A while back, I wrote about How I Found My Beta Team for Eyes of the Hunter and promised to share the guidelines I provide my beta readers with to help them give me useful feedback. This is that post 🙂
When looking for beta readers, I target honest and dependable people who enjoy the manuscript’s genre. I also make sure they are familiar with both good writing techniques and important elements to the craft.
To make sure everyone is on the same page, I need to know exactly what I want from my beta readers. Then, I make sure that they know by providing them with a clear list.
Below is the basic letter I give my beta readers, which I tailor per project and person. You can also download the Beta Reader Checklist [pdf] for future reference.
Dear [Beta Reader];
Thank you for being part of my Beta Team! I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to help me make improvements to [Book Title]. Please, don’t worry about grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues; an editor is helping with those. The feedback I’m concerned about centers on continuity, character development, dialogue, flow, and completeness:
Is the story interesting?
Does it make sense?
Any plot holes?
Does the story flow?
Is the continuity okay?
Did I miss any important information or opportunities?
Do you get a solid feel for the setting and people?
Do the characters unfold well?
Do any of the characters need more development?
Is the pacing okay? Does it lag anywhere?
Is anything clunky or awkward?
Are there problem areas that need more attention?
What worked for you? What didn’t work for you?
… And, of course, anything else you feel I should know.
Specific concerns I have for this book are:
[Specific feedback needed]
Please, be as specific as possible with your answers. Your honest comments will go a long way in helping this story be a success. I need your notes by [date]. I look forward to reading them and thank you, again.
There’s some discussion about trigger warnings on books. Should you include them for your book? The answer is “Maybe”. Let’s take a look at what kind of content may require trigger warnings.
In aprevious post, I explained trigger warnings and why you may want to include one in the description of your book. You can read it here.
I understand that there are some readers who go overboard, wanting warnings for ridiculous things or not reading the book description to see a warning and then complaining there wasn’t a warning. Some warnings might limit your marketing options with libraries and schools. Things like this can make authors feel like they’re in a no-win situation or overwhelmed by the struggle to decide whether or not you need a trigger warning.
I’m not suggesting every story or scenario needs a warning. Your genre and blurb should give readers a general idea of what to expect. And, a well written story will give the reader a lead up to disturbing events, assuming the reader isn’t so engrossed (or oblivious) to notice. But, your genre and the indication of mature content is not always enough. I’m asking you to consider adding trigger warnings – or at least making it clear in your blurb – if your story includes any of the following:
If you write Young or New Adult books, there are additional issues that need to be considered. For example, the words stupid and dumb are generally deemed “normal” or “lesser offenses” by older audiences (and authors), however today’s society considers these words slurs.
Young and New Adult
Sex (even consensual)
Descriptions and/or pictures of medical procedures
Descriptions and/or pictures of violence or warfare
Death or dying
Shaming, hatred, and -isms (ie. racism, fat shaming, anti LGTBQ+ views etc.)
Scarification (body modification created by cutting, scratching, etching, or burning designs, pictures, or words into the skin)
It’s time we discuss what a trigger warning actually is and why you may want to consider including one in your book description or blurb if you include certain types of incidents in your story. (Spoiler – it has nothing to do with your reader being dictators and everything to do with respecting your audience.)
Conversations are cropping up more and more in writing groups where an author ponders if they should include a trigger warning on their book and half a dozen folks jump in with things like:
“Life doesn’t come with warnings”
“Warnings on books are spoilers”
“I’m tired of snowflakes wanting to be protected from words in a book!”
“They should know to expect [insert terrible thing] when they read [insert genre]”
“Bad stuff happens to people every day”
… and my pet peeve; “That’s censorship!”
I’m fed up with authors spouting “life doesn’t come with warning labels” and “trigger warnings are for delicate snowflakes”. Let’s take a look at some of these arguments against trigger warnings.
I beyond annoyed with authors equating trigger warnings (ie. Warning: Contains violent sex and domestic violence) with censorship (ie. “Remove this content from your book or it will never be published!“). You’d think people who write for a living would know the difference between a request for common courtesy and a dictator seizing control.
Including a trigger warning isn’t censorship. No one is asking you to remove those parts of the book – which is what censorship is. Most readers assume you added them for a good reason and respect that decision.
Genre or “Mature” Notice Should Be Enough
Authors need to understand: Writing in a certain genre or saying there is “Mature” or “Adult” content, does not automatically equal rape and abuse. Most adults don’t mind mature content – sex, language, and even some violence. But a shockingly large number of adults have been brutalized in their past. They have a very real need to know if there is triggering content, such as rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. They must know in advance so they can either watch for it and skip the scene or forego reading your book completely (while feeling positive toward you).
When someone who has been traumatized comes across triggering content unawares, they can have panic or anxiety attacks, and suffer nightmares and flashbacks – for days.
You Can See It Coming
I hear so many people saying, “But you can see things that might trigger you coming up”. Most times, yes. But, even if you skip the triggering scene, the character spends the rest of the story dealing with the aftermath of the incident: recall, flashbacks, nightmares, overwhelming emotions, etc. that could trigger your reader and there’s no “lead up” to prepare a person for that.
