The Catching and Feeding of Betas
No, not to the sharks. Good betas are too hard to find. Good well-trained betas are worth their weight in gold – or in the case of the plus-sized betas, worth their weight in chocolate.
Since I was asked in the comments of last week’s ramble how one goes about snaring a good beta reader, I figured I’d write a bit on that line today.
First off, to catch your beta you need to go fishing in the right places. If you’re writing high fantasy, you probably don’t want to solicit lit-fic readers. The results can get… interesting. More to the point, they don’t help you. There are online forums that are good for this. For anything not overly literary, the Baen’s Bar forums are a good place to find like-minded folks – but being the online venue of the publisher, there are some tricky etiquette matters in soliciting for readers. Nothing horrible, just don’t ask in an author’s forum unless you’ve got the author’s permission, and don’t ask in the publisher’s forum, period. Oh, and rule #1 over there is “Don’t be a butthead”. This is very important. Engrave it inside your eyelids so you see it every time you blink because it makes for a damn good rule for life in general.
There are other forums around – google and some browsing will find something that works.
Once you’ve found a community of readers hungry for content who don’t mind being asked to beta something, your next step is to solicit for readers. Here you want a nice wide trawling net. You tell people you’re looking for readers for a story. Give them its rough length (novel, short story, novella, whatever – bear in mind that beta-ing a novel is a big time commitment, and doing so chapter-by-chapter is damn near impossible) and the kind of story it is – mil SF, high fantasy with detours into urban fantasy, steampunk on battery acid… That way you’ll get people who have at least passing familiarity with the tropes of the subgenre as well as people who like it. And say up front the kind of feedback you’re hoping for, which can be as simple as “does everything hang together” or “does it hold interest”. Most of the requests I’ve seen are looking for whether the piece works and any glaring throw-the-book-against-the-wall flaws. It does help – a lot – if you have a finished draft to send them. Unfinished works mean that the readers have to try to guess where you’re taking the plot, which distorts any feedback beyond “is it working?”.
You collect names and email addresses, then send out the piece to your list of betas with more detailed (if you want) suggestions on what you want them to look at. Then you wait. You probably won’t get anything back from some, and a lot of what you do get will be – to put it nicely – not much use. Most people aren’t that good at figuring out what makes a story work and what doesn’t help. The normal default is to fall back on what they think they know, namely spelling and grammar.
Once you get the feedback, take note of what works best, and which of your readers made those suggestions. These are the readers you tap first next time around. After a few cycles you’ll find you have a core of people you can trust to tell you if it stinks and if there’s something horribly wrong. You’ll also have built the ability to translate from what your readers say to what is actually bugging them.
That’s it in a nutshell. It can take quite a long time if you’re working with novels, especially if you have a day job. But you will eventually gather your little cadre of trusted betas, some of whom will overlap with other people’s trusted betas. Sometimes they’ll suggest people they know, because they’re too busy with the other authors they’re reading for.
Some other tips: if you’re wanting specific feedback, say on the micro-gravity physics that’s central to your plot, ask for someone with expertise in that area to please review for glaring technical errors. Same for any other technical field: ask and ye shall (probably) receive. Just don’t expect the specialists to have much room for more than “yeah, this will work” or “that won’t work, you need to do X” – scientists, historians and the like who are also genre fiction geeks are very much in demand for all those interesting sticky situations we authors manage to get our characters into. Thank them nicely for anything they can give you.
And of course, thank all your readers for their help. Most of them are legitimately trying to help, and any form of critique takes practice.