Newbie Post #7: Beta Readers and Why They Rock! . . . Most of the Time . . .

Shaking hands  people

I’m writing my Newbie Posts a little out of order. As I started writing this one, it turned into your-novel-is-not-ready-to-be-seen-by-anyone!, so I took a step back and realized I had another post to write. That will be Newbie Post #9, so look for it in the future. 🙂 But today I’m going to talk about why Beta readers are so important, but not always so important.

You’re at the point you’ve edited your novel several times (*not everyone agrees on how many edits a novel takes. I’m from the 20+ school, while Stephen King says only a couple, but we are not Stephen King, so edit heavily!) and you’ve let your husband, mom or best friend take a peek. They rave about how wonderful it is. How proud they are of you. What an accomplishment you’ve achieved! But before you send that bad boy off to an agent with a hastily slapped together letter stating your mom thinks it’s the next best seller, take a step back. Mom and Hubby are not the best judges of your work, unless of course your mom is, oh, I don’t know, J.K. Rowling or Margaret Atwood. If not, you may need some beta readers.

But how do I find a beta reader? I don’t know any writers. I live in a small town and there aren’t any writing groups! Just hold on a second and realize we live in the digital age. You have beta readers right at your fingertips. You just have to find them. I found mine through Absolute Write. I’ve talked about this website many, many, many times, and I will continue to do so. Without them, I’d be no where. If you’re writing in the black hole of loneliness, then you need to get out there and connect. You’re reading my blog, so that’s a good step, but find a critique group, forum or even just a couple other writers to form a circle of critiquing partners. Here is a short list of places to to start with, but really, I just used Google, so you can find some too:

Absolute Write: Beta readers, Mentors and Writing Buddies
Goodreads: Beta Reader Group
Tumblr: Find Your Beta Reader
World Literary Cafe: Beta Readers and Critique Groups

Seriously, it’s not hard. Just step out of your shell, place your fingers on the keyboard, annnnnnd reach out! Get connected. When I started on Absolute Write, I spent most of my time chatting in the newbie forums just to get to know people, and lurking among the forums geared towards my writing, too afraid to comment for fear I’d look like an idiot. That’s okay. You learn. That’s what forums are all about.

I’m digressing. Maybe you’re already on a forum, and this isn’t about how important it is to network (but it is important!) This is about how reaching out to another writer and sending your precious literary baby through the internet to reside in someone else’s computer is downright terrifying! What if they steal it?! What if they publish it?! I’m not going to lie, it could happen. There are copyright laws which I am not very knowledgeable about, so don’t get that info here. And I’ve heard the Poorman’s Copyright is a bit of a myth. A writing friend of mine had all her work copyrighted, and advised me to do so as well. Admittedly, I have not. No good reason, just haven’t done it. Still, the risk is minimal. I have never had a beta steal my work, that I know of. And at least on AW, there’s a thread on betas to watch out for because of bad experiences. I’d say 99% of writers on AW have had a positive experience with the betas they have worked with through that site.

And just to be clear, most betas want something in return. You read my novel, I’ll read yours. Honestly, this is the fun part. Unless of course the novel is simply so bad it’s no fun to even edit. But I’ve only had one of those and broke off the relationship. Which is another point: make sure that novel is really ready to be seen. A beta will not appreciate correcting your repetitive grammar and punctuation mistakes or reminding you not to write like a valley girl (Like, he went to the store, and totally bought that milk!) You will get more out of your beta if they can concentrate on writing style, plot holes, character development and other important aspects of your story. And you need more than one. I had six betas for my last WIP. I’m currently still working with two of them, because we wanted to develop writing relationships beyond just the beta exchange, and I’m so glad I did. Having a trusted circle of writing friends is invaluable and I hope I not only develop more relationships, but strengthen the ones I have.

Before you exchange your novels, set some ground rules or at least get an understanding of what you want. Exchange a chapter to see if you both want to work with each other. Let them know, and ask them what they want out of the critique. And be sure to let each other know how you expect to be treated. Some people like to be handled with kid gloves, others like the rough treatment. Me, I like professionalism, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather they were rough. Hand-holding and head-patting gets you no where. Kick me in the ass or don’t waste my time. Only tell me you love it if you really do!

