Hunting For Beta Readers — by Larry Bauer

*Sorry guys, the auto-immune is still killing me.  I SHOULD NOT have had that many carbs in LC, but I was running on fumes.  Yeah, I don’t know why carbs set off auto-immune.  I’m messed up.  Anyway, I’m saving whatever strength I have to work on the other house.  Prayers it gets done by the weekend.  The end is actually in sight, except for someone to redo the counters.  I can redo them but that would take another week, and to be frank I need two/three days of rest and then to write.  I desperately need to write. Anyway, uncle Lar was nice enough to send me this, and hopefully won’t mind I put it up late.  And he has some great insights.- SAH*

Hunting For Beta Readers — by Larry Bauer

What the heck is a beta reader and why would I want one?

Friends help you move, good friends help you move bodies, really good friends agree to read your latest work of precious prose then tell you the truth.

Years ago I helped a few authors with their ongoing projects through a little web based meeting place known as Baen’s Bar. Recently, having retired and with more time on my hands I’ve picked that hobby back up for several authors met through MGC and ATH. After doing so it occurred to me that I really had no firm idea what the term beta reader meant, what it involved, or what an author should legitimately expect back from one. Being a science and engineering type I decided to research the topic and write down my observations.

First a bit of terminology:

First reader/beta reader – somewhat similar in nature, a first reader is more likely a spouse, relative, or very close friend. They often get handed what have come to be called snippets, chapter or scene length sections of a longer work that the writer wants an opinion on. On occasion, particularly when a writer is just starting out, this request for input may be done on a web site with comments open to whomever wishes to jump in. A typical beta reader can be a relative, friend, or just someone who’s opinion the writer values. They are usually given a draft copy of a completed work.

Pro reader – a surprising number of writers, particularly indie writers, are part of a network of such, usually in similar or at least somewhat related genre who will swap each other’s works back and forth. They are generally looking for help with a bit of plotting or how to best describe a situation so as to keep the reader interested.

Subject matter expert readers – one of the worst sins a writer can commit is to make a real and obvious mistake about a subject that a large subset of potential readers may be knowledgeable in. This is true for numerous areas of expertise: medicine, aeronautics, space operations, firearms and other weaponry, really any technical area where details matter. If the writer is not himself an expert in these things but such details are required for the story it is only prudent to run the descriptions past someone who can point out glaring mistakes. In addition, a situation may occur where the writer really needs such a detail to bring the story together, but a quick web search fails to supply the perfect answer to fit. In this case it’s extremely helpful to send the scene to your pet expert with a kind and courteous request to please fill in that blank space between the brackets where the main character reaches into their bag of tricks and pulls out xxx to save the day.

Copy editor – this is the retired English teacher with a green eye shade and sharp red pen. They are looking for tense, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those other nits that make it past that blooming idiot spelling and grammar checker built into MS Word and most other text editors. Special note, this should only be done as a final step before formatting the finished work for publication. Should you choose to go traditional publisher it’s generally understood that they will do this for you. This is a critical step in producing a finished and professional product.

So, there you have the marching army you as the writer need in order to get your baby ready to send off to the fates, or Amazon, or a publisher’s slush pile.

Heres what you don’t want:

– someone who cares about you and is afraid of hurting your feelings. Mothers seldom make good first readers. Spouses, depends on whether they can be bluntly honest.

– anyone with an agenda they feel strongly about, particularly in the subject matter your story deals with. They will try to get you to tell their story, not the one you started out with. Input and details are fine, but it’s your story. Let them write their own.

– anyone who is simply not a fan of the genre you’re working in unless you have a very good reason otherwise to want their opinion. I hate westerns but yours was interesting is a valid and potentially helpful bit of information, or at least gives you an avenue to pursue in a quest for why they found it interesting.

– Ethyl the retired English teacher, at least not until the very last thing. Until then correcting small grammar and punctuation errors is simply a nuisance and a distraction.

