There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.
It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*
But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?
Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.
No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.
What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.
But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:
1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.
2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.
3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.
4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.
After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.
Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.
Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?
*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.
**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.
***Actually, this is a good question: can you?