Great. You’ve exchanged novels, critiqued, and exchanged again. Now what? Your heart is palpitating wildly, you feel like you’re going to be sick, and you’d rather face Freddy Krueger right now than open that document. But like the scantily clad girls in horror movies who are going to go through that door no matter how many times you shout at the screen not to, you’re going to click OPEN on your computer. And there it is, in black and white, or red, or whatever color they edit in. The page looks like Freddy Krueger got to it first. Just breathe. It’s going to be okay. Read. And keep reading, until you reach the end. Now that you feel like crap, open the next one, because you got more than one right?

At this point you may feel like crawling back into that black hole of writing loneliness, but don’t. Let those edits sit and stew for a few days. And no matter what you do, or what was said, DON”T reply to the critiquer in a negative way. Don’t do it! What you may take as a personal attack or over the line was meant only as a way to help you improve. Critiques are very rarely personally motivated. Chuck those hurt feelings in the bin and move on. Writers don’t get to have feelings except the ones they pour on the page.

Okay, so you’ve simmered and thought about what was said and you’re feeling less homicidal and misunderstood. Time to move on. And it’s time to go back and look at those critiques again. This time with a cool, professional eye. If more than one beta is saying the same thing, LISTEN! Chances are good they are right. If even one beta is telling you to fix something that you have doubts about, there’s a good chance this is correct as well, but here’s where it gets tricky. My best piece of advice is to go with your gut. It sucks, I know. I hate it when people tell me this, but it’s true. This is your story, and no one knows you’re story better than you. This is not a license to freely ignore every piece of writing advice you don’t want to hear. Sometimes we need to hear that our characters are flat, or there’s a gaping plot hole, or the drama of a scene isn’t coming through. We also need to hear that we use certain words too much, or our voice sounds stodgy or we need to show more and tell less. It’s hard, but listen and try to see where they are coming from. Look at your writing and critically asses whether they have a point or are clearly off their rocker. I’m going to tell you that 99% of the time, the beta has a point. But that doesn’t mean you have to change anything.

The other side of the coin is looking at where the beta is coming from. If they are telling you to show more/tell less, but their MS is dripping in purple prose, they may just have a different writing style than you. But if the show/tell beta has a decent amount of both in their novel, they might know what they’re talking about. If they say your love scenes are too prim and proper, but theirs borders on erotica, once again, take it with a grain of salt. And if ANYONE is telling you to make a major change in your novel, think that through before you change or disregard completely. Do not make a substantial change to your novel that doesn’t feel right to you just because a beta, or even several betas say you should. This is your novel. If you aren’t happy with the end product, then it was a wasted effort.

Personally, I’ve had great experiences with betas. Even when I ranted and raved to my husband how this person or that was a complete idiot, they didn’t get me, they were complete morons, I would later come back to the critique and often find merit in what was said. Criticism, even constructive criticism, can be tough to take, but you can also get some pretty amazing benefits too. New writers learn from others how to improve, not only from the critique they receive, but from the ones they give. More experienced writers will still learn. Writers never stop learning, but they also give back something that they most likely received when they were starting out.

And just one little side note on the benefits of beta readers, especially those you develop great relationships with. I had a beta make a suggestion about cutting/combining characters and adding a sub-plot twist. At first, I disregarded the notion, because this was my book and no one was going to tell me how to change it! But that little seed she planted grew and grew, until I couldn’t wait to get back to the computer and make a major change. From that tiny comment and suggestion, a new character was born. One I loved writing and I think I might even make a novella of him someday, because I HAVE NO NAME was unable to delve too deeply into his life, but there’s so much more to tell. The point is, write the story that’s inside you, but be open to others stepping into that world. After all, that’s what you’re writing it for, right?

* I just wanted to be clear on the editing note above. I edit my novels 20+ times to finish, not just to find a beta. 3-6 is probably a good number before a beta, though everyone is different. If you are experienced and confident of your writing abilities, then edit the number of times you see fit, just remember you’ll get more out of a beta if the mechanics are down pat first.

Newbie Post #8: Writing Prompts are One-Night Stands!

Newbie Post #1: My Humble Beginnings . . .
Newbie Post #2: Dreams Awakening . . .
Newbie Post #3: Yeah, About That Hobby Thing . . .
Newbie Post #4: Sally green’s Acknowledgments and Why They Mean Something to Me . . .
Newbie Post #5: Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door!
Newbie Post #6: Sometimes you win; Sometimes you LEARN!