Picking betas

I finished entering all my edits to the second draft yesterday.  I have a page and a half of notes that I could go through – things like “do I use the phrase ‘curled up to sleep’ too many times”?  (Answer, probably yes.  And I should find the five or six times I do so and edit a few of them.)  Or is the term “illness protocol” appropriate for this world and if not, what should I call it?  So, I could waste a day or two going through those and fixing them.

But, really, truly, it’s probably time to send the novel to betas.

This is where it gets interesting…

Because I need to decide who to send it to.  Which leads back to the issue of picking good betas.

So, what are my options?  Well, I have my mother and my other primary beta reader who have been reading my short stories for me.  I have a few friends of varying levels of closeness who read SFF.  I have a friend who is a self-published mystery writer.  I have the head of my accounting firm.  I have the fifteen year-old daughter of the woman who sold me some skydiving gear.  Those are the folks who’ve asked to read it.  On top of that, there are always those writers’ forums where you can exchange critiques and I can also issue a general call on facebook.

To me, the issue of picking betas comes down to three considerations: reader vs. writer, genre vs. non-genre, friend vs. stranger.

Reader versus Writer

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.  The strength of having readers critique the novel is that I can figure out if Average Joes will like it. (I would say average Average Joe Americans, but at least half of my potential betas are non-U.S.)

Readers don’t really care what fancy style you used.  They aren’t fascinated that you pulled off a story in second person.  They just know whether they enjoyed reading your book or not.  And, really, at the end of the day, unless I’m trying for an award from my fellow writers (which I’m not) or acclaim from my fellow writers (which I’m not), the ones who matter are the readers.

(This made me realize that I should start lurking reader forums as much as I lurk writer forums.  When people love a book, why do they love it?  When they hate it, why do they hate it?)

On the other hand, having writers read it may help with craft issues.  A reader isn’t going to say, “You know that ‘as’ sentence structure you keep using?  It really bogs down the flow of the story.”  So, if there’s a pervasive issue, I think a fellow writer will be better able to identify it.

Right now, my thought is this: I’ll have readers as my primary betas, but if I receive consistent feedback from my betas that they don’t like the novel or that they don’t like one section of the novel then I’ll turn to fellow writers to help me diagnose what’s turning off my readers.

Genre vs. Non-Genre

This one is interesting.  Right now, neither of my primary betas are SFF enthusiasts.  I’ve actually turned my mom on to some SFF authors in recent years, but there’s a limit to where she’ll go.  Having seen the books she does read, I’m pretty comfortable about where that limit is and I know that certain critiques from her will be based upon her limits and can be safely ignored.

At the same time, my mom loved the Twilight books and the Hunger Games, so if I ever write a novel that she really likes, I may very well be in the sweet spot.

And I’m not certain that I want to be firmly grounded in my genre.  If I were trying to write a book based in the Cthulhu mythology, then it’d be essential that every one of my beta readers be well-versed in it, too.  But I’m not doing that.  And sometimes getting away from people who think things have to be a certain way (vampires must be dark and can’t sparkle in the sun) is the only way to find a fresh view.

I trust that I’ve done enough reading in my genre to not be clichéd and stereotypical.  Also, just like with grammar, I think sometimes people have knee-jerk reactions to certain things that don’t matter to Average Joe reader.  My book has an orphan boy in it.  I know some SFF enthusiast somewhere is going to roll their eyes at that fact.  Another orphan boy?  (It’s ok, though.  Really, it is.  He doesn’t save the world.  He’s not the long-lost son of a king.  He’s just an orphan.  He has brown hair and no parents.  Life’s like that sometimes.)

So, on the genre, non-genre debate, I lean towards wanting voracious readers who read across genres.  And if I ever choose to write a book that is in the tradition of a certain type of novel, then I’ll seek out betas who can judge that aspect of the book appropriately.  I’ll probably have a few friends who read in the genre read the book, just for good measure, but I’d rather they have a broad view of what works in novels than a narrow view.

Friend vs. Stranger

Having strangers (like users of a writers’ forum) critique your work can be good.  It’s a completely impartial view that isn’t affected by how awkward Christmas dinner will be if the reviewer is honest.

The problem I have with using strangers is that I need to respect someone to value their opinion.  I’m very much a stand on my own two feet kind of person, which means I don’t listen to 90% of the people I know.  I hear what they have to say, and I’m polite about it (usually), but I generally think “no, not for me” and do my own thing.  (This can include when there’s a large consensus on an issue.)

