Tag Archives: On the Care and Feeding of Beta Readers

Novellablog: Kid Editors: Because the kid in the room understands your book better than you do.

Remember that post I wrote about how I can’t be trusted to edit my own stuff? Well, last week it was time to send The Kairos Mechanism to the last and most critical set of readers before I send it to the critmate who’s acting as uber-editor. These are the Kid Editors: Emma, Luci and Edie, Mason, and the newly-deputized Julia and Talia. Their mission: make sure I’m not going to embarrass myself by putting this book up in front of the world.

I’ve written about the Kid Editors before, but in the interests of cataloguing all the ways in which I’m trying to make this book shine without the benefit of my blue-pencil-wielding editor at Clarion, it’s well worth revisiting these amazing kids and what they do. Especially since, day before yesterday, I had a conference call with Emma.

If you happened to be following me on Twitter on Wednesday, you might have seen me tweet the following:

“I have nightmares where, in 10 years, I submit a MS to Emma (in her new job as Most Senior Editor at the Hugest Publisher Ever) & she says, “Kate, you know how much I want to work with you. But…tell you what. Let me give you some notes and I’ll look at a revision.”

I was mostly joking, of course. I love talking to Emma. But I wasn’t kidding about how tough she is on my work. She will tell me—and has, as often as it’s been necessary—when she thinks I’m being lazy, being obtuse or confusing, or (yes, it’s happened) swearing too much in a particular manuscript. On one occasion, after a lengthy explanation on my part about what I was getting at in a particular scene, Emma replied by asking, “How important to you is it that I get all that? I just thought that part was exciting. The rest of it—does that really matter?” I had to think about that. And then I had to answer honestly: “Nope.” But then, we’ve also had similar conversations where she’s listened to my explanation and then demanded I clarify it. She’s a sharp like that.

Right about the time I wrote my last posts on the Kid Editors, I sent a set of questions to each of the (at the time) four of them. Here are Emma’s responses. These are from December, and Emma was twelve.

K: What do you like about being a beta-reader?

E: I love being a beta reader for very many reasons. Reason A- It makes me feel important, and like I am helping make the book better. Reason B- I love to read and if I can do that and help you then it is double awesome. Reason C- I want to be a professional beta-reader someday!

K: Is it difficult to do? How is it different from just reading a book?  

E: It is a little more complex than reading a book normally, because you are reading it with a critical eye, and always have to be thinking. But it is more rewarding than reading an actual book because you have feel like you have some say in what goes into the finished product.

K: What can a writer do to help you give her good feedback? Do you like to have questions in advance? Would you rather just read the book and have the writer send questions later, so they don’t influence your thoughts while you read the book? 

E: I like knowing a little bit about what you are curious about but not specific questions before I read, then I like talking to you after I read and telling you everything I noticed, and then answering the more specific questions.

K: What steps do you take after you’re finished reading a book–or while you’re reading it–to decide what you like and what you don’t, and what you think the writer still needs to work on?

E: Quite honestly, I don’t take notes while I read even though I should…I just think about the things and sometimes read what you send me again, so that I can notice the specific things more.

K: Do you feel comfortable telling someone (for example, me) that you like or don’t like a particular aspect of a book? Is it hard to do? How can the writer make you more comfortable about giving negative feedback? 

E: Since I know you, and I’m not an extremely shy person, no it does not bother me. I like to think of it as constructive criticism, disagreement leads to better discussions and in the end, a better book!

K: How do you involve your parents in your reading? 

E: As you know, my parents are almost as invested in this as I am, and like me are dying to help you write more books, so they usually read them too!

K: Any other thoughts you’d like to share? 

E: You know that nothing makes my day more then receiving a new book from you to read.

This time, partly in response to Emma’s comment above that she preferred not to read with specific questions in advance, when I sent the Editors The Kairos Mechanism, I had only one specific question. I asked them: if I had ten more pages to spend expanding or adding anything to this story, how would you like to see me use those pages?

Wednesday night we spoke by phone. Emma’s first comment, right out of the gate, was, “It’s so short.” I suppose it’s better to leave readers wanting more than wishing you would get on with it, so I decided to count this as a positive.

