Story Hospital

#61: Encouraging Beta Reader Follow-Through

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?

—C.S.H. (they/them)

Dear C.S.H.,

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:

  1. They didn’t finish or like the book and feel bad saying so.
  2. They don’t know how to write a crit or give useful feedback and are embarrassed to admit it.
  3. Other things take priority over unpaid commitments.

Here are some ways to prevent these problems.

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.


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!