Tips for Working with Beta Readers

In the spring the very kind local school librarian agreed to organize a group of beta readers for my current work-in-progress. (First tip: volunteer at your local public library or school library to build relationships with librarians and keep your finger on the pulse of your reader.) My story is a middle grade novel-in-verse that features a largely female cast with some typical coming-of-age issues. For that reason I requested to have girls only for my beta readers. Two girls from each grade 4-6 were asked to read my story and meet with me and the librarian to discuss it.  (Bonus: the librarian was going to read it too!)

reader clip art

The set up:

  • I copied and bound the story for them, two pages per side. It was pretty costly, but a good investment.
  • I wrote a letter to my readers briefly explaining what a novel-in-verse is and what a beta readers does. (A member of the target audience who provides feedback and critique.)
  • I provided a key of symbols to use while reading to make it easy on them to give feedback. They have been taught to be active readers, so I didn’t need to go into details about that.
    • ZZZZZ: boring
    • ?????: confusing
    • 🙂 I like that part
    • LOL: made me laugh
    • 😦 made me feel angry or sad.
    • OK: This part was just OK.
    • XXXX: delete this, I don’t think it adds to the story
  • At the end of the story, I provided 14 reflection questions and asked them to pick 5 to answer:
    • Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
    • Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
    • Could you relate to (MC)? Did you feel her pain or excitement?
    • Did the relationship between (MC) and (sidekick) seem like things a real friendship might go through? What would you change? What feels genuine?
    • Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? If so, where?
    • Were there any parts that confused you? frustrated or annoyed you? Which part and why?
    • Did you notice any inconsistencies in time sequence, place, character details, or other details?
    • Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable? Any characters who need to be more unlikeable?
    • Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
    • Did the dialogue sound natural? What dialogue sounded forced?
    • Were any of the parts too long? Or any poem that didn’t seem to have a purpose? Which ones?
    • Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep you interest?
    • Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
    • Was anything missing?

How it worked:

These girls are real girls with real lives which include school work, sports, family, and here I am asking them to read something else on top of it all. It took time. We met three times during their lunch periods and discussed the story as far as they had read.

This was absolutely wonderful to sit and talk with readers about a story I wrote! And they didn’t hold back. There was no feelings of intimidation on their part to talk to the author. I loved that.

If they didn’t understand something, they were forthcoming. If they didn’t like a character, an energized conversation ensued. It was interesting that a character that I thought was lovable in his own way, the beta readers were angry with.  Not all characters need to be likeable. It’s actually good if characters have both likeable qualities and pitfall in their personalities.

I quickly found out which parts didn’t work and the parts that made them keep turning the pages. Settings that were unclear. Phrases that were confusing.  The insight I received was beyond worth. It was incredibly rewarding when they “got it.” The things I hoped the reader would pick up on, the set-ups, subtext, duplicity, the pay-outs.

I love my critique group and wouldn’t change them, but there’s something special about having beta readers. No better litmus test than honest readers who hold no stake in the story. Can’t wait ’til I have another story to do this again!

It would be interesting to have beta readers from the schools I once upon a time taught at read this. How would kids with different world views and experiences take to this story? I guess I will find out when this WIP gets published!

Final tip:

Thank the readers and especially the librarian in a generous way. They gave up their time and provided feedback that clarified, sharpened, and deepened the story.

Bonus: I loved listening to the banter between the girls. Perhaps they are inspiring some future characters!



Baby Steps

BIG CHANGES in small steps.
Like the man who bargained
from a red paper clip
to a house.

From big debt to big savings.
     Shedding 20, 50, 100 pounds.
          Finishing that novel.
               Defending your dissertation.
          Buying a home.
     Traveling the world.
Changing the world.

It happens
in small


In honor of the first Snow Day of the winter . . .

Snow and ice they say
Will soon be on their way.

Adults grump and gruff
Burdened by the white stuff.

