top of page
Log In to Connect With Members
View and follow other members, leave comments & more.
  • Facebook


Young man intently reading a sheet of paper with a notebook in lap and pen in hand
Beta reader at work!

The process of writing a book manuscript can be exhausting and confusing, especially for novice writers. They might ask themselves every day, “Is my writing any good?” Does the plot/storyline make sense?” “Does my book fulfill the promise I made to the reader?” “Are my characters likeable and fully formed?” (This applies to memoir, as well.).


If you want answers to these questions before you publish, beta readers can be helpful in improving the overall quality of your manuscript by offering focused feedback about the elements of your writing.


How to avoid the wrong beta reader

The purpose of a beta reader is often a point of contention between writers and editors. Most newbie writers want to have their writing reviewed by people in their lives, people they are comfortable sharing their writing with: family members, friends, coworkers. This is a bad idea, for several reasons.


First, folks who know you will generally want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging, especially family and friends. They know how hard you’ve worked, how much time you’ve put into your writing, and how much this book means to you. So you will have their backing 100 percent, no matter what.


Second, a beta reader should be—really, must be—an avid book reader; someone who spends a lot of time following storylines, getting to know characters, enjoying good dialogue, and appreciating atmosphere, description, and setting. In other words, wallowing in the elements of a good book. A beta reader who doesn’t read books on a regular basis isn’t ideal.


Third, beta readers should always be given a checklist of questions about those elements of your manuscript that they will evaluate as they read. Asking someone to read your manuscript and comment openly about anything and everything will not yield useful information. Beta reader feedback is most helpful when each reader answers the same specific questions about different aspects of your writing. The ability to compare and contrast feedback is essential to learn how to improve your manuscript.


Tips for choosing the right beta reader

Since I’ve told you who you don’t want to ask to read your manuscript and what mistakes to avoid, it leads naturally into a review of how to select the best beta readers and get the most helpful feedback.


Your beta readers should be people who don’t know you intimately, and total strangers are a good option. These people are much more likely to be honest in their critique. Additionally, people who don’t know your story (particularly in the case of a memoir) will not know anything about you and your situation other than what you share in the manuscript. They can’t “fill in the blanks” because all they know is what they’ve read. If the story is missing key information or if characters—especially you, in the case of memoir—are under-developed, someone who doesn’t know you will spot this immediately.


A beta reader who has some exposure to the genre who’ve written for is a plus. If you’ve written a memoir, the beta reader ideally has read other memoirs. If it’s self-help, they should have experience reading books of that kind. I don’t work with fiction, but obviously, if you’ve written a sci-fi or fantasy manuscript, a romance, a mystery, or a thriller, it’s a good idea to have beta readers who are familiar with those specific genres.


A feedback checklist

The primary way to get the most meaningful feedback from your beta readers is to provide them with a checklist of questions to answer. This doesn’t have to be long or elaborate and plenty of good checklists already exist. To start, make sure your checklist asks these questions that apply to any nonfiction book or memoir:


  • The Why: Is there a clearly stated purpose? Is the reason for writing the book obvious?

  • The Who: Who is the ideal audience? Who is this book specifically written for? Is the language appropriate to that audience?


With fiction, your book is written for a particular genre. The Why is to produce a book people will want to buy, read to the end, and recommend. The Who, your audience, will include readers who have an affinity for that type of book or are just dipping a toe into the genre.

 

I want to reiterate an important point about memoir that I have made in other blog articles I’ve written: a memoir has more in common with a novel than with a nonfiction book. Why? Memoir is a subgenre of creative nonfiction—nonfiction because it is factual and creative because the structure is novel-like. Think Wild, Educated, Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, The Year of Magical Thinking, or Eat, Pray, Love. These memoirs read like novels. For this reason, a beta reader feedback checklist for a novel often works well with a memoir.

 

I am not going to link you to any particular checklists. Many lovely people on the interweb have created wonderful such lists. To find them, do a Google search for any of the following:


  • Beta reader checklist

  • Beta reader questionnaire/beta reader questions

  • Beta reader instructions


Find the one that best suits your manuscript, as some will be more appropriate than others. You can always add to and modify any list you choose.


Final thoughts

Feedback from beta readers can be extremely helpful in improving the focus, overall quality, and reader engagement of your manuscript. But each beta reader should be chosen carefully and given detailed instruction about their feedback if the process is to be truly useful.


Let me know what you think of this article. I appreciate your comments and suggestions.


~~Trish Lockard is a freelance editor and writing coach, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. Her business is Strike The Write Tone. She is the co-author, along with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism.

63 views0 comments

A large stately home from the early twentieth century
There.

