Stephen King says, write your first draft with the door shut, your second with the door open. But once you open the door, how do you get the most out of your readers? It's great if your friend Sally says, "I loved it!" or your brother Joe says, "I really like the action scenes!"—but that doesn't help you improve your manuscript. Here's a list of questions I wish I'd had for my first-round readers*:
- Describe the main character/antagonist/[name of any major secondary character] to me.
- Is there anything you're still confused about?
- Do you have any outstanding questions about the story/world?
- Did the ending tie up the loose ends?
- Could you picture the world of the novel? Were there any places you wished I'd described in more detail?
- How would you describe the relationship between the main character and his father? His sister? The antagonist?
- What did you think when character A did/said this to character B?
- Did any parts of the book seem slow or out of place?
- What was your favorite scene and why?
- Favorite character and why?
- Did the relationships seem real or were there parts where you felt a reaction/relationship was forced/over-the-top?
- What thoughts/impressions did the book leave you with?
*Salt and pepper to taste. By the way: while they're answering, I've learned to resist the urge to counter-explain right then and there. This is important since I'll usually have a beta reader take another look months down the line, and I want the answer to come from my manuscript in case I miss the mark in my revisions.
I try to make the questions as neutral as possible. It puts the reader in a sticky spot if you ask things like "Did you like the main character?", especially if the reader is a friend or family member. At least, I get much more out of, "I'd describe the main character as humorous and slightly insecure, but willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants" than something like, "Yeah, he was cool." For instance, I asked my brother to describe the antagonist. The minute 'ditzy' came out of his mouth, I knew I had work to do.
My beta readers have helped polish a lot of cloudy pieces out of The Novel. Are they a substitute for a professional? No, and you can read why here, but I'd consider them an important prerequisite.