Beta Readers. Where To Find Them and How To Work With Them. - Guest Post
Where to begin?
These last few months have been interesting, insightful, and a little frustrating if I am to be completely honest.
I managed to complete my first novel—Working title Bloodless Intent, a mystery set in a fictional world with sci-fi themes weaved into the plot—and after a few rounds of edits I was ready to start sending it to beta readers, but how? Where to begin?
I’m new to this. My friends and family aren’t interested in writing (most of them aren’t even interested in reading), so I knew it would be a waste of time to ask them. I had to do my research, look somewhere else.
I’d like to share what I’ve found. Hopefully this will be helpful to you, here we go:
How to find Beta readers
Contrary to what I thought at first, finding a beta reader isn’t actually that hard. Now, finding one that fits with you and your story, gives helpful feedback, and wants to stick with you for the whole manuscript . . . that’s another story, but we’ll get to that in a second.
First off, be ready to accept beta reading swaps. Beta reading can be a time-consuming job and nobody wants to work for free. If you want good beta readers who put effort in understanding your story and give you relevant feedback, then you should be ready to do the same with their stories. Don’t go around thinking others are blessed by the opportunity of reading your job. THEY are doing YOU a favor, and the easiest way to find someone willing to do it is offering to do the same for them.
Secondly, have your manuscript ready. Please, no one wants to read 200 pages full of typos and plot holes. Do one or two rounds of edits—don’t half-ass them, people will notice—and clean your writing as much as you can. Beta readers are there to help you find things you didn’t notice, not to fix the stuff you were too lazy to edit yourself.
Finally, prepare a good blurb or synopsis. This is an important one that often gets overlooked. You need to be prepared to tell people what your book is about. Many times I’ve found people who come and ask me:
“Do you want to read my 150k word fantasy? It has many twist and turns and lots of craziness.”
Really? That’s all you have to convince me to read your story?
Granted, your beta readers (most of the time) aren’t editors or agents, so your pitch doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have to put some effort into it. Show me you care about your story, otherwise don’t expect me to care for you.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff.
Where to find beta readers
It’s important we clarify something first. How long is the writing you’re trying to submit to beta readers? Is it a short story? A small chapter of a larger story? Or is it, like mine, a full-blown 100k word novel?
The distinction is important because, to no one’s surprise, it’ll be easier to find readers for smaller excerpts. Hell, there are even dedicated websites for this like critiquecircle.com (if your submission is 5k words or less, Critique Circle is one of the best websites you can join at the moment. There are others but I’ve found CC’s system to be simpler and more rewarding)
But if your WIP is on the longer side, there are other options more suited for you. (Nothing is stopping you from submitting your whole story on CC, chapter by chapter, but that’s an incredibly slow process)
These are the 3 places I’ve found more effective when catching beta readers:
1) Good ol’ Facebook: There’s a group here, and the process is straightforward. Post the genre of your story, your blurb/synopsis, word count and voila. If people are interested they’ll let you know. Of course, you increase your chances dramatically if you say you’re willing to swap manuscripts and beta read for them in payment (especially if your story is long).
2) Goodreads: It so happens that Goodreads also has a group dedicated to beta reading, here. The forum is divided into sections for authors looking for beta readers and beta readers looking for authors. There are different sections for free and paid services, so it’s all set up and ready for you to go straight where you need.
3) FictionPress: FictionPress actually has sort of database of registered beta readers, here. This will require a bit more work on your part since you’ll have to go through the filters and categories to find the right people for your work. Look for beta readers interested in your genre, read their profiles, and message them if you think your story is a right fit, no need to be shy. Those members often have stories of their own uploaded to their website, maybe it’ll be a good idea to beta read for them too.
How to work with beta readers
I’m assuming you’re not here to read about the usual “treat them with respect and blah blah blah” because that’s common sense and you already know that. (I hope. If not, you’re deep trouble my friend). So lets move on to more specific things. You visited all these websites, talked to all these people, and you’ve finally found your beta-reading-soulmate (or at least you think you have). What’s next?
DON’T SEND YOUR WHOLE MANUSCRIPT AT ONCE.
