Writing fantasy: Slotted Spoons and the ABCs of Beta readers


[Note: I’m at Thrillerfest in New York right now, and it may take me time to respond to comments. I will, of course, get to them all eventually! Best, AJH]

I was serving peas with dinner the other night, using a slotted spoon to get them out of the pan, and I had one of those idiot moments of wonder at the sheer usefulness of the utensil in my hand. I mean: it’s a spoon—and therefore excellent for collecting things—but it has holes in it so all the unwanted water doesn’t wind up on your plate. Brilliant! Simple but effective and requiring absolutely no skill or training to use. And who invented the slotted spoon? We know not. If we did, we’d put up some kind of spoon-shaped monument. With holes in it.

My point. Some things are so fantastically useful that you just stand in awe. Today I offer one of those things. First off, let me say that this is not my idea and you may have come across it before. I heard it at a conference and, though I can’t for the life of me remember who said it, I feel sure that she wouldn’t mind my reiterating it here. So here it is, a slotted spoon for writers.

Specifically it’s for dealing with beta readers. Most people to whom you give your manuscript, especially if they know you well and are (horrors!) related to you, give advice which, though well intentioned is muddy, self-contradictory or platitudinous. Worse, some beta readers really want to be alpha writers, so their advice is colored by The Way They Would Have Done It. So. The slotted spoon idea below is designed to take as much of the waffling out of the process, making it as easy as possible for your readers to clearly convey their experience with your manuscript.

You ask them to read the manuscript (hard copy or electronic: doesn’t matter) and ask them to periodically mark any passage that strikes them with one of the first 4 letters of the alphabet. This is not a ranking system, and you might prefer to leave the A out entirely. What it stands for is this:

A=Awesome. Something about this just blew me away. Excellent.

B=Bored now.

C=Confused. He said what? The people of Anth believed in what? He can get out of the rabbit burrow because…? Huh?

D=Don’t care. Ten pages on minor character’s lineage? So what? Yeah, I’m sure it’s really clever and all but… I’ve got QVC to watch.

Exactly how you spell them out doesn’t really matter, beyond the key word (bored, confused, don’t care). Use this and you’ll discover two of the secrets of the universe:

  1. Giving readers nothing but one of 4 letters to use makes them more honest. They don’t have to explain or be polite because they know you don’t expect them to.
  2. Left by themselves for long enough, slotted spoons multiply (explains a lot about that caddy on your stove, doesn’t it?). The first multiplication is that the Really Good Idea works for both you and your reader. The reader doesn’t have to worry about how to phrase (or remember) their thoughts (esp. their critical thoughts) and they don’t have to keep extensive notes. You get clear, precise feedback which—whether you agree with it or not—will help you address potential audience response to your book.

Without other clutter to think about, your readers get better. They can go with the flow of the narrative without getting bogged down—pausing only to scribble a letter periodically—so what you get is much closer to actual reader response rather than Attentive, Thoughtful Beta Reader who Must Think of Something Smart to Say if Only to Prove I READ IT response. Put a few of these marked up narratives together and see if patterns begin to emerge (more multiplying spoons here). If reader 1 gives an A to what reader 2. gives a B or D, chances are it’s a wash and you need someone else to break the tie. In the end, it will come down to your instincts anyway. But where patterns do emerge, you can concentrate on figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

One final note. If you find yourself disagreeing with the patterns that emerge you have one of two problems. The first, and easiest to deal with, is that some or all of your Beta readers are wrong for this book and don’t reflect your target audience. If so, fire them politely. You don’t have time to be polite to readers who wish your dark urban fantasy was Jane Austen (the original, not the one with zombies). Find the right readers for your genre and move on.

The second problem is more serious. There’s no point having readers of any kind if you don’t listen to them. If you can’t find readers whose input you value, and you persist in giving your own work A’s where your readers give it B’s, C’s and D’s you need to seriously re-evaluate your work and your goals. It’s fine to write for yourself, but if you want to be published and read by others, you have to pay attention to what people think of your work. If you have to explain to practically everybody why your book (or chapter or sentence) is actually good, it probably isn’t.

