Thursday, January 23, 2014

Have You Used Beta Readers?

Have you ever tried using a beta reader to get reactions to your writing? I haven't yet, though it seems like it might be something to try.

You see, I am NOT a believer in critique groups. I'm already hypercritical of my own work, and I KNOW what's wrong with it--- everything. And since I'm a person with Asperger Syndrome (autism spectrum disorder) and seem to radiate a 'vulnerable person' vibe, I'm afraid I might end up being the target of the über-negative critique group members (and every group has a few).

A number of people have written blog posts on beta readers. Here are a couple:
Beta Readers: The Magic Elves of the Publishing World
Ask Jami: Where to Find Beta Readers

I think one has to be very selective about a beta reader. They need to know and enjoy the genre, and they have to be OK with you and your personal style and, well, everything about you that might affect your story. For example, if you write faith-based fiction from an LDS church or Catholic point of view, you don't want an Evangelical beta reader who insists on correcting your 'wrong' theology--- even on points of your story that you didn't think HAD a theology. Or if you write a lot of sports activity into your story, you don't want a sports-hater who can't enjoy that aspect of your work.

There are two extremes people go in to when asked to read someone's unpublished work: the cheerleader and the critiquer. The cheerleader lavishes insincere praise on almost everything, the critiquer comes up with laundry lists of things allegedly wrong with your story. Both extremes are unhelpful.

What I think a writer needs from a beta reader is REACTIONS. Good or bad reactions. They don't have to come from an expert writer or editor, either. An ordinary unsophisticated reader can tell you whether your story was something they couldn't put down or something they couldn't manage to finish. They can tell you it was boring for the first 30 pages and then got exciting. They can tell you they identified with THAT character but found THIS character unbelievable and boring.

The writer using beta readers needs to be clear to them about what he wants from them. Some writers use beta readers to check out a specialty subject they don't know much about: a hunter or gun owner to make sure they didn't make any firearm mistakes, or a cop to catch police procedure mistakes. From these beta readers, you don't need or expect any remarks about plots or characters, and you ought to make it clear that this is what you are looking for.

For the general beta reader, specify what you in particular are interested in knowing. For example, if you have a tendency to write un-compelling characters, you might ask for reactions to the characters--- which ones they liked or disliked, which ones they would liked to have seen more of, which ones they would have liked to have seen less of.... If you write great characters but dull plots, ask plot questions.

When you receive your responses, you must remember that you aren't a schoolchild and your beta readers aren't your English teacher. You need not 'correct' everything they see to be a flaw. You need not 'correct' anything! It's still YOUR book. You should feel free to ignore anything you don't think is valid, and also anything that may well be valid but you can't do anything about. For example, if a beta reader didn't like your 'voice' or your 'style'.

How do you go about finding a beta reader? I haven't a clue. I'd use my writing friends, but as a not-untypical person with Asperger Syndrome, I don't have writing friends that think of me as 'friends'--- more like 'that annoying gal I once interacted with online'. I suppose when the time comes I might put out a call on this blog and on the Facebook groups I founded and take part in.

One suggestion that I haven't yet read elsewhere: why not ask for beta readers for your first chapter only to start with, or for a short story? It's less of a commitment for them. And if they beta read chapter one and didn't find it utterly awful, they might be willing to read more.

In fact, for short first chapters and sections of longer first chapters, you might post it on your blog and ask for beta-reader reactions there, and offer the rest to anyone who liked it enough to read on.

How about you: have you used beta readers? Did it work out well, or not so well? Do you have any ideas to make the beta reader process go better? Or on how to find good beta readers?

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Krisi Keley said...

Hi Nissa,

If you're interested and when you're ready, I'd be happy to beta read any of your stories - novels or short. I've never been big on critique groups either and I just have one online friend who has been kind enough to beta read my last two books and has read what I've written of the current one I'm working on, because we have similar views on certain subjects, different ones on others, and because I trust his judgment on what works and what doesn't. I've considered putting some early chapters of my in-progress story on my blog for feedback too (especially since it's quite a bit different in some ways than previous stories), but that method for getting feedback has a downside for any writer who might not know what to do if they wind up with ten or more completely conflicting opinions! (I know that might be a bit overwhelming for me.) There's also a difficulty with some of the language in my newest story - there because I think it realistically has to be, but maybe offensive to some readers, so something I'm nervous about putting on the blog. If neither of those things would be a problem for you though, it could be a good way to get some feedback.

In any case, besides my own writing, I've done editing and beta reading for other authors, and I don't think I'm either the hyper-critical sort or the insincere cheerleader. I just try to be honest in a constructive way, always with the reminder that when it comes to plot, character development or other non-grammatical aspects of the story, impressions have to be considered one reader's opinion and preference only and need to be weighed against your intentions as an author with what you're trying to accomplish through the story. I have no problem with multiple discussions on the whys and wherefores of my own impressions and whether or not an author may or may not care to put any stock in them. :-) That just to say, I wouldn't find such a thing annoying.

My most read (and written) genres tend to be supernatural/paranormal fantasy and mystery, especially with a spiritual or metaphysical theme, but there are few genres I don't read or like. Plus, as someone who studied languages and got her degree in Catholic theology, I imagine we'd be coming from a similar place in our ideas there. From the personal side, I also have an interest in psychology, so I love stories where that's a significant part of the characters' development.

Just send me an e-mail (or a note on Goodreads if you prefer) any time you want to talk about your writing or feel ready to share something you need beta read, if you think I sound like the type of writing friend or reader you're looking for.

Wishing you a great day,

Lauren said...

In my perspective, beta readers are an absolute necessity. I love my critique group as well (and yes, they've made me cry a couple times, to the ultimate good of what I was writing) but beta readers are a MUST. I use beta readers at various stages, but the most important is when I'm convinced that the book is ready and I want to make sure it's fabulous before I put it out for the public. I can't make that decision--it takes a reader.

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