Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Betta or not to Beta

By Joe Moore

For those of you who like fish—raising, not eating—there are few more beautiful and easy to care for than a betta fighting fish. They come from Thailand and can live in as little water as what’s left behind inside a human footprint in the mud of the rice paddies. I’ve bettaowned a number of them over the years and am always amazed at their gorgeous display of color. And pound for pound, the betta is one of the most vicious, aggressive animals on the planet. They are meat eaters, and putting two males in the same bowl will result in a fight to the death. If you want a beautiful pet that takes next to nothing to raise, get a betta fighting fish. But that’s not what my post is about today.

It’s really about beta readers.

A lot of writers including myself rely on beta readers to scrub our WIP and find all the plotting holes, mistakes, and general stuff that doesn’t work. So what is a beta reader? Should you go looking for one? How do you find and qualify them? How do they differ from a critique group? What are the things to look for in their feedback?

The term beta comes from software designers who use the term alpha and beta for different stages of program development. Alpha is the rawest stage—incomplete and untested—and beta is still under development but a small number of copies are released to the public for testing. In novel writing, this might be the first completed version of the manuscript where the author has made at least one pass through to edit and tweak.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Finally, always remember that it’s not personal. If it is, you chose the wrong beta reader. Regard the feedback as if you were giving input to a fellow writer.

And if their feedback sounds fishy, you might have chosen a betta fighting fish by mistake.

How about the rest of you guys. Do you use beta readers? Are you a beta reader for someone else? Do you like your fish grilled or fried?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
(The Phoenix Apostles is) “packed with action and suspense!" -- James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE DOOMSDAY KEY

21 comments:

  1. I go through Alpha readers first then Beta readers in the next stage.

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  2. My WIP has gone through a couple of beta readers. I was rewarded with some helpful insight on some technical aspects of the story that made it a bit more believeable.

    And I prefer my fish breaded and fried.

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  3. Miller, that's because you've always been an alpha dog.

    John, beta readers have saved my butt a number of times. It's good to have that extra set of eyes to rely on.

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  4. I have four beta readers, and I adore them. I don't always use their feedback, but what they have given me is a chance to do is seriously consider why or why not. I try to show them my appreciation by giving them signed ARCs, but they have all told me they really enjoy the process for its own sake. One of them actually enjoys reading for the grammar and typos too. No you can't have her email address.

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  5. Thanks for the excellent advice, but how do we find them? Approach them? Talk to them?

    I've approached several people - demographically mixed - and it's generally like pulling teeth to get any feedback, useful or otherwise. I've decided that must mean there's a major flaw I've overlooked so I'm going to gut the first three chapters of my WIP, probably exclude another early chapter, and write a brand new introduction a la Harry Potter book 1.

    While that should improve the flow and fix the POV issues that I think are the root of the problem plaguing chapters 1-3, I still need a way to get useful feedback from actual readers. Getting a few alpha readers sounds useful too.

    So, killzoners, how did you come by your alpha and beta readers? Perhaps a give-and-take proposition works best? I'm certainly willing to be a reader for someone else. I actually enjoy the structural aspects of plotting and writing. It's a fun way to apply my writing craft and give back for all the help I've received.

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  6. Thea, having 4 trusted souls is great. And a signed ARC is a nice touch as a thank-you. If they're also writers, I would suggest returning the favor if they need a beta reader.

    Daniel, if you're not getting the feedback you want, try giving the beta readers a short list of criteria on what you're seeking before they start. That might help them focus in on what you need. As far as alpha readers, I would definitely stick to other writers when choosing them. Because the alpha-stage of most drafts might be so raw that a non-writer could confuse a lack of fullness or "meat on the bones" as a problem when all you might be wanting is for someone to check the basics. A fellow writer would probably understand you're going to come back and fill in the holes.

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  7. Beta readers were absolutely essential for me for Watch Your Back, my first direct-to-E book. I had four, not including my first and best editor, Mrs. B. Each caught at least one thing the others did not. So yes, extremely important.

    And I had one content issue I was concerned with. The Beta readers came back unanimous that it worked, so that was another plus.

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  8. The question of Beta readers seems to come up everywhere, but there doesn't seem to be any one answer.

    Most suggest being part of communities like TKZ, conference or professional groups like RWA (although I've noted that you can't get very far into most of the groups until you have already been published). I have also taken classes with fellow writers, which is where I have started to get some critique partners and such. And most of the authors have some other authors that also read their stuff at an "alpha" or "beta" level and they return the favor. Those that find good betas keep them. Some like to rotate between two sets of betas so they can rotate between projects and not burn the betas out.

    I'm not quite ready for a beta group yet - I'm still in an alpha phase for now, but soon.

    Like you Daniel, I am more than willing to read and help with others for the return favor. So far I haven't found that niche either... but I have hope that it will all come around as needed.

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  9. Before I was pubbed, I had 2-3 fellow aspiring authors that I trusted. They were great to work with, but it took me a while to find them. Most people want to line edit. That's all they know, but like you said, Joe, the bigger picture of plot, character motivation etc are more important. So I had to find beta readers who could give me something I needed. And each one was different.

    And Daniel--I found my beta reader who provided me with in-depth character analysis and specializes in the emotional landscape, especially mothers and daughters,
    by initially reading her work and noticed she was over the top excellent at that. So I used her writing strengths and asked for that from her. Another beta was good with grammar, but since I'm ruthless with my own line edits, I found I didnt need her much and stopped. And I also found someone who could see the big picture of plot and character motivation, mainly for YA work, because I read her work too and knew she was good at that. We read for each other until she stopped writing or slowed to a crawl. I didn't feel right asking for her to critique me when I couldn't reciprocate.

