Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Beta Readers and Where to Find them

Beta readers: what are they and where do you find them?

Firstly, alpha and beta readers aren't the same thing. An alpha reader is someone who reads your draft and helps you with story development as you write it. You need someone qualified to analyze story structure with knowledge of the expectations of your genre. A terrific, qualified critique group can serve as your alpha readers. There are many places to connect with other writers willing to work together, virtually as well as in person. I built my critique group by going to local writing events.

Finding Your Tribe

A beta reader is someone who reads your completed, polished novel and spots problems. They react to the content. Some authors consult sensitivity / diversity readers to evaluate their content for political correctness.

Please note that alpha and beta readers are not a replacement for editing, though they catch typos. Unless your critique partners are experienced editors willing to work for free, it is best to find an editor to work with your final, final draft. There is no point in paying an editor until you have input from beta readers and/or critique partners.

Mastering Revision

It helps to have more than one beta reader, but there is such a thing as too many. Every reader comes to your story with their own history, issues, biases, preferences, and pet peeves. Too many opinions will drive you insane. I suggest careful selection of three beta readers. You need, at the very least, one person unfamiliar with your story to make sure the story in your head made it onto the page. The entire story world, characters' backstories, and plot points are available to you as you read the story. That can be a weakness with critique partners. They know the story from inception too. A beta reader catches muddy motive, continuity errors, and missing information. You can do twenty proofreading rounds and still find mistakes. A beta reader will catch a few, but that isn't their primary function.

There are qualities to look for. They should enjoy your genre. If your plot isn't their thing, it will be unpleasant for both of you. It should be someone who enjoys reading, a lot. If they are a writer/reader you hit the jackpot. They should be able to communicate clearly, to specifically tell you what they like and don't like. They should not wish to rewrite your story with their opinions. Everybody wants to write a novel, until it becomes work. Some will read for emotion, others logic. They need to have the time to devote to the process.

Never ask a beta reader to pay for a copy of the book. Depending on their contribution, you may give them an honorable mention in the dedication or author's notes. Asking friends and family to serve as free beta readers is attractive, but they may not give you honest feedback. They may give extremely harsh feedback based on how they feel about you on that day. OMG, that's me isn't it? Is that so and so? But this happened in real life! You want someone who preferably doesn't know you and can give unemotional feedback. Once you gain a following of devoted fans, they may volunteer to be beta readers.

When you contract with a beta reader, be clear in your expectations, timeline, and how you will handle feedback. Are you allowed to ask follow-up questions? Will they take a second look at something? You don't get to ask them for continual advice or request endless reading passes. Shooting out defensive emails isn't professional nor will it help you either. A signed contract is not standard practice. I found a few links, but have not verified their contents with an intellectual rights attorney.

Sample NDA for Beta Readers

Confidentiality Agreement

When you receive feedback, you need to see it as a tool in your arsenal. My rule of thumb is if one person responds a certain way, I may ignore it. If two or more people mention the same thing, I pay attention and fix it. Give them at least several weeks. Reading for analysis is different from reading for pleasure. Are they reacting to craft or their emotions and prejudices?

Do they want a digital file or a printed file? How will they receive it? If they work with an e-file, they can't make notes within a PDF or EPUB format. That forces them to take notes on an electronic device or paper. Ask if they would prefer a Word document or other word processing format. I prefer to analyze a story in Word with comments and track changes turned on. Provide them with a list of questions. It will help focus their attention. Agree on what happens to the file or document upon completion, not that you can guarantee a copy was not made.

A thank you goes a long way when they have finished the project. If you are an impossible client, they not only won't work with you again, they may go negative on social media. If the deadline passes and you haven't heard from them, check in. They are human beings and we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Don't assume they are being difficult. If, for some reason, they aren't keeping to their end of the deal (when you aren't paying them), move on. There is no point in badgering them. If you are paying, know what your remedies are based on your work agreement.

Story Analysis Questionnaire 

Learning from Story Analysis

Beta Reader Ettiquette

Do you need to worry about plagiarism and piracy? Yes and no. Though your work is copyrighted as you write it, there are a lot of unscrupulous people pirating traditional as well as self-published work. They change a few details and upload it as their own, much like the infamous cut and paste thief in the Romance community. It is crucial to get a beta reader you can trust. Most beta readers are not working with a signed agreement. Nevertheless, most book lovers are reliable. They know they could get sued if caught as well. You can't stop someone from buying a copy of your book and typing it on another device, can you? Trust but verify.

