#88: “My Anti-Queer Cousin Offered to Beta Read My Lesbian Novel”

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Dear Story Nurse,

My cousin went through an unusual change during college. Rather than becoming a liberal, fire-breathing, intersectional feminist, she turned to evangelical Christianity and takes heteronormative roles very seriously. It saddens me as a feminist and a bisexual woman that she believes what she does. But she seems very happy in her marriage and life, so I’m not going to say anything.

But.

She’s offered to beta-read my novel. I’m happy that she wants to, free feedback is valuable, but my novel centers around a lesbian. I’m worried that at best, she’ll tell me to tone down the gay stuff (don’t worry, there’s no way in hell am I going to do that) and at worst, she’ll reject me and I’ll be blamed for the ensuing family drama. I don’t see this ending well and I don’t know what to do.

Yours,

Worried Author (she/her)

Dear Worried Author,

It sounds to me like there are a couple of options here that could save you both a lot of stress:

  1. Turn her down. “Thanks for your offer, but I’m all set for beta readers.” If she pushes you, repeat yourself: “I really appreciate that, but I’m all set.”
  2. Tell her that your book is about a lesbian and that you’re not open to any feedback regarding the book’s queer content. Then ask whether she still wants to beta read it, reassuring her that it’s fine to say no.

Free beta reading doesn’t mean beta reading without boundaries. You get to decide who sees your book in this draft stage, when you and the story are both very vulnerable. If this cousin isn’t someone whose opinion you want or need right now, then it’s perfectly fine to decline her offer and put your time and energy into finding other beta readers who are a better fit.

Similarly, she should have the opportunity to repeat or retract the offer once you give her more information. Any beta reader should know what type of book they’re signing up to read, just as a reader picking up your book in a bookstore or online will read the blurb and look at the cover art and check the reviews to see whether it’s something they’re likely to be into. (Presumably you’d also warn your cousin if the book was in a genre she doesn’t usually like, contained explicit violence or sex, or had content she was likely to find upsetting for whatever reason.) If you don’t want to turn down your cousin’s offer, describe the book to her so she has the opportunity to give, or withhold, informed consent. Maybe she’ll surprise you and say she’s totally fine with reading a book with a lesbian protagonist. Maybe she’ll be relieved to have the chance to back out. Either way, it’s a better approach than emailing her your manuscript cold and then hiding from your email and all family reunions for the next hundred years.

If you feel awkward saying “My heroine is a lesbian, is that cool with you?”, that’s a good reason to go back to option one and turn down her offer, since her learning that the heroine is a lesbian by reading the manuscript will undoubtedly be even more awkward. You know she’s not a fan of queer people, and she knows you know. She would be quite right to be upset with you for not giving her advance notice of queer content in your book. She doesn’t get to judge you for what you choose to write, but providing her with relevant information is about navigating the beta reading relationship, not about whether there’s anything wrong with writing a queer protagonist.

It’s not clear to me whether your cousin knows you’re bisexual, but I’m guessing not, since you mention being concerned that she will reject not just your book but you. If that’s the case, telling your cousin that your book has a lesbian protagonist may feel tantamount to coming out to her—or she may assume you’re coming out to her even if you’re very clear that you’re talking about a fictional character. If that sounds like the road to mutual misery and possible schisms, turning her down is your best choice. She may be sad or confused, but better a small sadness than a lot of drama. Coming out to her should be a thing you choose to do in your own way and your own time, and ideally without ambiguity or confusion about what you’re trying to tell her.

If you do send the manuscript to her and she writes back with anti-queer comments, you can always reject her critique. You don’t need to tell her anything other than “Thanks, I’ll think about what you said” (a handy phrase borrowed from the mighty Captain Awkward) and then think about it just enough to consign it to the circular file. Or you can get into a fight with her over it, if that’s what feels morally necessary to you, but remember that that’s one option among many.

The best beta reader for your book is one who’s primed to love it, and who can work with you to make it the best possible book on its own terms. If you think your cousin can be that reader, make sure by giving her more info up front. If you don’t think she can, or if you want to minimize your risk, turn her down and move on. What’s important is that you do the best thing for yourself and your work.

