On Choosing a Beta-Reader (Part 1)

Recently, a rift occurred with someone I had thought of as both a co-professional and a friend. Although I didn’t know him personally, we hit it off in a writers’ group on Goodreads and started emailing each other. I then gave him my writer’s email so I could send him attachments. I also warned him from the get-go that I suffer (and am being treated for) ADD. While I am still in the process of learning to manage my symptoms, I wanted to warn him that at times I speak without thinking, respond with inappropriate levels of emotion, overshare, and go off on tangents. I also confess to being overly sensitive (but through years of practice, I have mostly learned not to “sulk” when people tell me something i don’t necessarily want to hear) and to reading more into things that I need to (and a few days ago, he told me that overthinking things was a “female thing.” Actually, in my experience it applies equally to both genders) .

Since so many people see ADD as a “fake’ disorder, usually I refrain from revealing my diagnosis; I would rather people think that I was just plain annoying that to contribute to the further stigmatization that people use ADD as an excuse for poor behavior. Those who don’t suffer from it have no idea how debilitating it can be. I have suffered a lot both in my personal and professional relationships, and before I got into counseling and treatment, I always wondered what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t just seem to function “normally” like everyone else (and for the record, my current boss is aware of my condition and acts in an understanding manner towards me, but then again, he’s a principal and is used to dealing with a variety of “special needs.”  He still holds me to the same standards as every other teacher but is understanding if my lesson plans are a bit late or if my desk is disorganized. These are both things I will strive to work better on next year, but I’m getting off-topic). I thought this person would understand, but he told me straight away that he didn’t believe that ADD was a “real” disorder. That should have been my first warning sign that maybe this person was not a good fit for me professionally, but at the time, it didn’t seem worth arguing over. I wasn’t going to change his mind, and at the time, it didn’t seem relevant anyways.

I had asked him around a month or so ago to be a beta-reader for my upcoming novel Glass, he agreed without hesitation. It took me awhile to get it ready (being a teacher and a mother to a toddler leaves very little time for much else), but when I sent him the prologue, his comments were extremely helpful. I thought it would be great to have him as a beta-reader: his feedback was highly constructive. He didn’t sugar-coat anything; his advice on what changes needed to be made was direct, to the point, and also worded in a way that I didn’t feel like my ability as a writer was being attacked. Additionally, he pretty much mirrored everything my other beta-reader told me. A few days ago, after verifying that he was free and available to read, I sent him Chapter 1. I will make a confession: Chapter 1 was like a turkey that had been taken out of the oven after just five minutes: not even near ready for consumption. In spite of writing multiple drafts, for whatever reason, this particular chapter has been tricky for me to write (to the point where I’m now planning to go back and re-organize the whole plot. The first chapters are critical in maintaining reader interest, and if this just isn’t going to work, it’s time to restructure he plot). My beta-reader told me as much, and I had to admit that he was right. I thanked him for his feedback and let him know I was planning to do a rewrite. I was certainly not angry about his feedback; I did ask for his opinion and I got it. I can’t fault him for that.

But it was about that same time that things just became “different.” I’m not sure what happened on his end that changed his opinion of me. But the fact is: over a two-day period, his emails to me were becoming increasingly hostile. On the same day (or maybe it was a day or so before), he told me the cover to Ice needed more ‘pop’ (which in a side note, I found it very strange that he was just now bringing that up. He never mentioned anything-good or bad-about the cover before).I agreed with this statement. When ordering the cover to Ice, I ordered the cheapest package that wasn’t a premade cover, and after thinking about it, I didn’t give the artist nearly enough information to make a cover that would truly do Ice justice. When I told him I was considering getting the cover to Ice redesigned using the same artist, he told me (or at least this is the message that I derived from it) that the artist screwed me over the first time and I needed to switch. He gave me his suggestions for a new cover, which would have been appropriate for the genre he writes in but not for a psychological thriller, and also some (rather gruesome!) stock photos. I don’t use stock photos; I never know if this could turn into a potential copyright issue and plus, there’s always that risk that someone could use the same image. Over the course of about 3-4 conversations, my beta-reader went from telling me that the cover “needed more pop” to telling me it was “plain” and finally said “I always thought it looked homemade” (once again, it struck me as odd that he was just now telling me this). Please! I wish I had even that level of artistic ability. He also told me that that the cover “was not making me any sales.” Well, my sales have, for the most part, been as good as could be expected on Amazon (where there are millions of books) for a first-time author with no other published title, so I couldn’t imagine that my cover was that much of a turn-off. But he did succeed in filling me with doubt, so I turned to my facebook group for help. Those who responded told me that it was not as bad as he claimed it was. Some offered suggestions on how I could enhance it, but no one said it was so hideous that it was preventing sales or turning off potential buyers. One respondent, who is someone I know in-person, gave me THE most awesome suggestion. if i ever do get around to changing the cover for Ice, I’m going to use her idea. She also gave me helpful feedback via email (yes, I am fully aware that personal friends aren’t allowed to leave Amazon reviews. She didn’t) on Ice that will help me when writing Glass. Thanks, Megan. You rock!

