Dear Story Nurse,
I just finished a first draft of a novel. I’m fairly happy with the broad strokes of the story and the characters, but I’m at a point now where I really need outside input. I’ve done what I can on my own in terms of editing and refining and letting the thing rest and picking it up again. I need a fresh set of eyes. I’ve been at this point for over a year now.
I’ve contacted just about everyone I know whose opinion I value and asked them to beta-read for me. All of them enthusiastically agreed, then disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s gotten to a point now where I joke that if you want someone out of your life, just ask them to read your damn novel.
I understand that beta-reading is a huge commitment. I always, always mention that if someone changes their mind for any reason, that’s absolutely fine. Just tell me you’re out, no nagging or interrogations from my end, just a no is fine. I’m very happy to repay them any way they see fit if they need help themselves. But not a single person has gotten back to me.
So friends and family are apparently out. I’ve tried online workshops, but while a chapter critique can be very useful, what I really need is for someone to read the entire thing. Again I fall into this cycle of people committing and flaking without explanation. I’ve done a few manuscript swaps, which were very disappointing. Maybe it was bad luck, but I only seemed to get people who clearly weren’t interested in providing thoughtful critique and just wanted their own manuscript read. I must have written hundreds of pages of critique for other people and gotten almost nothing back. I’ll go back to these swaps if necessary, but I’m pretty burnt out on them at this point.
I honestly did some soul-searching to see if the problem was me, and I don’t think it is? I don’t nag people after I’ve sent them the manuscript. I’ll ask once or twice over the course of a month or three, but I’m very careful not to pressure anyone. I try not to come across as desperate, but I am, so maybe it shows? I know the manuscript is rough, but it’s not so shitty or offensive that it should prevent people from reading it through. Dunno. Can’t tell.
Apart from the fact that it breaks my goddamn heart to have people I care about (including my own damn husband) consistently flake on something they know is pretty damn important to me, I can’t for the life of me get this manuscript read by anyone. I am saving up my pennies for a professional developmental edit, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I know a professional editor is very important and I need one, but we’re at a stage now where we can barely afford food, so.
Is this the normal process? Am I going about this the wrong way? And since this is so emotionally draining to do all this while also on the rejection treadmill for a bunch of short stories, should I just give up for a while and pick this up later?
That sounds really dispiriting and difficult. I’m so sorry you’ve been having a rough time getting someone to make and keep a commitment or explain to you why they can’t.
Asking beta readers to start reading, finish reading, and talk to you about what they read doesn’t seem like a lot, but it can feel pretty daunting from the other side. In my experience, there are three main reasons beta readers flake on giving crits:
- They didn’t finish or like the book and feel bad saying so.
- They don’t know how to write a crit or give useful feedback and are embarrassed to admit it.
- Other things take priority over unpaid commitments.
Here are some ways to prevent these problems.
- Make sure the book and the reader match up. Focus on reaching out to people who already read in that genre and at that length. If you’re writing a romance novella and everyone in your life is a die-hard fan of space opera doorstoppers, your friends may just not be useful to you as beta readers.
- Make sure the format and the reader match up. There are lots of free tools for turning your Word or Pages or Google document into an epub or mobi file that can be read on an e-reader. Use one of them rather than sending the raw document itself. Most people who don’t work in publishing will struggle to read an entire novel in a word processor format, especially if you’ve got it formatted for submission with a monospace font and double-spacing. And definitely don’t try to make anyone read a printed-out manuscript!
- Clean up your typos. Run spellcheck, but don’t trust it; it will happily let Arctic turn and He drove hone get through. Read the manuscript out loud to yourself (some people read while facing a wall or corner, so the sound bounces back to them as though it were someone else’s voice) or have your computer’s dictation/narration software read it to you so that you can catch errors you’d miss while rereading. Change the font or export it to another device so you can read it as though it were a new document someone else sent to you. Even readers who say they don’t much care about such things will struggle to read a manuscript full of typos, wrong names, and other errors.
- Ask the reader to read one chapter first and tell you if they want to see the rest. This is a much lower commitment, so they’re more likely to complete it. You’ll weed out the reader/book mismatches faster. And if they eagerly ask for the rest of the book, they’ll have a stronger incentive to read it. If no one asks for the rest of the book, that tells you the first chapter needs work.
- Give examples of the types of feedback you’re looking for. Asking non-writers for critiques is difficult because they don’t really know what a critique is. Give them a brief (brief) list of open-ended questions, in advance, to keep in mind while they’re reading and answer when they’re done: “What happened that you didn’t expect? Which character was your favorite and why? What were the points where the story lost your interest or felt like it was moving slowly?” That way they’ll know exactly what they’re signing up to do.
- Ask what they didn’t like. You may say “I already said I was fine with hearing about that!” but that’s not quite the same thing. Explicitly request negative feedback. Tell them up front that what you most want to know is what didn’t work, and tell them again when feedback time comes around. That’s quite different from an open-ended “Give me your honest opinion” and sets up clearer expectations.
- Set a deadline. Something with no deadline is easy to put off indefinitely. Setting a date makes it more likely to get done. Ask how long the person thinks it would take them to read the book, add about 20%, and put it on both your calendars. When that date comes, reach out rather than waiting for them to come to you, and have your prepared list of questions handy. If life happens and they need to delay, that’s fine, but make sure you reschedule rather than just putting it off until some unnamed future time—unless life happens in a very big way or they reschedule more than twice, in which case you should let it go and find another beta reader.
- Replace the crit with a conversation. Invite them over for lunch or dessert or a drink (I’m keeping your financial restrictions in mind, but hopefully you can at least dish up a bowl of ice cream or a cup of tea) and discuss the book at the table. Again, making a firm date in advance (“It’s September 19th, so how about we schedule something for mid-October?”) will help with flake prevention and reduce the nag factor.
Depending on the circumstances of your previous requests for crits, you may be able to apply some of these retroactively: “Husband, let’s set a date to talk about my book. I want to know everything you hated about it. Or if you didn’t finish it, just let me know where you lost interest and stopped so at least I know that’s a problem spot.”
If you haven’t tried an in-person critique group yet, and you can find one in your region that you click with, that might be useful. It amounts to asking a dozen people to read your work at once, so at least one of them is likely to actually do it, and you’ve got peer pressure and deadlines to add to the incentives. Joining an established group gives you the highest likelihood of follow-through.
You can always start shopping the book around to agents and see if you can get some personal rejections with detailed feedback. Many editors do sample edits, so you can request those even if you’re not ready to hire an editor yet, since you are planning to do so in the future. Obviously you should only do this for agents or editors you actually want to work with.
Another option is to connect with fans of your short stories and offer them a special sneak peek of your novel, or release it to them chapter by chapter as a serial with a request for comments at the end of every installment. Patreon is the ideal platform for something like this (and if you’re only “publishing” the novel to a small cohort of fans behind a lock or paywall, most publishers won’t count it as publication, which matters when you’re trying to sell first publication rights). It takes a little while to build up the fan base, but that’s worth doing on its own merits. You don’t have to be famous for this to work; even if you only have ten or fifteen $1 Patreon patrons, that’s ten or fifteen people who are genuinely eager to see what you write.
Finally, you may just have to acknowledge that what all these non-crits have in common is your manuscript, and it’s time to put it in a drawer and work on writing another one. This happens a lot (a whole lot) with first books, so try not to be discouraged, and instead focus on the next project, which you can do even while continuing to look for betas for this one. A year is a long time to dangle at the end of this particular rope. Give yourself permission to let go and move on.
Happy writing, and I hope you find your perfect beta and get the crit of your dreams.