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May 9, 2009

Hearing Back From Beta Readers

Another of my fine beta readers sent comments back to me on The Corn Maiden. This is for the version prior to my current revisions, so I expected to hear about problems.

It's funny, isn't it? Your head can tell you that you want hear what the problems are, you need this information; your heart, however, just wants to hear affirmations. So I opened the email and attached file with rumble-belly dread. How bad is it?

Actually, the criticisms were extremely consistent with what other beta readers said.

(1) To paraphrase: Why is every single character, including your MC, unable to see the Completely Obvious Plot Point? Is everyone in your story world really Too Stupid To Live?

(Answer: Er... not really, no. Just the author!)

(2) The pacing drags in places. (I hope to find out more about which scenes were boring when I read the line-edit comments).

This beta reader also pointed out two new things:

(3) The hero is too perfect; he hasn't enough flaws to seem human.

(4) The opening scene in the story promised one thing, but the main character plot arcs delivered something else; if not for the set-up, the story would have been fine, but after the expectations set by the opener, the story disappoints. Ouch.

Finally, the beta reader made an interesting point, not about how things were wrong, but asking about a change.

(5) There are three major story threads in the book: the main story, a subplot in the present, and a subplot in the past. Each thread, though intertwined with the others, is independent enough to not need the others. This reader found the subplot in the past to be the strongest, and wanted to know why I didn't just make it a book in and of itself, or, alternatively, cut the subplot in the present entirely. Undeniably, either of these actions would take care of my word count problem!

I'm hoping the present revisions address issues (1) and (2). Issues (3) and (4) are both related to the fact (the beta reader recognized the problem), that this book opens a series, and not as a stand-alone novel. I'm not sure what to do about this. My original plan was to go the traditional route and give the first book in the series a "safe" ending, a happy-for-now-ending. That just didn't work. There's no way to end it without a cliff-hanger. And if the reader senses that the real story is just beginning, they're right. (It's comparable in this way more to The Fellowship of the Ring than The Hobbit.)

So I agree with 4 of the 5 criticisms. However, I disagree with (5). Yes, I could have three short, stand-alone novels for the price of one. (Don't think this hasn't occurred to me!) Yes, it would help with my word count if I eliminated one or even two of the subplots. However, the three plots are like strands of a braid. Though they could each work alone, I believe they are stronger together; together, they subtly change the meaning of the whole, making it more than the sum of its parts. At least, that is how it is meant to work, how it works in the books I most admire.

The story is an epic, after all. I find it's hard to convey epic with a single-strand story.

In a story with multiple plotlines, it's natural that some readers relate more to certain characters' story arcs than others. As long as different readers prefer different plotlines, this is not a flaw, but a strength. I've already noticed that some of my beta readers favor certain characters over others, and -- this is the good part -- they aren't the same characters. This is how it should be. If every reader universally panned the same subplot, it would be different, and I would have to consider deleting or seriously revising that subplot. I still wouldn't eliminate subplots altogether, however.


Ban said...

Personally, I have no problem with 'cliff hanger' endings when a book is part of a series ... hope that helps :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Sounds like you have some awesome feedback! I certainly appreciate your feedback on my book. You just rock, m'dear.

XiXi said...

Who do you use for beta readers? I know it's supposed to be bad to ask friends and family, because they won't be harsh enough. Did you join a critique group? Online? In person? I'm about ready for that stage, and I haven't quite decided what I want to do yet.

laughingwolf said...

hmm... without reading it, can't really say... but subplots should add to the main, not detract

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know how you feel! The plots and subplots need to combine. It sounds like you have some good feedback though. Having readers really help pinpoint your weak points.

I was just explaining to a friend of mine how some books are square with one plot. Then there's cubes with a main plots and the multiple subplots to add to it! Mine is a cube, and I prefer cubes!

At least now you know what you need to do and work on! Revisions take time and work but it'll pay off beautifully!

Anita said...

Regarding the braid: Your view seems fine and dandy (you are the author, of course), but if you have several people telling you the same thing, you've gotta listen. Reevalute. I hope it was just the one and that your braid is just fine, but from my personal experience, I wish I'd listened to my readers more.

Tara Maya said...

I find most of my beta readers through writing groups I belong to, such as the Online Writing Workshop (for sf/f/h). I've found a few through blogging.

Tara Maya said...


I do try to listen to my betas, and am making some changes in response to this particular reader. On this point, however, I feel the advice is wrong. This isn't to say my execution of the braided plotlines doesn't need work. Perhaps it does.

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