Children watch the skies
With thoughts of sleds that fly

Down the hill,
But better still,
“Snow Day” the anchor cries.

snow day (2)

Make A Ripple

On September 12, 2001
     I stood before before my class
     of confused and scared third graders
     and lied.
     You are safe here.
     No one wants to hurt school children.
     Columbine was two years past.
     Sandy Hook was yet to come.
     Little children get hurt
     at school.

     I may not have a voice
     with the power to change the world.
     But I can help 
     change someone's world.

     When our president redirects the dialogue
     and politicians point their finger,
     cast your pebble.

     When a kid is bullied or neglected
     don't turn a blind eye,
     cast your pebble.

     When you pray
     and get inspired into action,
     cast your pebble.

     Cast your pebble 
     into the waters 
     where you stand.
     Make a ripple.

     We change the world
     by changing someone's world.
     Cast your pebble.

Gayle Dubowski
In memory of Gayle Dubowski. On the tenth anniversary of her death, alongside four classmates at NIU, 17 more lives were taken and countless changed forever. We now live in a world where most people know someone effected by school shootings and violence. We must do better.


Patient Companion

Brown pleading eyes
so hopeful
so earnest.

I can hear her thoughts,
I’m ready!
Just give me the sign!
I won’t let you down.

She’s distracted.
I’m focused.

I pick up my pen.
She lays by my feet
waiting for the inevitable writer’s block.
She knows I’ll need her then.


Mission Accomplished

This is the face of satisfaction:


Computer shut
mission accomplished

But it’s really like this:


258 free verse poems roughed
it’s an ugly baby right now
but it’s complete!

And it doesn’t take long to feel like this:


What’s next?
Reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
while revising older stories
and researching people and places to submit to.

Marinating on the two ideas
I’m contemplating for my next projects
before cataloguing
the research I need to complete
to round out the rough draft
before going through the

OOH! Now I can get that haircut I told myself had to wait until rough was done.

Rough is done!

Hello, Salon!


I have a confession to make.

I broke the cardinal rule of writing a rough draft.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had to do it.

I read my entire MS.

I know, I know.
Full steam ahead.
No looking back.
But I had to do it.

Another confession.

I haven’t written in a week.

Yes, I gasped too.

So, you see,
I had to read it.
I’d lost the flow,
was loosing my MC,
ran out of steam,
while my daughter was sick.

So, you see,
I had to read it.
And I’m glad I did.
It was pretty good,
I’m on the right track.
And I’ve found the fuel
to keep writing.

Documentary Novel vs Historical Fiction

You write about what you already know, right?  But, you also write about things you want learn more about.   Admittedly, after researching this topic I may be more confused than when I started.  Let me see if I can work it out!

The easy part: Historical Fiction

  • The setting of the story is historical, a real time and place of years past.
  • Characters: Most of the characters are fictional, some may be real
  • Plot: Events through the plot will be a blend of true and created.
  • Historical: The writer presents historical information accurately.
  • Fiction: The plot is the engine of the book, history is secondary, but must be accurate.


  • Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
  • The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Goodreads has a list of 653 of the Best Children’s Historical Fiction.

The hiccup: (and something I learned in my research!)

In order for a story to be historical fiction, it must be historical to the author.  If I were writing a novel set in London 2013 about a girl who desperately wanted to become a nanny for the future king, it would be contemporary fiction right?  In twenty years it would still be contemporary fiction from a different time.  So the argument then is books like those written by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Laura Ingalls Wilder would not be historical fiction because at the time they were written they were contemporary fiction.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Onto documentary novel – the waters get a little more muddy for me here.

I have seen three different definitions for documentary novel.

1.  True event + real people told in a narrative format.  (plot, dialogue, characterization)

  • From this definition, I have only found one title that keeps appearing, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  I have not read this book, so I can not speak accurately to it.

until . . .

