While our political leaders play out the story of Chicken Little in Canberra, I am fortunate enough to be holed up with friends in a beautiful spot near Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales. Our days are made up of surfing, eating, whale and dolphin watching, reading and writing. Oh, and there’s the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that occur at this most easterly point of Australia.
I have read three books this week, but done only a little writing. I have noticed how reading helps improve writing skills. Reading crime writers like Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler and Jane Harper among others is motivating but I have mixed feelings about reading fiction when I am also trying to write myself. A good book can become a vehicle for procrastination and a distraction from putting your own pen to page. There is also the risk that when you sit down to write you drift from your own voice and start to sound like the author of the book you are reading.
I have noticed that as I develop my fiction writing skills the way I read also changes. Grammatical errors and typos leap off the page when I come across them in published works and I am much more attuned to whether I like an author’s voice and style, why and what it is that keeps me turning the pages (or not).
Sadly, the enhanced attention to detail doesn’t prevent me from missing errors when proof reading my own work. A couple of friends staying with us asked if they could read some of my book. I had edited and edited, and edited the first three chapters, which I entered into the Richell Prize and The Next Chapter in July, so sent them those parts to read. Their feedback was positive and one of my friends did a great job picking up some grammatical errors I had missed. It did make me realize just how invisible your own writing becomes when you have been absorbed in it for months and months.
The exercise also got me thinking about Beta readers . Who should they be and what type of guidance should you provide to support them to undertake their task in a way that will help you make your story better.
It makes sense that your beta readers include people who have an interest in the genre you write in, or be someone that might buy the type of book you are writing. They must be prepared to provide uncensored constructive criticism and praise (and be people from whom you are prepared to take it!) and they must commit to complete the task in the time you want to get it done.
I started to compile a list of questions that I could provide to prompt beta readers when the time comes:
- Did the story create a clear image? A world that seems alive?
- Did the story seem to be propelled forward and hold your interest from the start? If not, why not?
- Did you get whose story it was at the beginning?
- Was there enough tension to hold your interest all the way through? Do you think the stakes should be raised? In which parts?
- Was the ending believable and satisfying?
- Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
- Which parts resonated with you and/or connected with you emotionally?
- Are there parts that should be condensed or deleted?
- Are there parts that should be elaborated on or enhanced?
- Did you find any parts confusing? What confused you?
- Highlight in green any scenes/paragraphs/lines you really liked.
- Highlight in blue any scenes you found particularly amusing.
- Highlight in red any parts did you disliked. What didn’t you like?
- Was it clear where and when it takes place? If not, why?
- Were the setting descriptions vivid and real to you? Did the setting interest you?
- Did you feel there was too much description or exposition at any point? Not enough?
- Did you relate to the main character? Did you connect to how they felt about what was happening to them?
- Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could or should be made more interesting or more likeable?
- Did you experience any confusion about who’s who in the characters? Why?
- Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Would you get rid of any of them?
- Which characters did you really connect to?
- Do any characters need more development?
- Did the dialogue seem natural? Did it keep you engaged? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded unnatural? Why?
- Did you think there was too much dialogue in parts? Where?
- Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
- Did you notice any over-use of words?
- Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
- Was the point of view consistent?
- Is anything unclear? Clumsy? Any cliches? Does the writing flow?
- Did you notice any inconsistencies in places, time sequences, character information, or other details?
Are there any questions you would add to, or delete from this list?
Main image: Sunset @ Byron Bay, NSW
Inset in order: Chicken Little @ The Farm, Ewingsdale, NSW; Dolphins @ Byron Bay; Lighthouse sunrise, Byron Bay.