I love my beta readers.
They are all, to a person, phenomenal, insightful, and unafraid of holding my toes to the fire. It’s a small group, about half a dozen, living in almost as many states and from equally varied walks of life. Four are familiar enough with the magic rules, government, cultures, characters and creatures that inhabit my fictional world that they can rill me on whether I’m writing in a way that’s true to my original vision. The others are more “detached” from my idealistic rambling, and so are able to give a “cold” read when I need it.
This has been hugely helpful as I’ve worked my way to the eighth – count it, my EIGHTH – pass through Memento Mori, my current work-in-progress. Fortunately, this eighth visitation is now largely a matter of line edits and nailing down those issues that could cost me a devoted long-term readership.
You know the issues I mean: plot inconsistencies; pointless detours; abrupt transitions; murky character development.
These are the sorts of things that, as I reader, I absolutely detest. But as a writer, I transgress into such unlovely territory all the time. Why? Because creators quickly lose perspective about the worlds they create – and I am no exception.
Result: My work is improved when outside minds read my work, with an intent to shake it up and make it better.
But how does that even happen?
A lot has been written about beta readers, and how to find someone who can give solid feedback. Here are three that address that issue head-on:
But what happens when you DO find a wonderful beta reader who, after reading your secret masterwork, hems and haws, and defaults to unhelpful statements as: “I really like it” or “It’s good, but it’s not for me” and then fails to be more specific? What then?
That’s when gnawing conviction of Writer Responsibility kicks in. Finding a beta reader is, in it’s own way, a dream come true. But as a writer, I have an obligation to tell them what I need in terms of feedback. When I say “Please let me know what you think” – there needs to be a specific set of expectations, neither too long nor too murky to be usable.
Enter: the CUB Method.
I cannot take credit for this idea. Ruth Long was the first to introduce the idea to me, and the concept is, I’m certain, a rather old one that has been round the block a while. But once I grasped what the CUB method was, it enabled me to not only help my betas know what to look for, it also gave me parameters for helping others when I read their manuscript.
The CUB Method, then, is as follows: You ask your beta readers to look for places in your manuscript that are:
That’s it. Three items, and between them they cover virtually every writerly tar pit an author can fall into.
Not convinced? Let’s break it down a little more:
Are there any points where the reader can “see it coming”?
– Mary Sues and/or Cardboard Villains
– Deus Ex Machina
– Cultural or Social Stereotypes
Are there any points where one must reread multiple times to reorient themselves within the scene?
– Murky descriptions
– Abrupt transitions
– Unanswered plot questions (the kind that impede comprehension)
– Inconsistent character motivations
Are there any points where readers find themselves skimming or skipping passages?
– Too prosy
– Too much backstory
– Bloated dialogue
– Unnecessary detours
Of all the advice I’ve read, or been given, regarding betas and their feedback, this has been the most helpful. Especially now that I’m in the middle of receiving feedback from my current betas about Memento Mori, I am supremely grateful that we both have this map to follow. It helps them name my (writing) sins, and allows me the perspective needed to accept their critiques in the spirit they’re intended.
So that’s it. One step. One absurdly short checklist. Easy to remember, easy to use – and hopefully as much of a boost to your beta productivity as it was for me.
What about you? What advice do you give – or have received – in regards to beta reading manuscripts? Share your thoughts in the comments – I’d love to hear them!