The Cut and Paste Thief and What To Do If You've Been Plagiarized

It is possible to find writers who are willing to exchange beta reads. It is possible to find avid readers who love the genre and will happily read new books. Check out Facebook groups dedicated to your genre that allow requests.

So where do you turn when you don't know where to start?

There are multiple online resources for finding and/or hiring a beta reader. If you don't have a personal network, it may be worth it to pay someone. The following is a list of links to help you find a beta reader. I cannot personally endorse them based on experience. I have a great critique group. This is simply for awareness. Always do your research. I find it helps to search for the "name of beta reader or group" + "complaints" or "reviews." It is easier to find complaints than compliments.




Beta Readers and Critique Partners on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1782619931753141/






If you have an unpleasant experience, learn from it but don't let it stop you from seeking the help you need. Beta readers are worthwhile assets.

Posted by Diana Hurwitz, author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Author Intrusion

The more I write and the more I edit, for myself and for my clients, the harder it is for me to read for pleasure and not want to whip out that old red pencil. Sigh...

Most of the time I've been able to ignore some simple craft issues. There seem to be more and more lately in so many published books, so I've told myself to throw away the editing hat, and the writing hat, and just read. That works for a while, then I come across another book by an author with a penchant for going to extremes in finding active verbs that absolutely make no sense in the sentence.  For instance: "Frank ditched around the door and headed for the desk." And: "Sam jammed out of the dining room and grabbed his briefcase before leaving for work." 

Changing common verbs to something unique seems to be a thing now in writing, and I get it. We often tire of using the same ol' same ol' words for a character's movements. I can get so tired of having a character simply walk I want to scream, but sometimes characters walk. Or they run. Or they dash. Or they hop over hot pavement. Seldom, however, do they "jam" or "ditch" themselves from one place to another.

The examples cited above were taken from a book I recently read. I changed up some of the wordage such as character names and places, but left the verb as is. While reading this book, I wondered if the author did a search for "walk" in their manuscript then changed every one to something like the examples cited above. 

By working so hard to find what at first glance appears to be fun, creative word usage, a writer is actually turning the attention from her story to herself. It's almost like saying to the reader, "Oh. Look how clever I am." 

This penchant for finding unusual word usage is a form of author intrusion according to editor Beth Hill on What Is Author Intrusion  

"Author intrusion can come into a story with word choices. Some writers like to pretty up their prose, add a dash of the poetic or use fancy words in place of cheap, everyday words." 

It's not only editors who urge clear, concise writing. Consider the advice of writers like Elmore Leonard and his rules for good writing:

  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. 
  • Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

And Stephen King who advises us not to "dress  up our vocabulary."

While doing my research for this article, I wanted to see what Hemingway, the master of concise writing, had to say about using simple words. I couldn't find the exact quote I was looking for, but I did find this: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

That has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but it's worth including here, lest we think that the first words we put on paper, or computer screen, are golden. I hold strongly to the belief that a good book isn't written, it's rewritten, which is something I tell my clients and the people who take my editing classes. And I remind myself of that every day that I'm writing.

But back to the topic at hand. 

Before I spent an entire day down the fascinating rabbit hole of advice for writers, I had to give up my quest to find the exact quote about avoiding unusual word usage, but I found this at The Master's Class 16 Tips for Fiction Writers:

"Write simple sentences. Think of Shakespeare’s line, “To be or not to be?” famous for its brevity and the way it quickly describes a character’s toiling over their own life. There is a time and place for bigger words and denser text, but you can get story points across in simple sentences and language. Try using succinct language when writing, so that every word and sentence has a clear purpose."

Note that the article makes it clear that there are times for using big words and writing denser text. Some genres, especially fantasy, call for the denser text, but I don't think there is ever a need for awkward substitutions of words.

What do you think? Please do let us know in the comments.

Excerpted from Maryann Miller's humorous memoir, A Dead Tomato Plant and A Paycheck.  You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE