The Beauty of Beta Readers: An Interview with Author Kate Quinn

Beta Readers, also sometimes called alpha readers or pre-readers, are informal readers who read written works and provide insight and recommended improvements. The reading is done before a work is released for publication.

I have been blessed with a wonderful team of Beta readers. In the process of finding them, I applied some of the useful information acquired from an author group on Goodreads.  My friend Kate had one especially insightful post. I reached out to Kate, asking her permission to post the wisdom she shared, and see if she would answer a few more questions.

Now, before you read her insight, I need to brag and tell you why Kate knows what she is talking about.  See, I was completely floored when I realized just how much experience Kate has. I can remember faces, but I am bad at remembering names. It takes awhile for my brain to mesh a face with a name, a band with a song, an artist with a painting, or an author with a book. I was a little shocked when I realized who my brain knows as my author friend Kate from Goodreads.  She was in fact, none other than the author Kate Quinn. Her books include: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, The Serpent and Pearl, and The Lion and the Rose.

Upon realizing this, I saw a big part of my oversight came from the fact Kate has none of the “I’m a big deal book author” attitude. Certainly you could expect it from someone who has authored works with enough notoriety to earn a spot in the limited selection of books sold at Target stores nationwide, and has their work published in several languages. But no, not my friend Kate, which makes me adore her even more.

Kate graciously said yes, and took time away from her current project to tell us more about her experience with Beta readers. This first part is from Kate’s original Goodreads post:

I’ve found that it’s good to have a different variety of beta-readers who you look to for different things. Such as:

1. The Expert. This reader might change from book to book, depending on what you need fact-checked, because this reader doesn’t care about your characters or your pacing, but is reading simply to fact-check you. I had some Roman Army re-enactor types who were good for this. “Make your hero older, it was against Roman regs for a legionary to make centurion before 30.”

2. The Nit-Picker. The person who can be counted on to catch eeeeeeverything little minor mistake. “He can’t wave from the doorway because you already said she saw him *come in.*” I have a goddess named Christi who did this for my last two books.

3. The Language Reader. The reader who hears language like music and will instinctively “hear” where your prose is clunky, where your pacing on a scene is lagging, and hand you the list of verbs you are over-using. For me this is the Dowager Librarian: “Run a word check on `shrug,’ `wink,’ `saunter,’ `shriek,’ and `whisper,’ and cut at least 50% of them.” Yes, Mom.

4. The Big Picture Person. The one with the big-picture eye for story and character development, who can tell you where your story is slowing down or where it needs to be paced up, and who can tell you that your heroine’s turnaround needs to be better set up. Also the Dowager Librarian, for me, as well as Stephanie Dray. (And yes, if you are lucky you will get a Two For One or even Three For One special with some of these beta readers.)

5. The Ideal Demographic. The reader who might not give you much in the way of concrete feedback, but who represents the exact demographic you are trying to hit. For me that’s dear friend Kristen: a voracious bookworm with a solid grounding in history and an enthusiasm for my genre. If she raves about a book of mine, I knowI’ve hit the target. If she’s “It didn’t quite resonate like your last one” I know I’ve got work to do.

6. And finally, The Dark Side. The reader who pushes you to think about going further, whether with your characters or your plot. You’re thinking of writing about an arsonist? This reader suggests a murderer. You want your hero to get beaten up? This reader wants your hero lose a hand. You want your heroine to cheat on her fiance with his friend? This person will suggest she cheat in a threesome with TWO of his friends. Sure, maybe you won’t end up taking the advice. But you’ll consider going further than you ever did before, and it will lead you interesting places. For me, that’s the hubby.

And here are Kate’s answers, to my questions, about her experiences using Beta readers.

1) When did you first start using beta readers?

Only with the last three books, when I finally found myself a writer community and had people I trusted to ask. Before that I mostly did it alone outside a few trusted critique partners.

2) What is the timeframe you allow your team of Beta readers to review your work?

I write big books, so I try to give my beta readers at least 2 weeks to respond. But there are those I know I can count on if I call with a weepy “Can you read this in 4 days because my deadline is insane?” Those are the ones who were reading pages and sending me notes on Christmas Day one year. And I return the favor for them, because they are gems. Beta-reading tends to be a reciprocal process – if someone dropped everything on New Year’s Eve to read all three versions of that scene you wrote with three different endings, then you bet your ass you need to drop everything for them when they need it.

3) I’ve seen links to Beta reader contracts, have you/would you ever use one of these?

Actually, I have NOT heard of those. If it means contracting a stranger to be your beta, think I would rather know someone first so I know what kind of feedback they are likely to be useful for. Beta readers come in various flavors – the Subject Experts, the Language Experts, the Big Picture people, etc. How can you tell that from a contract with a stranger?

4) How do you prep your beta readers?

I sometimes give them a list of up-front instructions: “I’m on a tight timeline, so please star anything you think is crucial to be taken care of, or it won’t happen till after my editor sees it.” I will also sometimes add in-manuscript commentary: “Beta Reader X thought the previous scene would come better from another point of view – what’s your take?” And at the end I generally have questions as well: “Did you feel that the surprise twist was set up well enough? Did you see that romance coming?” But it depends on the work – sometimes you just send the manuscript and let them have at it.

5) What is the best insight you received from one of your beta readers?

Best and toughest: two trusted beta readers told me, three weeks before my deadline, “You need an entirely new viewpoint character.” I cried. But they were completely right, and I made it happen.

6) Do you use all the insight you receive?

Never. Consensus is important – if 5 out of your 6 beta readers are telling you to change something, then you should consider it VERY seriously. But if all 6 are telling you different things, then you just have differing opinions. Take what you think is valuable, what your gut tells you will work, and discard the rest. Because in the end, it is your book.

7) Which is better, kindness or brutal honesty?

Both. Don’t be dishonest in your critique, but some kid gloves are appreciated for the harsh opinions. Rather than saying “Your hero is more boring than watching paint dry,” say “We need to punch up your hero a bit – have you tried making him snarkier?”

8) Who should a writer never use as a beta reader?

Yes-men: the people who will only tell you what you want to hear. Classically this would include friends and family, but that is not true for me – my mother is an absolutely ruthless beta-reader with a great eye for when my language is getting stale and my pace lags (she once wrote “this is dim and stagey” in a margin, which was absolutely true). And I have dear friends who are also writers, and they never hesitate to tell me a scene isn’t working even though they love me. So I wouldn’t say you cannot use your friends and family . . . just be aware of the ones who will only give you “This is great!!!” Because that is not useful.

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