Beta Readers are perhaps the most important part of the editing process. I’m going to say this up front because I’ve made this mistake. Be nice to your betas! They take time out of their busy lives to read your stuff and try to fix it up. Even if it’s a bad review, be nice. If it’s horrible and they just aren’t the right person to be critiquing your work for whatever reason (and that’s a judgment call on your part) you’ve still got to say thanks for your time.
First, I’m going to define what I mean by beta (because I’m a lawyer and that’s just how we roll. 🙂 A beta is someone who reads the book after it’s done. This isn’t someone who reads through your slightly polished 3rd draft who’s there to catch the grammar mistakes and suggest ways of restructuring a sentence (Though some of them do this, I think of those as Alpha Readers.)
And for the love of the writing gods, Alphas and Betas are not there to read your rough draft. Please never ask someone to critique a rough draft again. For their sanity and yours. (I did that for my brother in law once upon a time and he has not asked me to look at anything of his since.) For more on this: Alpha vs. Beta Readers 🙂
Betas are the people who come in once you’ve done 10 drafts or 20. Once you’ve caught all the spelling and grammar stuff you can, once you’ve worked out the plot holes, steamed up the sex scene, drove the message home (wow, those two shouldn’t be next to each other on the list ;), and rounded out your characters.
Betas are readers!
They are the people that come in once you think the book is at publishable quality, and give it that last look. They’re basically reviewers. Does your writing style work, do the characters, does something feel contrived, does the plot move too slow or too fast, is there a gaping plot hole you didn’t catch. They aren’t there to line edit (again, some do at this stage and that’s okay, take the extra pair of eyes) because that’s what Alphas and Editors are for. They are there to tell you if the story works.
They’re going to give you feedback and you’re going to say thank-you. If it was bad, rant to your friends and family and let them coddle your hurt feelings. You get to be hurt, you get to have a drink, down chocolate, maybe cry a little. What you don’t get to do is take it out on your betas.
They don’t like your style/genre/voice/message and they tore your book apart because of it? Fine, don’t use them again because they aren’t your target audience. Don’t argue (you can nicely ask them to expand and explain so you can fix it), don’t yell at them (even hiding behind the safety of your keyboard) and do say thank-you for taking the time.
This is what I meant when I said feed your betas. That’s the thank-you. You don’t have to “feed them” by giving them more of your work if it’s not their thing. And they probably don’t want to see more if it’s not their thing.
I have one person in my writing group whom we all know can’t read my stuff because she doesn’t like cursing. Upon seeing a passage of mine, she said it’d be great if I took out the swear words. Yeah, that’s not happening. So if she did critique my stuff, she’d be flagging those down as she went. That’s what I mean by not your target. Someone who doesn’t believe in sex outside marriage shouldn’t be reading steamy romance novels. Don’t like violence, there goes many bestseller action adventures. Think stories about magic/science that may as well be magic are invoking the devil? That’s tossing out sci fi and fantasy.
I don’t like excessive gore and violence. So guess what big summer blockbuster I absolutely hated! Would have walked out if I wasn’t taking a friend for his birthday and it was his choice of movie loathhhhhhhed. Mad Max.
I ripped it to shreds. I wanted it scrubbed out of my brain because it was physically painful to sit through that piece of trash. If I went on a rant as to why, we’d be here for another 1000 words. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t their target. I hated it for every reason their target audience loved it.
Genre, subgenre, or type of writing is important when you’re beta hunting. If they like mysteries and urban fantasy, they might like paranormal romance. Then again, they may hate every book in their chosen genres that have romance and stay away from those (clears throat, my mom). Romance readers may hate paranormal romance because it’s usually more gory and action packed.
There are differences within a genre and you first have to find someone who likes your type. A lot of guys don’t like my writing because it’s usually 1st person POV in the head of a woman, it’s too “girly” for them. Doesn’t matter how much stuff I blow up in the book (I love blowing stuff up, *maniacal laugh*) it is still the world through female eyes and that makes it hard for some guys to connect to it.
That’s okay. Accept right now that your book is not for everyone. You have a target audience, figure out who they are and, well, target them 🙂 (Yes, I’m picturing betas in my crosshairs right now 🙂
Now, if the person has some experience in your genre (or even if they don’t) and they critiqued your writing, said it wasn’t quite there, not good descriptions, didn’t have a voice; or if they critiqued the structure/characters like it was too slow, they couldn’t connect to the characters, something didn’t make sense in the plot. Those are things you want to consider listening to.
Now, how do you know when to listen to a beta and when not to? You’ve just got to learn for yourself what makes a good and bad beta for your work and then, yep, there’s that judgment call we talked about. You have to build a relationship with betas, to get a sense of who they are and what they like. That means you’re going to end up using a few who hate your work and trash it. It’s the whole you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs idea.
Wine, chocolate, snuggle with your honey, and move on.
You figure out which betas to listen to first of all by what they say about the work as a piece in your genre. If they normally don’t read that genre/type, red flag. You can tell this pretty easily because they’ll usually tell you. But sometimes they’ll… er, forget 🙂
If they are giving you advice about your book, saying the genre doesn’t have that, and you know it does because you’ve read it (or think the genre could use a little expanding) probably don’t listen to them. If someone’s saying there’s no room for romance in a mystery/suspense novel, I guess they’ve never heard of a little known author named Lisa Jackson. If, however, someone says the romance doesn’t ring true because it happens so fast with no build up, you may want to listen.
Another big red flag to look out for and to use to rule out betas is if someone fundamentally disagrees with some ideology you are (or they think you are) promoting in your book.
I had one guy trash a short story because the MC had a gun on her. He couldn’t figure out why a “normal girl” would just happen to have a gun on her at all times because “only cops and criminals” did that. Hahahahaha. Someone who’s fundamentally anti-gun probably won’t like my books because my characters are usually armed (shout out to Oleg Volk, my gun expert), either with guns or magic.
Somebody who’s homophobic isn’t going to like my character who’s gay and lives with his bf. And if a character is bi? Ohhhhh, gods save you. (Random aside, why do homophobes, or even people who claim they’re not, have a bigger issue with bi than with gay people? What is that? Then we could go into why do they have a problem with gay people to begin with and we’d never get out of here 🙂
Yes, there are people out there who will tell you you are terrible at something because they don’t like your views (I have a Professor who’s getting written into a book and killed off for this 😉 and they want to shut you up before you can get your views out there.
You also figure out what betas to listen to by numbers. One big reason you can’t just have one or two betas. You’ve got to have enough people who can critique your stuff in your genre that you can compare their answers. If one person said the characters were flat and another said they were so well rounded she’s using what you did to flesh out her own characters, I say average them out. If someone says it’s too slow and another says it’s too fast, again, probably average them out.
But if you have a few saying basically the same thing isn’t working, it’s probably a good idea to listen.
In the end, it’s your book, it’s your baby. And books don’t get written by committee. It’s your call. All the betas are doing is telling you what they as an individual reader thinks. Other readers may feel differently.
So, to summarize, you want to find multiple betas in your genre, who like and/or understand your voice, and who won’t hate the whole thing just because there’s something in there they are fundamentally against.
For a few awesome posts on beta readers, critique groups, reviews, when to listen to them and when not to, check out:
The Catching and Feeding of Betas (From which I stole the name of this post 🙂