I Have PTSD and Don’t Need Trigger Warnings
Here’s something the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors often forget to mention:
Trigger topics are a broad paintbrush. There are certain
overlaps and commonalities in types of triggers, but everyone’s triggers are different.
Just because something doesn’t trigger you doesn’t mean someone else with PTSD from a different cause won’t be triggered. This is also true for people with phobias and other disorders.
People Are Just Delicate Snowflakes
Calling a reader is a “snowflake” (or any other slur) because they need a trigger warning is flat-out hostile. Why be a dick to potential clients and reviewers? Remember: Word of Mouth can make or break your reputation.
As someone who requires trigger warnings, I can say with sincerity:
I am not a delicate snowflake. I am a deeply feeling person who was horribly brutalized. I am a determined individual who spent years clawing her way through PTSD to “normal” (or as close as I can get) so I can be a functioning parent, partner, and member of my community.
I tell you from personal experience: It’s hell to have old horrors dragged up from the depths because someone didn’t have the courtesy to warn you about something in a book you were reading for pleasure to escape “Real Life”.
I don’t want to give up reading your books because there “might” be something lurking there to drag me back into the Darkness. I don’t want spoilers or chunks of your work removed. I simply want to know if the “mature content” means
1) Characters having sex and cussing their faces off while shit blows up around them, in which case: Good! I can deal with that. In fact, it will help me process my own emotions and “own my shadow”.
2) The main character is going to be victimized. In this case; Polite pass for my own well-being and the benefit of those who depend on me…. But, I will look for your other works and share a link to your book with people I know who might like this one.
Wouldn’t you like the same courtesy shown to you?
So, what is a trigger warning?
A request for trigger warnings is your readers asking that you respect them enough to give a heads up about how dark things are going to get. This can be done without giving details or spoilers.
You are being asked to do this so your reader can make a conscious and informed choice about your story. You are protecting your reader from inadvertent harm; showing them compassion which will garner a favorable opinion of you. They may not read this book, but they’ll be on the lookout for another one by you, because you respected them.
More importantly, trigger warnings gift readers with something precious that was stolen by the people who hurt them: FREE WILL. You are giving others the ability to walk away from an experience that might hurt them.
A short sentence that gives a concise list of topics (ie. rape, domestic violence, child abuse) in your book that may trigger your reader into having flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and other negative responses based on something traumatizing that happened to them in the past.
A courtesy and sign of respect afforded your readers to give them the option of being alert and skipping parts of your story or passing on your book.
What a Trigger Warning Is NOT
A detailed description of actions or incidents in your book.
A demand for you to remove or rewrite content in your book.
My latest book, Eyes of the Hunter is currently in the hands of a wonderful team of beta readers. Even though they’re still reading, I’ve already received some very constructive feedback. I’m thrilled!!
Today, I received this question from a fellow author:
May I ask how you got a team of beta readers? Because when I tried to get people to read my book before it was published no one was interested!
The short answer is:
I do my homework and am picky about who I ask.
The long answer:
I try to approach people who I know have beta read in the past, are interested in the genre of my book, have a good eye for detail, and have given solid feedback (to myself or others) in the past.
5 people agreed to beta read Eyes of the Hunter. Here is how I chose each one …
Beta Reader 1
This lady actually found me. She’d read a review I was under attack for writing, loved how honest and fair I’d been, and tracked me down on Facebook to ask if I would review her fantasy novel. I agreed, but couldn’t make it through the book. So, instead of writing a review, I asked if I could just give her suggestions on improvements. She agreed. She made the changes. She got picked up by a publisher (I’m not taking credit for that, btw) and has just release the sequel.
We kept in touch. When I see a snippet or article she’s written, I read it and comment. She’s improved. A lot. She’s serious and dedicated, so I continue to support her. And, she also freelances as an editor. So, when it came time to assemble beta readers, I asked if she’d be interested. She said, “Yes.”
Beta Reader 2
Amusingly enough, I found this lady exactly the same way Beta Reader 1 found me! She was being attacked by another author for the honest review she wrote on GoodReads in exchange for an ARC. Curious, I read the review. It was actually a very fair review, praising the author’s writing skill, but pointing out there were issues with the story that didn’t sit well with her. She didn’t finish reading, so she marked it DNF (Did Not Finish) to make sure it wouldn’t hurt the author’s rating. I sent her a message, apologizing on behalf of authors who aren’t dicks, and told her that I really liked how honest and fair she’d been. Since I knew from her GoodReads profile that she liked stories similar to Eyes of the Hunter, I asked if she’d be interested in beta reading it and gave a her brief description. She agreed.
Beta Reader 3
About a year ago, a lady in one of the Facebook writing groups I’m part of asked if someone could do some artwork for her. I was interested in what she wanted done and offered my services. I really liked her honesty in comments and noticed she always had great suggestions. So, instead of cash payment, I asked if she’d be interested in beta reading for me. I gave her a brief description of Eyes of the Hunter. She liked the story idea and had read some of my other writing, so she felt confident that she’d enjoy this and agreed.
