What beta readers want you to know before you send them your novel

What’s this episode about?

Welcome to the bonus episode of the fifth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full episode above and/or scan the transcript below.

The Pen Garden Podcast is usually about writing productivity and mental health. I say usually because today I will be sharing a discussion with my friend Flora Kittle, who is a fellow author and beta reader. The both of us together oversee the Pen Garden Beta Reading Program, a project which provides writers the opportunity to receive extensive feedback on their current book.

Briefly, a beta-read is a preliminary read of an edited manuscript with the purpose to provide feedback which will improve aspects of it. A beta reader will look at your story from the eyes of a critical reader and identify places that are confusing or inconsistent. Some beta readers might help you improve your writing style too but it depends on their own skills.

The Pen Garden Beta Reading Program provides feedback on four areas in the shape of a letter. There has been one round so far, and all the participants have been thankful. If you have a self-edited, complete manuscript you’re seeking feedback on, the Program Round 2 is a good opportunity for you.

Applications opened on Saturday 24 April and will close on Tuesday 4 May 2021.

Transcript

Lainey:

Hi, Flora, welcome to the podcast. Do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Flora:

Hi, Lainey. Nice to see you. I’m Flora. I’m a technical writer by occupation. And I have yourself Lainey to thank for challenging me to turn my writing skills to creative writing. This past year, obviously, it’s been a bit of an odd one. But it’s given me time to, to challenge myself. And I’ve drafted a couple of novels. And I’m actually in the editing stage of the first one. I’m an avid reader, and I host a book group. And this last year, I’ve discovered the great joy in beta reading other people’s stories.

Lainey:

Great. Welcome. And as you can all hear, Flora is very well placed to give feedback on your books. So keep listening. Why do you think beta reading is so great, Flora?

Flora:

I think it’s a great thing to do, both for the author themselves, but also on a really personal level. For me, it’s been great to see examples of other people’s writing. And also to see the very, very common writing stumbling blocks that everyone makes in other people’s work so that I can appreciate them in my own, because I’ve definitely learned through beta reading other people’s, where I’ve made mistakes.

Lainey:

I agree. For me, as a writer, it’s that and also the fact that it’s receiving safe, nurturing feedback. It’s constructive. And it’s really different from say, receiving a scathing review, after the fact, when you can’t really change anything; it’s a chance to grow in many ways. And I’ve received lots of beta reader feedback. So for me, it’s a chance to pay it forward as a reader, and this is why we’re offering this program, it’s rewarding. But it’s not always easy, of course, and it’s really hard work sometimes. As readers and writers, we all have pet peeves, for example, mine is adverb overuse. If I see more than two or three on a single page, I can feel an itch to scratch them out. Sometimes there’s a few in a sentence, or even in the same line. And yeah, I guess that’s something as a beta reader that I wish I was spared from.

Flora:

Why do you hate adverbs so much?

Lainey:

It’s a technical issue. Really. They’re like shortcuts. And I believe writers can always find more imaginative ways to convey what they want, their story. For example, if you have someone saying something angrily, I would much rather read a line about how this anger is manifesting. Maybe they’re clenching their fists or gritting their teeth, whatever it is, it’s more food for my imagination as a reader. What about you? Any technical issues you wish writers considered before submitting their book for beta reading?

Flora:

This may sound a bit nitpicky, but a technical issue that I think would be worth considering as a writer when you submit your manuscript to a beta reader is the formatting. Now, I appreciate that you will all use different software to write your story. And there’ll be the old school Word, the convenient Google Docs, or the writer’s delight Scrivener. But when submitting your manuscript it’s worth assuming a standard Word document or PDF should be shared. But beyond that, make it easy for your beta reader. The average reader will not read a whole novel in one sitting. With a paperback you can use a bookmark on your page, or with a Kindle or equivalent, a digital bookmark is added. This won’t necessarily be an option for an early draft beta read, but you can use formatting to help your readers to navigate through your lengthy document, have a table of contents and easy links to chapters. Your reader will thank you.

Lainey:

That’s a very good point. But what about plot then? Any specific things you would advise writers to just focus on when doing self-edits?

Flora:

One thing that I’ve noticed in all of the stories that I’ve beta read, and let’s be honest, in some traditionally published novels as well, is that there are promises made early that are not necessarily fulfilled. This can be anything from an interesting character trait that is not explored, a quirky world dynamic or setting that is underutilized, or a plot thread that is not completed. On the plot thread, it’s not necessarily a plot hole, which is an event that is improbable or unbelievable, but just something that isn’t followed through. So in every piece of feedback I wrote for stories I beta read, I referenced Mary Robinette Kowal’s MICE Quotient. It was Lainey that shared the resource with me first and maybe because I am a scientist at heart I find the MICE Quotient a really good way of following through with all of the many elements needed to make a good novel. Mary Robinette Kowal uses the idea of nested promises, each concept that is opened should be closed by the end of the story, preferably in the order that they were introduced. Lainey will provide some resources in the show notes for a fuller explanation and all I will say here is that it is a powerful tool for plaiting in all the threads. From the manuscripts I read, you all had some really exciting promises and concepts, make sure you don’t throw them away!

