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Posts tagged ‘beta readers’

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.

Beta readers and beyond

by Amanda S. Green

Sunday I posted some thoughts about beta readers, what they do — and don’t do — and an author’s responsibility regarding them. When I originally wrote the post, it was meant to be a one-time deal. However, some comments made on the blog and privately in e-mail have convinced me this is a topic that needs to be explored a bit more.

If you google “beta reader”, the  definitions you come up with run the gamut. Some say beta readers do look for things like grammar, punctuation, flow, etc. Others seem more in line with what I said: that a beta reader reads and then lets the author know the strengths and weaknesses of the work: looking at things like if the book grabbed and held their attention, did they connect with the characters, etc.

So, it really is up to the author to make sure he tells his beta readers what he wants from them.

And, beta readers, it is essential that, once you’ve been told the guidelines, you follow them. Otherwise, you run the risk of pulling the writer out of the creative process and into an editorial loop that can turn counter-productive. You also risk not being asked to beta read for that author again and, let’s face it, most of us love getting early looks at what our author friends are working on.

Authors, tell your beta readers what you want them to look for. Or at least tell them what you don’t want them focusing on, promising to have specific questions afterwards. Betas, if you aren’t given that much guidance, don’t be afraid to ask the author what they want you to look for.

Okay, so now the beta process is over and the author is once more looking at the manuscript with the comments from their betas in mind. This is where some self-discipline on the writer’s part comes into play. Because we are often anything but confident in what we’re working on at the time, there is the tendency to want to change everything that a beta reader comments on. Don’t. Please, authors, don’t. Look at all the comments from your beta readers and see if there is a consensus among the betas. If there is, then take a hard look at what they are saying and weigh it dispassionately. If their suggestion makes the story stronger, do it. If not, file it away for later consideration. I tend to follow the rule of three. If three betas say the same thing, I have to consider it.

That doesn’t mean I automatically throw out individual comments. I don’t. I do look at them and consider them. But, I’ve learned — as a beta reader and as an author — the danger of thinking that everything each and every beta brings up is a mandatory change. I’ve seen instances where a beta reader has focused entirely on spelling and punctuation. Guess what, that beta was a worse speller and knew the rules of punctuation less well than did I. Another didn’t like the way I’d spelled a character’s name and went through changing it to the “proper” spelling. Yes, there are dents on my desk from where I pounded my head against it.

So, communication between author and beta at the beginning is essential. The ground rules need to be set and followed.

One of the comments I received to Sunday’s post was that authors, especially those who haven’t been published, need someone to tell them if their grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., needs work. I agree. Heck, I know published authors who need this as well. Frankly, this phase of editing is essential, whether the author is going the self-published route or the traditional publishing route. It’s obvious why the self-published author needs this help. I can’t tell you the number of comments I’ve seen on various e-book/e-reader boards about the need for self-pubbed authors to find someone who can edit them.

However, those same comments are also being said about those authors taking the traditional route. Publishers don’t edit and proofread/copy edit to the degree they used to. Oh, they tell you they do. That’s one of their selling points. The reality is, it isn’t of the quality it used to be. Talk to any author who works with a legacy publisher and you’ll hear horror stories about changes made that completely changed the meaning of the sentence/paragraph. So, yes, they need someone to make sure the manuscript is as clean as possible before sending it out. But that is part of the editing process, not the creative process and, frankly, beta readers come in the creation process when the author is still focused on making sure the story works.

All this is a round-about way of saying there are, in my opinion, several stages in the process before a manuscript is ready for submission:

  • creation
  • beta reading
  • editing
  • copy edits/proofreading
  • final edits
  • submission

Of course, each author works a bit differently. Some write manuscripts that are so clean very little is needed in the way of proofreading. Others write so that there are no consistency issues. Some have not only beta readers but what we’ll call alpha readers, those who have been with the writer for a long time and are very familiar with the author’s style and process. These alpha readers are sort of a bridge between beta readers and final edits. They have proven their ability to spot issues, as well as strengths, and to help the writer strengthen the novel both in story and in structure. Alpha readers are familiar with the style manual for the publisher the author is submitting to — and believe me, different publishers do have different rules and a lot of them don’t make any sense. But you still need to follow them. That’s another reason I suggest that beta readers not focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling. The lesson is that there is no right way, but there are a lot of wrong ways that can sabotage the novel and the author. The way to prevent it is communication.

Do authors in general need beta readers? Hell, yes. Do beta readers need to be proofreaders? Absolutely not. They are the first line in verification that a novel works. If the story isn’t there, if the characters aren’t such that they grab the reader, then it doesn’t matter if the rules of grammar are followed. Believe me, I’ve read submissions that are technically perfect but the story is so bad it can’t be saved.

Speaking as an editor, give me a good story first and foremost. As long as the grammar and punctuation aren’t so bad they throw me out of the story, I don’t care if there is a split infinitive or a dangling modifier. That can be fixed during the editorial process. Have a handful of trusted beta readers. Listen to them. Consider what they said. Implement what needs to be implemented. Then have one or two proofreaders who know the style sheet for the publisher in question look it over. Once it’s ready, submit — or self-pub it. But don’t sweat the technical until the story is there. At least that’s my opinion.

And, betas, don’t get your nose out of joint if an author doesn’t do everything you suggest. Just as an author has to be dispassionate about his work during edits, you need to be the same. You don’t know what the other betas said. You might have misread something and that’s what caused you to make the suggestion/comment you did. Be honest with your opinions. But don’t sweat the technical rules of grammar unless the author has asked you to. If they haven’t asked for that sort of comment, volunteer to help with the proofreading when it’s time for that stage of the process.