As I said, after he read the first chapter of Glass, he told me straight-up; this needed more work. I had to admit that he was right, so I began thinking of ways I could re-organize it (or just scrap it entirely, incorporating the required information form chapter 1 into different parts of the books. I ran a few ideas by him on how I could make it better (which I thought was the whole point of having a beta-reader) and he responded with a few generic writer errors to avoid. Trying to hold my tongue, I once again thanked him and told him I would make some changes and send him a revised chapter. In the second-to-last email he sent me on Thursday, he once again trashed my cover to bits and told me “until you learn how to organize better, no one is going to understand you (since in my previous email, I didn’t say anything about the chapter other than i was going to “talk it through” with my husband. I’m not sure if he knows this, but I have a master’s degree in literature, so obviously I know how to write in an organized manner. (i guess it was that “until you learn” bit that I found particularly offensive). I concede that writing academic papers and writing fiction are two different animals, but if my writing in general was really that bad (aside from that chapter), my reviews of Ice would be a lot worse than they are. (And since we’re on the subject of reviews, please allow me a digression: I would like to publicly say that (a) the 33+ reviews I have on Ice, between Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Goodreads, came from people who actually read the book (as far as I know). When i first signed up for Goodreads, i was pleasantly surprised to see I had a five-star from a reader who did not publish a review on Amazon. I have also received a lot of feedback privately, both good and bad, from people who did not publish a review, and (b) it is possible that many people who have read Ice overrated it, but I do not encourage any of my readers to give me anything less than their honest opinion. The co-owner of the book club told me she rated Ice as a three and told me why. And guess what? I don’t think anything less of her for it. She chose not to post the review on Amazon even though I told it was up to her and i wouldn’t be offended either way.  Besides, I’m of the opinion that having ALL four and five stars looks fake. I have noticed, when looking at the reviews of bestsellers like Hunger Games and Divergent that the review chart has a very specific “look” to it. The highest number of reviews are five-star, but the number of four-stars and lower gets progressively smaller, so the chart has the appearance of an upside-down staircase. I have never seen a bestseller that had all five stars or that didn’t have some one-stars. My chart currently has the upside-down staircase look. I’m wondering if that’s an omen of good things to come :). (c) I am a book reviewer and I guarantee anyone I review two things (1) they do not owe me anything in return, and (2) if I can’t leave a four or higher, I won’t review at all. I have sent several books back when I thought the book needed more work (or contained material that I found offensive).I have read the review guidelines; nowhere does it state that a review is required at all; therefore, I am not violating any sort of rules by choosing to give private feedback rather than leave a permanent negative review. I’m sorry that some people seem to think this is somehow dishonest. (And if you have put in a review request for me based on a rumor that I “guarantee” anything (even that I will get to your book), sorry, but it’s just not true).

But sorry for the digression. Back to the topic at hand. After two days of increasing antagonism and tension, I finally told my beta-reader that although I appreciated his feedback (which I did), I found his continuous harping to be not only unnecessary and hurtful, but not even remotely helpful. I held my tongue for about three of these conversations before I knew the time had come to say something. I was hoping to clear the air. I wasn’t trying to stir up trouble and I wasn’t questioning his very valid criticism of my chapter.

But really, I get it. You hate my book cover. You think that chapter sucks (and it apparently caused you to question my ability as a writer). Seriously, I heard you the first three times. There was really no need to go on and on about it, especially when I already told you I was planning to make changes.  And just saying: you do not have all the answers to bookselling. Your own books are not bestsellers, and to be honest, your covers aren’t particularly spectacular, either (in fact, one was so bright and jarring that looking at it hurt my eyes). They’re not bad but, I’m sorry, your artist is no better than mine. And the visual appeal of a book cover is subjective; obviously, there are plenty of people that don’t share your opinion. So your assertion that I’m losing sales over the covers is only partially true at best. And the suggestions you made for the new cover of Ice: I have to be honest; they were godawful and would have made the cover worse than it supposedly already is. Not sure if you know this, but there is no “icy terrain’ anywhere in south Georgia. And a title in gold letters? Tacky and cliched! And no, I’m not putting a dead body on my cover, especially one with strangulation marks around her neck. That may be “eye-catching” but not in a good way.