Lainey:

Yes, definitely a very good point and also a pet peeve of mine. On that I do want to add on that there is another similar thing that I’ve noticed in the books I’ve read, which I will come out and say I’m also guilty of as a writer. And that’s not having some vital scenes in because the writer may deem them boring to write, or think that they’re implied, because obviously, writers have their whole book in their heads. So they may think that some things are very obvious. But when the reader reads the story for the first time, they may never know certain things that are just left in your head as the writer. So the connections between all the actions and all the action moments are very important because they break the pace, and they give the reader a chance to rest and reflect on the story so far, to sort of check in with how they are feeling subconsciously. I would recommend writers study novel structure, and particularly rising and falling action and tension. I will drop a resource in the blog post about this, which explains things better than I do. So now you all know a few things that beta readers want you to consider. Obviously, not all of us are the same. But generally if you think about what you love and hate as a reader and try to implement that in your self-editing process, you’ll be well on your way to having a clean manuscript to give to your beta readers. As a reminder, the Pen Garden beta reading program is open now until 4 May. We accept romance, fantasy, women’s fiction, thriller, crime, and historical fiction, and all of their sub genres. If your completed novel fits any of those, and you’re looking for feedback, make sure you fill out the application form on www.thepengarden.com. Now to close off our discussion with a light topic. What’s one of your favorite tropes, Flora, and why?

Flora:

I’m not sure if it really counts as a trope. But I’m a sucker for interconnected stories that span timelines. I love a story that’s essentially a mystery through time, with old artifacts or spirits influencing a modern-day quest. I don’t know why I like it so much. But to me, it feels really clever, to be able to tie in those two different timelines. How about you?

Lainey:

Well, for me, one of my favorite tropes has to be genuinely good bosses and managers, it is so satisfying seeing a main character get into trouble of any kind, and then know that their boss has their back and supports them emotionally and professionally to get through their rough patch, that they’re not going to betray them. It’s really empowering to have an honest caring manager who sees employees as people. I watch a lot of Korean dramas, and there for some reason, often the people who have power are the baddies so I have this involuntary reaction every time I meet a new boss or manager character to just very vigorously hope that they’re a consistently good person in the story, or if not consistently good, at least, you know, reasonable, and that they’re not like a villain in disguise. Um, so yeah, thanks for doing this podcast episode with me Flora. Any closing thoughts before we wrap up?

 Flora:

I would just like to thank you all for listening. And I really look forward to reading some of your awesome stories in the coming months. So please apply.

Lainey:

Yes, we’re both really looking forward to all the applications for round two. Thanks again, Flora and speak to you soon!

Application link

To apply, you need to provide some information about your completed manuscript and a 500 word sample. Click THIS LINK to go to the application form. The deadline is Tuesday 4 May 2021.

Next Tuesday, I will talk about a favorite topic on this podcast – the writing routine. I will discuss how it fits with all the other routines you might be juggling on the daily. For me it wasn’t easy to slot it in, and I’m still struggling some days, so if you do too, you’re not alone.

If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter – sign up form available on the right (or bottom if you’re on mobile). Newsletters come once in the beginning of a season and once at the end so your inbox won’t fill up. As a bonus, all of them feature a cute animal and a book recommendation. So no spam, only cups of writing joy.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening/reading everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.

Sources list to explore beta reading & writing advice:

 

 

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Accepting feedback and rejection in your writing journey

What’s this episode about?

Welcome to Episode 3 of the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways.

We’re midway through season four, so it’s the best place to tackle a sensitive topic – receiving criticism. In this episode, I will discuss why criticism is important, and how to spot when a negative review might be useless to you. Then, on the mental health side of things, I will look into how to process feedback while still maintaining your feeling of self-worth.

Feedback is good for you

Most writers have heard or know that feedback is important. Some beginners however are only happy when they receive compliments as feedback and either get discouraged when they get critiqued, or offended. So I wanted to very briefly summarize why getting any sort of feedback, positive, negative and everything in between, is a useful tool in your writer’s journey.