Have you heard the expression “There is no there there”? Do you understand the meaning?


In 1937, American author Gertrude Stein published the book Everybody's Autobiography. In Chapter 4, Stein recounts returning to her home town of Oakland, California, while on a lecture tour in 1935. The city had grown and changed enormously since her childhood there. When she tried to find her childhood home, she learned that it had been demolished and new structures had been built on the land. She called the realization “painful nostalgia.”


Here is the full quote:

… I kept searching for the next new city where I would truly find myself, where I would be content in my own skin. But, of course, I eventually realized that, no matter where I went, there was no “there” there.


Today, according to Urban Dictionary, the expression “There is no there there” means “an utter lack of substance or veracity as it pertains to the subject under discussion.” The website yourdictionary.com defines it as, “The indicated thing, person, or other matter has no distinctive identity, no significant characteristics, or no functional center point.”


Does your memoir have a there?

I did a little Googling about the expression “there is no there there” because I keep hearing it in conversation and I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it means. After reading numerous definitions, such as the two provided, it struck me that this expression could be used to describe a challenge faced by many novice memoir writers: their memoir manuscript does not have a clear and obvious there. As a memoir writing coach, sussing out the central, core point of a memoir is the most crucial and yet the most difficult aspect of memoir writing.


This is another way of saying, a memoir must have a clear theme (point or argument) that every scene, every story told, must support. In her latest book, Blueprint for a Memoir, author Jennie Nash breaks down the essential way a memoir should be constructed. Her approach consists of Scene, Point, Impact. According to Nash, the Impact (in which you make it clear why the reader should care about the scene and how it connects to the larger theme) is missing in memoirs that don’t work. Without it being crystal clear why you have included a story in your memoir, why the story is essential to the overarching argument you are making, you have failed to provide meaning-making for the reader. If readers ask themselves, “Why are you telling me this?” and you don’t provide an answer, your memoir loses its power and appeal.


Can you find the there of your memoir?

Think about Gertrude Stein going in search of her childhood home, longing for the joy the sight would bring her, only to find the house gone and all trace of it extinguished. Such a disappointment. Such painful nostalgia. She was left feeling anchorless, adrift. As you craft your memoir, keep Stein’s story in mind. In your memoir, will you bring the readers to the place you want to show them? Or will there be no there there?


Postscript

Prolific writer Gertrude Stein wrote Everyone’s Autobiography as a continuation of the memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in 1933. In addition to her now-famous quote, “There is no there there,” Stein wrote another oft-quoted line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in the1913 poem “Sacred Emily.”


Jennie Nash’s book Blueprint for a Memoir: How to Write a Memoir for the Marketplace was published in 2023 by Tree Farm Books, Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of twelve books in three genres.


114 views0 comments

Hello all. This is the first of what will be a long-term series of interviews with memoir authors who turned their stories into activism.


As you might know, I co-authored a book, Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism, with my friend Dr. Terri Lyon. Activism is important to me. Many of the memoir authors I have coached or edited have aspirations to make social change happen through their memoirs. David Pruitt is one such author. He and I talked recently for the first of this new series, Memoir as Activism. Here's what he had to say.

Cover of the memoir Relative Distance

Trish: Hi, David. First, let me congratulate you on your brilliant memoir Relative Distance. It was my great pleasure to serve as your copyeditor. The book is a journey story I will never forget. I’d like to talk with you about Relative Distance. I know it was published in October 2022. When did you start writing it?

David: Thanks, Trish. As always, I appreciate your support for Relative Distance!


I began writing in earnest in the spring of 2018. My retirement and finding my older brother who’d vanished for twenty-seven years (much of it traveling across America as a homeless person), were the triggering events that got me started. I took my time. It was important to me to tell the story well.


Trish: Does the book tell the story you originally set out to tell? Did the memoir change shape and direction as you wrote? If so, were you surprised by that change?


David: The purpose of the book evolved. As a youth, I was told I would never amount to anything. The three of us were brutally beaten. My mentally ill mother abandoned us. I watched my siblings struggle as teens and adults. I had struggles of my own, but somehow my life worked out. I became a first-generation college graduate, a CPA, a CFO, and a CEO in Corporate America. I’ve been married to my best friend for thirty-four years now. My kids have done well, one’s doing his residency in cardiology and the other works successfully in Artificial Intelligence – more importantly they’re good human beings. I retired relatively young and financially secure. I say all this not to tout my good fortune but to describe my state of mind at the beginning of the writing process. I felt deep gratitude - and slightly bewildered at the positive direction my life took after such a difficult beginning. Instinctively I knew I was an exception to some sort of rule. The question became why had my life gone the way it had while my siblings struggled? I’m certainly no better than them, and we endured the same trials in our youth. After a time, as I wrote, it became clear to me the “trials” we endured were the larger issue.


