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Beta Readers

February 10, 2013

I recently sent the first few chapters of Mortality out into the great wide somewhere, the wild, untamed jungle of beta readers. It was like sending a young child off onto a spirit journey armed with only a knife and the instructions, “The first thing you kill with your bare hands is your totem,” then sitting on your front porch waiting for them to come home and trying not to worry. Ha. That’s a laugh. I’m worried sick. (I don’t care if that’s not how spirit journeys work, I’m just trying to illustrate a point.)

It could come back to me in tatters, ripped to shreds by the red pen (or the comments feature of Microsoft Word, which is equally merciless). It could be awful. I might cry.

Well, I’ve actually now gotten some of the feedback back, and it’s exactly what I was hoping for: helpful. Yes, it was encouraging, which is great for the ego, but more importantly, I know how to make my story stronger. I know what’s missing. It’s a good feeling.

And I am so, so fortunate to have reliable beta readers. Because finding good beta readers is hard.

Being a beta reader is a huge commitment, and not many people have time for that in this day and age. A good beta reader puts a lot of work into providing feedback. Even finding someone willing to read a 3,000 word short story can be tough. There have been a number of points in my life where I’ve thought, “Well, now I’ve written the first draft. Crap. Now I don’t know what to do. Will someone read this thing for me?”

How to Find Beta Readers

1. Join a local writing group
This isn’t always easy, depending on where you live, but when you find a good one, it’s a valuable as gold. Or diamonds. Or Twinkies.

2. Take a local writing class
Take the class and try to get to know your fellow students. That’s how I was able to put together my current writing group. We’d all taken a class on writing fantasy and science fiction with Philip Athans. Now they’re among the first people I turn to for writing help.

3. Look online
And no, I don’t just mean post on a forum saying, “Looking for beta readers!” Build up relationships first. Make friends, then ask those friends to help you.

4. Join “Critters
Critters is a online writing workshop. You give and receive critiques. It’s very valuable as long as you stay an active member.

My beta readers are a mix of my writing group, who gets a chapter each meeting, and a few other people that I roped into reading the story in three chapter chunks. Without their help, Mortality would be a hopeless project. No lie. My first draft is pretty solid, but it’s still a first draft. Having outside eyes to point out what I’ve missed, from the smallest grammatical errors to the largest structure issues, is invaluable. I’m thankful to them and glad I found such reliable help.

A Note to Clarify: After mentioning elsewhere that I was attending a meeting for my writing group, I received a confused comment that boiled down to, “But you make fun of them on your blog! Why do you still go to that group?” So I think I’ve been unclear. I’ve had two writing groups. The old one, that I haven’t been a member of for a couple of years, was awful, and that’s the one I’m calling out in my blog as a failure. My current writing group is all kinds of awesome. Current writing group = good. Old writing group = bad.

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