            And that’s it. This will be my shortest post ever on Magical Words, because if you over analyze a slotted spoon, the thing loses its mystery, and no one wants that.


24 comments to Writing fantasy: Slotted Spoons and the ABCs of Beta readers

  • I love this analogy! I may grumble to myself, but having a Beta reader makes all the difference in the world. They tend to catch things you won’t due to having the story emblazoned across your psyche. (Hugs)Indigo

  • This is brilliant! I tend to ask readers to tell me where they were bored, or skimmed, or stopped reading, but this simple system is much better.

    As a reader of other people’s stories, I know I’d find it easier too. It’s very hard for me to give honest feedback to friends, especially when I’m not sure if they’re looking for validation or a critique.

  • Indigo,
    yes, few things are as scary and frustrating as turning your work over to other people to read, but it’s an essential step of the process. Sometimes amid all the “write what you know” and “write for yourself” rhetoric we forget that if we’re seeking publication we’re ultimately writing for an audience. We need to hear what readers think or we’re just shouting into a vaccuum. And you’re right, it is possible to be too much of an expert on your own work. Readers give you much needed distance.

    Fairy Hedgehog,
    Glad you find this useful. As you suggest, it’s not that it changes the way you think about Beta readers so much as simplifying the mechanism in ways which–hopefully–brings clearer feedback.

  • Excellent stuff here! In fact, most timely for me. I just finished the rough of my novel (literally just a few days ago). After I let it rest some time and do revisions, I’ll be sending it out to Betas. Reading your post, I decided I’m going to give this system a try. Thanks!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    This sounds really handy, though I can see why the A might be tricky. On one hand you don’t want people using it just to say that they like you (as opposed to the writing), but on the other it can be important to know that a piece that maybe you weren’t sure about is actually something that others like. Also, can you elaborate a bit more on the difference between B and D. Is B more for when the story becomes uninteresting and D for when the details seem extraneous?
    Thanks for this. 😀

  • Hepseba ALHH

    That is, thanks for the post and the idea, not pre-thanks for doing what I tell you!

  • AJ, Brilliant! Just brilliant! Passing along the link to the MWBeatas today! And to my mom. And to my own betas…

  • Mm. “How to train your Betas.” Love it! (Thanks Faith for linking it, though MW is pretty much a stop on the morning Blog route 😉 )

    >>”The first, and easiest to deal with, is that some or all of your Beta readers are wrong for this book and don’t reflect your target audience.”

    This is so true. I’m married to a man with an interest in writing too, but even though we both enjoy the realm of SF/F, we’re still completely different people. He’s an amazing sounding board for plotting, but he’s not exactly into YA Fantasy with female characters, so he never did finish my original beta copy.

    And then there are the friends who *want* to be helpful because they’re my friends and they know how much it means to me, but they’re not necessarily ideal people to get feedback from. Either because they’re not crazy about the genre, or they don’t read much, period. I appreciate their support, but sometimes it can get in the way.

    Thanks for the suggestion! It could be *very* useful in the next round of testing with others who want to help.

  • Wonderful advice, A.J., and as someone who is used as a beta reader on occasion, I like the simplicity of it, the way it facilitates feedback without demanding the awkwardly worded “This-is-good-but-I-hate-parts-of-it” marginalia that I often find myself writing. I’m a great admirer of slotted spoons in all variations; this strikes me as a particularly useful one.

    Hope the convention goes well for you.

  • I got lucky with my brother as a beta. First, he taught high school English, which was a big help. He’d asked what I was looking for in particular and I told him pretty much everything. If he found it and it didn’t work, tell me. He did. Thankfully, he picked up some big plot holes that I didn’t and I’m in the process of spackling them now. I got a mass of helpful grammar corrections, scene impressions, character impressions, plot hole issues, and just a ton of useful info all around. He did tell me later that he was nervous about how I’d take the critique, but as I told him, I need everything, the good and the bad. I need to know what worked, what didn’t, what needs fixed, everything. I don’t want the thing getting rejected out of hand because I didn’t get “fine-toothed comb” enough on it. I found his suggestions to be so invaluable that I’d pay for that kind of help, and at the very least I’ll give him a book when it’s published. Maybe even part of the dedication. Hrmm…exactly how long can a dedication be?

