When writer John Lugo-Trebble got stuck with a mid-length piece of fiction, he recruited friends and family to get structured feedback. Using questions to guide their response, he received input and support to finish his novella, and get it published on Amazon where it’s resonating with a whole a new audience. He explains his beta reader process.
A few years ago, when we were living in Prague, I started writing a story based on a character who was coming of age and coming out in New York in 1993. It was written as part nostalgia and part love letter to the city I grew up in.
I wrote and wrote until it was finished. When I got to the end, I was left with something in between a short story and a novel. For me the story was done, at least for now. However, if you know anything about the industry, novellas as a first-time author are near impossible to sell to a publisher or interest an agent.
Related reads: Beta readers part 1: critiquing partners >>
Lu’s Outing sat on my desk for a good year or so. From time to time I would return to it – I enjoyed tweaking a word here and there, sitting with the characters and hearing them speak and engage with one another. It was like visiting a friend because I was so immersed in the story.
“In a longer piece of writing, there can be so much room for error, the potential for overlooking details, and an environment ripe for inconsistencies. I had questions that I needed help with.”
However, in a longer piece of writing, there can be so much room for error, the potential for overlooking details, and an environment ripe for inconsistencies. I like to keep things simple but to make it work I needed to be organised. I had questions about Lu’s Outing that I needed help with.
The importance of feedback
Feedback for a writer is essential, and though the term beta reader may sound complex it is just feedback. I posed two questions to beta readers:
- How authentic was my description of the city?
- Did the storyline have broader appeal?
There was a third question that was the elephant in the room: where would I get it published? More on this later.
Beta the devil you know
My husband is always my first reader for two reasons. He is my biggest fan and my harshest critic. He also doesn’t always read the type of things I write so I know if he is interested, then I am onto something.
I am lucky to have a diverse group of opinionated friends and colleagues in my life who without blinking an eye will tell me whether I am on the right track or if the train has derailed somewhere.
I sent the manuscript to two friends who had lived in New York City in the early 90’s, two writer friends who are a little older than me and both women, one friend who works in TV and one who is a mental health professional and works with people who are coming to terms with their sexuality. A bonus reader was a millennial partner one of my New York City friends. In total, eight beta readers read Lu’s Outing.
Feedback from friends and family
I had felt confident in the story, and the feedback answered my questions and helped me finalise the details.
“The feedback answered my questions and helped me finalise the details.”
The friends from New York City were transported back to their teenage years and felt a longing for that city which they missed. While the millennial reader lamented that he wished he had lived in that city at that time. I had got the details of city just right.
My second question concerned broader appeal. I was thrilled that hubby loved the length and storyline he felt it was just right for the story. Other readers wished it was longer with more to read, and my writer colleagues and friend in TV wanting a novel.
From friends to audience feedback
At the time, I didn’t have access to a pool of readers that I didn’t know. Fast forward a few months later and I had opportunity to publish it in Amazon’s Storyteller UK 2018 contest.
When I look at the reviews for Lu’s Outing on Amazon and the conversations with readers on my Facebook page I am humbled by how much working on the authenticity of the city and characters has paid off. Some of the reviewers talk about feeling like they were in the city. Other reviewers were taken back to how it felt being a gay teenager and remembering the awkwardness that comes with learning about oneself.
The other surprise was the age range and genders of the readers. At first I thought Lu’s Outing would appeal to gay men in their 30’s upwards. In reality, it has appealed to readers between 20 and 60+. There has been a slight preference by female readers and a surprising number of heterosexual male readers have enjoyed it as well. So in terms of appeal, I branched out of what and who I thought would find it interesting. That is an incredible feeling.
Next steps: new stories, new beta readers
The whole experience has energised my writing. Given the support from readers, I have begun to work on the stories in between Lu’s Outing and a collection of short stories that are set 10+ years on.
“There is a safe space to be honest about the story but also nurture the relationship that has developed between writer and reader.”
Going forward, I would probably choose between 7-10 beta readers, incorporating the pool of readers I now have from Facebook. I would maintain the informal approach of the writer to beta reader experience – I prefer it to feel like there is a space between me and my readers which is a safe space to be honest about the story but also nurture the relationship that has developed between writer and reader.
Tips to take from John’s friends and family approach to feedback
- If you get stuck with a project consider asking for feedback – you aren’t the best judge of your own work.
- Recruit a several beta readers across friends and family – John suggests up to 10.
- Make sure you have a mix of ages, genders and experience.
- Think up questions to ask them so you get specific guidance.
- Give them deadlines and instructions on how you want feedback.
- Thank them for their time and effort – and update them on next steps.