I don’t know who coined the phrase “beta reader” or “beta read.” And I’m not sure how accurate the term is in the parsing but it’s become a generally accepted way of describing people who read your unpublished novel manuscript.
After having zero luck with family and friends—mostly because they had no interest in reading any book, let alone an unpublished one—I searched the web for beta readers. (One of my brothers reads my MS’s but he loves everything I do. And that’s not helpful.)
I had hoped to find people willing to volunteer to read my manuscripts but that was a difficult proposition.
I understand why—reading a book is a serious time commitment. And, authors aren’t simply asking for people to read their books; they want detailed feedback on plot, character development and likability, pacing and theme, etc.
After some searching and crying and swearing, I found Frostbite Publishing and, though I was wary of spending $80 to let a stranger read my precious book baby, I went ahead.
Best thing I ever did. Best money I ever spent on my writing career, aside from pencils and paper.
No, I don’t get any kickbacks or perks for plugging their service. But I do want them to stick around so they’ll be there when I need them for future books.
So far, I’ve had them beta read three of my unpublished novels for a total of, I believe, six or seven beta reads. There was another company which did some reads for me, and they were OK but not as good as Frostbite.
I had three of their readers read my historical fiction novel, a political thriller, and a supernatural thriller.
In case you’re curious what a good beta read looks like, I’ve included the first read done on my historical fiction novel—back when the book had been through several rounds of revision but was still quite underdeveloped.
As you will see.
This beta read took place in June of 2017, a couple years after I started working on the novel.
There have been many changes to the story, including deleted and rearranged chapters, renamed characters, deleted characters, five or six new intros, three different endings, and a whole lot of smoothing, perfuming, and vigorous rubbing to get it just right.
Ironically, after each beta read when I’d implemented all suggestions and corrected all the identified errors, I thought my book was done.
Yet, here I am in 2019 and currently going through another round of revision with a developmental editor I hired.
Hope this gives you some insight on what to look for out of your beta readers, regardless whether they are friends, family, or a paid service.
Beta Reading Worksheet
- Does the story begin with an interesting hook, creating a desire to read more?
The first couple chapters was a little slow going and a whole lot of narration.
- Does the story begin in the right place?
Just before MC’s father dies, when she is thrust from childhood to needing to be an adult, so I would say yes. It just seems a little slow.
Characterization & Motivation:
- Are the characters compelling, sympathetic, or someone you can root for?
MC started off seeming like she was closer to 14 or 15, rather than 20. But perhaps her maturity is stunted from being treated like a child? And no one trying to dissuade her of that notion?
- Do the characters feel real and three-dimensional, with distinct voices, flaws, and virtues?
Yes. Really good job making each character have their own distinct personality and traits.
It’s not really clear, is Kerridge and Grimmis working together for Barnett? Kerridge was hired by Barnett, but is Grimmis? And were the two really working together? I wouldn’t put it past Grimmis to lie to MC about his interaction with Kerridge on the ship.
There wasn’t anything that grabbed my attention to like or dislike a character.
Grimmis was always a strange sort, kind of like a chaotic neutral character.
Clovis just seems like a fellow who was privileged and able to get away with not so nice stuff based on his position on the ship – and doing everything he needed to, to keep that privilege.
D is kind of a boring character, though he does have his moments of heroism.
- Are their goals clear and proactive enough to influence the plot (not passive)?
Yes, the overall plot is to find the half sister, so the entire adventure leads in that direction.
- Do their motivations seem believable, with well-drawn and appropriate emotion?
Seems MC has a lot of anxiety. When she is making decisions on her own, she is very anxious, but once she is reunited with S and D, her anxiety goes down.
- Are the secondary characters well-rounded and enhance the story rather than overwhelming the story or seeming like they should be cut?
There aren’t any characters I would cut. Each seems like they are needed based on the part of the story they are introduced. Whether it’s in the past or present.
- Are the relationships between the characters believable and not contrived?
The relationships are believable. I was a little surprised that S was D’s step-dad. I wasn’t expecting that one, but it made sense in hindsight.
Plot & Conflict:
- Are the internal and external conflicts well defined for each main character?
Yes. Just based on MC, yes. The diary entries and Jon’s memories only show brief moments. If he was trying to protect MC, he did a shit job of it. He trusted people (Kerridge) who was not vetted to be trustworthy.
- Are the internal and external conflicts organic and believable, i.e. arising out of characterization and circumstance rather than feeling contrived or forced?
For MC, quite definitely. She was coddled all of her life, then lost her father, her sanctuary. Though, at least she is not in want of money.
- Are there enough stakes and/or tension throughout to make it a “page turner”?
It doesn’t get beyond slow until she is past her sickness on the boat. After that, it becomes far more interesting. The train ride to NYC, and in NYC, shows how black folk were treated during that time period, but I wouldn’t say it was “page turner” – just a sad state of affairs for some of our citizens.
- Does the premise avoid cliché and/or bring a fresh perspective to an old idea?
- Are the plot twists believable yet unexpected?
The only one I was not expecting was the father/son relationship mentioned earlier.
- Do the characters act or react to events in a plausible, realistic, or believable way?
A young woman trying to be brave in a hostile world, I thought it was realistic.
- Do scenes progress in a realistic, compelling manner and flow with effective transitions?
