Wednesday, July 12, 2006

How I Write a Novel (5): Beta Readers

I had my first two novels published without even being aware that there were such people as beta readers. Oh, one or two family members had read the books, or versions of them - but my family members are far too kind to be beta readers (or far too wise).

The only real feedback I had was from my agent and editors. I am wiser now: I know there are wonderful people out there who actually like reading books in progress and providing the feedback that helps you to make it a better book.

This was especially valuable when I was writing "The Shadow of Tyr" recently (to be published in January). For a time, the book just would not go right. And I couldn't work out what was wrong. A couple of my beta readers came along and put their finger on the problems - to the extent that when I finally showed the MS to my editor and agent, they both asked, Huh? So what was the problem? And my copyeditor said the book was "truly magic"!

So here's to my beta readers - you rock.

Here are a number of things that a writer must remember about this process:
  • As an author, you MUST divorce yourself from your work - a crit of your book that says, "Hey this is crap. I found it boring and repetitive," is not a description of you. You have asked for critical feedback; when you get it, swallow your pride and accept it. Don't ever then sit down and write back a long justification of your work and why your beta reader is wrong. If you do, you've just lost yourself a beta reader and made yourself look ridiculous.
  • Choose your beta readers carefully. I am told there are some destructive people (usually unpublished and embittered) out there who like nothing better than to tear other people down. I haven't actually suffered from this myself, but I have heard of other authors who have. You need someone who can tell you what it was that was wrong, and why - (but not necessarily how to fix it - that is your job, although they may be able to help you, especially if they are fellow writers). Any beta reader who attacks you, not your work, needs to be discarded immediately.
  • Choose beta readers who are familiar with the genre and who read widely. That way, they lnow what they are talking about. They know bad when they see it.
  • Here's what should happen. Your beta reader says: I thought Chapter 12 dragged. There was too much telling, not enough action. Too much boring dialogue. By the end, I was yawning. Now you, as author, know that there is a lot of valuable info in Chap 12 that the reader must be told - it's now up to you to work out how to make it more palatable. A really superb beta reader might make a suggestion: Why don't you pep this up by having Tom there, asking silly questions and Alice losing her temper... but don't expect a beta reader to give you the solution. All they should do is tell you what doesn't work for them and why.
  • Should you always take notice of the advice? Not necessarily. Beta readers can be wrong. They can even say contradictory things. But generally, if you have chosen them wisely, it pays to think very, very carefully about what they say. If two of them say the same thing, then you know you should really sit up and take notice!
  • Different beta readers are good at different things. That's why it's great to have a few of them. Some are plot hole finders. Others go after lousy grammar. Others home in on continuity mistakes. Some just look at the bigger picture. Bless them all.
  • So where do you find a beta reader? I am exceedingly lucky that one of my book group who lives a couple of streets away is also a sff fan and an editor - she is invaluable. She is a treasure. But she is also a working girl, and it is cheeky to ask someone who does this sort of thing for a living to do it for free! So we have an understanding - she does it to the degree that it is still fun for her. The moment she is pressed for time or it starts to be a chore, she's gotta stop and say, Sorry. Not this time. And that's always the way it should be, even with someone who is not in the industry.
My other beta readers, I found through the internet. I belong to a message board over at Voyager Australia, and I met authors and readers there who volunteered. Some of them are fellow authors - and they are wonderful. They are also enormously busy people, and it can be an imposition to ask them to do something as time-consuming as this. One is a bookseller. One a copyeditor. One a writer and editor, with her own unpublished books on the burner. One of them I still have never met.

And they all rock. I am eternally grateful to everyone of them. And I have done beta reading for many of them, in turn.
  • If you are an unpublished writer and want a published writer to beta read for you, you should probably forget it. Unless they are a good friend, it is unlikely to happen. Most authors don't have time, and are especially reluctant to help people they don't know for fear of later being accused of pinching their ideas.

And this pix has nothing to do with beta readers. It's just a water monitor that lives around our apartment block - and it is 5' long - a metre and a half. Click on it for a good look.

7 comments:

Bernita said...

Finding them is very, very difficult.
But found, they are like gold.
Am still at the pyrites stage.

KarenEMiller said...

The monitor is gorgeous!

Excellent advice there, Glenda. As one who has benefited hugely from your beta reading, I'll endorse everything you say. I've also benefited from others who've given up their time to read and shred, and the debt is almost impossible to repay.

I will add this -- if you're very lucky you'll get a beta reader who'll really shred your work. If your goal is just to be told how wonderful you are, you're in the wrong game. But if you really want to improve your work, whatever stage you're at, encourage your betas to pull the writing apart without mercy. A good sharp edit can be the best gift you're ever given.

Lisa said...

I might add that offering to be a beta reader is not only good manners but a good way of securing a beta reader in return. It's also good for the soul.

Great picture!

Cheers, Lisa.

Glenda Larke said...

Hear, hear. To all comments.

Sherri said...

I just acquired a beta reader, another unpublished novelist like myself. He hasn't started reading it yet (he's on vacation), but I can't wait! I was stuck for months, knowing the plot wasn't fitting together quite right, but I can't see where. It definitely needs an unbiased set of eyes.

As Lisa said, his offer to help me has assured him my help if he desires it.

Glenda, thanks for all your great advice!

Asad said...

Great advice Glenda! Being a beta reader myself, I can attest to the points you have posted.

The experience is equally beneficial to both the author and the beta if they understand eachother. There's a lot to be learned from it for both of the involved parties.

Abraxan said...

Asad is one of my betas, and he's a gem. I'm not sure what he's learned from his beta experience, but we've had a lot of fun working on my stories so far!

Good betas ARE worth their weight in gold, and I'm blessed to have an absolutely fabulous beta team (including Asad). I especially love having people who "get" my work with whom I can toss ideas around. Sometimes I just need to hear somebody say, "That's not going to work" or "that's not a bad idea" or "yeah, that's a stronger opening." I'd be very lonely without my betas!

Good article!