Through additional research, I learned there are approximately thirty million adults in America who endured some form of dysfunctional upbringing. And children are still suffering today – there are four million reports made to child protective services annually. At some point, my purpose switched from answering my personal existential question to telling two very different stories (my older sibling and mine) of successfully moving beyond a dysfunctional upbringing.


Trish: We learn that your father was a violent, physically abusive man. What emotions did you experience as you relived your childhood?


David: First and foremost, I didn’t hate my father. I loved him. He passed on his strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. I made sure he was properly cared for until his death. But the hard things he did to us never left me. At times, my severe anxieties and wavering self-doubt, the fears that were borne into me as a child, were my biggest obstacles to success. It’s a struggle to this day. Sometimes as I wrote or read a particular passage to my patient wife, the tears came. But I don’t hate and I don’t resent. I do, however, feel a sense of loss. My brothers and I missed out on the unconditional parental love that is critically important to the development of a child purposefully raised to meet their full potential.


Trish: We also learned your mother had a mental illness that prevented her from protecting and comforting you and your brothers. When did you first recognize that your mother did not behave as a healthy, supportive mother should? What do you think of her today?


David: The truth is my mother never took a meaningful, active role in raising me or my brothers. When she went to the hospital for electroshock therapy - and then locked herself away in her bedroom for days at a time, I figured it out - I was on my own. I think my brothers already knew. I was eight years old at the time. As you know from the book, we had a pivotal, final encounter when I was in college, and, as a result, I unequivocally cut her out of my life.


As an adult with a better understanding of mental illness, in her case schizophrenia, and the associated symptoms, I regret what I did. It was an act of self-protection and festering resentment. In retrospect, I would’ve been more of a help to her in later life. But, when I see how wonderful a mother my wife is to our two sons, I do miss the idea of what a loving, engaged mother might’ve felt like. Sadly, we never formed a meaningful mother-son bond.


Trish: Your two older brothers suffered a fate as a result of your dysfunctional upbringing far harsher than your own. What conclusion have you come to about why your childhoods so adversely affected them? What is it about your personality or choices that saved you from a similar fate?


David: First, I’m very proud of both of my brothers today. They are financially independent and good men. I’m particularly proud of my brother who spent over twenty years traveling the backroads of America as a homeless person. He somehow survived and came out the other side as a decent human being carrying a profound faith that today is a cornerstone of his life.


To answer your question, I think I benefited as the youngest of three siblings. I saw their struggles brought on by the verbal and physical abuse we absorbed in our adolescence. I saw options narrowing, doors closing and their challenging early lives living homeless on the streets of Greensboro, North

Carolina – our hometown. It scared me and motivated me to set aside my fear and expectation of failure. I decided to reach for something better. It made me try. It drove me to persist.


In the end, life choices matter, the mix of genes matter (two parents, multiple children), individual wants and desires matter, and circle of friends matter but the gift of youth and a watchful observant eye made a meaningful difference in my life.


Trish: After working on Relative Distance as your editor, I got a sense that you were doing two things: first, paying loving tribute to your brothers and their struggles throughout life. And also, trying to come to grips with how differently—you say blessed—your life turned out. Since memoir is the story of a life transformation, a transcendence, what is the takeaway your readers will receive at the end of Relative Distance? What is the gift you are giving your readers with this memoir?


David: A victim of child abuse will find a viable, achievable path to their most productive life. An interested reader will learn more about the lifelong implications of early child abuse and a better understanding of the homeless plight. A lover of books who reads to be educated and emotionally moved by well-considered words will find both in Relative Distance.


Trish: Writing about abuse can be cathartic if someone is ready to tackle the issue. Would you encourage those who have experienced abuse or neglect to write about these experiences as part of a healing process?


David: It can be cathartic but I’m sure it could also be painful for some. To each his own. My thought is to, early on, proceed slowly and mindfully. See how you feel.


I’m not sure it profoundly changed me. Once I got ahold of where I was going, I wrote with a mission in mind. It became less internal, less self-oriented, and much more an attempt to make some small positive difference in the world. It remains that. All proceeds from the book go to the Center For Child and Family Health in Durham, NC. I’m building a relationship with them that I hope will allow me to help abused kids and dysfunctional families even more in the future.


Trish: Thank you, David.


You can buy Relative Distance at Amazon and all major bookstores and online booksellers. Let me know what you think of David's story.

63 views0 comments
bottom of page