Other comments:

She asked for more reminders about what’s come before. Not so much a re-hashing of the story, but reminders about the town, Natalie’s family, what certain terms (introduced in The Boneshaker or The Broken Lands) meant. Despite how much she loved The Boneshaker, Emma had forgotten many of the details. This was eye-opening. Possibly I’ve forgotten how most people read; my husband, with whom I discuss books and reading and details more than anyone else, not only reads books several times, but he memorizes details. And frankly, so do I. I’ve always tended to feel my eyes glaze over when books in a series stop to re-hash what’s gone before. I wonder if I’ve never had a real sense of how people really read related books. My critique group had asked for some specific reminders, but what Emma wanted went a bit beyond that.

She asked for more description. Interestingly, the place she specifically wanted more was a place where one of my crit mates had specifically wanted me to cut back. I mentioned this to her, and she protested loudly. Even more interestingly, the reason she wanted more in this spot was not that she felt the story needed it, but because it was a section of the story related to Simon Coffrett, a mysterious figure in the town of Arcane. Emma has a particular interest in Simon, because there are so many unanswered questions about him, and she wanted as much information about him as I was willing to give, even if it meant slowing the story down a bit in that spot.

This was also particularly interesting to me because in another book Emma read for me, one in which I had two characters exploring a really (I thought) fascinating underground city, she really gave me the third degree about keeping things moving, adding action, adding tension, etcetera. Granted, there is a difference in scale; in The Kairos Mechanism we’re talking about turning two pages into three, and in Wild Iron we were talking about cutting back what ran twenty pages over the course of about two hundred and fifty. Still. Interesting.

She pointed out a few missed opportunities. She wanted more description of the mechanism referenced in the title, and thought I’d missed an opportunity to bring Natalie’s love of machines—a very important part of her personality—more fully into the narrative.

She thought I’d also missed an opportunity to allow Natalie to behave unselfishly at a critical point, and to take an action that she takes anyway for the sake of protecting someone else rather than herself. The scene, according to every reader including Emma herself, works just fine as written; Emma’s suggestion, however, adds a nice layer and requires one sentence of revision. Nice.

Certain places where she was confused or had questions were really fascinating. Some of them would involve spoilers to explain; others were more like questions about backstory—where certain characters came from, whether I planned to bring them back. I take this as a positive, too—the whole point of this project is to give me a chance and a way to return to characters I love outside of the big, overarching narrative of the hardcover releases.

The best compliment of all: she claims she’d like to marry one of the new characters. That is a satisfactory response, I think.

And then, the final question: ten pages, Emma. Assuming I haven’t spent them all fixing the stuff you’ve given me to fix, where do you want more story?

Emma was quiet for a minute, and then said she’d rather I kept those ten pages and put them toward a story about Jake Limberleg (the villain of The Boneshaker).

Duly noted.

The Kid Editor Crew, Part the Second: How it Works

Continuing with our discussion of kid beta-readers, we rejoin the Kid Editor Crew for Part the Second: How it Works.

Here’s how it works.

When I have a draft almost ready, I send out an email to the Kid Editors to find out what everybody’s schedules look like, and the Editors let me know if they’ve got busy times coming up (family trips, school projects, that kind of stuff), and we figure out when a good time for me to send them material might be. The Kid Editors know that I do not want to get them in trouble with their parents. Nor do I wish to get in trouble with their parents (all of whom, at this point, I consider friends as well).

When it’s time to send out reading material, I come up with a list of specific questions I would like answered. Sometimes I break these concerns into two parts; let’s call them things to keep in mind while reading and questions for afterward (the latter category might involve spoilers, or things I’m concerned might not actually be issues if I don’t point them out in advance and make a big deal out of them). I am learning to make these open-ended questions. I also always ask for the Kid Editors to make note of anything else that leaps out at them that I haven’t asked about, and to note any questions they have while reading, any characters or moments they particularly like, and any they particularly don’t.

The specific questions vary from manuscript to manuscript, but here are a few taken from the email I sent with the manuscript for The Broken Lands, earlier this year.

  • What are your thoughts on Sam? What are your thoughts on Jin? Nathan thinks I changed my mind midway through about who the main character was, and that I need to work on Sam more. I think he might be right, and I think I know what I’m going to do about it, but what do you think?
  • Does hearing Jack’s story from Ambrose rather than actually meeting him make him menacing enough? Do you have a sense of what it would mean for him to take the city of New York? Are you clear on what the stakes are? Does the concept of the pillars of the city make sense to you?
  • What do you think of Walker and Bones? Scary? Too scary? Not scary enough? What about Christophel and Bios and the daemons?
  • The love story–is it good, bad, stupid, annoying?
  • How is the pacing? Am I doing better with getting things moving quicker?
  • Having read this and The Boneshaker, do you understand how they are related? Any thoughts on what you now expect when we return to Natalie?