An article by Haley Grant identifies three main benefits to receiving feedback on your written work. Feedback is crucial because it improves learning, enhances relationships and promotes growth. Receiving comments in relation to your writing helps you see your work from a different perspective. Writers are often too close to their words and it’s wise to listen to critique – this way the piece will be streamlined and much improved. Relationships between writers and those who read their writing, be it clients, customers or fellow writers, are really important. When a writer listens to reader feedback, readers feel seen and listened to. They feel a part of the creative journey and are thus more engaged. And finally, feedback is essential because it keeps a writer from going stagnant. It helps creative people who are willing to listen to focus their energy on self-improvement, analysis and self-reflection. Nurturing these skills is not only important for your writing journey but also for your growth as an individual in world which increasingly places value on authenticity.

Not all criticism is constructive

Now that we’ve established that feedback of all kinds helps you grow, let’s talk about the fact that not all criticism of you and your writing is constructive. Sometimes people are mean for no reason related to you and there’s nothing you can do to improve following their comments.

To illustrate my point, I will give you a bit of homework. Go to a book’s Amazon or Goodreads page, any book, and look at a few five-star reviews. Then filter all reviews and look at the one-star ones. Notice how many of the points made there relate to the reader and not the writer.

One of the books I was amazed by recently, and which made it into my sparse list of five-star reads, was The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. I love it because it was a beautifully written fantasy book which was thought-provoking as much as it was entertaining. But here is a one-star review of it:

‘This book weighs 1119 grams…I have a 1 kilo limit so my books don’t knock me out if I fall asleep reading them 🙂 Also it takes itself so fekkin seriously and lately I’m into writers who make me laugh along the way.’

This is the worst review a writer can get – it doesn’t say anything about the writing, or the plot, and only speaks about the reader. It also fails to inform other readers about why this book would or wouldn’t be for them. The size of the book and its tone are obvious from the listings and the blurb, and delivered in much less aggravating way.

So I ask you, for the sake of your mental health and your writer journey, evaluate criticism first before you take it to heart. Think whether you have found the correct audience – maybe it’s not your writing but the way you market and advertise your work. Maybe the time for it is a bit wrong. Whatever it is, try to understand the underlying reason for negative feedback received, and if you can’t find out, it’s more than likely that it’s an issue with the reviewer and not you. Let it go and move on to other constructive comments.

HOST ANNOUNCEMENT

The book to which you owe listening to this podcast. The Lavender Phantom, my upcoming romance thriller, is now available for presale at a special price for all the early birds. It’s 25% off and if you preorder now, you can join me in my preorder giveaway and win some gift cards, books and tea.

All details can be found on my website www.laineydelaroque.com/books. The creation of that book has informed a lot of the content I’ve discussed in this podcast, so I’m excited to share it with you all. It’s not been an easy journey but I’ve learned a lot along the way about writing, mental health and productivity.

Unattach your self-worth from your achievements (or lack thereof)

Many people, not only writers, believe that consistent achievement in life makes them a worthy member of society. If they’re contributing to the greater good somehow, they know their existence is not meaningless. They think if they pursue socially defined life goals like marriage, having children, earning big money, receiving peer acclaim, they would be happy, fulfilled, and most importantly, worthy.

But what does it mean to be a worthy human, or a worthy creator? Does having a mental health illness which prevents you from consistently writing make you less of a writer? Or is an obscure poet who loves their craft less worthy than a best-selling author who doesn’t enjoy writing too much anymore? Is there an issue in any of those scenarios when it comes to worthiness?

I, and many more around the globe, argue that people are intrinsically worthy of their life and aspirations. If you’ve ever compared yourself to other people and felt lacking and less worthy of success than them, maybe it’s time to unattach your self-worth from your achievements, or lack thereof. 

In a Ted Talk about Cultivating Unconditional Self-Worth, Dr. Adia Gooden makes a clear distinction between self-esteem and self-worth: “Our self-esteem is derived from our abilities, accomplishments, social positions and things we believe and we can achieve. We can bolster our self-esteem by improving our skills or performance, and our self-esteem goes up and down depending on how we’re doing in various aspects of our lives.

“In contrast, unconditional self-worth is distinct from our abilities and accomplishments. It’s not about comparing ourselves to others; it’s not something that we can have more or less of. Unconditional self-worth is the sense that you deserve to be alive, to be loved and cared for. To take up space.”

Cultivate unconditional self-worth

So, to bring this back to writing, how do we cultivate unconditional self-worth when it comes to our creative selves? How do we reconcile the difficult emotions which come with receiving rejection, negative feedback, sometimes downright hate for the work we’ve poured our hearts and souls into? Dr. Gooden suggests four ways, which might not always be easy but can be very beneficial if adopted with patience and care.

