So, after months (or perhaps years) of blood, sweat and tears, you’ve finally finished your book, revised it, self-edited it and have proven to your friends and family that you’re not an unambitious, braindead waste of space slowly counting the days until death.
But hold on there. Before you consider self-publishing or reaching out to literary agents, you’ll want to consider sending your book to beta readers.
What are beta readers?
Beta readers are volunteers who will read your book and provide you with feedback. The name “beta” comes from the word “Betamax,” a popular home video format from the 1980s. People would often share and exchange these “beta” videos in much the way beta reading is the sharing of novels and ideas for improving them.
Beta readers are a good way to get a fresh set of eyes on your work, to address the numerous glaring mistakes, plot holes, poor characterizations, boring passages, cliches, overly graphic sex scenes, and embarrassingly obvious references to your personal life in your work.
It’s important to remember that a beta reader is not an editor. Remember, development editors help you with your overall structure, line editors look at your usage and diction and polish things up to make your manuscript sparkle, proofreaders look at grammar and spelling errors, grammar consultants tell you if you’re using the gerund correctly, book buddies are the shoulder to cry on, and then there’re critique partners, who are basically another word for beta readers but they’re also totally different and I’m not going to explain why,
And if that sounds confusing and overwhelming, well… maybe your family was right about you being a braindead waste of space.
Who makes for a good beta reader?
It will be tempting to ask friends and family to fill this role. But ultimately, these people despise you so much, it will be tough to get a fair, unbiased opinion. (If you’re anything like me, you wrote this book just to spite them for thinking you didn’t have it in you.) So who then?
Your best option is prisoners, if you have the right connections. Every great writer should have at least two or three wardens in his contact list.
Which brings me to my next point: You probably want different beta readers for each project. Anyone too used to you or your writing will have trouble judging you honestly. Fortunately, most prisoners will either be transferred, released, or executed by the time of your next release.
What should you want from your beta reader?
This is very specific to the type of project you’re working on. It will be beneficial to send a list of questions to your beta reader. Here’s some from my most recent project:
- Are there too many descriptions of female breasts, or not enough?
- Which female character’s breasts did you most enjoy reading about?
- Did it feel like the breasts lacked strong character motivation?
- Was the progression of the breasts throughout the story convincing?
- Did the dialogue about the breasts sound natural to you (even the parts concerning the fake breasts)?
Through this process, my prisoners were quick to inform me that I’d neglected the breasts far too often. I’d (in a rather sexist way, I’m sad to admit) spent too much time having my female characters talking about the men in their life, instead of celebrating the unique individuality of their own breasts.
How do you implement and handle feedback?
It’s natural, upon hearing any sort of criticism, to want to verbally assault or threaten your beta reader. This is yet another reason why prisoners work so well. A quick scan of their rap sheet will make you think twice about threatening or insulting them. And that’s great because these people are here to help you on your journey and only want to make you a better writer.
And remember, you don’t have to heed all of their advice. Early on, one of my beta readers kept describing my female characters as “unsympathetic.” While he enjoyed the titillating descriptions of her body, he kept saying he didn’t understand why the reader should care about her. I might’ve taken his advice, too, if I hadn’t learned he was doing four life sentences in Lompoc for strangling prostitutes.
If more than one of your beta readers describes a plot point as confusing, or certain character developments as unearned, then there’s probably something to it. Go through the comments they leave and pick the ones to keep and the ones to discard. If three people say you need to flesh out the part where your character finally reveals the secret about her breast augmentation surgery to her roommate, those are keepers. If you see comments like “Help. Please, I’m not supposed to be in here,” or “When I break out of here, I’m comin’ for you first,” those are the ones you want to discard.
And finally, make sure you politely thank your beta readers for their time.