Beta Readers; How and Why?

Several months ago I was convinced that my new novel, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature was ready. I sent it to a tried and trusted beta reader who very patiently and kindly informed me that it really wasn’t. I listened, realised she was right, and tackled it again. And again. And…well, you know how it goes. Finally, a few more months down the line, I thought, okay, this is it, I’m happy, really happy! I’d addressed all of her concerns and it was definitely a much better book. I then sent it to another beta reader, quite arrogantly expecting her to gush with excitement about how ready it was. She didn’t. It wasn’t. Repeating these things to my husband, he asked a very important question. How do I know the beta readers are right?

This is an excellent question and one worth addressing. But first of all what should you look for in beta readers and why do you even need them?

You need them because you are far too close and subjectively involved in your marvellous work of art to see its flaws. It is very difficult for an author who is in love with their story, to be able to see where the pace is too slow, or the information repetitive. You may not realise how much of you and your beliefs and opinions are seeping into the book. You may not realise that there is too much dialogue, or not enough. It is your baby, your child, your masterpiece. Yes, your relationship with it is up and down. You love it and then you hate it. You are filled with self-doubt one moment, only to be surging with confidence the next. Either way, you need beta readers to bring your down to earth. You need them to tell you what is good about the book and what is not so good about the book. Of course, you don’t have to accept their advice, and you certainly don’t have to act on it, but to release a book or submit it to publishers without using beta readers would be, in my opinion, insane.

So, what should you look for in a beta reader? I think this is quite a personal thing and may also depend on your genre of writing, but here are the things I look for and require in my beta readers.

  • they need to have already read my work and connected with it
  • they need to be somewhat connected to me and my life, and have some knowledge of my beliefs etc
  • they need to be highly educated, or at least way better at grammar than I am!
  • they need to be an avid reader, someone who consumes books like an addiction
  • they need to be open to most genres, not snobbish or narrow-minded
  • they need to be breathtakingly honest and not scared to offend
  • they need to be able to understand how a book could be made better
  • they need to be prepared to read the book at least twice and make notes

What sort of things should a beta reader be looking out for when reading your work? Well, again this is very personal, but I will explain the way I often approach it. With Elliot Pie, I wrote the book quite naturally, just letting it flow as you do with a clumsy first draft, worrying about the finer details later. I finished the very first messy draft just over a year ago, and I honestly didn’t think it would need too much more work! This goes to show how blind you can be about your own writing. I did a few more drafts before sending it to the first beta. At this point I was looking for opinions on the plot and the actual story and on the characters. Did they work? Were they real enough etc? What about the structure of the plot and the flow of the narration?

What I got back was very interesting and resulted in me changing a lot of the chapters around. The beta had loved the characters (yay!) and the story but she found the pace too slow in the middle of the book and she guessed the ending. Not too big a problem, as it’s not supposed to be a real twist at the end or anything, but she did help me work out ways I could knock the readers off course a bit. She was also right about the pace. It was too slow in the middle and lots of it needed to go.

Job done. I attacked the book again, and again and again. Each time I went through it, I cut bits out, added bits, fleshed the characters out more, and wrote lists as I went which consisted of the things I still needed to do when this draft was done. I considered my work done when the lists ended. As far as I was concerned I could do no more. Yes it would need some more proofreading and a few more read throughs, but I was happy. More than happy.

I sent it to the second beta reader as she is my biggest critic and I knew she would be intensely honest. There was no way she would hold back if there was anything about it she thought could be better. We ended up having several Skype chats while she went through her very detailed notes on the novel. I made lists, nodded and listened. The more she talked, the more I realised how right she was, and the more I felt my own subconcious misgivings becoming unearthed. Everything she said about the book was true. I had written it in both first and third person. A bit of a challenge, yes, but that was just the way the story presented itself to me in the first draft and so I went with it and ended up sticking with it. This meant that all of Elliot’s, (the 12-year-old protagonist) perspective is in the first person. We are entirely inside his head. And in my opinion, that’s a wonderful place to be. I find him interesting and funny and amusing, you see. Of course I do, I created him! But would the reader think the same? Or would they find the narrative repetitive as he talked them through his little world? Was I telling them far too much detail when a lot of it could be shown rather than told, or omitted altogether?

I sat and nodded grimly and knew that my beta was right. I had climbed inside his head and got lost there. I was way too close and way too involved. I loved him too much but I needed to get back out and get some distance. I suggested changing his view to third person and the beta had thought the same thing. The more we thrashed it out, the more I realised how many problems this would solve. I actually began to get excited. There were other issues too, aside from POV, but I won’t go into them now as they will probably pop up in another blog post.

We talked about how I’d had a similar problem with The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. (Again, this is where history, friendship and connection aid the beta/writer relationship) Originally written in the third person, from all the characters point of view, it was eventually rewritten into the first person, and from two points of view. At the time I was both terrified and excited to take this machete to my work, to slice it up and stitch it back together again, to tell the story in a totally different way. I knew I would lose tons of scenes and perspectives and dialogue and this saddened me beyond belief. But it worked.

With Elliot I have the same problem but in reverse. I need to lose the first person, get some distance from Elliot and tell the story in a different way. There is a lot of work to be done, but the groundwork is all there. The second beta also loved the actual story, the plot and the characters and found the pace just right.

I am so glad I gave it to her to dissect. But back to the original question? How do I know she is right? How do I know either of them are right? I know because as soon as they voiced their opinions, I knew I had been thinking the same thing all along. All they did was confirm what I already knew deep down inside. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself, because admitting it meant even more work, even more drafts, even more editing and proofreading, and it means the other books that are on hold waiting for this one to be done have to keep waiting and waiting and cramming my mind and driving me insane! I wanted the book to be ready so badly I had convinced myself it was.

But I can’t let a book go until I am sure it is the best it can be, and in my case, my betas are there to help me get to that point. I can’t thank them enough for the time and effort they invest in me and my books. I trust them implicitly and I know I am extremely lucky to have them.

But what about you? Do you use beta readers and if so how did you find them? What do you look for in a beta? Have they ever felt differently to you about a book being ready for release? How have they helped your books reach their full potential? Have they ever been totally wrong? Please feel free to comment and share!

 

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