What you do want:

– a second set of eyes. A writer’s brain plays strange tricks. You can read past the same silly mistake a dozen times and your mind will self correct to where you just cannot see the error.

– a reader’s perspective. Were they pulled into the world of the book? Did they develop an interest in the characters? Were there places where the action lagged and they started to feel bored? Did the story speak to them?

– truly glaring errors. Was a character’s name Sam in chapter one and Simms in chapter ten? Was it a full moon one night and dark of the moon the next, unless that’s an integral part of some technology or magic in your story?

Special needs:

– as stated earlier, if you don’t have the expertise yourself you need a technical expert who can talk you through the fiddly bits. If you make stuff up you can fool most of the readers, but those who know better will throw your book against the wall, and then want you to pay for a new replacement Kindle. You’ll find that most subject matter experts are flattered to help educate. Many of them are on their third or fourth Kindle after all.

– those fellow Pro writers I mentioned. A surprising number of MGC members have an ongoing relationship with each other. They are mostly just starting out, or at least not yet at that rarified superstar writer status where they can no longer afford to spend time with their compatriots. Genre aside, most of the problems a writer runs into are endemic to the field, and this is how I solved that problem may just fit your situation or at least spark a solution of your own. Do not let them rewrite your book for you, but a few helpful nudges past a tough spot are a huge help. Just remember to pay it forward when someone seeks your help later on.

In closing, unless you are a hermit living in a cave you probably have friends and associates who are willing to help you out with these necessary steps in getting your story ready for the public. Treat them well, they’re doing you a great favor. Mention them either in the foreward or afterward of your completed book. It will make your day.

My bona fides:

Cranky old retired fart, reader of science fiction, mystery, and adventure stories for over 50 years. Firearms and edged weapons hobbyist for 45 years. Graduate level engineer with 24 years experience in manned science payload operations in near Earth orbit.

If anyone needs a beta reader or subject matter expert in any of my areas of knowledge feel free to get in touch. Won’t say yes without a bit of discussion, but I’m willing to talk.

Special thanks to Sarah Hoyt, Cedar Sanderson/Bagley, and Dorothy Grant for their valuable inputs to this article. That said, the opinions expressed are mine alone.

Larry Alan Bauer

aka Uncle Lar

44 Comments

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44 responses to “Hunting For Beta Readers — by Larry Bauer

  1. If there’s a contact for Larry, I missed it. I’m interested in seeing if he wants to beta my WIP, The Ship. Contact me at jlknapp505@msn.com

  2. Actually i am looking for a “subject matter expert” to speak to, specifically someone who has worked on offshore oil rigs in SE Asia. Part of the book I’m currently working on (which was supposed to be finished over a month ago until a new contract kicked in and i found myself working 12-14 hour days) takes place on one and since its a job I’ve never actually done I would love to talk to someone who has. I don’t suppose anyone here could help?

    • Online articles or blogs from those in the industry would be almost as good and I would appreciate any links anyone could provide.

        • Thank you. That is really helpful. I already know the plot point, but I don’t know what the environment is like. I can see why Sarah holds you in such high esteem. I don’t suppose you have anything that is Philippines specific? Specifically anything that is specific to the Cebu area? If not no worries, I have no doubt what you have provided will be helpful. I just thought that since you were so quick off the draw you might have a few more in your back pocket. Either way it gives me a good starting point which is AWESOME.

          • Uncle Lar

            A skill I may have failed to mention is a certain knack for internet searches. I grabbed those links in about ten minutes of looking. Then of course WordPress put my reply in moderation for half an hour due to the multiple links.
            Sarah has me trained well. I’ve come to expect last minute short turn around requests for obscure research materials from her, so why treat anyone else any differently.
            Nothing specific to the Philippines I’m afraid, though the discussion on Thai locations looked interesting.

