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On beta readers

One thing I get asked a lot when running courses etc is how to get beta readers, how many to have and what sort of skills they need to have.

Firstly, though - what are beta readers? They're readers who look at the early manuscript and tell me all my horrors. Technically there are alpha readers, who look at the first-first draft, and beta readers who look at the reasonably tidied up version. But, for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to just refer to them all as beta readers.

This is a timely thing to do since I've just put together a team of willing victims - cough, volunteers - for Inish Carraig 2, so it's something I've been thinking about, and the process is reasonably fresh with me.

So, where did these volunteers come from. All 4 were met on one forum or another - two through the sffchronicles, whose writing community I've been a member of for some time and under whose guidance I cut my writing teeth, one through Skypen, a local forum which is now sadly defunct, and one through bestfantasybooks, not so much a writer's forum as a reader's, so exactly how we came to be betas isn't quite clear. Usually it goes along the lines of a swap of work to be reviewed, or critiquing on site and realising the other person isn't an arse about taking feedback (there's nothing more wearisome than someone who gets on their high-horse when told they're not a sf god or goddess).

That's the easy part, then. Join in, get to know people and beta reading will come. Now, how to decide who is best placed to read for you:

1. Know your own strengths. A good one, this. I don't need anyone to look over my dialogue. I like dialogue and I know how to punctuate it. A dialogue specialist isn't going to add as much as some other specialists.

2. Know your weaknesses. Much more important, this. I am weak on my plotting. It makes my head hurt. It panics me a little. I need people who will ask the awkward questions about my plot and make me strengthen the dodgy bits. I'm also not a scientist, so someone who knows about that end of things is a real bonus. And, despite the fact I keep writing military and police characters I know nothing about the forces - so someone who knows the language, equipment and, most crucially, mind set is really important.

3. Know what you want feedback on. Look, my first drafts suck. My grammar is terrible. My Norn Irishisms are too much, even for Inish Carraig. But that's why Sam Primeau comes along at the end and tidies all that up. Without her, my books would be a horror. So, sure, let me know when something is truly horrible but, by and large, that's not what I wanted this team for. This time it's for plotting, and characterisation and, in my busy life, making me hit 4000 honed words per month, which allows for IC2 early in 2019.

4. Have a second tier in mind. These betas build the product with me. They'll see chapters that don't make the cut or are changed. I also need people to read straight through and let me know about pacing and what not. Later, I'll have an editor look at it (Jeff Richards, who did such a brilliant job on book 1) and they'll take it to the next level. But it's better if the editor can concentrate on the finished product and not a draft that needed another review. I don't know who those people will be - beta reading takes time, and that's not something writers always have - but I know some of the people I'd like to have on board. Bribery and corruption may be in order....

5. Be prepared to take the criticism on the chin. My new first chapter went down reasonably well but there are definitely changes to be made. I can dig in, refuse, call it my baby and cite artistic allowance. Or I can admit it's not working hard enough and get on with things. If you have beta readers - and you should, no writer in a vacuum has the distance to see their own work clearly - it's beholden on you to listen to them.

6. But know when not to listen. Sometimes one opinion is wrong (but a trend rarely is, I find). Sometimes as the writer you don't want to make a change because of something important. It's good to know your own mind. Take your time, absorb the feedback and only move when YOU decide it's a good thing to do so.

And that, for me, is really it. I'm privileged to work with so many amazing readers and writers, I'm so lucky to have people on board. And, really - to get that, get to know other writers, be prepared to read other people's work, too, and then do your best to impress those readers. And, when you don't - do your best to make things better on the next pass. :)