Finding the best beta readers

Now that Aspects, Bright and Fair is finally published (yay!), I’ve been getting many questions about the process of writing it. Where did I get the idea? How did Cordelia (the namesake of my seven-and-a-half year-old daughter) sneak in there? How long did it take? What changed along the way? What’s going to happen in Book Two? How many books will there be?

As I go around thanking those who helped me get this far, I figured this would be a good chance to talk about two groups of amazing beta readers I had. Once upon a time, I was a science teacher. I’ve taught every grade from 6th through 12th and every science subject (plus some side classes on “Science in Science Fiction” and “History of the Blues,” as well as coaching Ultimate Frisbee). For seven years, I taught at Masterman School in Philadelphia, a wonderful 5th through 12th public school that drew top students from across Philadelphia. They were (and presumably still are) wonderful kids, although I didn’t tell them that, in case it went to their heads.

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Most years, I taught seventh graders and twelfth graders. I discussed my writing with the older kids some, but disclosed less with the middle schoolers. When I had my manuscript in a workable form, I started scheming with my English teacher friend. We shared the same students and one day in her class she told them that she had a writer friend who wanted to have some students read his manuscript. She got a lot of volunteers and narrowed the group down to ten (we actually did this two years, but none of the second year group still had any idea that I was the author).

Occasionally, I would observe students finish their science work early and dig out a binder-clipped stack of papers and start reading it. I’d sometimes ask them what it was and once or twice jokingly gave students a hard time about not doing real work.

Then my friend arranged a double period where she would moderate a focus group to discuss the novel. She told them that I had volunteered to film it for the author. As I was setting up the camera, I was super nervous, listening to conversations all around me. The group had many different levels of readers, as well as varying experiences with the science fiction genre. A lot of the pre-focus group chat was that the author was trying to show off too much with his vocabulary (guilty, it’s better now).

Once they got going for real, it was all I could do to try to keep track of all the useful things they were saying (I’m looking at my old notes right now). Too descriptive at the start. What if I change the POV? A bit too much jumping from world to world. Love the Philly parts. The footnotes were confusing (I love footnotes, but no one else seems to). “Scenes too detailed to see clearly.”

Halfway through we took a break. I told them I was going to get the pizzas that we had ordered (aha, the main reason they came) and that I would bring back the author. Five minutes later, I was back with the pizza and they all looked behind me, expecting to see the author. My friend started cracking up and I told them I was the author. There was some screaming. Have you heard seventh grade girls scream? Oh my. They were super excited (the second year group was more worried they had said something in the first half that might have hurt my feelings).

In the second period, we turned it into more of a conversation. They mostly liked the novel, but they thought it might be better for slightly older kids (this was especially true for those not used to science fiction).

They also wanted romance. I was all, but don’t you remember halfway through when Brith says something and then Joni blushes? That’s totally going to get resolved in another book or two. They all just looked at me and said, “No, Mr. Wright. Make it more obvious.” Ahhh, so much for subtlety.

So it’s more obvious now, but will still develop in future books. There will eventually be kissing.

And over the course of the year, I revised the novel when I had time between teaching and my own kid and everything else. We did the same thing the second year, and I’m happy to say that many of the issues the first group had were no longer a concern. What the second group wanted was a death.

I should point out that I gave the seventh graders the full manuscript, which contain both Aspects, Bright and Fair and Book Two (a frequent suggestion was to cut in half, for ease of reading, which I have now done). And at the end of the whole thing, they thought I made the ending too happy, too neat. They wanted someone to die, hopefully tragically. Joni, Kelly, Alejandro, Caleb, they didn’t really care, as long as there was death, or at least some suffering. As long as it wasn’t the dog.

So, this Autumn, check out the yet-to-be-titled second book, and find out if I listened to them or not.

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4 responses to “Finding the best beta readers

  1. This is a great way to get honest critiques. Sounds like you received good advice! Thanks for sharing your process, and I will check out your novel.

  2. What a clever way to get honest feedback on your manuscript, Waugh! I am very proud of you for doing that. Good luck with all of your writing and publications.

    Never Give Up
    Joan

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