  • Loving vs Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell came out in January 2017. Loving vs VirginiaAnd this one I have read. It is written in verse and alternates between the two lead characters, who are historical figures. I spoke to Patricia regarding this book. It is as historically accurate as is possible considering the main characters have both passed away. Through in depth interviews with friends and family she was able to ascertain specific details to the events of the story. The area that the author must take a little liberty is when there is dialogue.

2.  A historical fiction novel that includes articles of history within the pages.  These may include quotes, advertisements, and the like.

  • Countdown by Deborah Wiles is an example of this.  Newspaper clippings, advertisements, and quotes are scattered between the chapters.

3.  A historical fiction novel in which the format appears like non-fiction articles.

  • The title that came up most often for this genre was Nothing but the Truth by Avi.  This is written as a series of diary entries, dialogue – as it would be seen in a play, memos.  Again, I haven’t read this one, but I am curious and it’s made my list of books to read.

What kind are you writing? Historical fiction or documentary novel? How do you know?


A Key and A Song

With my key in my pants pocket, I head out the door for my last writing time at Highlights. My favorite spot to write is the porch at the lodge, tucked in a blanket, music on, bees buzzing and butterflies lighting on the hyssop. Key folds over my pocket, maybe I should take it out. No, it’ll be fine. I’m just sitting here and it’s not bothering me.

my view

This place is truly magical. The Highlights Foundations goes above and beyond to make accommodations best suited to allow writers to create. I never even had to clear my plate. All my energy was free to pour into writing and thinking about writing.

I pare down too fat poems and realize the essence of others to get that double duty quality. Finish strong I always tell my kids. Finish strong I did. Couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve done these few days.

I leave my music on and my writing area set up so I could capture it for my inevitable fuzzy memory. Try this angle and that angle and walk out into the overgrowth to get it all. But my shuttle is coming in forty minutes and I still have a couple things to do.

set up to write

I pack up my bag, except my music. I leave in on so I can walk with it. I never do this, but it feels right to do this today. I return the furniture I moved and the blanket I borrowed. Reach for my key. My key. I know I thought about taking it out. Did I? Or did I once again ignore that still quiet voice in my head that suggested I take it out but my louder, knows-best voice say, “It’s fine”?

I’m sure I listened to that louder voice. Again.

I’d bet my key is somewhere out there. In the overgrowth.

Highlights lodge

I’m a prayerful person. Not quite a prayer warrior, but I hope to graduate to that. I recently read to ask God to be a part of every task before you begin, regardless of how small so that He may guide me through it. I’m slowly putting this into practice when I remember (usually when I find myself in a predicament) and this was a great time to practice it. I prayed while I searched.  I realized I ignored the voice that tried to help me earlier more than once and promised I’ll work on doing better.

Time is ticking and I still have a couple things to do and my key remains camouflaged. Darn ticking clock, a really great thing in a story, but not so great now, in real life. I need to find this green key chain somewhere amongst the green and growing.

I pray again. I’m sure someone can let me in, but I really didn’t want to make more work for these already hardworking people who care deeply for writers and stories. Once more through the overgrowth where I had seen a gopher just a couple days ago. Not sure I could tolerate the surprise of an unexpected assistant right now.

I see the green diamond that is a deeper green than the rest of the green and growing!

A prayer of thanks as I head back to gather my things.

With one foot on the porch my IPad starts a new song. THE song. The song that I have dubbed theme song for my main character of the story I’ve been trying to unbury throughout the week.  New Life is the name of the song by Jennifer Thomas. New life is what I have in the protective care of my God. The tears came. He’s been with me all week, every step, whether I’ve asked Him or not. But it’s good to ask. Not because He needs it, but because I do.

No Excuses!

My daughter was at volleyball camp  and I had a rare afternoon alone with my son. I offered to go for a bike ride with him and get some ice cream.  He turned that down. Granted, it was raining a little.  Instead, he said he would like to draw comics together.  Did he see my eye roll? Did he hear my internal guffaw.  “I’m not a good drawer,” I told him.  Hello, where did my facility with the English language go? I wasn’t even going to consider the word artist.  So drawer it was.

