Monday, April 11, 2011

Being a Beta


No, my post is not about werewolves. Sorry!

Disclaimer: Everything in this post relates to my experiences, and may not hold true for everyone else. This post is mostly for newbies like me, who are only just entering the internet lovefest between authors, readers and reviewers.

Up until the beginning of this year, I had no idea what ARCs were. I had never written a review, I only vaguely knew who a beta reader was, and I thought Facebook was the only social networking site worth being on. Oh, how quickly things change!

Three months on, I am a rabid Goodreads fan (screw you, Facebook!), Net Galley loves me, I write an average of seven to eight reviews a week, I blog and I beta read for two authors. Now, of my several achievements, today I want to talk about beta reading.

When I first heard about beta readers I was like, ‘Cool! Sign me up!’ One of my absolute favourite authors in the whole wide world had put out a call for beta readers, and I couldn’t think of anything better than getting my hands on that manuscript waay before anyone else did. Thankfully, I was too internet-shy back then to apply for the post, and now that I have been a beta reader, I can only be grateful I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, beta reading has its own thrill. Knowing that your input has the power to shape a story, and make it better, is quite a rush. Not to mention that it has the added benefit of improving your own writing. Reading through someone else’s work with a critical eye makes you more aware of the good and the bad in your own story-telling.

But. (Yes, there’s always a but.) But, beta reading is no picnic in the park either. My sincere advice to you would be to never, ever, respond to a call for beta readers from your favourite authors. Here’s why.

The draft you get as a beta reader is ten times worse than the draft you get as an ARC reviewer (with ARCs you only have to worry about grammar and spelling!). There are typos, there are weak characterizations, there are holes in the plot, factual inconsistencies, lame dialogue... you name it, it’s probably there. And if you’re a grammar Nazi like yours truly, some of these things grate like nails on a chalkboard.

Once you beta read a book, you’re never going to be able to see the final novel in the same way. If you are like me, and race through your books like it’s the last day before Doomsday, well, beta reading a novel will put an effective stop to that. Suddenly you are more aware of the changes in the story— you’re thinking to yourself, Oh wow, I suggested this change, or damn, there’s a plot hole I didn’t spot! The novel becomes less of a story you can enjoy and more of a work of fiction.

And this is not the approach I want to take towards a novel written by an author I love. For me, at least, a novel from a favourite author is like this vast ocean of possibility that invites you to come drown yourself in it for a while. All of that anticipation, that mystique, is lost when you already know the plot, and you’ve slogged your butt off trying to improve it.  All the wonder of feverishly devouring a perfectly written, perfectly edited, fast-moving novel? Gone.

At the same time, of course, you can’t possibly offer your services to an author you hate, however high your zeal may be to improve the quality of their work. For example, I would never, ever ask to be a beta reader for Cassandra Clare or Stephenie Meyer (sorry, fangirls) because I hate the basic premise of their writing. It’s not the typos or the plot holes that drive me crazy, it’s the world view from which they write. So as a beta, I would be useless to them simply because we’d have no meeting of minds.

As with most situations in life, middle ground is best. Pick an author you like, someone who you think has potential, but needs input and polishing. Someone with whom you can find common ground, and who is open to criticism (the last is most authors, actually; some of them are graceful about it, and some stubborn, but they almost always see sense in the end! J )

Different authors look for different kinds of beta readers. The authors I work with know that I’m nitpicky about the details, with an irrepressible urge to line-edit. Some others, like Ilona Andrews, prefer beta readers who can give them only the big picture and accurate reader reactions.

One last word of advice: beta reading is hard work. It’s nowhere near as easy as just reading a novel and writing a review. As a reviewer, it’s easy to pick apart a novel’s faults without bothering to see how it could be better, or find that point where you can change things while still maintaining the integrity of the story. As a good beta reader, it’s not just your critical skills that authors will value, but also the ability to work with them to improve the story.

A lot of this advice may sound obsolete or commonsensical. But believe me, when an author you like and respect asks you to beta read, it is very hard to damp down the excitement and say no. I hope you remember my two cents worth of advice then!  

On an ancillary note, for those looking for critique partners for their writing, author Maggie Stiefvater is hosting a critique partner love connection on her blog. If you can’t find anyone within your circle of friends/acquaintances/Goodreaders, this might be a good option to explore.

If your experience of being a beta reader differs from mine, I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment letting me know.

11 comments:

  1. This was interesting to me, as I've never heard of people asking for "Beta Readers" for actual work. I've only heard that phrase in the context of fanfiction. (And the beta readers in that context are often less competent in the grammar department than the writer herself).

    I've been in critique groups with great success, but it seems weird to me that a published author would put out an open call for readers on the internet. I'm sorry your experience ruined your reading enjoyment.

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  2. Ah, I really need to get around to reading your story. I'm sorry for the delay.

    I haven't had a critique group yet, but I've had two beta-readers. Their advice has been really helpful. But you have to learn when to take advice and when to ignore it. Being a push-over will ruin your WIP, but ignoring all the critique you get is kind of stupid. Doesn't it defeat the purpose of having a beta?

    And yeah, I don't use facebook either. Goodreads is way cooler.

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  3. Beta-readers for fan fics are often quite useless. I've seen so many stories that claim to have had betas, and they were filled with typos. Not to say that all fan-fics are bad, but like most things--the majority of them are.

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  4. Oh, lots of published authors put out calls for beta readers. They are not as 'intimate' as critique partners, you understand. Critique partners are with you very step of the way; the beta reader generally comes in only after you have finished at least the first draft of your novel. And I guess even when authors call for beta readers on their blog, or site, they tend to pick fans they've interacted with for a while. I think it is just that sometimes you could use a complete stranger's perspective alongside the ones from your friends/family.

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  5. Waaay back, sometime in the Late Jurassic I believe, before I started querying agents, I asked a small posse of my real life friends to beta read for me. It was my very first attempt at a novel, and I just wanted to be sure it made sense to anyone but me. What I found was that most of my readers were so utterly awed that I'd written an entire novel that they loved it. Uncritically. Only one disliked the ending, and I thought he had some good points so I revised it.

    I think if you want USEFUL feedback, critique partners (who are writers themselves, and will challenge you) are the way to go, in my opinion.

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  6. I never knew that there was a difference between the two terms. So scratch that, I've had one beta and one critique partner.

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  7. Awesome post! I've always had a fairly hard time finding beta readers for my work (like out of the 5 novels I've written, only one has ever been beta read. And I thought that was a huge achievement). Maybe I'm just not looking in the right places or maybe people just aren't interested in what I write...I don't know

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  8. I've only beta read once (for an author, that is), and I must say it was quite an experience. Not just because the story was good (fantastic, even), but also because I could put my two cents in without ruining it. Before, when I used to do that on fanfiction, I couldn't seperate myself from the story and I became less of a beta than a co-author.

    Bad idea, but I learned my lesson.

    Anyway, great post. I thought about doing more beta-reading, but later. Maybe after I finish my current project.

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  9. Amen. Tis why I did not apply to beta for a few of my favorite authors +)

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  10. I beta for some writer friends, and this is definitely true! If any of my friends get published, I'll always see the original copy in my head, what they changed and what not. For me, beta-ing for a writer isn't about getting to read early; it's about helping someone with their craft. Beta-ing is NOTHING like reviewing! They're both exciting but for totally different reasons IMHO.

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  11. Haha, I actually really enjoy being a beta reader!
    I wrote a post about my experiences with it here: http://pagesandstardust.blogspot.com/2011/04/what-heck-is-reader-report.html

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