Remember, the whole goal is to make sure the book is as entertaining as possible. Structure is important, but that is checked near the end, after the base, the story, has been perfected.

Betas, we love them and fear them. . .

by Amanda S. Green

Kate’s post yesterday touched on a topic that has been percolating at the back of my mind for the last month or so. It’s one we’ve touched on before but now that NaNoWriMo is over – and now that more authors are taking the self-publish route – I think it’s one that needs to be discussed. Basically, it’s about the difference between beta readers and copy editors/proofreaders.

Every writer goes through that phase where he doesn’t think what he writes is good enough for anyone to see. For a period of time (sometimes for the writer’s entire life), his work is tossed under the bed or in the closet once it’s finished and no one gets to read it. But for most of us, there comes a time when we finally let go of our baby and let someone read it. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been cajoled and threatened and bribed – Yes, Sarah, I’m talking about you – into letting someone read it. Sometimes, it’s because we can no longer stand just tossing our babies into a dark corner, never to see the light of day. But, for whatever the reason, we finally let someone pry our work from our fingers and we go hide under the sink, waiting for their comments.

Once we’ve finally decided that maybe, just maybe, we’re ready for the world-at-large to see our work, we need to find first readers, or beta readers. I know the first time I was asked to beta read something, I thought it was like what we did in the critique group at the time: correct spelling and punctuation, formatting, wording things the way I would word them. Boy, was I clueless. Spelling and punctuation, as well as formatting, are what the proofreader looks at. Wording things the way I would word them – well, let’s just say I still wonder at the restraint the author showed in not smacking me.

Fortunately for me, the author was a patient soul and taught me what a beta reader is. A beta reader is that person who reads your manuscript and lets you know if there are major consistency issues with it. Did you promise the reader four weddings – one for each sister – and halfway through the book, forget about one of the sisters? Is there a major ick factor to the book? If so, what is it and why? Does the story make sense or have you just laid a turkey egg?

In other words, a beta reader doesn’t edit and doesn’t proof. They read. Giving the author a list of grammar and punctuation problems isn’t going to help – unless the author has asked for it. Look at it this way, beta readers are reading for content, not to see if it follows all the rules. For one thing, if the manuscript is going to a publisher, that publisher might have a house style sheet you, the beta reader, aren’t familiar with and you could be giving the author bad advice. For another, proofing comes later – after the story is finalized.

There’s something else to keep in mind when you beta read for someone: don’t keep hammering at them about what you think. Tell them once and let it go. Most authors have more than one beta reader. They listen to what each one says. But, if only one person comes back saying they had a problem with something and no one else did, the author will probably go with the majority. More than that, if you keep harping about an issue to the author, well, you start falling into that toxic relationship Kate was talking about yesterday. Remember, authors are, on the whole, not overly confident in their work to begin with. If you keep pushing at them about what is a perceived fault in their work, you very well may get them into a spiral where all they are doing is obsessing about a nit that really didn’t need to be picked.

Don’t assume you know the author’s process. In other words, you can’t assume you KNOW why they’re doing something  and you shouldn’t even be thinking that way. As a beta reader, you should be thinking as though you didn’t know the author —   so no “Oh, she wrote this because of THIS incident”.

Another example of what you shouldn’t do as a beta reader:  if the author notes that a character’s birthday was on the 12th   and later in the manuscript, there’s a reference to the birthday being on the 15th, note it but don’t obsess about it UNLESS it becomes a major consistency issue. In 99.9% of the times, it won’t be. It’s a typo. Nothing more.

Now that isn’t to say don’t tell them if you have a problem with the story. They need to know that. But only if it deals with the story, not with the grammar, etc., unless it is so bad you can’t read it. Period. End of story.

Beta readers are an invaluable part of the writing process. You are often the author’s touchstone with reality when it comes to what they’ve just written. But very often, betas also get the work before the author has done any major editing. Another reason why you shouldn’t worry about the nits when it comes to grammar, punctuation, etc. Besides, any author who is serious about making a go of writing will either have his own copy editor/proofreader he works with for his self-published work or his publisher does.  So, focus on the story.

Remember, beta reading is not the same as being a critique partner. Nor is it being an editor/copy editor/proofreader. It is being a reader and then answering honestly any questions the author has for you. Did the book work? Did it hold your attention? Were there MAJOR plot inconsistencies that need to be dealt with? Did it surprise you when X died or Y married Z or when the elves and dwarves married and lived happily ever after? It is not pointing out every split infinitive and dangling modifier, correcting spelling or second guessing how and why the author wrote what he did. It sure isn’t trying to make the novel yours with “helpful” suggestions. After all, do you want your betas having you rewrite your novel so it sounds like something they wrote? (Well, I’ll admit I’d love it if Dave or Sarah did that to my work. J )

Authors, you, too, have a responsibility when it comes to beta readers. Let them know what you want. If you have specific things you want them focusing on, tell them. Don’t expect them to read your mind. Now, I know a lot of authors have a set list of questions they give their beta readers beforehand. I’m not going to say that’s wrong. However, I will suggest that it can be a double-edged sword. By giving them the questions ahead of time, you predispose them to be looking for certain things. This could lead them to overlook other issues/problems/strengths. Conversely, it does give you the answers you’re looking for. My suggestion is to change the timing of the process. Ask the questions AFTER they read the novel. You’ll still get the answers but they won’t be slanted by that possible predisposition.

The relationship between an author and his betas can be wonderful, as long as each party remembers their roles. The author needs to chill for a few days and let the beta readers read. The beta readers need to read and then give constructive feedback to the author. Constructive being the key. If you are asked to beta read and aren’t sure what the author wants, ask. Then there can be no misunderstandings. Your job is to help the author tighten the story, not make it look pretty – unless that is what you’re asked for.