Defrosting The Thaw: Surveying Beta Readers

I’m currently in the process of gaining feedback from a selection of beta-readers for my work-in-progress post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw, which is now at draft 3 stage. I’ve had three out of the eight people who have been sent the work respond, and I’ve undertaken a couple of beta-reads myself in that time.

First of all, it’s important to understand what I wanted from my beta-readers – if I didn’t know what I wanted then the feedback I would’ve gotten would’ve been just as scatty. Just before I sent The Thaw out, after actually having agreed who would beta-read, I received an email from Bethany Votaw with her novella Tracker, which I agreed to beta-read for her. She included in her email a series of questions she wanted me to answer to comprise my feedback.

Actually, let’s step back: I’d already by this point been working on what to ask my beta-readers. Bethany’s email helped me focus my efforts as my initial questionnaire, even at an incomplete stage, was sitting at around 47 questions, and that was before I’d finished. I reflected and thought this would be a tall order for any of my beta-readers to complete without it seeming like “a job”. I wanted beta-reading The Thaw to be as easy as possible, as it’s meant to be fun.

To that end, I “zoomed out” with my questionnaire, choosing to ask less, broader questions and allowing my beta-readers to expand on their own thoughts. These are all intelligent, gracious people giving me their time – for free – and I felt bad “working” them too much, so the long questionnaire was simplified down to 25 broader questions.

The initial 47-questions one was an in-depth quiz featuring text boxes and tick-box answers. I structured it into what I thought were logical sections: General Thoughts, Story, The Ending, Setting & World, Themes & Influences, Characterisation and six sections I titled “character focus” sections on specific main characters. Can you see how this quickly became a nearly-50-question goliath that even I, the creator, was struggling to tame?

In organising the feedback for my beta-reader’s, I thought about including the questions via email, or on a separate, empty Word document for my beta-readers to fill in; this was the approach I took when the sole beta-reader (I did ask others!) replied. It worked but with this, as I was expecting a lot of feedback both in terms of scope and in terms of the number of beta-readers, I decided I needed to be organised off the bat and having feedback forms floating around in my emails just wasn’t right.

As a Microsoft 365 subscriber I have access to a product called Microsoft Forms, which is a tool in which surveys and quizzes can be created and responses collated. I have used it already with some success with my Doctor Who Fan-film Reverence of the Daleks, which has an Audience Survey attached to it. Therefore, I thought Microsoft Forms was a no-brainer in collating the feedback for The Thaw draft 3.

(Obviously, I’d be remiss to not mention that other providers are available: Google Forms, Survey Monkey, Jotform, etc; I just chose Microsoft Forms because it integrated with my OneDrive storage)

Microsoft Forms has a lot of powerful survey features – sections, branching etc – of which I used practically none in this instance. The difference between the “public” survey I created for the Doctor Who film and the “private” survey I was planning for the beta readers of The Thaw draft 3 was that with the “public” survey I decided to guide the responder a lot more with more mandatory questions, while also simplifying some of the questions for the sake of time and effort with tick-boxes, dropdowns or rating boxes, as if a form is “too much effort”, people won’t want to expend the effort, for better or worse.

With the “private” survey for my volunteer beta-readers I could be more confident that they would be inclined to fill in a long text field; indeed, the feedback form for The Thaw draft 3 was 25 questions and a “what would you rate the book out of 5?” question. I kept it simple and streamlined and I’m really pleased with how it worked out.

Even now, I am considering how I could’ve done the feedback form better – maybe I could’ve built on some of the interesting lessons from the “public” form I did for the Doctor Who film and included a section of tick-box answers to provide me with a quick snapshot of statistics for how my beta-readers felt that perhaps wouldn’t require a great deal of thought and typing into an open-ended text field.

That said, I’m confident that I hit a great balance with this feedback form in allowing for detailed discussion while not making it so overly-long that it felt like a slog or an effort, which would’ve been doubly concerning as Microsoft Forms, sadly, doesn’t give the option of saving a response partway though, it’s all or nothing – I am forever grateful of my beta-readers, all of whom so far have spent considerable time filling out the form, some nearly two hours!

So far, I have had three detailed and considered responses, all readily accessible in my Forms dashboard. They’re not going to be lost in my emails or scattered around my hard drive – though I will blog in the future about my efforts to centralise my workflow. My plan once I have more responses is to pull them out of Forms and put each question in a spreadsheet – yes! – with the answers from each respondent and draw my conclusions from there. I’ve already downloaded the responses so far to my computer so I can read them there as PDFs but they’re always accessible online and easy to find!

Bethany recently complimented me greatly on my organisation of my feedback during a live stream she hosted (I belatedly join the chat at around the 1hr13m point but it’s all great), and I am really pleased that my method worked and has made being a beta-reader of mine considerably less strenuous. While it may seem like a lot of effort to set up an online feedback form as opposed to sending questions as a document in an email, I think the organisational benefits of having that feedback readily accessible (for the author) and readily submittable (for the reader) really makes it worth considering, even if it may take some additional time to set up.

Brevity and Briefs: Reflecting on a Short Story

Recently I submitted a new piece of work to my friend Kent Shawn as part of his short story competition. I decided to craft a brand new piece for the occasion and duly planned and wrote a lockdown-themed thriller story entitled Left Outside.

This was a difficult challenge but also one I relished.

If you’ve by chance read any of my previous short stories that are posted on my website (for example my last one, Growing Storm), you may notice that they are on the long side of “short”; indeed, Growing Storm weighed in at approximately 12,000 words.

