We three, toiling away on the first novel in our planned series, have come to the point where we’re starting to think about the process of sending our “baby” out into the world. It’s a scary thought, but a very exciting one! And one in which we could use some help. This is where you might come in.
We’ve long ago decided that we’re not only writing for ourselves because we have a story to tell, but we’d like to share our story with others. As you probably already know, we’ll be self-publishing, and if there’s one thing the three of us are in absolute agreement on, it’s that it must be the best version of that story that we can possibly make it. Eventually, we have every intention of employing a professional editor, but before we get to that point, we will need “beta readers”.
It’s not enough to simply have a good idea, it must, of course, be communicated well and what once might have been the purview of traditional publishers now falls to us. But, as writers, we spend so much time with our work that it’s sometimes difficult to be objective. Even though you could make the case that the three of us have a leg up, since before it goes anywhere, the book will have not just two, but six eyes on every word, we still need fresh new eyes.
“Beta readers? That sounds scientific and smacks of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. What’s a beta reader?” I’m glad you asked, though you may be thinking of Mr. Data. Beta readers are pretty much the same as beta testers who are asked to try out a product before it’s released to the general public. Since our product is the written word, our testers read.
“Well, that’s pretty vague. What’s it mean?” A beta reader takes our book for a test drive to see how she handles. We’re looking for speedbumps, but we’re not just looking for grammatical errors or misspelled words, a computer program can do that. No, what we really want help with is finding ways to improve the story. Are there holes in the plot or subplots? Are the characters well defined to the point that you care about what happens to them? Is there a clear basis for their actions? Is there tension or chemistry between the romantic leads? Were you ever bored while reading?
There are three of us working on this book, which in a lot of ways sets us apart from other writers or books in our genre, but that also presents our beta readers with unique challenges as well. We need to know not only where the gaps in the plot are, but what about jarring transitions from one “voice” to another? Are there places where it’s obvious because of a difference in style or tone that a particular chapter or paragraph was the work of one writer or another? If so, was it a roadblock or did it work to transition a scene? Are we all doing our job of “showing” and not “telling”?
What about the dialogue? Did it seem natural, as in the way people, particularly the characters, actually speak? Was it always clear who was doing the speaking? Was there a point at which you wanted to throw the manuscript or your laptop against the wall because one or all of us had completely jumped the shark? Most importantly, what can we do to fix it?
In short, “I loved it all!” or “I don’t like it”, is not helpful. We, as writers, know we must develop a thick skin *cough* and this is one of the reasons why. We need a critical analysis of our work.
“That sounds like fun! Lemme at it!” Whoa, retract the claws there, Kitty. Just as all sunshine and unicorns is not useful, there’s a difference between shredding something for the sake of it and constructive feedback. A good beta reader is first and foremost a “reader”, someone who does a lot of it, preferably, but not necessarily, in our genre and can tell us what they liked or didn’t, and why.
The consensus around the blogisphere is that readers who are also writers will make the best betas. They have been or soon will be, in the same boat we’re in now. They know the challenges of just getting the work to this point as well as the value of and appreciation for good input.
Jami Gold, a writer whom we’ve mentioned before as someone to whom we look for insight into the craft of writing, has three key tips for any aspiring beta reader:
1.Focus on Making Their Story Better
“This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”
2.Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way
Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, slow pacing, no conflict/tension, etc.)?
Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
Do we not like or care about the characters?
3.Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes
We know what qualifies as a “real” reason. We’d want to know if the wording is confusing or caused others to stumble. We’d want to know if a section is too wordy or slow. We’d want to know when a character is too whiny or harsh. In short, we should give the type of feedback we know to be more helpful.
Her blog elaborates on all of these points.
If you’d like to volunteer, please know how much we appreciate the offer, but not everyone will be asked. Even if you’ve told us in the past that you’re willing and eager to perform this service, now that you know what’s involved, we will certainly understand if your family/job/life commitments are such that it’s just too daunting a task. Trust us when we say, we know that this is work and we’ll want to make sure we all agree on reasonable expectations for completion of your review and feedback.
Now, if you’re still interested and think you have what it takes, by all means let us know.
This post and its subject matter is important to all three of us and included input from my two writing partners, K.R. Brorman and C.C. Cedras. We remain, OFA – AFO.