    But these days with my deadlines tighter, I don't have time to cultivate betas for both genres I write. And since I edit hard as I go, my first "draft" is almost a complete manuscript, ready for the editor.

    Something I would like though is brainstorming help. Another author friend of mine does an annual trip to a fun location that changes each time. And she gets with 6 authors she trusts and they brainstorm the plots of 2 books each. They come with initial vague ideas drafted on a form they found works for them, then they record each of their 2 hour sessions. Each author comes away with 2 fully plotted books and their brainstorming sessions recorded. Then they go have fun in Vegas or wherever they go. That kind of brainstorming session is something I've always wanted to try, but I'm sure it would be the same process up front, to cultivate a good group.

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  10. I found one of my beta readers through a Yahoo writing group. Another I found at a local writer's conference. They are an indispensable part of my process, and my work would suffer without them.

    Daniel, I love being a beta reader, and I have time to add another, so contact me if you want to discuss it.

    www.sonjahutchinson.com

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  11. I have, and still am, developing a group of beta's that I know will be honest. It has been hard though as so many people seem to want to be friendly instead and don't realize I have thick skin even though I smile a lot and am unimaginably cute. really...it's true, many people over the years have said things like "I can't imagine someone thinking he's cute.

    Thus far I have managed to find a former journalist turned homeschool teacher mom, a retired British Military Intelligence officer, and retired local police officer who I know will be honest in their assessments.

    The one problem I still need to work on is that I cannot get them all in the same room together, because like all betas they tend to flare up their gills and splash around and may even fight to the death...and then I have to get new betas.

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  12. I'm still unclear (fuzzy-brained this morning). Is the purpose of a beta having someone read your work who is NOT a writer? ie. they are your "Reader on the street" whereas crit groups are writers who zero in on...well writing related nitty gritty stuff.

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  13. BK--In the past, I've used both. Fellow authors know more about author craft and structure, but readers who don't write also have something to offer.

    I would sometimes give them "homework" assignments with each piece they read--so I could find out where they thought the plot was going, what they thought about the characters, and their perceptions in general. They often let me gauge if my red herrings were working or not too.

    There were times when I did the opposite of what a reader thought and changed the course of my writing because the reader may have given me another idea for a twist.

    So both authors and pure readers have a purpose as betas that an author seeking criticism can use.

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  14. And Basil--

    Have you ever considered donating your brain to science? (After you don't need it anymore, of course.)

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  15. I love your blog, so I've awarded you the Versitle blog award on my blog. http://wordsharpeners.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/versitle-blogger-award/

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  16. Jim, sometimes we see only what we want to see. Those extra sets of eyes are invaluable.

    Chaco, most professional groups like MWA, ITW, etc. have associate memberships available to unpublished authors. Some like MWA also have mentoring programs. All worthwhile.

    Jordan, I know what you mean about deadlines. It’s hard to press your beta readers for a hurry-up when they’re doing you a favor. But if they’re also writers, they’ll understand. And brainstorming is such a great way to get past roadblocks in your story. I’m one of the lucky ones to have a co-writer to work with. Two heads are always better than one.

    Sonja, you’re really taking full advantage of resources like Yahoo groups and conferences. There are also numerous writer forums that have critique sections for submitting chapters. One is absolutewrite.com.

    Basil, keep them separated and well fed, and you shouldn’t have that problem.

    BK, like Jordan said, the best situation is to have a mix of writers and non-writers, for many reasons. One of my beta readers goes through 2-3 books a week. Having a voracious reader available to you helps to get good, solid feedback on comparing your work to current trends.

    Thanks, Tamera, I think. :-)

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  17. Joe-- Great blog. I always thought a Beta Reader was a piece of hardware! Now that I understand the human quaiity, there are those of us who could make a living as Beta Readers! Heaven knows I realy on mine! (I thought they were just friends who read my stuff!) And, to answer your questions: Yes, Yes and Grilled, thank you very much!

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  18. Got to this late today.Hope not too late
    Is it possible for TKZ to somehow facilitate alpha/beta reader hook-ups?

    I have had difficulty finding appropriate and interested individuals for the job. I would be happy to return the favor.
    In writing classes I have had difficulty finding those that appreciate the genre. The issues with friends and family have been noted.
    I have a WIP that might be described as suspense/mystery in a medical setting. I have completed a first draft and taken a second pass through about one third.
    A kathie d. who has checked in here seemed to me to be a potentially strong source as she noted a medical/ER background.
    Any way to help people get together? Any interest. I am an unpublished wannabe writer but a ninja reader:) tcombs4444@gmail.com

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  19. I would have been lost without my beta readers. I use at least ten/book, some for their specific expertise/skillset (ie: nuclear physicists to help with dirty bomb info in Gatekeeper, Real hostage negotiators for Kidnap & Ransom). Others I rely on for overall plot points, continuity (in other words, any dangling threads from earlier drafts), and what is and isn't working. They are truly invaluable.

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  20. TJC, one place to start is to visit the many writer's forums on the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, a great one is http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ but here are many others. Google writer's forums to find a list.

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  21. I used to love the writer's rooms on AOL back in the 90's.

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