Critiques: Who Reads Your Stuff? And When?

When I first started writing, I relied on people I knew personally as my beta readers (the first people to give feedback on a manuscript) - my family, friends, friends of friends. The very people everyone says not to use...of course, your mom thinks your book is great. But who else was I going to ask? Four novels later, not much has changed. My parents, my sisters, my friend Beth have been the earliest readers of each draft of each book. I've also tapped a friend's husband, moms in my son's playgroup, people at my other son's nursery school. I've learned something from everyone who's read, though I haven't gotten the kind of HOT critique I talked about here.

When How It Ends was finished, I decided to give my poor family and friends a break and asked my sons' school librarian for help. She set me up with a group of eight students in grades 7-10, the actual target audience for my books. I'm really interested not just in their reaction to the book, but in how their critiques differ from others I've gotten. They read YA - lots of it - so will have a different frame of reference. And they don't know me so I'm hoping will give feeback that's brutally, painfully honest.

The whole process got me wondering about how other writers connect with beta readers. When and how do they use them? Do they have a regular critique group? Am I missing something that I don't?

Denise Jaden, author of Losing Faith found a fantastic beta reader on Critique Circle, but when that person wasn't available to read her newest book, Never Enough, Denise Tweeted a general call for readers. She ended up with a few other writers and some well-read bloggers who gave great critiques. Her thought was, the more the better.

At the other end of the spectrum, Caragh O'Brien, author of Birthmarked, Prized and Promised sends her drafts only to one family member, more for affirmation than critique. She relies on her agent and editor for the gritty, harsher feedback.

A couple authors said they only use readers for specific chapters they're struggling with. Others ask writer friends if anyone can read or swap manuscripts/chapters as needed. Only a handful have regular critique groups, either in person or online and they generally tackle a chapter at a time versus a full manuscript.

There are plenty of threads about beta readers on Verla Kay's blue boards, too, and it seems finding the perfect one, who can give just the kind of feedback you need (because not everyone likes theirs HOT) is like matchmaking. As one writer said, too, no matter how great her beta readers have been, none have ever suggested the sweeping changes agents and editors feel are needed to make a book saleable. I definitely found this also...no one who read The Mark in its original form told me to make Cassie sixteen instead of eighteen or to cut the first eighty pages of The Vision and write a new eighty at the end to shift the focus of the story. And, if they had, I'm sure I wouldn't have listened because those were big changes. They were good changes, but I'd have needed a bunch of betas to say that before I believed it.

Or, as it turned out, just one editor who was buying the book.

Some writers skip the beta reader stage altogether, sending drafts right to their agent. I'm not there yet. By the time I finish, my manuscript has been ripped apart and put together so many times and ways, I need fresh eyes - the more, the better - if only for the same reason as Caragh: to assure me it makes sense. So if you're like me or, if you're still agent hunting or earlier in the process, where do you find beta readers?

In addition to the resources mentioned earlier, here are some other places people have used successfully. If you have more, or any general thoughts on readers/critiques, please add them in the comments...

  • Writers organizations like SCBWI
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  • Writing classes or workshops, live or online. I did one through the Adult Extension program at my local community college and, after, another of the students and I swapped manuscripts for critique. I'd do a swap like this again in a -heartbeat, but its never worked out again that I found someone at just the same stage as me at the same time.
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  • Posting flyers in coffee shops, bookstores or libraries to form a crit group.
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  • Charity auctions. Brenda Novak does one every May with lots of agent, editor and author critiques. There's one live now at Crits for Water. The Irene Goodman Agency auctions full manuscript critiques every month. Most of the time the editor and agent evaluations are expensive, but sometimes you can get author reads more reasonably and its a great way to get honest feedback from someone used to critiquing. Plus, its for a good cause!
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