Monday, 15 April 2013

Beta Readers - The After Process

Well done, you've done enough of your story that you have what you could call your first draft. Now, before you start calling publishers and announcing that you've finally finished, you have to go through a few more steps first. One of those, is a beta reader. They can also be called "First Readers" and it's usually best to give your manuscript to someone that you trust to be totally honest with you. As well as someone who can correct any minor errors they see in terms of grammar, spelling, continuity and plot holes. It's not always necessary that it be someone you know, but I've found that it's usually best. That way I'm not panicking about someone stealing my work and presenting it as their own.

So, what do you do when you don't have someone like that in your life? You'd be surprised at who will want to read a first edit of a manuscript. I am lucky enough that for the majority of my books, my best friend B is able to find the time to read through it all. She also is brutally honest when it comes to my stories and is able to point me in the right direction when I've made a mistake. What you don't want is plan criticism. You don't want to be told - "this is crap, why did you bother making me read it? It just plain SUCKS! You suck as a writer." What you do want is someone who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. So, something like. "It needs work, but this part and this part are good. This part needs to be worked on. This is good, and for a first edit it's great but it does need some work." I don't mean word for word, I just mean along those lines. You want to know *why* that paragraph in chapter 40 doesn't work and what should you do to make it better.

You generally want to choose someone who is interested in the subject and would enjoy reading a book about your chosen genre. So for a crime novel, you don't want to give it to someone who is only interested in reading about sci-fi or fantasy. That way, you know that the feedback they give you is not related to the fact that they, personally, would never read this kind of book. They may be good as an editor, but I'll come back to that another time. You want your first reader to be someone who would pick it up in a book store, read the back and be interested in the story.

So, going back to my question, what do you do when you don't have anyone? You have a few options:

1. You can join a writing community/forum:
A place where there are a lot of writers - new and old - who may be willing to work with you and give your manuscript a read through. You need to be aware that they may not have time to just sit down and read it all the way through in a few days. It will take time and people are less likely going to want to help if you badger them every five minutes about whether they have read it or not. That is just very off putting. Especially as they are probably working on their own manuscripts themselves.

2. You can ask friends and family: It may not seem like an option, and it may not actually *be* an option for some people, but asking your brother/sister/mother/aunt/cousin etc could be a good idea. As long as you know they have the required skills (i.e grammar, spelling etc) then there is no reason why you shouldn't share your creation with them. The only caveat I would give is that they may not want to give you criticism and feedback because of your relationship with them. So, before you ask someone to read through it, be sure you want them to give you the 100% truth about the story. You don't want to cause a rift with family or friends because you are not ready to hear the bad things about your book.

3. If you have an online journal, advertise: We live in the world of social networking. If you have a journal with people who follow you, you can ask one of them to be your first reader. Hell, you can ask several of them. Multiple first readers are possible and I have used them in the past because different opinions produce different results. So, post a synopsis on your Tumblr, or your LJ, or your Facebook or Blog. As long as you are okay with having someone you may not know (but is qualified) read your book, then go for it. Again, a caveat - if you want to have everyone read it, DO NOT post it online. Communicate by email or use something like Dropbox to allow those you want to have access. Once you post anything other than a synopsis online, you run the risk of someone taking your work and making it theirs. You would have some recourse, but not much and it's risky. I know the same can be said for advertising on your journal, but the difference is that then you have control over who reads it. You will also have some form of contact with them which will help you if they do decide to be a dick and steal your work.

Those are the options I have used when I have needed someone else, as well as B, to be my first reader. I have had great success and have never had the problem of someone stealing my work. I know there is always a first time, but it's not happened yet *touches wood*.

So, now you've found your beta reader(s) and you've given them the manuscript. You now anxiously await their feedback. What do you do when you get it? You have a number of options. You are the writer, they are, I hope, your creations and characters. Therefore, it is down to you how much of their feedback you listen to. When it comes to spelling and grammar, that's not really something you want to ignore. Unless it's something you're going for, in which case, more power to you! I'm talking about the feedback on the way you're character(s) talk, do things, the reasoning behind their actions. The final word is yours so you don't have to change everything to what they suggest. The same goes for plot holes. Maybe you did that on purpose, or maybe they have suggested a way to close it and you disagree. That's also fine.

The main thing is though, that you don't just say to yourself "They are wrong about everything! It's perfect, it's doesn't need changing AT ALL!" You may think that, and as I said above, you really shouldn't approach a beta with work until you are ready to have criticism about it. Until you reach that point, nothing anyone says will help to improve your work, it'll just upset you and that's never fun. The thing to remember is that "the first draft of everything is shit", to quote a t-shirt I saw and thought about buying. It's not a reflection on how good or bad a writer you are. Even if you get bad feedback, you don't need to tear up your manuscript and declare that you'll never write again. It happens to us all, the first draft is usually NOT the draft that ends up being published and that's why beta and first readers exist (also editors but that's one for another day). They are there to guide you and they are the first people, besides yourself, who get to read what you have created. It's a wonderful thing, being asked to read someone's first draft, it implies a level of trust from the writer and that's always good.

So, don't fret about whether or not people will think that you can't string two sentences together. It's normal. It's an important part of growing as a writer and ultimately, it helps you to learn as you write. Learning is never a bad thing and it leads to improvement, which is also not a bad thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find a beta for book nine, as I just finished the last chapters and am feeling quite pleased with myself.

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