            • Ill be totally honest, My google-fu is weak. Like 13 year old girl weak (to quote Rip) Ive bookmarked the links for perusal when Im a bit more sober, (bad day at the office) and I have no doubt they will be useful. Im just getting used to a new schedule ( Some folks may have noticed I’m now posting comments here again after a month or so absence) and I would assume that thai platforms will be largely similar to flip platforms, but since so much of this first novel takes place in the phills Im trying to make sure my research is as good as possible. But either way you’ve given me a starting point which is awesome. Seriously, thanks again Larry. I’ve long considered Sarah to be Lit-heesi, Mother of writers, but I think I will have to begin considering you as Lar-croft, Lunar AI of research. 🙂

  3. Of your list, the ones I appreciate are a second set of eyes and a reader’s perspective.

    I’d add that having another human NOT tell you that you are out of your mind is very handy. The first few people I asked to read Pride’s Children for me dropped out within a chapter or 2 citing ‘life’ – and I always wondered whether they really meant, ‘Ewww! Crap! Retreat!’ and were too nice to say so (new authors have very exposed egos).

    When I asked someone who commented on the first scenes I posted on my blog if she would like to read them before anyone else, because I really liked her comments, she said she would – and stayed with me faithfully and full of wonderful questions and comments until I posted the last scene, about two years later. Rachel kept me sane. She found a typo or two. She gave me feedback on FINISHED work, right before I fixed those little things and actually posted the scenes.

    I call her my beta reader, but the definition of that is a bit flexible, because she saw finished scenes, but not the book as a whole, finished. My writing partner and I used to trade chapters when we met for lunch – but she saw first drafts, and we mostly just provided A reader for each other; support, not critique, possibly a comment or two.

    I think your needs change as you learn to write. This worked very well for me, and Rachel says she can’t wait for the next one, so I’m safe. Phew!

  4. One of my best beta readers was actually my late father, who wasn’t afraid to be critical and doubled as a technical expert, since he worked for many years as a research biologist. If it had to do with science, botany, zoology, or the environment in general, he was on it. I still miss him for all that …
    I rounded up some impartial beta readers for my last book by asking on the Sunday morning book thread on the Ace of Spades HQ blog last fall, and got quite valuable feedback and assistance from those volunteers.
    More than one way to skin a cat, so to speak

  5. Not sure how this fits – one of my co-workers read the story I had in a contest and liked it. When I told her that there was a novel with a couple of the same characters she wanted to see it. I’ve been passing her a chapter or two as I get then cleaned up (what I’ve been calling the first wash). She’s not a writer or editor, she’s a reader, but she’s asked a few really good questions.

  6. Gina Marie

    I too would like a beta reader — or two or a dozen. I have nine novels up on Amazon and a short novel, but I really was hermit who lived in a cave before I had a stroke, but now I’ve moved further underground and become a virtual troglodyte. 😀 My latest novel is about the early colonization of space and there is a lot of technical details about the environment on asteroids that I can’t get enough eyes on. The work is done, I am just checking every technical detail I can. If you would be interested, please contact me a gmwylie@gmail.com

  7. A good set of beta readers is invaluable. Mine keep me honest, don’t let me lazily elide past something unlikely or needing explanation. _Then_ they turn around and go Grammar Nazi on me.

    • Uncle Lar

      Honestly, the natural tendency I have to go all grammar/spell check on a piece of work was the hardest to overcome. Input from Sarah, Cedar, and Dorothy Grant are what made me realize that such a focus really has no place in a beta read.
      On a final copy edit job, OTOH, it’s not only appropriate, it’s necessary for a finished polished piece of work. And again it’s almost guaranteed that an author’s eyes will skim over those mistakes no matter how often they review the text. It’s a brain thing.

      • Yep. I skip whole words, and the brain just fills it in as I re-read. For that final copy edit, I’ve taken to using Google docs, so they can all pile on a single copy and not duplicate their efforts.

        But it all the stuff before that that makes me really really appreciate them.

      • And here is where I’ll beg to differ. On a beta read I also behave as an editor, and use it to teach grammar (as well as technique) where the author is lacking. The sooner the author becomes sensitized to their own habitual mistakes, the sooner they can learn to correct ’em on the fly (or even not make ’em in the first place) — which makes the process of writing itself that much easier.

