Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Find Beta Readers

Last week, Carmen asked:

I’m still on the first draft of my first novel. When do I start looking for a critique group or beta readers? How do I find them?

Great questions. :) I answered in a comment, but let's go into a bit more detail.

When do I start looking for a critique group or beta readers?

When to Start Seeking Beta Readers:

Common advice is to wait until you have a complete edition before you seek a beta. Reason: Your beta reader(s) can negatively influence how you write your manuscript. For example, if you want to make the hero of your romance novel a fat man who can't adhere to a diet to save his life, and your beta says "Ew! Nobody will want to read that!"—it'll likely influence you to change your hero.

Changing your story to fit someone else's expectations isn't want you want to do, particularly when you're starting out. If you choose to do that later, as in ghostwriting or writing something for a specific market opening, fine. (Not everyone can do that, by the way.)

But when you're starting out, your primary concern should be telling the story you want to tell or read. Not the one you think is wanted by readers.

Once you have some experience with writing and receiving critique, you can figure out if "in-progress" betas help or hinder you.

Personally, I work well having "in-progress" betas and "final version" betas (plural) for each project, but I'm unusual. I've not met many other writers like me—but then, I don't know any other writers who had many friends willing to say "This sucks" about their work, either. :) I tend to be brutally honest, and my friends return the favor.

My one friend whines, "Another vampire story? When will you write something without vampires for me to read?"; another grimaces and says, "Another unreliable narrator? No, thanks; I don't want to read it." I don't mind their reactions one bit. I keep my eyes peeled for stories those two friends will like.

So they're uninterested in most of my work. That doesn't bother me. It's due to those stories not matching their interests, not because I'm a schlock writer. That distinction usually takes time to learn, and is why you need to be very careful when seeking beta readers.

How do I find [beta readers]?

How to Find Beta Readers:

Consider what you want out of a beta reader. What would your ideal beta reader look like? A reader, to give basic input? Another writer, to be critical? Someone from another country, to make sure your descriptions make sense?

Once you know that, consider if you know anyone like that. If not, check places where you have an online presence; ask folks you know if they know anyone who might be interested.

If you still can't find a beta, find a writer's forum and check for any open threads asking for betas. If necessary, you can make such a thread.

Personally, I'm careful to match up story types with what I know those readers like. Once, when I needed fast input because I was submitting the short story to a contest, I put a call out on Twitter and got someone to help me. (Thanks, Phoenix Sullivan!)

But if you can find someone who doesn't usually read your genre who's interested in reading your piece, that can be handy, too. You just want to be extra careful when reading their feedback. (See my below warning.)

Warning about Beta Readers:

Finding a good beta for you will probably be a learning process. Betas are good for identifying problem areas, but even other writers might misidentify a problem's cause or how to fix it. So don't be too eager and blindly apply all changes recommended by the beta.

Example: My first "novel" I wrote as a teenager, my friends read it and said they got confused about who was who because the names were too similar. Eventually, I realized the story had way too many main characters. They had the problem right, but not the cause.

Also, some betas overstep their bounds and try to put their own techniques and writing style in your work.

So don't assume that a beta reader's right, but also don't assume they're wrong. Particularly if you're newer to writing, your first reaction to critique will probably be a knee-jerk "How dare you!" or "I suck!" reaction.

Take a deep breath and consider the critique. Try to figure out what made the beta reader say that.

And keep writing.

Do you have betas? How do you find betas? What do you do when your current betas are all busy or uninterested in a piece?


ETA: I keep meaning to add this—there was something in the water the morning I wrote this, and Jami Gold came up with a great post connected on the beta reader topic. Go check it out!

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