So you’re finally ready to share your story. You might have joined an organization like RWA or SCBWI. You’ve written THE END and want to know what happens next. Where do you go from here? Most likely, you’ll want to start looking for beta readers and critique partners.
Just because we’ve met our word count, fleshed out our characters’ goals, motivation, and conflict, and have come up with an emotionally satisfying HEA or HFN doesn’t mean our book is ready for querying. First, it needs a few sets of eyes on it. And by a few sets, we mean it goes through a few steps before you send it off to agents or publishers.
Many authors have a trusted cheerleader. This can be someone you’ve brainstormed with, or someone who’s been there with you through the excruciating and thrilling process of completing a novel.
The role of a cheerleader is exactly what it sounds like: someone who’ll cheer you on, encourage you to keep going when the writing doldrums hit, and basically tell you how great you and your story are.
Everyone who has a cheerleader knows how invaluable this person is. We also know they’re fabulous liars, but it doesn’t matter. We can all use someone to keep us accountable. If we let them down, we let ourselves down.
The bulk of the cheerleading phase happens during the first draft. I know I never would have finished most of my novels if I didn’t have someone waiting in the wings saying, I need more right now!
While not everyone has a cheerleader, they serve one more purpose beyond encouraging us. They’re the first people to read our new precious words, so they’re fantastic icebreakers. With their involvement, sending out to the next batch waiting in the wings doesn’t feel as fraught with peril. After all, our cheerleader loved it.
Critique partners (CPs) are a special breed. These are the people who will take your first draft and give you honest and unflinching feedback, often over multiple passes of the book. Typically, you’ll receive feedback on characters/characterization, story flow/pacing, your story arc(s), and generally what does and does not work for them. This post doesn’t intend to lay out the groundwork for a CP’s job; that’s for you and your CP to decide on. However, the operative word in this partnership is critique. Hopefully, the critique you receive is constructive. If not, find a new CP.
Your work-in-progress doesn’t need to be finished before you share it with a critique partner. Often, they’re a great sounding board for those moments when you’re paralyzed by fear of making a mistake (A.K.A. writer’s block) or for when you want suggestions/approval on the direction you intend to take. A manuscript can be critiqued at any point in its lifetime, from the outlining stage for those of you who work that way, all the way through to the full book.
If you wait until THE END to share with a critique partner, gear up for revision and rewriting. Crafting a novel to the point where it’s clean and tight and ready to go takes patience, skill, and a lot of hitting one’s head against the wall when we receive feedback we hate but know is right. Be prepared to keep going, to keep writing, to keep working. Once you’ve made the entire manuscript as good as it can be, you’re ready to send it out to your next group of readers.
Think of a beta reader as a test reader for your novel. Let them read it as any reader would, so they can give you feedback on the story flow and the overall narrative arc. Of course, if they notice any plot holes, inconsistencies, or typos, this is the time for that sort of feedback.
Many experienced beta readers will request a summary of the types of things you’re looking for (I always ask for attention to timeline, typos, contradictions in the narrative, and so on).
After you’ve written and torn your book apart and stitched it back together two, three, 25 times, it can be difficult to remember if you put that crucial red herring in chapter two or if it only exists in your mind. Beta readers will help point out those types of things, and give you an impression of the book as a whole. If you’re writing with multiple points of view, they might also provide feedback on the uniqueness of each voice.
If you’re wondering whether the same person can fill the role of CP and beta reader, the answer is yes. However, it’s probably good at the beta-reading stage to make sure you have at least one fresh set of eyes on your story. Someone who’s never seen it before will have a different reading experience from your trusted CP who’s read the story multiple times. Both perspectives are important; both are necessary.
Dos and Don’ts
When it comes to working with cheerleaders, CPs, and beta readers, there are a few dos and don’ts you should be mindful of:
- DO vett your cheerleaders, CPs, and beta readers carefully.
- DO make your manuscript shine as much as possible at each phase before handing it off for feedback.
- DO give your readers a timeframe, so you’re not wondering a year from now if Reader X still plans on reading.
- DO consider all feedback, after letting it settle for a day or two.
- DO thank your readers for volunteering their time to help you out.
- DO remember that reading is a subjective experience, and you’ll often receive contradictory feedback. Discuss it with a trusted friend, or follow your gut.
- DON’T tell your readers their opinions are wrong.
- DON’T feel compelled to make every change suggested.
- DON’T forget it’s your book and your story.
- DON’T rush into making changes.
- DON’T expect people to read your chapter/section/story a dozen times.
- DON’T be defensive. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
Make sense? Good. Now onto the next step.
Regardless of what stage we’re at with our work, we have a tendency to want to rush headfirst into the next phase. As someone who’s queried a book far too early in its development cycle, I understand the longing to be done, to get it out there, to have it applauded by powerful strangers who can make inestimable differences to our lives. The keywords are patience and diligence.
Once you’ve had the okay from your cheerleader and made your draft shine, pass it along to CPs. Once you’ve incorporated their changes, made your revision shine, and feel it’s finally there, pass it along to betas. After you’ve received and incorporated beta feedback, the path branches.
If you believe it’s ready and that’s corroborated by your readers, it’s time to query or self-publish. If reader feedback implies it needs more work, you’re back to the revision phase.
Repeat the process as often as necessary and remember: what worked with the last book might not work with this one, just as readers for the last book might not be the readers you have for this one.
Many resources exist for finding critique partners and beta readers. If you’re searching for partners to help you on your writing journey, here (in no particular order) are a few places to start:
- Author Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Matchup
- Ladies Who Critique
- Romance Writers of America Critique Partner Matchup (must be a member)
- Twitter can be a great place to find CPs/beta readers
- When all else fails, head to your local coffee shop with your laptop
Do you have a favorite CP matching site? Let us know in the comments below.