  1. Forgive yourself

“Many of us struggle to feel worthy, because we are angry with ourselves about past mistakes.[…] To forgive yourself, reflect on the circumstances that led to past mistakes, acknowledge the pain you experienced and identify what you learned from the situation. Then say to yourself “I forgive you” — in an honest and kind way.”

Writers can regret their reactions to negative feedback or blame themselves for a book’s bad sales record. Let go of the baggage that blame carries, and try harder the next time you’re in a similar situation.

  1. Practice self-acceptance

“Many of us struggle with low self-worth because we think there’s something wrong with us and we refuse to accept ourselves the way we are. We receive so many messages that we are not OK the way we are. […] See if you can let go of the thoughts you have about how the way you think, feel or look should be different. Instead, focus on the things you like about yourself. Over time, begin to embrace your quirks.”

These quirks are probably what will set you apart from other writers, they are going to be the small things that readers love about your characters and plots. You’re a writer because you have something to say, a story to tell which only you can tell. So embrace that and celebrate it.

  1. Be there for yourself

“When life gets rough, many of us engage in harsh self-criticism — which only leaves us feeling worse. What we need most when we are going through a difficult time is for someone to say ‘I see you. I see how badly you’re hurting. I’m here.’ We can do this for ourselves. The next time you experience emotional pain, acknowledge how you were feeling and offer yourself some comfort.”

So don’t bash yourself for the next bad review you receive. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s only natural for you to get it, that you’re not a good writer after all. Recognize that you’re hurt— there’s nothing wrong with that— and tend to yourself before you address the feedback. Come to it from a place of inner strength and understanding.

  1. Connect with supportive people

“Low self-worth can leave us feeling isolated and alone. When we think there’s something wrong with us, we tend to pull away from our relationships, and this isolation only exacerbates our feelings of unworthiness. Connecting to people who are supportive helps us to get in touch with our humanity and our sense of worth.”

So reach out to your writer friends, your communities of writers who undoubtedly also get bad reviews and bad days. Share your pain and allow yourself to believe that what they tell you is true. Let them uplift you as you would uplift them in their time of need. Other writers are not only there for you when you need inspiration as I said in season 3, they’re also there to support you when being a writer is not as nice as it sounds.

sO, TO SUMMARIZE…

Feedback is important. Writers learn from it, improve their writing craft and use it to build long-lasting relationships with fellow authors and readers. Not all feedback is constructive, so it’s best to let some negative comments go and not let them affect your feeling of self-worth. Your writing achievements do not determine whether you’re a worthy writer, you are by default because you enjoy your creative journey and have a story to tell. Cultivating unconditional self-worth can help you maintain good mental health which is invaluable for any writer’s creative practice.

Next week The Pen Garden will have an unexpected break because I won’t have access to my recording equipment and didn’t have the organizational prowess to pre-record an episode. But I’m sure you’ll all be fine during the holiday season – resting, writing and reflecting on this difficult year. So the next episode will come on 5th January. Its topic will be very timely – focusing on how to set achievable, personalized writing goals. It is the best episode to listen to before you decide on your New Year’s writing resolutions.

If you haven’t joined my newsletter yet, you’re missing out. I’ve now sent my first few ones and I’m really enjoying the process. Newsletters come once in the beginning of a season and once at the end so your inbox won’t fill up. They all feature a cute animal and a book recommendation which can improve either your mental health or your productivity as a writer. Feedback about the newsletters has been really positive so far, so after you finish this episode, go sign up. And if you think they can be improved, email me and I promise that I will do my best.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.

Sources

 

 

Listen to all Available episodes of season 4:

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Set realistic writing goals– Success & Failure Episode 4

    Set realistic writing goals for 2021 What’s this episode about? Welcome to Episode 4 of the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways. Happy New Year! Let’s start 2021 with a bang and talk about setting achievable […]

Accepting feedback and rejection in your writing journey– Success & Failure Episode 3

    Accepting feedback and rejection in your writing journey What’s this episode about? Welcome to Episode 3 of the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways. We’re midway through season four, so it’s the best place to tackle […]

Success and your writing routine – Success & Failure Episode 2

    Success and your writing routine What’s this episode about? Welcome to Episode 2 of the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways. In this episode, I will look into why achieving your writer career dreams can be […]

Writers’ perception on creative success & failure – Success & Failure Episode 1

    Writers’ perception on creative success & failure What’s this episode about? Welcome to the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways. Today I will try to define what writerly success and failure is, and how they impact […]

Season 4 – Success & Failure – Overview

    SEASON 4 OF THE PEN GARDEN IS HERE!   What’s this Season about? Welcome to the fourth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. It’s titled Success & Failure. After a short break, I’ve come back to the podcast with lots of new ideas so I’m once again very excited to share them with […]

 

Or the episodes from seasonS 1,2&3: