What do you do with a problem like a beta? (to be sung to “What do you do with a problem like Maria?”)

Okay, maybe I’m a bit biased this week. My betas are wonderful people (and since they’re about half of the subscribers to my blog, I need to be nice to them!). 🙂

A beta — or beta reader — is someone who reads your manuscript BEFORE you send it to an agent or editor, or self-publish it. And if you think you don’t need them, please think again. You have only to go to Amazon and look at the thousands of free e-books, written and published in what must have been two or three days, to know you do. Betas are part of what set writers apart from good writers.

In this blog, http://www.smallbluedog.com/what-makes-a-good-beta-reader.html, author Belinda Pollard lists the main characteristics of what makes a good beta reader. It’s a great read, as it really makes you think. Even if you already have beta readers, are they really the right fit? Is the new book you’re working on a different genre, that might require new betas? Are they really giving you encouraging, but real, feedback? All things writers need to ask themselves!

This post by Joel Friedlander, http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/03/5-things-you-should-know-about-working-with-beta-readers/, offers more great advice. Everyone’s different. Some will prefer to read your manuscript on their e-reader, others want that hard copy so they can make free with the red pen. And I think the most important point in Joel’s post is this:  never, ever give them a draft. Ever. Not even if your life depends on it. If you think your first draft is good enough, forget it. Put it away for a month. Then come back to it. Don’t be in such a freaking hurry. Trust me, once you look at that MS with fresh eyes, the first words you’ll say will be something like, “What the &%?@!!!# was I thinking?!”

Rule of thumb:  if you wouldn’t send it to an agent, don’t give it to your betas, unless you have a specific reason to do so. For instance, I went through 15 drafts of my latest manuscript before giving it to my betas. Then, a month later, I recalled those copies and did another 5 drafts before giving it to them again. But this time, I did it knowing there were things I didn’t like, but didn’t know how to fix, and I gave them specific instructions to read not for typos, but to see how the plot lines flowed and if there were holes anywhere. The problem is, I know my manuscript too well. I need my betas to read it with fresh eyes and no preconceptions. And that’s exactly why you need betas as well.

I hear you, I hear you:  but what if they — gasp! — steal my idea??? Trust me, they won’t.

I hear you, again:  what if they don’t read it? Yeah. That is a problem. Everyone gets busy. I get that. But you’re waiting for people to read it, because you need to make those changes. That New Year’s resolution of “finish MS and find agent!” is looming, big and red and angry on the calendar. And all you can do is sit back and give them gentle nudges every now and then, and pray that they actually follow through. Nerve-wracking, isn’t it?I know. I’m there. I’ve been there.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Give them a deadline — but not a horrendous one. Ask them what time frame they think they can have it done by. Then, extend it by at least two weeks.
  • Are you going to meet in person, or have them email you their feedback? Either way is okay, but make sure that if you are meeting face to face, that the meeting doesn’t go off-topic.
  • Are your betas really ready to read this? Sometimes, people just aren’t. If the deadline has passed and they haven’t finished — or even started — your manuscript, it probably isn’t priority and you should ask them to be honest. Do they really want to do this right now?
  • Have several betas. Don’t rely on 1 or 2. Join a writing group, where there’s peer pressure to provide timely feedback, or join an online group (links at the bottom of the page!) where you can read others’ works to earn credits towards having your own read.
  • Be a beta reader yourself! Ideally, your own betas are also writers. Be sure you’re willing to read their work as well, and make sure they know that. And if they do ask you to read their work — do it. Be constructive. Be prompt. Be positive. That will also give you an idea of how hard a job you’ve asked YOUR readers to take on. 🙂
  • Move on to the next project. You’ve given them your manuscript and they have a deadline. Now, distract yourself by being productive for the next two weeks or month or whatever.

Now. There are some sites where you can read others’ work and get feedback on your own. Here’s links to some of them:

http://www.behindthestory.org/club-faqs/

http://www.scribophile.com/

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ (not only can you ask questions on several different forums, but once you’ve had 50 posts, you can join the Share Your Work forum!)

http://www.worldliterarycafe.com/forum/125

http://thewritersguidetoepublishing.com/authors-are-you-looking-for-beta-readers-and-book-reviewers (there’s a link in the article to the group’s Facebook page)

There are probably MANY others, and your local bookstores probably know — or even host — writing groups local to you. So there’s no excuse now to publish something that’s crap! Get out there, find your betas, and get going!

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