Saturday, April 23, 2016

Writing Tips: The Beta Reader

Writing can be a great experience. It can leave you breathless and excited, it can leave you heartsick and quiet; it can take you on all the ups and downs of life. That's what makes it so beautiful.

But at some point, this beautiful experience will have to be shared. You cannot stay forever in The Cave of Writerly Isolation. You'll have to come out of it, and when you do, you'll have to share what you have to show for all the time you were away in that that Cave. Chances are, you already have a list of the people you want to see your manuscript first (people we writers like to call Beta Readers). But, on the off chance you haven't thought about it, or have and can't find anyone you think would give you unbiased criticism, I am here to help. That's what I do, right?

Let's get started.

When thinking about who to add to your beta reader list (between 5-10 people, optimally), you generally go through the people closest to you that you want to have read your work, be it your mom, friend, coach, co-worker. And any of these are fine, but I want you to ask yourself, honestly, Will these people give me an unbiased opinion? Will I profit from handing my baby over to them? If the answer is not immediately a resounding Yes! or even a convicted Probably, then I would say go for it. Give your novel over to that person and let them have a go at it.

But how (and who?) do you choose your beta readers? It's a hard choice, sometimes, but one that, if done well, will service you in ways you cannot yet imagine. So let's get down to it and ask the question you're all thinking: How do I pick readers?? 

First off, don't be embarrassed if you really don't think your best friend would be a good reader; sometimes it's like that. And it's okay, too, if your mom can't give you the most unbiased opinion. She's your mom; she's paid to be biased when it comes to your work. And what if both your friends and family are not good fits? Well, think about it: just because your friends don't write a lot doesn't mean they don't read a lot. And you are not looking for beta writers, but beta readers. So, think: do you have a friend that likes to read? Even if he/she is not public about it, does he/she have a stuffed bookshelf at home? A tattered, well-used library card? A good vocabulary? All of these are good signs that your friend is a reader. And that's what we're going for.

You don't need someone who can tell you what to do; you need someone to tell you where there are problems, so that you can turn creative and fix them.

Also, if you stress to your friends that what they say will not hurt your feelings in any way (particularly if you are a female), and tell them that it's okay to be wild with their suggestions, comments and tips, more often than not, I think you would be surprised by what they have to say.

What about family? Okay, let me disappoint some of you-- family may not be the best way to go on your first round of betas. That's not to say that they can never be beta readers for you, but maybe you should wait until the second round to let them in on the loop. Why? Family tends to being more biased than even your family. You are more likely to hear the dreaded phrase: It was a nice story. That is not what you are going for. Does it help? No. Will it make you a better writer? No. Will it make you a worse writer? Maybe. And why would you spend the fifteen bucks to print your manuscript for someone who will do you no good whatsoever?

This isn't to say that there are no exceptions to this rule; there most certainly are. I'm just saying, choose your readers wisely, especially if they are in your family. For instance, I have an aunt who will always give healthy criticism, and I have no qualms about giving her my books to read. However, my grandmother is not the same. She would probably smile as she read all the choppy, badly written places thinking, My granddaughter, whose diapers I once changed, wrote this. She grew up and became a writer! This, as you know, is less than ideal. Extremely unhelpful, it is a waste of time, energy and resources. So, seek out those in your family (if you must) who will benefit you the most. Those who are not afraid to tell you just what's wrong with your story are the most helpful.

So, some of you are probably thinking, I have the one family member and one friend. But didn't you suggest five to ten people for optimal results? To which I answer, Yes. yes I did. Now you may ask, Well, where will I find the other eight? These two are all I've got! First, don't panic. Sometimes two is more than enough. But before you stop looking for others, let me tell you of the phenomenon that is the Internet.

There are online beta reader communities for those of us who may or may not have a sufficient amount of IRL readers. There is a Goodreads Community, for one, and one on Pub-Hub, too. There's a world of options. How do you find them? Well, you can start by Googling Online Beta Reader Communities, for one. Find what you can find, see what you can see. The net can be a marvelous thing, if put to good use.

Also, if you are (or have been) part of the NaNoWriMo (Camp or regular) community, or some other form of an online Writing commune, there is a whole network of beta readers for you right there. Make some writing buddies, and do what writing buddies do best: Buddy up to Write. Two of my writing buddies from November will be reading for me in May, and I think that they will give me some of the best feedback.

In closing, I would like to say this: the most important thing about using beta readers is that you never do everything they say. I'm sure that, had your favorite author given you your favorite book and asked you to beta read it, you would have suggested some change to it that is not there. Does that stop you from loving it? By no means! Everyone will give you some entirely subjective suggestions, and that is all they are: suggestions. You use them or you don't, it's your story. If many of them all agree on the same things, you should consider it, but after that? It's your story, not theirs. So write it.

Be sure not to take it personally, either, if they suggest you kill your darlings. After all, it's about the story, not you.

Now, I need to stop writing about writing and actually start writing. And maybe you should stop reading about writing and do what you need to do: Write. 

As always, Happy Writing!

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