Beta Reader 4
This one, I can thank Beta Reader 1 for. She’d talked me up to this gentleman and I apparently made a good impression in the Facebook groups we were part of. We chatted back and forth on Facebook for months. When he found out I was almost ready to hand off Eyes of the Hunter to beta readers, he expressed an interest in reading it. From our conversations, I knew he’s very honest about his opinions and he has a great eye for detail. Even though the story is aimed for YA female readers, I thought a male opinion would be beneficial. So, I asked if he’d go one further and beta read it for me. He said yes and offered some amazingly helpful insights.
Beta Reader 5
I met this lady through – you guessed it – a Facebook writing group. She sent me a friend request after we’d exchanged comments in the group. I had a favourable opinion of her; plainspoken and insightful. I accepted though we never actually chatted after that … until I saw a status update from her one night as I was about to shut down my computer for the night. She seemed to be in distress and I was worried that she was suicidal. Facebook had just implemented its suicide prevention feature, which was totally useless. So, I sent her a message which led to a conversation that lasted several hours (until I felt satisfied that she wasn’t going to do anything harmful to herself). Being writers, we naturally talked about books and writing. I told her a bit about Eyes of the Hunter and it was apparently up her alley of interest. She told me that she beta reads, critiques, and reviews. So, I asked if she’d like to beta read it for me and she said, “yes.”
And, there you have it: My amazing beta team for Eyes of the Hunter <3
Finding quality beta readers is a long process:
I observe the feedback a person gives to others and what they contribute to conversations in groups.
I build a sincere rapport with them. (Note the word sincere. I care about these people and they care about me.)
I find out if beta reading is something they’re interested in and what genres they prefer.
When I ask them to beta read, I give them just enough detail about the story to hook them, but not enough to ruin the fun.
Some people I asked were swamped with other projects or felt the story was not quite to their interests. No problem! I’ve asked enough people that a couple of “no’s” still leaves me with a fair size group for feedback. Plus if anyone has something come up where they can’t follow through, I wouldn’t be stranded for feedback.
I actively support fellow authors … for the most part. Recently, a fellow author brought to light – or rather, she created a drama about – something that touched on several topics we, as writers deal with almost daily, including the dreaded “bad review”.
This particular author got a review on GoodReads marked DNF (Did Not Finish) and complained about it in a few writing groups we’re both part. Normally, I’d link to the review so you can read it for yourself, but I’m trying to be classy and protect the author by keeping her name, book title, and any description of the contents of her book private so she’s not publicly embarrassed anymore than she has been by her own unprofessional behaviour.
Reading the review in question, a few really important things jumped out at me:
1. The author gave this lady an advanced copy of her book and asked for an honest review to be posted publicly.
2. It wasn’t a negative review. The reviewer had an issue with some of the events in the book that made her lose interest. She simply left her personal opinion as to why she couldn’t bring herself to finish it. (Note: I personally couldn’t finish another book by this author. When she had the female lead gang-raped, I had to skip past that chunk of the book. However, when that character then decided she needed to screw the next handsome, dangerous dude she came across mere hours after being raped, I was done. Period. I couldn’t open the book without feeling sick.)
3. By marking the book as DNF (Did Not Finish), the reviewer was actually protecting the author’s rating score.
4. The reviewer praised the things she liked about it, saying things like, “The story was original, and writing was really nice”.
As both an author and a reviewer, I can confidently say: This lady is really good reviewer and gave a reasonable, objective review. She shared her opinion and commended things about a book she didn’t like. Plus, she pointed out the good things she found, leaving it to the reader to decide if this was a book they wanted to take on. I was impressed. Personally, this is the balance and class I strive for when I write a review for something I didn’t enjoy.
The author, on the other hand, was neither classy nor fair in her response. She could have done one of two professional things at this point:
Be gracious and thank the reviewer for her time and thoughts, then move on; or
Ignore the review and focus on the positive reviews she received.
Instead, the author made a public deal about what was, in her opinion, a “bad” review, calling the reviewer a “f*ckwit” and “c*nt”.
This, of course, inspired her friends and followers to demean the reviewer’s opinion, mock her comprehension of and ability to writing in English (which is not her first language), and question her validity to write reviews – both in the groups and, to my horror, directly to the lady in the comment section of her review.
Part of my horror is because, as an author, I would never abuse my readers like this. Without readers – even those that don’t dig what I write – I could not be a professional author. I’d be a hobbyist, scribbling thoughts to myself. As a reviewer, I’ve been under public attack much like this lady has been.
So to this fellow author and those who will undoubtedly be in her shoes at one point:
Don’t be a dick to the courageous few readers that actually leave you a review.
Don’t like the review? Tough nuggets. Writing, like every other art, is subjective. Not everyone has the same tastes. Write to the best of your ability and learn from the feedback you get. If you’re too thin-skinned to handle bad reviews, either get a job where your tender soul isn’t exposed to the vicious teeth of critics or have someone else read them and give you an author-friendly version.