        In my observation and experience, learning to write so “first draft is final draft” can be taught, and the above method is a big part of that. “Author struggling with how to say something” is nearly always contiguous with grammatical convolutions (and is becoming more common as education continues to dumb down) and/or suboptimal technique. And when you’re no longer struggling with these aspects of the writing process, the “need to revise” also tends to go away, because the whole brain is ON the story the first time by, and it doesn’t go off-track anymore.

        The first author I “trained” like that became a best-seller in her genre. The last two I worked with, both fairly set in their ways, went from barely-getting-better to order-of-magnitude improvement practically overnight, and how easily their words flow from brain to page improved apace. And I’ve raised a few others from pups and watched their writing grow the same way. The more I do this, the more I become convinced that the author should not be left to write in ignorance of their own bad habits, because the resulting chronic struggle actually inhibits the creative muse.

        • When is the next class?

        • I’ve had some first-final drafts, notably the book that’s made me the most money so far. The problem is not “learning” the problem is how exhausted/ill I am. If Uncle Lar had tried to correct my mistakes in Through Fire, I might have bitten him. It was the best I could do in my state of exhaustion/illness and yeah, it’s “messy” particularly for me. But that’s not because I don’t know how to do it, it’s because brain not working.

        • Holly

          Disclaimer: I’m one of Pam’s rabid fans, er, I mean beta readers.

          I think you’re talking about something totally different here, Reziac. The things we catch on a typo check, which is when we put on our Grammar Nazi hats, are things like double spaces, ‘Ahja’ instead of ‘Ajha’, ‘Deserts’ instead of ‘Desserts’, (Yes, those are character names–well, Deserts isn’t. Yet.) Some are worth pointing out in first draft, but most of them aren’t.

          I think what you’re talking about is what I used to do in college for my friends stuck in Freshman English, which is fix sentences like this: ‘They is famous for he had attempted escaped the prison camp in 1943.’

        • Uncle Lar

          You’re certainly entitled to your opinion. But skill with correct English is not the same thing as skill in story telling. Wordsmithing comes naturally for some, but for others it’s a constant struggle. Should a writer develop the skill to generate the cleanest draft possible? Of course. But not at the expense of telling the tale. And if agonizing over grammar, punctuation, and spelling gets in the way of capturing the essence of the story, then I say put them aside, write your story, then either do the grunt work of copy edit as a final pass, or if that is not in your skill set, pay someone to do it for you.
          Here’s the thing, a bunch of folks I hang with are in the midst of bringing down an establishment of gatekeepers who have kept the riffraff and rabble isolated from seeing their stories in publication. Demanding that a writer must produce text to Strunk and White standards feels to me like just another form of gatekeeping. Before publication, absolutely! While in the midst of the creative process, only if the effort does not interfere with that process.
          I did give Sarah a shopping list of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors I spotted in Through Fire. That was my mistake, It was not what she needed at that stage. My real input was my perception of pacing, flow, action, and that delicate balance with any sequel of just how much backstory is appropriate. To be clear, as a tale it was excellent, but as an English paper it stunk on ice. Didn’t matter. I knew it would be cleaned up both before being shipped off to Baen, and again by a Baen editor before publication.

  8. If you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (as I strongly suspect from all you’ve said) then carbs make TSH go up which stimulates increased antibody production, and then you get psoriasis (usually mistaken for eczema) and other autoimmune symptoms. There is a specific test for these antibodies. Anything above the 25-40 range is suspect.

  9. How do you feel about zombies Lair?

    I also need a technical expert in biology/virology if anyone is strong in that field.

    mobiuswolf.zombies at gmail

    • Uncle Lar

      On the whole zombie thing I must confess to a definite meh attitude. In my opinion John Ringo did the perfect series by specifically making his evil agents zombie like but not true zombie in the traditional sense.

