My Book's Beta: Andrew Burleson

Lots of people talk about how great their beta readers are, how important the beta process was to their book, and all kinds of encouragement to take the beta stage of your book seriously.

What I don't see many people talking about are the specifics of how their betas work, or how they are going. This might be because by the time most authors get asked about their books they're past that stage and it is not longer fresh in their minds.

Luckily we're ideally situated to catch authors at the end of or in the midst of their beta process. So, this week we are going to talk to a few of the people on BetaBooks and get an idea of how their specific Betas have worked, or are unfolding. How they have tailored them to compliment their process? Hopefully we can also wheedle out some what tips and tricks the experience has taught them.

My first interview is with my Co-Founder, Andrew Burleson. He was the first person to use BetaBooks (since he built it), and therefore we'll keep using him as a guinea-pig.

The rest of this week we'll feature some more of our early users and see how their experiences compare.

1. How did you decide when you book was ready for people to beta?

This is mostly gut feel, but I can tell you the things I do to help me decide:

When I finish a draft, the first thing I do is read it out loud. While I’m writing I get the computer to read it to me as I go, but when I finish the draft I actually go back and read it myself. Reading out loud you can’t really skip words, and you can also get a better feel for how it’s going to sound in their heads. Since audiobooks are becoming more of a big deal these days, it’s also nice preparation to make sure the audio format of your book will sound good.

When I read the book out loud, if I’m “into it” and feel myself caught up in the story, then I feel pretty good about it and I think it’s ready to send out.

Another way to think of that: it’s often kind of boring to read something you just wrote because you already know what it says. But when I go back through and read the book, if I’m able to enjoy the story and not be bored, then it’s probably working. If I’m having a hard time making myself slog through the text, it’s probably not ready to go.

2. Who are your early readers and how did you find them?

I have a mix of friends and family that I started with, they gave a lot of useful feedback. The best critiques I’ve gotten have been from people I found online. I met a lot of writers through Scribophile, and also through Critters. Both communities are very different, and have each offered something unique.

3. What is it you look for in early reader feedback, and have you ever been surprised or learned something new about your book from you early readers?

That’s two questions — you should have numbered them differently :P

I look for a couple key things, actually I give my betas a questionnaire to fill out for me at each quarter of the book. The questions are:

1. What are you curious about in the story so far?

2. What are you dying to see next?

3. What have you read so far that seemed uninteresting or irrelevant?

4. What do you think the story is about?

5. What do you think is going to happen next?

6. What do you *wish* was going to happen next?  

Generally those questions get really insightful answers.

As far as being surprised or learning something new, there’s always something interesting in reader feedback. Sometimes readers see things that I don’t think are in the story, that a character has certain personality flaws or quirks or whatever that are unintentional on my part. That’s where most of the surprises lie, what the people think of the characters.

4. As an author what do you value most about both your early readers and their input?

Continuing the theme of the last question: for me one of the hardest things about writing is the characters. They're very vibrant and specific in my head, I know what they look like and what they act like and think like, etc. Then, when I write about them, the readers build their own mental model of the character, and sometimes it doesn’t match my mental model very closely. A little bit of “mismatch” is inevitable, even interesting (people love to argue about characters in stories!) — but if there’s a lot of mismatch that means I wrote it wrong. That’s really helpful to figure out, and I really value readers ability to reveal that.

5. Is there anything you wish your early readers would do better, or skills you have had to instill in them over time?

I wish readers would take more liberty with the story and throw bigger “what-ifs” at me, bigger structural suggestions. Usually readers don’t do that, and I think many of them don’t know how.

The best feedback I ever got was someone who didn’t like my book much and absolutely shredded it. She proposed a massive re-write that would involve cutting a bunch of chapters and characters, and changing up the beginning and the ending significantly. I didn’t agree with every change she suggested but it helped me see a whole new set of opportunities for the story, all things that were answers to places where I new the story had problems but couldn’t think of any way to make it better.

I wish people would be brave enough to offer feedback like that more often :)

6. Do you get critiques or feedback other ways, for instance from a writers group as you are writing? If so do you think there is a difference between that process and what a better reader does?

I’m in two writing groups, one shares two chapters a week, and one shares one chapter a week. I think the writing group feedback is really different. People in writing groups can’t judge pace, in my opinion, because every book feels slow when you read it one or two chapters per week. But at that pace, people take more time to dig into the prose itself, and often have good feedback about how to express ideas, how to describe things, etc. That feedback can be really helpful.

I think the writing group offers a lot of what you need at the beginning of a project - some validation of the hook, some testing of the idea itself to make sure you’ve got a story concept that’s going to really grip people and suck them in before you spend the time to write the whole book.

But to me, nothing is as enjoyable as the beta process, when you have a complete story and you get to see how people react to it. If they don’t like it, it can be discouraging, that’s one risk you take. But if they like it, it’s an amazing feeling. And it’s great to get that big picture “whole book” reaction which you can only get from Betas, where they can say “yeah chapter four was boring and I didn’t like character X, but I loved everything else and I understand why it needs to be that way."

7. What is the most frustrating thing about the beta reading process for you?

I wish readers would read faster. But, I’ve found this is largely cured by better writing. The more I’ve written stories that people enjoy reading, the less I have to beg them to read :)

Thanks, Andrew, for being our first interview!

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