And it’s hard to know what level someone is at when you don’t know the person.  Is the person telling me that I have to write this novel in first person an authority?  Or someone who picked up some ridiculously bad advice and now preaches it like the gospel?

Not to mention that wacko I saw posting a month or so back that was laying claim to new writers because he’d provided a few critiques for them.  Maybe he did make them who they were.  Or maybe he said a bunch of crap that they ignored and they’ve done well despite him.  Letting someone critique your work is letting them into your world.  And it takes effort to get into my inner circle.

Then again, I may change my tune in a year or so.  I haven’t burned most of these betas yet.  If my novel sucks, there may be no one I know who will want to read the next one.

Now, the problem with family and friends is that they might worry about hurting my feelings.  But I know my family and friends pretty well.  And I know when they’re trying to pull their punches.  And they also know that I’m pretty good at taking a hit.  So, I can work with that.  And, if all else fails, I have some pretty specific questions for them – things I didn’t change yet but am thinking about.  (As in, “On page 188 what did you think of this sentence?”  “Oh, yeah, now that you mention it…”)

I also know some of their strengths and weaknesses, so I know what to value in their feedback and what to dismiss.  (Or what to think of in a different way.  At one point my mom said there were too many characters in a chapter I’d written.  I realized that the real issue wasn’t the number of characters, but that I hadn’t made the characters real enough to be distinguishable from one another.  They just melded into one amorphous blob for her.  The answer wasn’t to write a novel with two characters, it was to make the characters real enough to be memorable.)

So, on the stranger vs. friends front, I actually lean towards friends.  This may evolve.  We’ll see.  (And if some stranger I knew of and respected walked up and offered to review my novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to let them.)

I think the key is casting a wide enough net to get different perspectives.  In that handful of betas I have an age range from sixteen to sixty-five, men, women, gay, straight, and from at least three different countries and multiple ethnicities.  If all of them read the book and tell me that Chapter 5 sucks, well, I’ll have to admit that chapter five sucks.

So, bottom-line: I’m going for readers more than writers and cross-genre types who I know well enough to know what I’m getting.  And, if they come back and say they hate it, then I’m turning to some writers to figure out what I’m doing wrong.  (I’m attending my first writers’ conference in September, so maybe that’ll give me some answers, too.)

At the end of the day, the most important quality in a beta is that they’re willing to read what you send them, in a timely manner, and tell you what they think.

Also, a few PCW links that I found when I was starting to write this:

Good critique is hard to find and The care and feeding of first readers.  Both good reads for anyone at this stage.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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5 Responses to Picking betas

  1. Paulina Czarnecki says:

    I think the best beta-reader is educated (ie has good grammar, knows a little something abt writing) but not an actual writer themselves. That way, you get the phrasing and all that, but you also get the reader’s perspective on the way your book flows and on whether it’s good or not. 🙂

    • mhleewriter says:

      Paulina – I think you’re right – that would make a good beta reader. (Just not too educated that they get all stick in the mud about things…)

  2. I have to admit that when I first joined LinkedIn a few weeks ago, I was stunned to get feedback from people that weren’t my friends/family. You seem to have a wider variety of readers than I did; I mainly just have three people that read my things.
    One useful thing I did with that group was to look at their conversations and try to figure out the people who had opinions that I respected, and those who did not. Then, when I posted the beginning of my short story, I knew who to listen to more carefully and who not to. But still, it is an endless freaking dilemma, or at least that is how it feels right now 🙂 I love positive feedback, and I love criticism, but I have to really trust that criticism. I am looking forward to checking out the links you posted soon!

    • mhleewriter says:

      Jennifer – I’m curious – how are you using LinkedIn for writing? I have it for my “real career,” but have never looked at it as a writer.

      I think finding betas/listenting to critiques is probably a constantly evolving process as well. As we learn more about writing, our needs change. At the beginning, it may be incredibly helpful to have someone who’s a real stickler for grammar, but as we each develop our own personal writing style and quirks we may find that we move away from following a person’s critiques.

      I’ve found that in my non-writing career – over time who I needed as a mentor or role model changed.

      • I used it by joining a few fiction-writing groups. I honestly have not used it very much, it is really hard for me to keep track of what is going on and their format is confusing to me still.
        It makes sense that you would need different mentors for different parts of the process as it evolves. I keep trying to identify the particular things I like to follow most closely for each of my readers, since they do each offer something different in terms of critique. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one that has changing needs when it comes to proof-reading 🙂

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