  10. Chupacabra, cucaracha, capybara…coincidence? Or CONSPIRACY!!!! 4 comments

  11. Uncle Lar

    Naturally, reading over what I sent to Sarah I found two errors. It should read “It will make their day” instead of “your day.” And I managed to misspell Cedar’s married name. It’s Begley not Bagley. Where oh where was that perfect beta reader when I really needed one?

    • The same place my copy editor was when I re-read something off my backlist a few weeks ago. How did we miss . . .? 8(

  12. sanfordbegley

    Ahem, Begley, Bagley is Cynthia

  13. sanfordbegley

    OOPS, looked at all except your last comment, >BLUSHING<

  14. I just reviewed Max Florschutz’ second book, Dead Silver, on Amazon. Not certain if I’m gonna blog it, though, because I just blogged his first book, One Drink, last week. I think I owe that spot to someone else, and am trying to remember who that is…

  15. I too am looking for beta readers, I have a buddy who is a reader who will be my first reader, but I’m a bit worried that he wont be able to be critical enough to give me an honest review. We’ve known each other for years and meet up every friday for several buckets of beer and far ranging conversation. However he also serves as a technical expert on firearms, (not that I need much help with that) small unit tactics, urban warfare, the navy and the middle east. The fact that he was Naval Intelligence for 20 years and spent 10 years as a PMC in Iraq Afghanistan, and Africa has already been a huge help to me. Not only do i get to pick his brain but he keeps giving me military training doc’s (the ones he can anyway) The one on booby traps was especially enlightening.

    BTW dumb question time. What does c4c mean?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      C4C means “comment for comments”. People are making a “comment” so that they can “click” on the check-mark labeled “Notify me of new comments via email”. [Smile]

  16. ahhh. I see. Well my blog is on wordpress so Im automatically updated if anyone replies to one of my comments, bu are reading but not actiely commenting on. Thanks. ut i can see how that would help to follow threads that yo

  17. And anyone who is willing to talk about being a beta reader for me please contact me at mars underscore ascendant at yahoo dot com. Uncle Lar, reziak, I would be honored if either of you (or both) were willing to be as critical as possible with my work. However I feel I should warn folks that my first book is neither science fiction nor fantasy, has some fairly explicit sex scenes, and a good chunk of it takes place in the manila girlie bar scene so if that is something you might be offended by reading I will understand. The other stuff I’m working on is more traditional sci-fi and urban horror, but I’m nowhere near finished with any of it. The funny thing is I decided to finish this particular book first because I thought it would be a bit simpler, but since its essentially the story of one mans emotional journey its actually proving to be much more challenging than I thought. I also reckon its the one that is most likely offend people since it deals with some themes and events which as my grandaddy would have said “isn’t fit to discuss in the presence of ladies”

    But since I’m already 17,000 words in I figure I might as well finish it up, and then move on to the other ideas.

  18. I have been fortunate in many ways. My husband and mother are both very good Beta readers. They actually ask questions and give good advice. They don’t always know how to fix problems but they can usually point me to the problems and confirm when I am on the right track. (Now to keep this book from dividing rather amoeba like again.)

  19. Uncle Lar,

    Thanks for the shout-out, and I’m glad to have been of some help!

    • Uncle Lar

      Your comments from an earlier blog and your remarks at Libertycon were of immense help kind lady. And I must observe that having actually seen you in full form at the con I can understand where Peter gets his inspiration.
      For those who’ve never had the pleasure of their company, Peter even off his feed as he was at LC brings a wealth of world experience and creativity to the table. And Dorothy is IMHO a dynamo of business sense and acumen. Paired up as they are they most strongly resemble a force of nature.

  20. Tony Thompson

    Would you be willing to give my story a look? It’s a “modern tech meets magic” kind of story. I’ve gotten some good feedback on it from folks over at the Baen Bar, but they’ve seen it in snippets basically. I’d like someone to take a look at the complete first(ish) draft. I post on Baen (and most other places) as Justtony. Or drop me an email at justanotherat (at) gmail (dot) com.
    Thanks for any consideration at all.
    Tony