  • Stuart,
    thanks. I hope it works for you. Let us know. Obviously the beauty of teh system is also its flaw: it makes the author have to do the work to figure out what’s not working based on the reader’s clues. But for the most part, I think it works better that way, rather than relying on the reader to provide the fix.

    you’re right about the line between B and D being fuzzy, but I wouldn’t explain it further to your readers. Let each term resonate for them and see if you can make sense of what results. In the end, I do think they are different. There are plenty of things which I don’t care about but not because they bore me, you know? I might care about a couple of paragraphs of character backstory but find two pages tedious. The big D, of course, is where the reader just isn’t interested in the story any more. If it’s the last letter you get awarded by that reader, you lost them, but it may have more to do with stakes, investment in the character etc. than being bored by your execution. Hope that helps.

    Thanks Faith and David. Again, I wish I could credit it the person who I heard explain this system, but I’ve forgotten. I hope you find it useful.

    you are so right about not all readers being right for a project, or for aspects of it. If you get enough readers using this system or something like it, it may–if nothing else–help to identify who the wrong readers are, which is useful, I think. I’d be interested to hear at one stage of a manuscrfipt’s development they find this most useful: first draft, say, or right before it goes out to agents/editors? I suspect it could be used more than once by the same reader on different drafts and produce very different results which might help you track your progress.

  • Daniel,
    whatever works for you, works. My only suggestion would be to not overly rely on one reader, esp. one close to you. Apart from the fact that you want a larger test pool, it’s amazing how much shared perspective, emotional memory, private jokes and in-house verbal ticks won’t get spotted by people close to you because they share them. My family, for instance, are too used to my blend of UK/US English to catch moments when my US characters use British idioms and vice versa.

  • QUOTE: My only suggestion would be to not overly rely on one reader, esp. one close to you.

    Yeah, I actually sent it out to a dozen people or more, I lost count after twelve. Some friends, internet friends, acquaintances, and a couple downright near strangers. Got about half of them back. His was the most in-depth though. Some of the others were actual readers of romance. He was one of my sci-fi targets, never having read romance. I’ve got a new set of betas lined up for second draft critique. And with the split family thing, we weren’t quite close enough for many of the in-house similarities to be picked up. I’m sure there’s some (those probably picked up from Dad for the most part), but not as many as people who grew up together or lived with each other for all their lives.

  • Sarah

    Thanks AJ – I think I’ll steal this rubric for my Freshman Writing class this fall. Students keep trying to comment on each others grammar instead of content and style when grammar is the thing they are least competent to comment on.

    When I’m critiquing I try to make myself write Summative Comments with a paragraph of praise and a paragraph of criticism at the top of the page so that I don’t lose sight of the big picture. I still do marginal comments, but I think they are less useful if they’re not part of a larger commentary on the work as a whole.

    PS Someone else has posted lately as Sarah – I’m not surprised since it was the most common name for girls the year I was born. Should I start using my login name to avoid confusion?

  • Interesting, Sarah (whichever one you are! Time for a cool spy alias). Yes, I’ve never thought of using this system in college writing but it might be useful at least in some formats. Let me know how it goes.

  • As with most brilliant plans, it’s the simplicity that makes it. I’ve seen one similar approach, but the added benefit of “just mark an A, B, C, or D in the appropriate place” really puts it over the top. I’ll use this and recommend it any chance I get.

  • AJ this is awesome! I find myself writing essentially the same thing, but it more detail. Especially on student papers (can I just say that my tiny handwriting is awesome at this point? Plus, having to get a critique in about a 1 x 2 inch space teaches brevity and specifics!)

