How would you feel if after months of hard work, your reader looked at you and told you that she didn’t like your lead character? In her words, “I hate her! She’s too accepting of her situation, she’s needy, and a wimp.” I was floored. That is so not what I was going for and definitely not how I saw the character. The simple truth was that I hadn’t done my job. I failed to put on paper, what I heard and saw in my head. My reader was only shown the external situation, not the internal conflict that I knew was occurring. I had become too close to my story and failed to share the details with my reader.
So what makes a good beta-reader and how do you find one? Finding a reader is rarely a problem. The real trick is finding a quality one. We all begin with our family or close friends, but they’re not always the best readers for us. One of my oldest friends loves to read and I shared my first book with her. Her praise was effusive. She laughed, she cried, and told me how much she loved it. But she was unable to share with me exactly what it was she loved about the story. There was also nothing about the story she didn’t like. No issues, no problems, and sadly – no real feedback. While my ego was stroked, the truth is that it wasn’t helpful to me. No matter how often I try to tell you how perfect I am, we all know I’m only mostly perfect.
Most writers will go through more than a few readers before they establish a core group of people who they can effectively communicate with. Most of them read the whole story, but some of them read only bits and pieces as I’m working. They are a pretty eclectic group. Three retired attorneys (and no, I have no idea why I know so many attorneys), my stylist, a literature teacher, a graphic designer, a gun shop employee, a crime lab employee, a librarian, two logistics specialists, two retired English teachers, a police officer, and two published authors. Many of them are ex-military. A combination of Air Force and Marines (not that you ever use the term ex with a Marine) and several with a security forces background. Six of my readers are men. While they may not be my target audience in every case, they look at things differently than women do and their feedback is often about more practical things. They also help me keep my male characters more true to the image I’m going for. My favorite Marine pointed out in one of stories that if my male lead was any kinder and gentler that he would be in danger of losing his standing in the “real man club.” Sensitive only goes so far, and I was crossing the line.
Good beta-readers ask questions and make notes as they read. They are curious about your characters and your settings. Often they are the people who notice your character sits twice without ever having stood up. Or worse, they have one too many hands. They catch the accidental name changes that happen: Carolyn becomes Caroline and Krista becomes Krystal. My lead character in Protecting Parker is Gray, but occasionally my fingers experienced dyslexia and I typed Gary. The betas had a field day with that one. They also find the missing words and wrong descriptions. Why is a happy guy glowering? Did you mean principal instead of principle? Why is he eating lunch in one sentence, but it’s a clear, cold night in the next one? My betas also point out things that they feel may be out of character. One of my favorite notes read, “You keep using the term, ‘she explained patiently.’ Why patiently? Aren’t these men supposed to be smart? Why are you making them look stupid? Or is she just being a bitch?” My male beta-readers could have cared less about that, but complained that I didn’t tell them enough about the things she was “patiently” explaining to them at the time.
Each of my readers brings something different to the mix. Dean is my tech guy and he corrects my terminology when I discuss anything in the computer, internet, or phone world. My weapons guy makes sure that I keep all my weapons and components straight. My logistics, cops, and ex-military point out flaws in their areas of expertise, and my civilians point out the things, as non-military, they didn’t get. And my attorneys – well, they are the detail oriented people that ask some of the most unique questions. One was curious about the dichotomy of my vampire believing in God. Our discussion of vampires and religion occurred over lunch one day, and in the end, I realized that once again I had failed to share the inner conflict of my character with the reader. The questions they ask, force me as a writer to do a better job of getting what’s in my head, on to the page.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you need to tell your beta-readers exactly what it is that you expect of them. Do you want them to make notes, do you want them to look at something specific, or is this a first read to see if the timeline makes sense? Do you want them to “rewrite” or simply suggest off to the side? If I send a section that I’m struggling with, I will sometimes ask for help and people are welcome to put a lot of ink on that paper. But when it arrives in a finished form, I’m not looking for a rewrite. I don’t mind suggestions when there’s a problem, but I hate it when someone thinks they should just rewrite my paragraph. I’d rather have someone say, “Perhaps this might be better as…” or “I heard it this way in my head…” On the other end of the scale are the readers who are simply too nice to be “direct” and they need to be encouraged to say what’s on their minds. Some of them are afraid of hurting my feelings, but I’d much rather hear it from my beta than hear it from a critic after the fact.
The most important quality of a beta-reader is also the toughest for any author to deal with. Honesty. My beta needs to be direct without being offensive. The focus needs to be on the writing not on me. And they often need to be brutal, no matter how distasteful. When my friend Jennifer told me she hated my lead character, she was brutally honest. She was also terrified that I’d hate her for that honesty. While it wasn’t what I wanted to hear – it was what I needed to hear. What made it easier to deal with was that Jennifer made it about the work. It wasn’t personal and there were no emotionally charged words in what she told me. Never once did she say that I failed, was unskilled, a poor writer, or that I was an amateur in my approach, or in any way unprofessional. Jennifer took the time to explain the things that were bothering her, even pointing out the places in several chapters where I had failed to make her see my character as a real person. Talk about eye-opening! While I won’t deny that it was painful, I will tell you that it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me as an author. Someone slaughtered my work, burst my bubble, tore my story to shreds, but she didn’t attack me. Now that’s a beta-reader!