange Group on Scribophile, to share her experience with us, and she graciously agreed. Here's what Elise had to say:
First, can you share with our readers a little about who you are and what you do?
Hi Andrew, thanks for inviting me over to BetaBooks! Writing has been an on/off hobby of mine since I was quite young. A couple of years ago, I decided I’d like to try and take it more seriously as I’m one of those people who has always wanted to write a book. I knew I needed help, so I searched around for an online community to join. It seemed like the best option as I have a busy day job.
I found Scribophile.com – a writing and critique site for serious writers. A couple of years later, I’m still there, and looking forward to self-publishing my first novel next year.
It didn’t take me long on Scribophile to realise the value of finding people willing to critique or beta read entire novels. With that in mind, I set up a group within Scribophile called The Novel Exchange which acts as a meeting place for people to talk about and exchange whole novel critiques.
When was your first Beta, and how did it go?
My first novel critique exchange was a few months after I joined Scribophile. It wasn’t strictly a beta read because it was on a first draft and probably more akin to an alpha swap (a swap on a rough draft). But the experience of having fresh eyes on my own novel was enlightening. It shows you how well (or not) you are managing to interpret the vision in your head onto paper. It was also pretty scary as I’d never shown anyone my work before. But a balance of constructive criticism and gentle encouragement just made me excited to edit the work and produce the next draft.
Why did you start organizing Betas, and how many have you been a part of? How do you organize them?
I started running The Novel Exchange partly for my own purposes, I confess, to keep an eye open for new swap partners. And partly because it’s something many people want. It’s difficult to find people willing to commit to critiquing or beta reading full novels. The group is meant to make it easier for people to find good partners and encourage them to fulfil their commitments. I've critiqued too many novels to count on Scribophile now!
The group runs an ongoing novel swap process for online critiques or betas. I see it like a shop window: people advertise their wares on the forum and other people make offers to swap with them. I send members weekly bulletins of the available swaps.
We also run offline group beta swaps. These are coordinated by fellow group member, Nancy Fudge [Andrew's note: we're interviewing her too :)], and she runs about three swaps a year. I’ve joined in personally with two, so far. She groups people together roughly by novel length and genre – and by time zone, if possible! The groups of 3-5 people beta each others books and then get together for a quick discussion afterwards.
I know that some of our members found BetaBooks very useful as part of the beta process because it doesn’t come with some of the posting restrictions needed on Scribophile, and because it encourages end of chapter comments rather than line editing style critiques.
You’re in a rare position having been at least nominally connected to hundreds of betas through your group leadership. Is there anything that has surprised you about how different authors give and receive betas? Any patterns you noticed, or anything you think people should know about the process that you’ve learned from your position?
I think the term “beta read” is not always taken to mean the same thing by people. Some people feel it’s a quick read through to address major issues prior to publication. Others prefer something more like a developmental edit earlier on in the process. It’s important that you and your beta readers discuss the approach you will be taking beforehand.
If you prepare a few questions for your beta readers, I’ve found you tend to get a more thoughtful response because it gives them something to focus on. This also shows you are willing to accept feedback.
And the final thing I think people need to be aware of is that it's a big commitment to beta read or critique an entire novel, and you shouldn't underestimate the time and thought that needs to go into the process.
What are the biggest successes you see writers have?
I love getting to the end of a full novel exchange or beta read, and for the person to be feeling really enthused about where they need to go for their next set of revisions.
In Novel Exchange, we encourage people to be honest but positive and encouraging in order to help improve each others work. It’s great to watch people supporting each other as we all steadily move towards publication.
What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make? What about readers?
New writers can have a tendency to get bogged down in the “rules of writing”. You probably know some of these: for example, the road to hell is paved with adverbs! (Thank you Stephen King). And what they forget is that story trumps writing. There’s no point having a grammatically perfect book if it doesn’t engrossing or excite your readers. Ask your beta readers for their reader reactions, their favourite characters, and which bits they enjoy the most. You can sort the word choices out later on.
Beta readers make mistakes if they don’t give their honest opinion to the writers. It’s far better for a beta reader to point out a problem than to leave it for reviewers to spot after publication!
Do you recommend writers beta for other writers? Why or why not?
I do, yes. I think writers are more attuned to picking up plot problems and character issues, or pacing issues, purely because most of them study the craft of writing themselves.
Mutual swapping can also be the best way of achieving commitment. I’ve heard that people who get beta readers off readers groups on social media or Goodreads often have to ask twice as many people as they actually want, just to get enough results back.
I suppose a mix of non writers and writers would be best, but personally I tend to stick to writers as I know where they all hang out!
Do you have any stories you’d like to share?
Writing is a long journey. My biggest achievement to date was finishing the first draft of my first novel. Now I'm preparing for publication, it's seems like one tiny step on the road. But back then, when you know you want to write a novel, the number of words you need to write seems endless. When you finally write The End for the very first time, it's the best feeling in the world. I'd encourage anyone who's struggling to write to push on through and finish that first draft. Because then you'll know that you really can do this!
What’s the last book you thought was awesome?
Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher. It's the first book in a new steampunk series, full of airships, crazy sorcerers, privateers, warrior monks, and intelligent cats. A really fun read!
Random question: what’s your favorite color, and why? ;)
Turquoise. I don’t know why. It’s just the colour I find the most pleasing to look at :)
And where can people find you online / follow your work / buy your books, etc.?
I’m hoping to publish my first novel, a young adult fantasy about a teen girl who wants to get away from the family flying carpet shop, early next year.
You can find me on my website and social media:
Thanks for having me!
- Elise x