To which he showed me

no excuses (2)

Thank you, Jedi Academy and your evil creator, Jeffrey Brown.  Ok, maybe not evil.  Maybe spot on. I want to encourage my kid to draw, right? But he wasn’t supposed to turn it around on me.  My self-imposed limitations have been a well-stitched-in part of my fabric for a while.  But I’m a mom and I can’t let my negative self-talk become his. Right? With my head in a defeated droop I follow him to the table where he is quick to the draw with a sheet of paper.

I grab a pen.  Yep, no eraser option. He’s all smiles and I’m all question marks.

He sees me staring at this blank paper and encourages me to start.

“I don’t know what to draw.”

“Draw a fluffy creature who wants to make a friend.”

Oh, how it comes so easy to his imagination.

“I don’t know how to draw fluffy creatures.” Dang, a negative self-talk escaped when I wasn’t looking.

HE encourages ME.

I’m a doodler. my doodles

Abstract, I call it. Nothing with bodies. Floating heads are okay in my world. But a comic strip with characters and three squares to get to a punchline?  That’s a lot of pressure. AND my kid’s watching.  He went after the comics that are more like Marvel and I went toward my background with comics, the funnies in the paper.

He’s tearing through his paper.  Rounding out his first comic while I marinate, after explaining what marinate means.

I see he’s not going to let me off the hook so I draw a line for the first box.  He plays peek-a-boo with my paper while I get some ink on it. And he keeps cheering me on.

So, by the time he finishes his sheet, I have the first box done and not sure how to give it a punch line.  He’s OK with that.  I tell him I need to marinate on it some more, but I promise to finish it.  He’s OK with that too.

Here’s to my son who wouldn’t accept any of my excuses.  The next Peter Brown? video game designer? architect? oh the possibilities!

D's comic

(Did you notice, ALL FOUR?, I couldn’t even think through one! AND the back of the paper is filled with Olafs.)

And, here’s to not giving up.  To turning off the inner editor that is screaming at everything I should’ve done differently. And to total vulnerability with those who are suffering to push past their comfort zones too.

My comic


5 am on duty

Sound the alarm!
Sound the alarm!
There’s a rumbly monster outside!

It’s getting nearer.
Stand guard!

It’s getting closer.
Louder now!

It’s coming for us!

Bark Attack!

It’s passing us!
We’ve got it running for cover!

You better keep going you yellow-bellied giantly rumbler!

Our alarm has worked!
We have protected our people!
Now we can return to sleep.
or maybe a good bone would be better.

Yes! I could go for a good gnaw.
That monster got me all worked up.
This bone will get me all worked down.

Just gnaw, gnaw, gnaw
now grind, grind, grind.

Now the other side.
gnaw, gnaw, gnaw
grind, grind, grind

OOH! Sue’s eyes are open.
but she’s not blinking.
she’s just staring
at me.

I better make sure
she’s alive.
She’s not moving.
I think I’ll go sniff her.

Her eyes are following me!
She’s alive!

I bet she’s proud
of the  way
I kept
the rumbly monster away.

Now she’ll give me
the best good morning scratch

Playing with Tricube Poetry

Phillip Larrea, a poet from California, is credited with creating the poetic form called Tricube. It is deceptively simple. Three stanzas. Three lines per stanza. Three syllables per line.

Time to play!

First Day

Pencils sharp
Clothes sorted
Haircuts trimmed

Dawdling girl
excited boy
watchful pups

Quiet house
time to write
mother torn



Towel* wrapped bod
dripping hair
wet foot prints.

Dash through house
kids not shocked
“It’s just mom.”

Seize journal
before thoughts
drip down too.

*Okay, towel is technically two syllables, but not when you say it the normal way, right?