I want to make sure the specific concerns I have are addressed; but I also want to make sure that the readers know I honestly want to hear their thoughts, not just their responses to my questions.

Now, here I will pause to answer another frequently-asked question. It’s usually framed something like this: “How do you send the material?” I send it in Word, primarily because I’m too lazy to remember to convert it to a PDF, but when asked this question I actually think what people often really mean is, “You send your manuscripts to a bunch of kids? How do you know they aren’t emailing it off to all their friends? You don’t know where that manuscript goes! How can you possibly do that and not wake up in a cold sweat at night?”

I don’t wake up in a cold sweat at night a couple of reasons. I didn’t pick these four kids off the street at random. They are passionate readers, and passionate fans. They understand that what they are being asked to do is, essentially, take part in the secret, behind-the-scenes world of books-before-they’re-books. They know that’s something very special, and they understand it would be a tremendous breach of trust to share the manuscript with anyone else (however, talking about how awesome the book is with anyone and everyone is, of course, highly encouraged). But in the end, it is a leap of faith. Every writer has to decide for him or herself whether or not this is a leap he/she’s willing to take.

Some of the Kid Editors like to give me updates throughout the process. Others are fast readers and want to breeze through on their own. One pair of readers, twin girls, asked their father to read them the last draft out loud, because that’s how they read The Boneshaker (BONUS!! This parent was dragooned into being a Dad Editor). Eventually, though, I get messages from each reader as he or she finishes reading. These emails might contain answers to my questions, or just “I finished it” notes. In either case, the next step is to schedule a phone call.

I don’t ask for comments back in the manuscript itself, for two reasons. Firstly, I want them to be able to read the material in whatever manner works best for them. If they want to print it, that’s fine, but that can get expensive. If they want to read it on the family computer, that’s fine, too, but who knows if the computer can be spared for that. The second thing is, I find real-time discussion to be amazingly informative. Now, one of my readers, who I’ll introduce to you in a later post, is actually planning to become either an agent or an editor, so it’s looking like we may begin to look at options for in-manuscript critiques, too. Honestly, though, there’s a third reason for an actual conversation, which is simply that I like having the more personal contact of talking directly to them. It’s a treat for me. Actually talking to readers is rare, and special.

So, part the Third on the phone call, coming to you on Wednesday.

My Secret Weapon: The Beta-Reading Geniuses of the Kid Editor Crew (Part the First)

Every writer eventually gets asked at least once or twice what she thinks the most important things are for someone who wants to be a writer. There are any number of good answers to this question (persistence, self-motivation, delusions of having something to say, delusions of being able to take criticism, etc). Today I’m going to focus on this one: writers need critical readers they trust. We need them like we need coffee. Which is to say, they are absolutely something we cannot do without.

Now, my mother, my father, my sister, and my best friend are all good readers. They are smart, they ask good questions, and while they might be somewhat deluded about how totally brilliant I am, they are all of them, in one way or another, writers as well, and they know what’s helpful and what’s not. My husband is even better, if only because he is somewhat concerned that I eventually get paid for what I write, since I quit a full-time job to do it. My critique group, which is comprised of ten brilliant middle-grade and young-adult authors, is phenomenal, and takes a near-psychotic pride in its ability to apply razor-teeth to each others’ drafts and/or take those vicious crits like the nerves-of-steel ladies we are. That is an awkward sentence, for example, and I promise you there are ten ladies out there right now dying to fix it.

But in the end, all of these people are adults. And while I certainly hope adults will read my books, they are written for younger readers. Wiser folks than I have pointed out that there is sometimes a huge gap between the experiences of an adult reader and a kid reader, even if they’re reading the same thing.

Enter the Kid Editor Crew.

The Kid Editor Crew–my Kid Editor Crew, anyway–is a circle of four kids between 9 and 12, and it occasionally, but not always, includes their parents and siblings. But only if the Kid Editors decide to allow it. When I have a draft nearing readiness to submit to editors, these are the last eyes that see it before I decide it’s ready to go. Sometimes they see it before my critique group does, for various reasons. I have discovered in my perambulations throughout the writerly world that not everybody has Kid Editors, and I have several times been asked 1) how it works and 2) how did you find them?

Hence, readers, my gift to you this December: all about the amazing Kid Editor Crew and their thoughts on the beta-reading process, with special appearances by these genius kids themselves.

Email me your questions, and they will be passed along to the Kid Editors themselves. In the meantime, stay tuned. Part Two coming up on Monday.