by Orly Konig-Lopez
Is your manuscript good enough to hook an agent? Make a sale?
If you have the beta stamp of approval it just might be.
And no, I'm not talking about your critique partners.
A critique partner and a beta reader are two very different animals (and honestly, neither should be fluffy and soft.)
Beta Reader vs. Critique Partner
I'm very lucky to be part of two amazing critique groups. My CPs were a tremendous help during the drafting process of my last manuscript. Critique groups aren't for everyone, but I couldn't do without mine. Why?
A critique partner will:
- Nit-pick chapter-by-chapter
- Catch your tense shifts
- Find your missing commas and catch your typos
- Cajole fresh phrases out of you when you fall into the cliché pit
- Question why your character just walked out of the house when the page before, she was in the shower -- and you haven’t shown her getting dressed. Hello neighbors!
- Cheer you on when you're ready to torch the manuscript and get a job as a barista
And then one day, you're done with the draft. Woo hoo. Squiggle dance. DONE!
And that, my friends, is the point when many of us run head first into trouble. Because, let’s face it, we’ve poured our hearts into these books and we have blisters on our butts from hours in the chair. We want to query!
STOP! Send the manuscript to a few beta readers instead. Trust me!
I hear you whining … “but it’s done and I want to query.” After all, you’ve already gotten feedback from your critique partners. And your mom read it and said it was positively brilliant. Why the heck should you take more time and wait for more feedback that will lead to more revisions?
Because your manuscript will thank you for it. Mine did.
Why? Because your beta reader will:
- Read it from beginning to end without stopping and tell you what works and what doesn’t
- Find the plot hole or the thread that unraveled three-quarters of the way through
- Call you out on the main character who just can’t pull on her big girl panties and learn from her mistakes. Yeah, mine was wearing granny bloomers.
Finding the Right Beta For You
I have a few beta readers I turn to—there are the “writerly” ones and the “readerly” ones.
A couple of the writerly betas are actually my critique partners as well, but others are writer friends who I trust and value their feedback. My readerly betas are close friends who I know won’t tiptoe around the truth.
Why do I want both types of readers? Because they approach reading differently. Remember the days when you picked up a novel and just read for enjoyment versus analyzing what the author did right or wrong? I want to know both types of readers will like my book.
I’ve had a few people recently ask advice on finding beta readers.
First of all, if you’re in a critique group, ask one of your CPs. Not everyone wants to commit to reading a full manuscript, and that’s okay, but you might be pleasantly surprised. Don’t forget to return the favor though.
Writing groups are another great way to make connections. If you’re on a yahoo loop, for example, try sending out an email asking if anyone is interested in exchanging manuscripts.
Engage in discussions with other writers about where they are in their writing process. You might be surprised at who steps up with an offer to help if they know you’re looking for readers.
As for the “readerly” betas, ask a close friend or someone in a reading club or knitting club or whatever club. Just make sure it’s someone whose opinions you value.
I’ll fully admit that I was incredibly intimated asking friends to read my work. But guess what? The couple of friends I did ask were tickled at being part of the process. Those friends have become my loudest cheerleaders.
Feeding Your Beta Reader
So now you have beta readers lined up and they’re anxious to rip into the manuscript. Most of the time I season the manuscript with a few questions before tossing it over:
- Is the main character likeable?
- Does the story ring true?
- Is there a subplot that particularly works or doesn’t?
- Is there something or someone you wanted to see less of? More of?
Sometimes there’s one nagging question about a story, maybe a comment that came up during critique group and I want to make sure I addressed it properly in the rewrite. For example, in the manuscript I just finished, one of the characters has Alzheimer’s so I asked a reader with personal experience of the disease to read for authenticity.
There are times when I want a gut reaction. In that case, I wait until I get the feedback before asking any specific questions. Regardless of who is reading, I want them to be brutally honest—they’re not doing me any favors by being fluffy and soft.
Chew Slowly and Swallow
When the feedback comes in, I read through all the comments once, and let them sink in. Then I read a second time and make notes in the manuscript. If a couple of people call me out on one particular point, I know there’s work to be done. Sometimes one beta reader’s comment perfectly nails what’s missing. Other times I’ll scrunch up my nose and discard a comment if it doesn’t fit with my story. Why?
Because at the end of the day it is YOUR story.
What about you? Do you have trusted beta readers who help make your manuscripts better? What kind of feedback do you look for?