Sunday, October 13, 2013

Beta Readers: Who Needs 'Em?

I do.

And any writer who's honest with themselves will say the same thing.

For those of my followers who are not writers, please bear with me this time as I discuss a critical element in the process.  It just keeps coming back as something that gets neglected way too much, and the industry suffers from a lack of it.

When I first started writing, I wanted to hide my masterwork under a sheet, like the grand artiste I was (yeah, right), until the day of the Grand Reveal, when the world would behold my genius and fall to their knees in ecstasy. Agents would read it and cry, wondering where in the world I'd been all their lives. Editors would engage in a demolition derby in my driveway, fighting each other to the death to get my signature on their overly-generous contracts.

How stupid can a guy be and still breathe?

Needless to say, since then I've learned how mind-numbingly difficult it is to get a manuscript in shape to even have a hope in the slush pile. After about the thirtieth rejection letter, the sun began to rise in my less-than-plumb-level-and-square brain. Maybe there was something wrong with the manuscript, and maybe, just maybe, I was too close to see what it was.

Where I work for my day job, we have an intricate quality-control system, for which I'm sure you're all grateful. When one fixes problems on airplanes, one needs to take measures to make sure the job is done using what I like to call, "The Right Way." And when the procedure you're following is sixteen pages long, and you're messing with landing gear settings, checking functions in the navigation systems, changing settings in the controls, and double-checking the cabin pressure system, it helps to have a second set of eyes come along behind to make sure you didn't miss a step. Our inspectors go over every detail of the job, make sure every screw is tight, every panel in place. All before the crew sets foot in the aircraft again. If we didn't have this system, people can get hurt, or worse.

Now, a typo in one of my books won't get anyone killed. The worst thing that can happen is one of my readers gets a papercut. But it doesn't absolve me of the responsibility of ensuring my work meets certain standards. Editors don't need a perfect manuscript. But they also don't want to spend their time rewriting a mediocre work just to get it ready for market.

So two critical steps I was missing jumped up and bit me in the nose. Fortunately, it wasn't too late to take advantage of them, and I've never missed those steps since.

The first step is to get the work critiqued by a brutally honest crit partner. I don't mean Attila the critter. I mean someone who will push you on a deep level and point out where you're doing well, and where you could still do better. I also trade suggestions with my regulars, and we steal from each other with gleeful gratitude. Then again, I guess it's not stealing if it's offered as a gift, is it?

Anyway, the second critical step is to find a beta reader who will look over the entire manuscript and give you a definitive thumbs-up/thumbs down on it. They don't have to be a writer, but you need them to be, once again, brutally honest as well as an avid reader.

Now, here is the place where "The Split" happens, depending on your publishing method. Self-publishers, for the love of God, invest in an editor. If you can't afford an editor, you're better off finding an agent or a publisher for a contract deal, so it can be edited by a professional. If you're looking for a contract deal already, the call is yours whether you want to get the manuscript edited at this point. It couldn't hurt, but when you enter your deal, your publisher will assign you at least one editor, and then the real work begins, with rewrites and revisions galore until it's ready for a final galley.

After I inserted those two critical steps into my process, I've been consistently accepted for contract. And don't assume that once you get your foot in the door with one publishing credit, that every manuscript is a slam dunk from then on. Quite the opposite. The bar only gets higher.

As competitive as the publishing industry is, you can't afford not to let someone peek at your work before it goes to market. The extra edge will make the difference between a shredder and a contract.


  1. How do you get those who commit to being your beta readers to follow through in a timely fashion?

    1. That's where you need to get pushy. Give your BR's a set deadline, and follow up with them. Don't be afraid to make yourself a nuisance. They'll either come through, or quit beta reading for you.

  2. I SO agree! We run all our books through our critique group, an amazing group of mostly-published authors who can be both objectively honest and supporting. Then we have several beta readers who get the entire completed manuscript pre-publication. Our current WIP is an historical novel set in San Juan Capistrano between 1820 and 1890. The local historian, Indian storyteller, and two docents from the historical society will get it as soon as it's finished. Most have seen early chapters already. A publisher friend and editor will also get a copy, even though I don't intend to submit to her imprint. (She publishes different genres.) We have to get the history correct while creating a family saga our readers will enjoy.
    We ALWAYS have early readers, and their observations have made a huge difference in the quality of our work.

  3. Yup, the beta reader is definitely a must. Nothing I hate reading worse than a badly written book.

  4. Good advice, Cyrus. I have a wonderful beta reader, who writes for the screen. She's very savvy and doesn't pull any punches. I'm still wading through her suggestions right now. She is SPOT ON.

  5. I agree that beta readers are crucial, and my problem is readers who can't seem to complete reading the manuscript. I've gotten to the point where, if I don't hear from them for a while, I ask them for the spot they stopped reading, and figure there's something wrong *there*. Or maybe in the section just before that spot. And I try to fix it :)

    I know this method probably only works for the psychically-gifted, but I can't think of a polite alternative. And I *so* hate confrontation. Awesome post, as always, Mr. Keith. Thank you for sharing :)

  6. Great post, Cyrus. I'm forever amazed at how many "things" slip by the numerous readings by many people. I'm reading a book now, and there are so many of those little blips, it's making me nuts. Maybe some authors have pure genius flow form their computers at first type. Me,not so much. I've not used a beta reader for past books. My CPs have been brutal enough. LOL May give one a go on my current WIP.