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.
Really good stories have more than one antagonist. There’s your “Big Bad” villain, but real life is filled with lots of “socially acceptable” villains that create drama, pain, and obstacles in your every day life.
What does that look like? Let me illustrate by using the example of a woman we’ll call “Jane” for ease of reference. Jane was sexually abused in her past; her sexual consent was stolen from her. As an adult, she has several boyfriends on the go at once (7 to be exact) and none of the relationships are sexual. The men know that they’re part of her “harem” and are all vying to be #1 boyfriend.
Some of these men have the notion that if he is Jane’s favourite, she will marry him and he would be the only man in her life from that point on. This is not the case. Jane has created a reality for herself where she is in complete control of these relationships. She is now “safe” and “loved”, under no obligation to have sex. Ever. If she marries, that reality will be lost.
Jane is what can be called a “socially acceptable villain”. In her effort to “win” situations from her past, Jane is now controlling people who had nothing to do with the harm done to her. She’s not a “big bad” villain, but the pain she causes is real.
You probably have a socially acceptable antagonist in your life. These people can seem loving and loyal, but end up destroying your self-esteem in subtle ways. Take a look around and see if you can spot them. Maybe it’s the “friend” who says”I don’t know why X said you look fat in that outfit.” She hurt you, but she’s made X the target.
Is there room in your story for a socially acceptable antagonist?
Question:“If you could go back to 7th/8th grade, knowing what you know now about writing, is there anything you wish someone would have told you?”
Frankly, if someone told me in junior high that I was going to write for living, I would have laughed at them. Or fainted. Or possibly both. Sure, other students told me my stories were good and I should write them professionally, but – pfft – teenagers and their self-esteem issues … or was that just me?
However, there are some things that have helped me and thank goodness I picked them up along the way! On the off chance they help other authors, I’ll share them here:
1) A strong grasp of proper spelling and grammar. It makes your job a lot easier if you are able to self-edit the basics before you unleash an editor on your work. Plus, editors will love you.
2) “Show, Don’t Tell” was good advice that stuck with me. Instead of telling your reader “John was angry” you can show them by writing, “John’s face flushed and his hands curled into fists”.
3) Acting classes helped. A LOT. Learning about internal dialogue, body language, communicating without words, and thinking like “other people” helps me keep each character unique and believable.
4) Yoda said: Do or Do Not. There is no try.
This holds true for writers. You don’t “work your way” to being a writer. You either are or you’re not. There’s no “try” because the second you start to write, you are a writer, so give it your all from the start.
5) Research is your friend. Write about something you’re interested in, so the research keeps you interested.
6) Writing is like a skilled trade, but without the useful apprenticeship. You have teach yourself from whatever resources, classes, and workshops you can find and afford. Learn all you can about your craft and find what works best for you.
7) Study your genre and practice different styles until you find a voice that fits. If you write in multiple genres, you may end up with various “voices” since your “Romance Voice” won’t be the same as your “Murder Mystery Voice”, which will vary from your “Horror Voice”, etc.
So, there you have it. Things that have helped me as a writer. I hope they help you, as well 🙂