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Beta Readers, Critique Partners and Publishing Partners

Thursday, 26 November 2009

One aspect of being a writer I've never cracked (as well as, you know, getting the darn novel published) is to strike up constructive relationships with one or more beta readers. This post over on the Literary Rambles blog and this one on Help! I Need a Publisher! discuss the whole area. They've really made me think. I've worked with short story and poetry editors from time-to-time in the past and I've always found it an enjoyable and rewarding experience. But what I don't have, I realise, is someone I can regularly trade drafts with and get constructive criticism from. Somone who is knowledgeable and prepared to be completely frank (but hopefully not too damning). Someone for whom, if they were also a writer, I could reciprocate.

Take the novel I'm working on at the moment, for example. It's sort of a fantasy novel in that it's set in an imaginary world, but there are no mythical beasts or magic spells. Perhaps one of its forebears would be Gormenghast. And I am constantly prevaricating between thinking it's utterly fantastic and utterly ridiculous. It's great, of course, to just write and not censor yourself, but at some point you need to step back and think about whether anyone will actually want to read it. And I just don't know.

I do have writer friends with whom I've had a beta/critique partner relationship in the past but, as if happens, they generally don't go for genre fiction and a fair portion of what I write would be labelled Fantasy or SF (although, as I always say, I hate these pigeonholes). I, in turn, do read and enjoy realist fiction a lot (although it probably wasn't a great idea to suggest throwing in some zombies and/or aliens into that literary novel). My nearest-and-dearest have offered to play the role, but I don't know - aren't there are always going to be problems of objectivity there?

So, I'm interested to know what other people do. Do you work alone? Do you have people you can trade manuscripts with to get honest feedback? Would, even, anyone be interested in striking up such an arrangement to see if it can be mutually beneficial? No strings attached. I'd love to hear from you ...


  1. An interesting dilemma - good critique is invaluable. I've been lucky - I belong to an excellent writers group in Yeovil, but I also belong to the writing forum Litoia where I've managed to improve my writing no end. Along the way I've 'met' a few people who I now trade manuscripts with occasionally - these are generally people writing in the same genre as me who I know will give me honest feedback.

  2. Kate,

    Thanks for the feedback - I think I'll mosy on over to Litopia and have a look.

  3. Gormenghast! that brings back memories -- I read it at art school.

    I'm lucky to have an agent to run things by, but she's very busy and she has dozens of clients, so I have to use my few chances of feedback wisely. I do have some writer friends, but they are pretty distant and I don't really want to trouble them with my writing, knowing that they're involved in theirs.

    Close friends and relatives are problematic. In my experience the useful things they say can easily be lost in the things they think you want to hear, but some of them might surprise you. at least, that's what I've found.

    Simon, I suppose I'm going out on a limb here, but I'd be interested in reading some of your writing, especially the intriguing Hedge Witch or extracts from your current novel. Perhaps in the new year when I'm not so busy? And an extra pair of eyes would be useful to me too, as I push to the finish with my SF/paranormal novel. let me know if you're interested, no strings attached, etc. I'm not sure I'd be much good as a regular correspondant though.

  4. Thomas,

    That's extremely generous and probably crazy of you!

    Don't worry - I know all about being far too busy and I'm certainly not suggesting anything too intrusive or onerous for either of us. But if you're interested, great, let's see how it goes. If it doesn't work out, no worries. I'll still follow your delightful blog! And, yes, I'm certainly interested in your SF/paranormal novel.

    One thing I would ask for, though, is brutal honesty. We're only vaguely acquainted in an online sort of way, so the temptation is to be polite. I'm sure we can be polite and completely frank?

    Anyway - in the new year. If you do want to contact me directly, my email address is on my web site.

  5. Ha ha, I'm sure it's not crazy. I like what I've read of your work, Simon, so I don't think I'm letting myself into a tricky situation, and Hedge Witch has a publishable air about it somehow. So not crazy at all, though I just don't see myself being able to commit to anything too regular -- A lot of my own career is up in the air right now.

    As for honesty, I'm all for that running both ways, though it's not easy as you suggest.

    Anyway, I'll send you my e-mail address through your site and we'll take it from there.


I'd love to know what you think.