Kent’s competition, however, had a word-count limit of 5,000 words, less than half of the length of Growing Storm.

Problem? More a challenge.

I was pleased with how Left Outside came together. Firstly, having the goal of 5,000 words – and a deadline – focused my energies quite dramatically. It was great to be writing to a “brief” that I wasn’t able to cheat on. I had to get the story under 5,000 words, and I had to have it done and submitted by July 1st this year. The latter was a goal I easily made, though I didn’t rush the piece at all; I estimate that Left Outside took about 6 weeks to put together.

In some of the video blogs I’ve seen from Kent he’s said that some writers, when faced with the 5,000-word limit, have bemoaned that the limit was restrictive. I could’ve been the same; indeed, back in my final year at University, I complained that my creative writing dissertation piece had too small a wordcount at 8,000 words and my complaint successfully had that increased to “up to 10,000”, to the chagrin of some classmates but to the relief of me and some other like-minded writers.

And this is the journey of discovery I found myself embarking upon: to make my story “work” for this small amount of words I had to look at my writing style and adapt it to suit this brief:

  • My fiction prose is plot-heavy: building a cohesive plot in such a short amount of words can be quite difficult because there’s simply not enough narrative room to have that beginning, middle and end as you may expect. With Left Outside, I had to quickly throw my characters in and introduce them, while imbuing a sense of the setting. Instead, with a piece this short, it’s better to focus on a moment in a greater story perhaps that could be expanded upon. In Left Outside, we open with the protagonist, Adam, abandoned on a gravel path in the middle of some deserted location. We don’t know how he got there, or what happened prior – these are all narrative points that we could’ve expanded upon with more words to play with.

    But this is advantageous in a way because we the reader then experience the discovery at the same time that the protagonist does and this was useful in creating the sense of mystery and confusion that I wanted to start off with. I gave the reader very little information as to what had happened, and I let Adam be the audience surrogate for that initial discovery.

    Indeed, one of the struggles perhaps I encountered was the switch from writing mainly plot to going more character-led. One of my writing weaknesses, I feel, is my characters exist to serve the plot. In Left Outside, I didn’t have “time”, so to speak, to waste on setting up the plot so I had to focus on making some vivid characters. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but it was a learning experience.

    I think, also, I was ambitious in trying to still tell a complete story within the confines of 5,000 words. There’s perhaps more mystery in Left Outside than I initially intended but this is because I didn’t have the wordcount left over to expand.

  • Description must be economical: I’ve been complimented on several occasions for my vivid worldbuilding and description. But there’s simply no room in a story of 5,000 words to describe every brick in every wall, every blade of grass. While I was editing the story, I picked out extraneous description to the minimum, almost, required to tell the story. But I didn’t want to make the prose bland and perfunctory.

    Description in this story was limited, really, to pertinent details that the reader needed to know. It was a good exercise in paring down some of that description without losing the sense of what’s being described and keeping it at a suitable level of prose without it turning into a dull-to-read recount. That said I still think there are definite moments where a sense of the place – and the feeling within the place – is built up and concentrated.

These two aspects meant challenging my two strongest storytelling skills – plot and description – for this project. In retrospect now having submitted – but without knowing the results of the contest as yet – leaves me thinking, yes, this is perhaps what I could’ve done differently, but also I feel quite content with how the project turned out. I’m very pleased with Left Outside, it’s not perfect but what I can take away from this is what I can improve and do better with next time. Indeed, reflecting now, I still feel the balance of plot, description and character was a little off; but this is something to work on going forward.

It’s important with writing not to stay in a comfort zone and only ever write what you know, but you should challenge yourself to write new things you may not have considered before, and practice skills to keep your writer’s skillset supple. With Left Outside I am thinking how to better plan out stories like this because I still think I put too much plot in, and what sort of ideas would perhaps work as more “moments” for a short story like this. But knowing the word count in advance was certainly helpful – to paraphrase an excellent simile from a writer friend – to know the size of the mould into which the jelly (story) is to be poured to see if it fits.

In editing the story I was conscious that this was for a competition so treated it perhaps more judiciously when it came to editing than I would’ve for stories I simply publish on my website. The story went a couple of times to a couple of writer friends who offered feedback on successive drafts and also to a friend who hadn’t read it at all and was given the third draft that resulted from earlier feedback. This is a good approach, mixing feedback from those familiar with the work and it’s development to those who come to it totally fresh. But I didn’t want to over-edit the piece so once I was happy with it, the fourth draft became the submission.

In dealing with the feedback it was important, also, to not just try to please all the suggestions but take the ones that were achievable into the draft. Good commenters giving feedback will make suggestions, well aware that their suggestions may or may not be taken. There were some great suggestions that would’ve needed a substantial rewrite to achieve, and I was happy with the sections in question, though gave them a good spit and polish. But the feedback that would’ve required a more structural re-think also had ideas that were great and would’ve been implementable if the story could’ve been longer. That too is a skill to hone, of knowing what feedback (and don’t get me wrong, it was all good feedback, I wish I could have done it all) is achievable for a specific project.

Writing Left Outside, though, was a great learning experience and I am still very pleased with the resultant story. I only hope the competition judges feel the same, too! But more importantly, I feel, it’s renewed my sense that short stories are good proving grounds for plot ideas, writing styles or character situations. I’ll endeavour to hone my brevity skills with more sub-10,000-word short stories in the future, I’ve left this project with many ideas for new shorts!