Care and Feeding of Beta Readers

Writers Tears

DO: give thematically-appropriate gifts.

DO give them a properly formatted, grammatically-correct, spell-checked manuscript.* It’s annoying as hell to wade through someone’s poor grammar to try and understand their story.

DON’T respond to critiques about poor formatting, poor grammar, misspellings, or misused words with “that’s just how I like to do it.” That’s fine if you’re journalling just for yourself, but the second you give someone a manuscript to read you’re on their time and you owe it to them to follow the rules of engagement. Also, you sound like an entitled twat.**

DO include any relevant reference material. Maps (especially for alternate world settings) and glossaries are useful for understanding some stories.

DON’T foist your whole world-building bible off on them so they can be awed by your genius. They won’t be.

DO offer compensation. Some don’t want it, but you should still offer. It doesn’t have to be money. I have paid beta readers in reciprocal critiques, hugs, wine, knitted socks, and curry.

DON’T only give them what you promised if they say they loved it without reservation. Seriously, if you’re this fragile, you don’t need a beta reader; you need a therapist.

DO listen carefully to whatever they say. You don’t have to like it, but you should listen.

DON’T summarily reject or accept everything. Think about it all, and then take what’s useful. If they’re a good critic, most of what they tell you will be useful, even if you don’t want to hear it.

DO secure your baggage. Mostly, stow your fucking ego.

DON’T ask for a critique if you don’t want to hear it. Ask for something else. Some bubble wrap, maybe.

DO someone else while the beta reader is working on it. Literally anything else. Work on a new story. Write query letters. Learn ancient Arabic. Regrout the bathroom. Anything.

DON’T nag them to finish. Are annoyance and obligation really the feelings you want your story to evoke?

DO expect a reasonable time-frame for return. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ will vary according to every reader. You should talk about it when you hand over the manuscript.

DON’T expect them to drop everything else to work on it. People have lives, and they do not revolve around you.

DO treat them with respect, and thank them for their time. Really, this should be your mantra for dealing with everyone. And if it’s not, well, it’s going to take more than a writing blog to help you.

*As much as you can. Software can do weird things, but you shouldn’t do weird things on your own, and if you can’t master the rules of grammar, spelling, and proper word use, you should work on those before you go looking for beta readers.

**If that’s your ‘brand’, then please go away forever.

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The 25 Moments You’ll Have After Finishing Your Manuscript

Crown Royal Northern Harvest

I got your stiff drink right here, hur hur hur. 

1. The Afterglow. Wow. That was…wow. Hand me a cigarette, would you? And that bottle of whiskey.

2. The Replay. Did you see how I wrapped up that nagging plot thread at the end? And that climactic scene…that was amazing. I’m amazing.

3. The Exit. Well, this was fun, but it’s time send it to beta readers. Not that they’re going to find anything to comment on, right?

4. The Send Off. Enjoy, beta readers! You’re in for a treat.

5. The Next Thing. I should start a new project.

6. The Worry. It’s been 24 hours. Why haven’t the betas gotten back to me? Didn’t they stay up all night, red-eyed and weeping, unable to put my book down? What’s wrong with them?

7. The Reassurance. They’re probably just taking their time to enjoy it. Yeah. Yeah.

8. The Temptation. I should call them.

9. The Resistance. No. Be strong. You’re not that needy.

10. The Questioning. Are you?

11. The Distraction. Come on, man. Get it together. They’re a busy person. They’re probably not spending all their time reading your book. They have to…work, or sleep, or some shit. Just write this short story until they get back to you. That’ll keep you busy.

12. The Failure. I hate this short story.

13. The Dark Turn. I bet the betas hate my book.

14. The Darker Turn. I hate my book.

15. The Peek. It can’t be as bad as I remember. I’ll just read some of it over…

16. The Reveal. Huh. Didn’t remember that dropped subplot. Or that vanishing character. Or that name switch.

17. The Hope. Maybe they won’t notice.

18. The Truth. They’ll notice.

19. The Horror. Fuck me, another plot hole? And where did that guy come from? What happened to that guy’s head? How many problems are there in this thing? How did I not notice them before? Was I fucking blind?

20. The Scramble. Maybe…maybe the betas haven’t started yet. Yeah. Sure. They’re busy people. Maybe I can fix all this before they read it and email them another version. A better version. Yeah. That’ll work. Then they never need to know how I–

21. The Notification. Was that my email alert?

22. The Return. Shit.

23. The Resignation. Well, as long as they sent it back, I might as well see how bad it is. They must have hated it. It’s got so many problems. Maybe the comments they left will make it easier to give up writing and become a wandering kung-fu master.

24. The Comments. Wow…this…this isn’t as bad as I thought. I mean, yeah, there’s issues, but…they liked it. Mostly. Except for these bits…and I didn’t like those, either, so…

25. The Rewrite. I can fix all of this! Crank up the atomic turbines and brew the coffee! I’m going back in!

The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

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?