Utilizing Beta Readers and Navigating the Query Process: An Interview with B.K. Clark
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Have you interacted with writer B.K. Clark online? If you follow her on social media, there's a good chance she's asked you about your weekend plans or rallied to support your writing wins. We recently chatted with B.K. about her experience using beta readers for long-form fiction and her experience with all things querying.
1.Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you get your start in writing?
Writing came to me gradually. I started with a love of poetry when I was a teen and used it as a means to process thoughts and feelings that I couldn't express otherwise. It wasn't until many years later that a dream I had woke me up and wouldn't leave me alone. It kept developing into a story in my head and I'll be honest, I thought something was wrong with me because it wouldn't go away. Then I remembered how writing poetry helped get thoughts out of my mind, so I decided to sit down and try to write out this story so it'd leave me alone—and I never stopped. It took me a solid month to realize this was a part of me. Writing has always been something I needed to do, but I never once thought of myself as a writer. You can imagine how relieved I felt when I realized my “problem” of having stories in my head was something very normal and common among fiction writers.
2. Where are you currently at in your writing process?
I'm attempting to get my first novel traditionally published. I went through several months of querying which resulted in an official request for a “Revise and Resend.” I'm finishing that up now, so fingers crossed!
3. How do you use beta readers in your writing? Describe their utility to your work.
No writer can see their work objectively. It's not possible. We're too close to the story. We know everything it should be, but can't see it clearly enough because we read it with the story already in our heads. Beta readers are vital because they don't know how the story should go, they just read it and know when it doesn't go. Betas are like a first line of defense. You let them read it before you send your work out and keep from embarrassing yourself. My betas caught the repetitive words that I used or the fact that I pictured what a character was doing during a conversation but never actually wrote it. (Yes, I did this and my beta was so confused. Oops!) Without other “eyes” on my work, I never would have seen the gaping plot holes or have been able to know what wasn't working. My beta readers were instrumental in showing me where my weaknesses were in my writing but also where my strengths were.
Which brings me to another important point about betas: you need to have readers that you trust, but that aren't too close to you. Family may not be honest enough, and a stranger may toss around damaging words that cause you to quit. You need honest, but constructive feedback. The online writing community is a great place to find good beta readers.
4. How do you decide what kind of feedback you’d like to elicit from your betas? For example, do you send them a series of questions or guided notes?
My first novel was a big story with a layered plot, so I needed several rounds of beta readers to help me get the story honed and focused. With each round, the feedback I needed changed. I sent them questions that pertained to what I needed and then had some follow-up questions to those answers. I think every writer has different things they feel they need feedback for. But it's basically: does the plot flow, is anything confusing, and are the characters well developed, etc.
5. How do you determine which beta feedback you use in your writing, versus what you reject?
"For our work to be the best that it can be we need to have the balance of both humility and confidence."
This is probably one of the hardest things to do as a writer. For our work to be the best that it can be we need to have the balance of both humility and confidence. To do this, I had to really take an honest, hard look at my work every time a critique or suggestion was made and determine how that change would affect my story. Most of the feedback turned out to be things I didn't see, but my story needed. But there were definite times where the feedback would have changed the core of the story, or changed a character. That is the feedback I ignored.
6. What are your best resources and tips for writing query letters?
"My favorite resource is QueryShark, hands down."
My favorite resource is QueryShark, hands down. It's an online blog run by a literary agent, where people send her query letters and she critiques them. She shows them what works and what doesn't work. There are hundreds of examples and after reading them you really get a sense of how a good query letter is written.
My best tip for writing a good query letter is focus on a good “hook” within the first paragraph. Get to the core of what your story is about to grab the agent/publisher attention. Don't bog it down with too many details. Leave details for the synopsis. Agents read hundreds of queries and only the ones that stand out to them will get them to want to read more. Also, have someone read your query before you send it out. Just like your manuscript, you want another set of eyes to read it first.
Do your research for each agent/publisher you query and personalize your query letter to them. They can see when the query letter is “general” and they don't like feeling that they are one in a hundred. They want to know why you queried them and why you want them to be your agent. So, take the time to personalize it.
"I also recommend sending your query letters out in batches of no more than 10 - 15 at a time... You can only query an agent once per manuscript."
I also recommend sending your query letters out in batches of no more than 10 - 15 at a time. Then with whatever feedback you get from them, make any necessary changes to your query letter. You can only query an agent once per manuscript. So, if there is something wrong with your query and you sent it out to 100 agents, that's a hundred agents lost from a fixable mistake.
7. Have you typically queried direct to publishers or to agents, and do you have any feedback over a preferred route?
I stuck to agents on my last round of queries, but I'm now looking at publishers directly. Each has their own benefits, so it depends on what your needs are as an author. Agents can help you navigate the competitive publishing market, but there are some smaller publishers who are open to direct querying and they can be a great way to get your foot into the industry.
8. How do you find agents and/or publishers? For example, are there databases or resources that are helpful in determining who accepts the type of work you write?
For the most part I used two main sources to find agents/publishers. Querytracker.net and ManuscriptWishList.com. Query Tracker is a free database where you can search agents/publishers specifically in your genre. You can make a list of who you want to query, who you have already queried, and also who you don't want to query. It's a great resource for keeping yourself organized as well as keeping you from accidentally querying two agents from the same agency (big no-no).
Manuscript Wishlist is a place where agents post what they're looking for or most wanting to see in a manuscript. This helps you narrow down your list and make sure you are sending your manuscript to the one who is looking for your type of story, cutting back on wasted time.
9. Give us your best tips on handling the inevitable rejection. Even the oft-pedestaled J.K. Rowling had to do it.
"...I dry my eyes, pour a glass of whiskey and toast to their rejection getting me one step closer to the right fit for me and my story."
Rejection is hard. Period. But as you said, it's inevitable in this field, so it's important to have a support system in place. Family, friends, writing group or even the online writing community. I've utilized all the forementioned at some point when I found myself unable to work through the emotions of a particularly hard rejection. Then I dry my eyes, pour a glass of whiskey and toast to their rejection getting me one step closer to the right fit for me and my story. The key is to remember that their “rejection” isn't personal and that this field is highly subjective. You only need one “yes” and sometimes it takes a lot of “nos” to find it.
10. Do you think that it’s “better” or “easier” to go with a smaller or bigger agency or publishing house?
I've queried both large and small agencies. The process is generally the same with both. The key is to do your research and to follow their specific querying guidelines. I can honestly say that I don't think one is better than the other, but when it comes to publishing houses, your large ones cannot be directly queried and require an agent, so it is definitely easier to go with a smaller publishing house.
We’d like to give you a lightning round of questions:
a. Top 3 current music listens (albums or songs):
Just about anything from Audiomachine, Come Out and Play by Billie Eilish and Piano & Violin Duet by Brian Crain
b. What are you reading right now?
The Martian by Andy Weir
c. What’s one book that you’d give to any writer?
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
d. Name one food that changed your life.
Authentic Mexican food. Until I tried the real deal I never liked it.
e. What’s your writer drink of choice, in both the morning and the evening.
Morning and even afternoon it's coffee—black, no sugar. In the evening it's a glass of red wine.
f. Tell us your non-writer dream job.
Homesteading. Living off of what I grow or make myself. My specific interests lie in gardening and raising chickens that lay different colored eggs.
g. Where can readers find you on the internet?
Currently working on getting a website up, but I can be found on three different social media platforms: Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, all under the profile @bkclarkauthor.
Thanks, B.K.! We wish you all the best with your "revise and resend!"