Good luck! I hope you come out of this one way or another with a few good beta readers and lots of critique that’s useful and supportive and gets you raring to revise.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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#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. Continue reading

#47: When to Reject a Critique

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an aro ace writer with a few published stories under my belt, now beginning to venture into writing ownvoices stories. I wrote a fluffy fantasy story with an openly labelled aromantic main character and passed it to one of my usual beta readers (who I am not out to).

CN: arophobia
One of the notes in Beta’s response said that “aromantic” didn’t seem like the right word for MC because MC was clearly a nice, kind, warm-hearted person. When I asked cautiously for elaboration, it came with more microaggressions attached. /CN

Now I come to revise the story and the notes drain my energy for doing so every time I have to look at them, and it makes me wonder if I would be believed if I did come out. How do I separate criticism of my story from criticism of myself, when what is actually being marked down is the marginalisation my character and I share?

Thanks for your time
Flat Battery (she/her or they/them)

(For definitions of aromanticalloromantic, and related terms, see this glossary.)

Dear Flat Battery,

I’m so sorry your beta reader responded in such a rude and biased way. Of course those notes will now make you feel bad about yourself and your work!

In this case you don’t need to separate criticism of the story from criticism of yourself. What you do need to do is reject the criticism as based in falsehood and therefore invalid.

Continue reading

#41: Finding Beta Readers

Hi Story Nurse,

I am very protective of my in-process writing and it takes a lot of trust for me to ask people to be beta readers. I don’t always want another writer’s advice such as from a critique workshop. Mostly I am looking for things from a reader’s perspective such as: how does that make you feel? Does this need more description? Does it feel finished?

I once sent a short story to a couple of beta readers and they were like, more? One said: there’s more, right? That short story turned out to be a novella/ short novel length.

Any advice for finding new beta readers or places to make reader-writer friends? Have you ever considered hosting a beta reader dating service type deal via a Patreon post or Slack?

Thanks,

Quiet Writer (she/ her)

Dear Quiet Writer,

I love the idea of a beta reader dating service! And in fact such things exist:

  • On Dreamwidth there are the Beta, Please! and Multinational Beta communities; if you’re looking for a beta reader and willing to trust a stranger, post there with the details of your work and see who replies. You need a Dreamwidth account to post, but a basic account is free, and since everyone who replies will also have an account, you can peek at their posts and see what kind of person they are before you take them up on their beta’ing offer.
  • There’s a beta reader group on Goodreads. They specify that beta readers provide a reader’s perspective, not a critique—sounds like exactly what you’re looking for.
  • There’s a beta readers and critiques group on Facebook.
  • There’s beta readers hub on Tumblr, though it looks like no one’s posted there in a while.

Google around a bit, maybe with some genre-specific keywords, and you’ll find more.

As for making friends, try fan communities. Many of those friends will be fellow writers, but I’ve found that most fan writers give critiques of the sort you’re looking for, because they’re used to approaching work from the perspective of a fan first and a creator second. Fans are often very generous in their crits and good at squeeing about the things they love as well as poking at the things they think could be improved. Joining a fanwork community does require you to take a little time away from your original stories to create some fanwork of your own, but writing fanfic can be a lot of fun, a relaxing break when your primary project is stressing you out, and a source of practice projects that teach you new writing skills. I’ve done a few fanfic exchanges recently and the deadline pressure has taught me a lot about writing fiction even when I’m not in the zone.

If there’s a particular fandom you want to be part of, find a community for that fandom. I like to play in a lot of different sandboxes, so I ended up hanging out in Yuletide IRC with other friendly people who like tiny fandoms and rare pairings. There’s often someone looking for a beta there, especially during crunch season for the Yuletide fic exchange. If IRC is your thing, park yourself there for a while, chat with other folks, participate in an exchange or two (if you want a very low-intensity way to dip your toe into the world of fanfic exchanges, I recommend Chocolate Box, which has low requirements and long deadlines), and offer to do a few beta reads of your own, and you’ll make some good connections.

Another way to connect with passionate readers is to join a couple of book clubs, online or offline. Goodreads has over 8800 book club groups of every possible size and flavor; local booksellers and librarians can also point you to groups in your area. After a few rounds of discussing other people’s work, you’ll know exactly which book club members you can trust to read your manuscript and give you the kind of feedback you need.

Happy hunting!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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