I definitely take what he says seriously (he has published more books than I have and has more experience than I do), but if there is a piece of your advice that i think doesn’t apply to my book or makes me uneasy about following it, I’m not going to do it. He seems to be forgetting that he and I write in two different genres, so techniques to attract readers/fans may be different as the reader profile will differ. I may or may not tell someone if I’m choosing to ignore the advice. Yes, it may be a mistake on my part not to, take it  but face it: this is a profession of trial and error, and what works magic for some writers won’t do squat for others. And I’m not going to blindly follow the advice of one person. I still have a lot to learn, and some lessons I may have to learn the hard way. But i catch on quickly, and I learn to stop doing things that aren’t working.

My beta-reader’s final email was quite interesting. First, he responded by denying that anything he said was hurtful (which, to be fair, it was possible that he didn’t intend to). But I’m the type of person who would rather let someone know honestly how I feel rather than seethe with resentment. I feel he should have at least been willing to hear me out. And another observation: he can be as brutally honest as he liked but I’m expected to keep my mouth shut? What’s up with that? When someone says something that actually hurts my feelings or comes across to me as a personal attack (and on that occasion, it did) I feel like it’s in the best interest of the relationship to clear the air. His claim was that he was not more direct and blunt that usual. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. He either doesn’t know how he’s coming off to other people or he just doesn’t care. Either way, his dismissive attitude alone was enough for me to know that our ‘writing partner’ days were over.

Secondly, he implied that I was getting overly emotionally attached to him, went off on this tangent about how he met someone online and was disappointed when he met them in real life, and that I was inventing fantasies about him in my head. First of all, slow waaaay the hell down! I never said anything about us meeting in person (or anywhere other than email). I wonder if he was trying to imply that I was falling in love and was hoping to form a romantic relationship. If that’s the case, I hope he can be assured the answer to that is no.First, I’m happily married and not looking for any “side action.” Second, I don’t know him as a person, so how could I even make that call? Yes, I thought we were friends, and it did sting that he thought of me in such robotic terms. But no, I never expected to meet him in real life, much less start a relationship. If that’s not what he was trying to say, then I guess I missed the point of his little tangent entirely. Is it possible or even likely that I inadvertently gave him that impression? Yes, but just because someone is friendly to you, talks to you frequently, and confides their feelings to you doesn’t mean they are fantasizing about a relationship with you. Get your ego in check!

Finally, he concluded by saying that since I’m clearly “vulnerable” and only looking for “pep talk” then it’s best if we stopped the conversation. Fair enough, and no, I don’t hold that against you, especially since I suspected you were looking for an escape route for several days. In the future, just be plain. Just say that the partnership is over, give a brief explanation as to why so the person won’t feel like they’re causing offense. You can even lie if you don’t feel up to explaining the real reasons. As a fiction writer, you can’t tell me you couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse (in my case, you had an important project and wouldn’t be available for the foreseeable future. I may not have believed it, but I wouldn’t have questioned it, and it certainly would have been kinder than acting like a jerk so I’d eventually tell you off, thereby giving you an out so you don’t have to look like the bad guy). Plus, I agree with you: if you expect that you can treat me as if I’m a not a real person with feelings and expect me not to say anything, then I agree it’s best if we parted peacefully.

Well, dang, I didn’t mean for this to be so long-winded, but after reflecting on this for a few days, it got me thinking about what I need in a beta-reader. Obviously, this person and I were just not a good fit. More than likely, we were just not communicating properly, which is one of the downfalls to the Internet. And I didn’t mean to come down so hard on him, and to be fair, I’m only presenting my side of the story. I have no idea what his impression or thoughts were on these matters. The best guess I can make is that he really didn’t feel up to the beta-read but felt obligated since he’d already agreed to it.  I take full responsibility for my part in the partnership breakdown (yes, I know it takes the patience of a saint to deal with me. How Patrick managed to do it for almost twenty years is a mystery I may never be able to figure out. He just loves me, I guess :)). I also do wish him well in his own writing endeavors. I guess the lesson here is just because someone is your friend doesn’t mean they’ll make a fitting beta-reader. It doesn’t make them a bad person, just not the beta-reader for you. It’s unfortunate that this incident caused a rift in an otherwise-good friendship (though I suspect there was more on his end that he was letting on). In the future, I’ll be very selective about who I pick.  So what will I be looking for in a person who I ask to be a chapter-by-chapter beta readers (who will evaluate each chapter individually, as opposed to whole-book, final product beta readers, who will give you their overall impression of the book). That will be addressed in part 2.

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