You don’t mindlessly throw your full manuscript around. Plan things out. Divide the story in smaller chunks (talk to the people you’re dealing with, see what works for them. I’ve found that chunks of 10k words are a fairly common practice). Send one of these pieces and wait for the reader to reach back to you. If you can, prepare a small set of questions that help guide your reader into what type of feedback you’re looking for.
All this is done for a few reasons. For one, you avoid overwhelming your beta reader with a full-length novel right off the bat.
Secondly, it helps to maximize and streamline the feedback you receive. How would you feel if the reader gave you a 50-word paragraph worth of feedback for your entire novel? I’m guessing not very nice since that’s (often times) not enough to make significant improvements on a large story. (Maybe you think I’m exaggerating about the 50-word thing, but trust me, I’m not. It will happen If you let it.)
Also (and arguably most importantly), working this way helps you prevent people from stealing your work. . . Right, that’s a thing. Stealing other people’s stories sounds like the stupidest idea ever if you ask me, but hey, some are dumb enough to try it and you should do your best to minimize the chances. “Forcing” them to read and review short pieces at a time before sending the whole manuscript will likely be enough to scare away those ill-intentioned who would try to steal your writing but who are too lazy to work for it. This is by no means a perfect safety measure, so remember to always communicate through email and keep backups of your interactions with Beta Readers, just in case.
Disclaimer: I haven’t had any trouble regarding people trying to steal my work, nor do I know anyone who has, BUT it never hurts to be careful. Better safe than sorry.
Saying “Take all the time you need, there’s no deadline.” Is one of the biggest mistakes I made. The whole beta reading process for my novel started in January, and to this day (early September) I still have people who haven’t finished. You can’t afford that kind of time waste.
Sure, there’s always a chance that my story is just terrible. Maybe these people are struggling to keep going, chipping away paragraph after paragraph as the months go by. That’s entirely possible, but don’t dismiss my advice just yet. There are two important things I should mention:
1) People WILL drop your story if they think is terrible: If you encourage your beta readers to be 100% honest (as you should), you’ll soon realize there are people who simply don’t like your writing. Whatever their reason is, there’s a high chance these people won’t continue reading, and why should they? No one wants to be bored, no one wants to work for free. Why would they? So, if your readers stick with you after months, they’re probably seeing some value in what they’re reading.
2) We like to procrastinate: There are several things you have to consider if you’re trying to do a good job. Sometimes you’re double checking your own advice to make sure you’re not saying anything stupid, other times you’re looking at the screen for several minutes trying to figure out if your comments sound too rude or not, and every now and then you’re just staring at the screen not knowing what to say that could be helpful.
My point is, beta reading isn’t easy, and like all not-easy things we tend to avoid it. If there isn’t a deadline in place, your readers will postpone your manuscript for later, maybe even forget about it for a while. Not everyone will do it. You’ll find those who have done this before and can get back to you with feedback in reasonable time frames, but you can’t expect everyone to be as disciplined. Saying “Take as much time as you need” means just that, and “as much time as you need” could mean seven months. Be careful with what you say.
Even if you truly don’t have a deadline. Establish one all the same. Be appreciative of your own time.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want my beta readers to feel pressured and stressed, nor do I want you trying to control the people you work with. You don’t have to force them to read 300 pages in a week, be reasonable. Rarely I see people establishing deadlines, but when I do, 1 or 2 months seem to be the norm for a full-length novel. Consider sticking to a similar time-frame.
And finally, I want to direct your attention to one short but very important point:
Focus on building relationships
Yes, it sounds cliché. Yes, it’s complicated, but this is one of the best things you can do long-term for your career as a writer. Remember, they’re not robots. These people can become your next critique partners, your brainstorming buddies, and who knows? If you get to publish your story they can become your reviewers or the ones that help you share your story on social media.
Of course, this is more of a theory rather than personal experience, but I truly believe this is a great chance to cultivate a friendship that goes beyond the “we read each other’s work and then forget about it forever”.
If your beta seems to enjoy your story (or if you enjoyed theirs), keep in touch! You never know where your most loyal reader (or your new favorite author) is going to come from.