    At the top you said one could get rid of the “A.” Here’s why I wouldn’t. It comes from a dissertation experience. When I switched advisors, the new one asked why I’d picked him. I told him “you’re the only one who has written positive stuff on my drafts. You’re the only one who tells me when I’m doing something right.” He laughed and said they should do it more often. I said, “Yes. If you tell me I do something well, I can keep doing it.” Now, if the entire project had been crap and unable to be made into un-crap, if not something great, then that’s one thing. But it wasn’t. It was a matter of learning to write a dissertation (which, like learning to write a novel, you have to write one to learn how!). So the positive stuff made the negative stuff easier to take.

    I’m not suggesting lying. If there’s nothing good, there’s nothing good.

    But, for me, when I hear that people like the stuff, or at least some of it, it makes me able to take the bad and turn it around.

    I guess it is like a golf analogy I heard. If you’ve got a bucket of balls, and you hit all of them wrong but one, just hitting that one right makes all the rest fine, and, to try for the one more great hit, you’ll go through another bucket. It’s the same with the writing. One good comments goes along way to making it worth working on a dozen bad ones. 🙂

  • Sarah Naumann

    WOW! The timing of the post’s appearance is perfect for me:
    Since I am pretty much just starting out as a beta reader, I’ve been trying to figure out how to give helpful advice/critique/etc.
    I think I will use the 4-letter-system as a first step and then go back to it and add comments that will give the writer further information, exactly what I found “awesome”/”boring”/”confusin” and why (as far as I am able to point out something “obvious”, that is)
    So, I don’t know how much I should thank you for passing on this great beta-reading-system. Just: Thanks, AJ.

    PS I am the other Sarah (*obviously*) I’ve just changed the name that will appear when I comment. Simply added my last name to avoid any further possibility of confusion.
    And sorry, no cool spy alias, except Sarah (the other one) decides to get one 🙂

  • Cool, Ed. Let me know how it goes.

    Pea, you make a good case for keeping the A. I think the only reason you might drop it is if you feel your reader or circle of readers is TOO complementary, too wary of criticism. And as we’ve said before, that probably means the readers need to change or be chnaged as much as it is about changing the system. 90% of the time, I think you’re right: keep the A.

    Sarah, yes, a system like this doesn’t, of course, supercede any others or any impulse to flesh out what the letters mean. But I think you’re right that you can use it to provide a rapid “real time” track of your responses which you can then go back and spell out more fully.

  • Bill Hause

    Great Read AJ,
    The only thing I add to the list when I beta read– is my questions…  As the author I try to get information to the reader…so if something(event, idea, etc) has not made the journey or if there are plot holes…or choices that character's could have made that would make the story easier…ie what are gyrons? didn't they already defeat this wizard?  why doesn't she use her cell phone to call the police?  why doesn't the bus driver kick the kid off the bus..
    By the way, B&N did not have any copies of act of will available though 2 were on hold.  Mine should be arriving shortly.

  • Bill,
    absolutely, add as you see fit, particularly those plot holes or ambiguities your queries suggest. If the Beta readers don't ask those questions other people (agents, editors, post publication readers) will, and it won't be pretty. Nothing undermines an author's credibility like those "why doesn't she just call the police?" questions which authors often hide from in case the fiction they have built falls apart. It's the job of the Beta readers to kick at the foundations.
    Thanks for pursuing WILL. As I said, distribution was erratic, so some B&Ns have it and some don't. It's great to have readers draw attention to a book when the store isn't carrying it. If enough people ask, they may change their minds and ship more copies. Thanks.

  • This is a super system.  Thank you.  I might add one more category–this from my instructions to beta readers.  "WTF"  That's for something that comes out of left field or just threatens to dislocate the reader's brain. 

  • LJ, yes, the simplicity of a system like this means it's easy to add to and your notion of drawing attention to things from left field is a good one. I tend to mark such things simply with an exclamation point, for what that's worth.

  • Great article, AJ!

    I like it so much I’m going to copy it to a file and hand it out to beta-readers.

    Er…when I manage to bribe convince folks to actually be beta-readers…