Friday, September 7, 2018

Beta Readers--Who Are They, How Do They Help Your Book, How to Find Them

Linda is closing in on the finish line with her memoir and sent a great question this week:  "I'd like to hear what you have to say about beta readers, particularly if it's a good idea to find complete strangers or folks I've already worked with (such as from online classes).  Who makes good beta readers?"

I first heard the term "beta readers" at a writing conference many years ago.  Just like beta testers for software, beta readers are an important part of the book writing process before you "release" your product into the world, either through indie or traditional (agented or small press) publishing.  

Writers usually need four to seven beta readers, on average.  You may ask friends, family, or colleagues, or you may go for fellow writers, with whom you can someday return the favor.  You're asking them to read your manuscript draft, when it's really, really ready.  When you've done as much as you possibly can for it and need some readers to sample it from beginning to end.  

This is vastly different from a writers group who exchanges chapters or sections.  Beta readers read the whole thing.  They spend time on it, they respond to your questions carefully, they hopefully catch any big confusions before you open your manuscript to a wider audience (agent, press, publisher).

I plan for beta reader time after final revision.  Depending on the timeline, I plan 6-8 weeks for responses.  I give them my careful list of questions.  After they finish, I thank them profusely.  I send a thank-you gift.  

I make sure my work is ready.  I don't wear my readers out with half-done work, partial manuscripts, ideas.  That's for my writing partners or writers group.  I respect the time a beta reader will put it, and I realize I may not get another read from that particular person.  

They have saved me, many times.  

No matter how careful you are, as a writer, and no matter how vast your publishing experience, you can't catch everything.  You may be blind to certain things in your manuscript--like unconscious plot repetitions or characters that disappear midbook.  

How do you find and make agreements with beta readers?

1.  Look for fellow writers, first.  Many writers take classes, online or in person, to create a writing community.  Join writers groups.  Find writing partners.  Test out how other writers in a class respond with feedback, for instance, and take note of ones who do a good job, in your opinion--encouraging but offering great ideas and questions, for instance.
2.  Cultivate your beta readers list over a few years.  When classes end, message the writer you liked:  Would you ever be interested in exchanging work?  You're not ready yet, but you keep in touch.
3.  When you're getting close, contact your list.  Try for five to seven beta readers.  That'll give you a wide range of comments and feedback.  Two or three can be too few; ten is too many (you'll be flooded, possibly overwhelmed).  
4.  Give them your timeline.  Ask how they'd like to receive the manuscript (electronically, as a pdf or Word doc, printed).  Ask how they'll return it to you (with inline comments such as Word's tracking feature or margin notes or an overview).  They get to choose this, generally.  Not everyone has time or interest to do Word tracking.  Be grateful for what they offer, but be clear about it upfront.
5.  Compile a list of questions.  What do you most want to hear?  Be specific.  It's helpful to go beyond question like, What did you love?  or What didn't work for you?  These are too broad for most non-professional readers and they may deliver less useful feedback.  I like to spend a few weeks jotting down all the questions I can think of then choose the top seven to ten.  One of the most useful is:  Where did you stumble or get distracted or put down the manuscript to take a break?  Knowing this has meant a lot to me, in my books.   That's a key place to study and repair, if needed.  You can certainly ask specific questions about plot points (Did you believe that XX would happen?) or characters (XX is my antagonist and I want to be sure he's understandable, even if he's not likeable--what did you think?)
6.  Deliver, wait, prepare your thank you's.

As the feedback comes in, you may feel overly excited or just plain overwhelmed.  It's not unusual to also feel discouraged, even depressed.  So set up a system ahead of time, to detach yourself from the emotional side of beta reading, as best you can.  I like to print the feedback out, put it in a folder, and not read it deeply until all of it comes in.  I acknowledge receipt, send a thank you, but set it aside.  It's hard to do this, especially if it's your first time.  But often one person's strong negative comments are cancelled out by another beta reader who absolutely loved that part.  Not reacting saves you the whiplash of this very normal phenomenon.

When you get everything in, start a list.  Write down every single suggestion that makes sense to you, from big to small, in no particular order.  Then add the ones that seem completely off.  Don't ignore those--sometimes they settle in and make sense later.  Print it all out.  Give yourself some time (I take a week) then read through.  

Look for the opposing views and consider if they cancel each other out.  Also look for more than one person commenting on the same issue--these are very important to pay attention to.

To wrap up, I want to share a short list about what beta readers are, and what they are not.  Hopefully, it'll be helpful as you move forward on your book-writing journey.  

Beta readers are:
* Good readers, foremost.  They love books.  
*  Read the genre you're writing in.  A big mistake I once made was to ask a friend who didn't read novels to read mine.  Never again.
*  Ideally, are writers or have some connection to writing (editor, etc.).
*  Timely.  You can depend on them to deliver a response within your timeline.
*  Fair-minded.  They encourage as well as critique.  You come away with a sense of possibility, not just a list of everything you did wrong.
*  Able to see the overview, not just correct typos (see below).
*  Strangers are fine to ask.  It's kind of like Goodreads for drafts; there's a risk there, so be sure you have the belief in your book to carry on, if they give you a bad review.  

Beta readers are not:

* Ideally, not people who love you unconditionally (family, close friends).  They may either give you less useful advice ("It's all wonderful") or be too nit-picky in their nervousness to do a good job for you.
* Proofreaders.  I once had a beta reader who spent hours on my first chapter making grammatical corrections.  Many of which were wrong.  Make sure they know you're not asking them to catch typos or make grammar or spelling corrections.  You honestly need more from them, than final-stage correcting--you need big-picture stuff.  I know it might seem tempting to ask for this, or say yes if they offer, but it'll take them away from the overview comments you need.  
* Casual about the process.  They want to honor what you've worked so hard to achieve, with this manuscript.  

Enjoy the process.  Be grateful to these unpaid readers.  Keep going with your book!

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