I’m a big believer in beta readers. A developmental editor is a good investment if you have the budget. But it helps to get honest feedback from readers. The more feedback, the better. That’s why I paid for a three beta reader package from Entrada Publishing for Christina’s Portrait.
The feedback I got from the beta readers was great. One of them loved the book and said, “If this author wrote another book, I would not hesitate to pick it up!” (If you are that beta reader, here you go.) While writers may love praise, we need criticism. The comments I got from Entrada were specific, detailed, and actionable.
Let me show you how I’m using this feedback to improve Christina’s Portrait and get it ready for submission. I’ll include some spoiler-free examples (for a book that isn’t finished).
Of the three beta readers who looked at my book, two of them loved it and one didn’t. We writers typically have two reactions to this. One is to dismiss the negative review. (“The other reviewers liked it, so why should I listen to this person?”) And the other is to get so bothered that someone didn’t like our work that we focus solely on that and ignore positive feedback. (“I can’t submit this book unless everybody loves it!”) Both reactions are unhelpful.
Instead, look at where the reviews overlap. What do they comment on the most? What gets the biggest reaction?
All three reviewers liked Noreen, one of my main characters. One reviewer said, “I enjoyed Noreen the most. I was able to see things in her view and see how she had such a difficult life. I love how she was trying to be careful with Christina and trying to protect her.” The second added, “She seemed like a real person with lots of hopes and dreams…” Even the less favorable review praised Noreen by saying, “She is the most complex and her story is what really drives this… Noreen is the heart of the story.”
When you look at all the reviews together, you get a good picture of what works and what doesn’t.
Understanding what works
All communication depends on the listener understanding the message that was communicated. For a novel, can readers follow along with the story? Do they understand what is happening? Do they get the experience they expected when they picked up the book? Beta readers can provide this type of information. Their feedback shows us where we’re on track. That’s how we know when something works.
For example, Christina’s Portrait (like Amiga) alternates scenes between present and past and comes together in the present. All three reviewers could follow along. In fact, the negative review said this approach is a little too common, and it “is definitely a genre of its own at this point…”
“What works” isn’t the same as what readers like. If readers like your villain more than the hero, this can be a problem if this isn’t something you intended. Maybe your hero is uninteresting or underdeveloped, and this character needs more work. Or you may like your villain so much you want to make them the focus of the story.
We seek connection with our audience. Beta reviewers show us where we’re connecting effectively. These are the parts of the story we want to preserve and build upon.
Identifying what doesn’t
As for the areas where we’re not connecting, beta readers can show us where the problems are. Sometimes, they can give suggestions on how to fix them. Mostly, we can use their feedback to help us debug our manuscript.
Although we look at the comments in aggregate, we should pay attention to any red flags an individual reviewer holds up. One reviewer took offense to something a character said. Even though it wasn’t an issue for the other beta reviewers, there may be other readers (maybe a lot of readers) who might also get upset about it. I plan to remove the offending dialogue. It adds nothing to the story, anyway.
Other comments require more thought. Christina’s Portrait covers several social issues. The negative review said I covered too many of them. (Edited for brevity and to hide spoilers.)
The political material feels forced and inorganic… Linking [characters’ emotional reactions to social issues] kind of works… [M]aking broad statements…comes off as very forced and blunts the point the story is attempting to make. It definitely seems like there is something to gain by including that material, but too much of it distracts from the message, instead of adding to the themes.
As writers, we need to make judgement calls. What parts are distracting from the story? Of those parts, which are unnecessary and can be removed? If they are necessary, how can I use them more effectively?
The lesson? Don’t get upset or discouraged by negative feedback. Look at it as information you can use to improve your work.
What’s next for Christina’s Portrait?
The three beta reader reviews I got from Entrada (including the negative one) were encouraging. They showed I’m on the right track with this novel. With this feedback, my manuscript should be ready for submission later this year.
Writing is about connection. Beta readers can help us determine how well we’re connecting. If you intend to share your writing with the world, it helps to share it with some other readers first. Make sure you’re sending out the best stories you can.