- Does every scene add to and seem important to the story?
Some scenes seem less important than others, such as the boat sickness scenes. Though I suppose that was some character development. For her, but more for Sally to have more time to get involved with Mr Clovis.
- Does the story move along at an appropriate pace, without rushing or dragging?
The beginning drags a bit, but I chalk most of that for setting up the storyline and character.
- Is there a hook at the end of each chapter or scene that makes you want to read more?
For the most part.
- Is the story free from information dumps or backstory that slow the pace of the story?
I like how the backstory is relayed in the form of JB’s journals. And spaced out enough to not be boring.
Setting & World-building:
- Are descriptions vivid and give a clear sense of time and place?
Yes, most definitely.
- Do the details enhance rather than distract from the story?
Some details are distracting. For instance, when she puts her hair up in braids: What sort of braids? The kind my friend gets, someone does it for her and it takes literally hours to get all those braids in. (And for the first couple days it hurts like a mofo). She even takes her daughter to someone because it’s so time consuming and tedious. It’s not a 5 minute ordeal. For that time period, doubtfully they had ways to straighten hair.
I would think MC would have had someone do her hair every 2-3 months.
- Is the dialogue natural and appropriate for the story, not stilted or overly narrative?
The dialogue is fine. I even like the accents on some of the characters that she interacts with.
- Does dialogue move the story forward and reveal the characters?
- Are characters’ voices consistent and distinct from one another?
- Is there an appropriate mix of dialogue and narrative?
I felt there was a lot of narrative in the very beginning, and it was a bit dry to read her thoughts.
- Does the writing “show” the scene with the senses, using “telling” only as appropriate?
In most cases. Glanced back over chapter 1, and seems MC is definitely oblivious to the rudeness of the white folk also in the store. Some are more obvious than others in their disdain.
- Does the writing quality allow the story to shine through and draw the reader in, or are flaws jarring or intrusive?
The writing is well done. Grammar and spelling is mostly clean. I did notice a few spots here and there but not jarring to the point of distraction.
- Is the tone appropriate and consistent for the story?
- Is the point of view (and any changes) handled appropriately and consistently?
Generally I don’t like the sliding transition from one pov to another within the same paragraph, but this was done better than I’m used to seeing.
- Is the voice unique, fresh, or interesting?
- Does the story deliver on the promise of its premise and opening scenes?
Yes. It’s a better than I thought it would be because of its slow beginning.
- From a reader’s point of view, did you enjoy reading this story?
I did. Yes.
Additional Questions for Comment:
- Are there any confusing sections that should be made clearer? (Mark in the manuscript)
- Do any sections take you out of the story? (Mark in the manuscript)
- Is the story a good fit for the stated genre, and if not, why not?
There was no mention of what genre this was supposed to be in.
- Who are your favorite—and least favorite—characters and why?
I do like MC. Despite everything she is going through, her reactions seem believable and not to the point of being pathetic.
- What aspects are especially likable or unlikable about the protagonist(s)?
Her individual spirit and mental pushes to be adventurous, but on the other hand, knowing when she is out of her depth.
- What three things worked best for you?
I do like that MC wanted to make life for DO better in her old age.
- What three things worked least for you?
Questions from the Author:
- Does the story feel like it is in the time and place where it is set? Any suggestions on making that more realistic?
1860’s female wardrobe styles generally need a second person for help with the bodice and hoop skirt. Also, there was a tendency for wealthier women to change several times a day (ie: day dress and evening/supper gown).
MC would most likely have a lady’s maid. Perhaps an older woman who is like a mother figure. This could also be the person who braids MC’s hair, or at least knows the best woman in town to do it. Having her lady’s maid could also separate her further from those in the tweendecks on the ship (a black woman with a black servant) – unless she snuck out without her which is always possible, if she didn’t want to be found before she reached Africa.
- What did you like/dislike about the characters?
I mentioned this above.
- Did the story flow properly? If not, what issues did you have with it?
- I’m concerned about the climax and its believability … how did you find it? Any suggestions?
It looked more like wishful thinking. Too much could happen to stop her (another theft of the journals, another scathing newspaper story, etc, before she could get her side printed). Instead of taking the journals with her and crowing about it to Mr Barnett, she should have just printed what she intended to print as the rebuttal. Then let her hear the gossip of what people are thinking as she goes about her business in town. If Mr Barnett knows he’s going to be shamed and humiliated, he would jump at the chance to harm her reputation and further harm her father’s.
- My protagonist is a young woman (I am not) and so I’m concerned about her mindset. Did you find her likable/believable/interesting? Any suggestions on how to improve her as a character? Did the choices she made seem realistic?
At that age, I spent a lot of time thinking about boys, getting married, and having kids. But after the death of my (relative), I spent a lot of time reading. I didn’t think much about death, or suicide. I just thought a lot of things were just kind of pointless. So for that point, MC is well written. I also dismissed condolences by those who still had their parents, because I felt they had no idea the pain I was in.
- Any parts you found boring, cliche, too obvious, or that you felt like skipping?
I mentioned these above.
- Any other issues that jumped out at you?
I mentioned my distractions above.
- Overall, was the story entertaining, fun to read, something you could see on store shelves? If not, please give some examples of what is holding this novel back.
I think so. It’s an interesting historical fiction.