Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Word on Beta Readers

Hard questions are sometimes the best punches anyone can throw at you. Being punched isn't fun, but once you learn to spar, you can dodge and deflect those jabs in real life that could hurt you or throw you off track. The trick is to recognize those punches as the blessings-in-disguise that they are.

It Takes Two Kinds
I was reminded of this last night, when I met a friend to talk about our respective manuscripts. She has a strong English/Lit background and could really ask specific questions about my plot, and assimilate my answers in a way that allowed her to pinpoint a couple of my plot holes without ever reading my manuscript. It was a wonderful contrast against my previous writer's meetings, because all of my Beta readers* so far have responded to my manuscript largely on an intuitive level. They love the set-up, the dynamic between characters, specific personalities, subplots, humor, short, they've thrilled to those points of the overall story that thrill me. They've caught my enthusiasm for what I love about my tale, which is what any aspiring author wants to hear....and needs to hear, at least in the beginning stages. Our egos are so frail when we first start out that we need the confirmation that our ideas are, in fact, valid and worth pursuing.

Last night, however, my friend took a more editorial approach. She wanted to know: What have I done to make readers buy into the story? Have I made it believable? Is my tale consistent with my proposed genre and audience? Who are my protagonists? Why do I have four main protagonists, and not just one? What action draws the reader in? How am I keeping their attention? Have I left any oddments in the narrative that might jar the overall consistency of my plot? 

Stand and Deliver
The best part of this rapid-fire questioning was that, since my friend had not yet read my manuscript, I had to defend my plot. It made me articulate why I had done certain things, or not done others. I could not have had a better practice round at defending my work, even if I had received a cold call from a potential agent. Based on my explanations alone, she was able to both encourage me in what I was doing right (structurally speaking), but also point out a couple shortcomings in my plot. They are fairly easy fixes, but both are the sort of errors that I would have wholly overlooked, and which in turn would have made a dent in my proposal, come query-time.

That is, I suppose, what the professionals mean when they talk about the "ideal Beta reader." You want several Beta readers, of course; and you want them from varying ages and viewpoints so you can get a well-rounded collective response. But in your ideal Beta reader, you want someone who who catches the vision, and pinpoint specifics of how to make that vision as real to the readers as it is to you.

Anyone else run into this? How many Beta readers have looked over your prized project? What is your ideal Beta reader?
(*) Beta readers = editorial jargon for "test readers"


  1. Angela, I do not concern myself a writer (although I do have a blog) but I am a speaker so before I introduce a new talk into my rotation I have gather a group of about 10 friends together that I deliver it to. The group consist of a couple of ladies that I consider bible scholars (since I speak mostly to women's ministry groups), some that a also speaks that can pick out my "filler" words like um, some that are style and fashion minded to approve my look and some that are just real honest to tell me if I am off track completely. Thanks for sharing your story it is encouraging to meet others that are willing to share what they learn.

  2. That's a great approach, Amy! Thanks for sharing. Public speaking and fiction writing are different animals, but certain basic principles apply, I think, to any kind of formal communication. I am learning that surrounding yourself with likeminded people who know your strengths AND weaknesses, and can lovingly assist you in both, is key to getting your message out there in the best possible format. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. ha, so when do I get to be a Beta reader to finally get my hands on the book already???!!! Love ya!

  4. You get yourself back to the states and I will burden you with a copy at your earliest convenience! You have been warned. :)