The Importance of Beta Readers | Guest Post by J C Lewis

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The Importance of Beta Readers

A Guest Post

by Jennifer Carole Lewis

I've told stories to myself and other people since I was little.  It began as fanciful tales of dragons in the schoolyard, then some original short stories and fan-fiction from my favorite fictional universes.  Finally I decided to take the plunge and begin to work seriously on writing a story I could submit to publishers.  It was the first step in realizing my dream of being a published author.  I joined a writer’s group for support and soon discovered how much I still had to learn.  And one of the big lessons was about beta-readers.

I had always given my stories to my friends to read and they were always supportive about it, but I found out there is a significant difference between sharing a story with friends and giving it to a beta-reader.  Like a beta-tester for a video game, a beta-reader takes a complete story and identifies plot holes, errors and other problems, such as pacing, back story and world-building.

Not every beta-reader can cover all of those aspects.  Some will be better at pointing out the plot holes (Why doesn't your hero just take the Mystic Gem of Whatever?).  Some will be able to identify when a story lags too much or speeds through a crucial scene (I’m confused, when did we discover the werewolf was a military trained K-9 dog?).  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find people who can correct your “facts” long before you submit anything.  (For the record, Fairbanks, Alaska is not a popular beachfront vacation spot.)  You’ll need multiple beta-readers to go through your work.

This is where many new authors start to worry.  Sharing a story with trusted friends is one thing, but in today’s easy-publish digital world, there are real concerns about sharing a unpublished manuscript with relative strangers.  The anxiety spikes up another notch when confronted with professional beta-readers who charge money for their services.  The Internet is full of dark warnings of newbie authors being scammed out of their money and their work.

With all the concern, some new authors begin to wonder why they should bother.  Surely this is all a job for an editor, either independently hired or through a publishing house?  

Here’s why I believe beta-readers are a crucial step which should never be skipped:

1. You owe an editor the best possible version of your work, if you want to succeed.

In traditional publishing, editors are more impressed by what’s on the page than by an author’s imaginative potential.  If there are obvious plot holes, factual errors and other problems with a manuscript, their interest in offering a contract to the author goes down.  If an author is going the independent route, then they are responsible for paying for an independent editor’s time.  Again, the fewer obvious mistakes, the less money an author will have to spend in the pre-publishing stage.

2. It’s hard to see around your own blind-spots.

When writing, the author knows and sees all.  Part of good writing is knowing what to transfer to the page to set the scene and how to convey what is in your mind with a minimum number of words.  But sometimes, the omniscience makes it hard to see how someone new would interpret a particular scene.  For example, if the author knows a building is abandoned and has their hero blow it up to stop a bad guy, the scene may not come off as heroic to readers who are wondering if anyone was trapped inside.

3. You will get conflicting opinions which you can use to improve your work.

Some readers will love a particular scene and think it is what makes the novel.  Others will hate it and wish it could be cut out.  Having more than one or two outside opinions can help to make those tough editing decisions easier.  I had one scene which I absolutely loved in my novel but every single one of my beta-readers ended up pointing it out as a problem.  I kept it in, only to have the editor similarly point it out.  Eventually, I saw it from their perspective and realized it had to go.  Other issues were less unanimous but it certainly gave me an upfront preview of potential criticisms.

4. You can create early buzz for your work.

Sadly, writing a good book isn't the only job an author has these days.  We are also responsible for promoting our work, regardless of whether we traditionally or independently publish.  A beta-reader who enthusiastically loves the book can start low-level promotion buzz, even if all they do is tell their friends to keep an eye out for this book once it’s published.  Some professional beta-readers are also reviewers and creating a professional relationship with them will help you in the future (ie, not one where you cried, drank and ranted on your Twitter feed every time they hinted something was wrong with your beautiful masterwork).

All that said, there are a few steps an author can take to protect themselves, their money, and their intellectual property.

Ask for references and do your homework: Ask other writers and authors for referrals for beta-readers.  If hiring online, ask for referrals and samples.  Google them, at an absolute minimum, to see what’s out there.

Look for detailed comments.  It’s emotionally hard to accept, but you want someone who is going to rip apart every weak point in your story.  They should also point out the good parts, but finding the weaknesses is crucial.  If you don’t know about a flaw, you can’t fix it.  A generic “Good job, liked it a lot” is not going to help you.

Set up expectations.  Before I sent out a manuscript, I sent each of my beta-readers a guideline of what I was looking for, particularly impressions of my main characters.  I also let them know that I was expecting a response within 3 weeks.  I also told them up front that I expected them to tell me what was wrong, that I wasn't looking for nice, polite responses.  Once we had all agreed, then I sent them the novel.

All of these steps take time but the end result was a story I could be proud to send on to the next level.  I knew I was submitting the best possible work I could.  And I believe it has made all the difference.

Jennifer Carole Lewis

About the author

Jennifer Carole Lewis is a full-time mom, a full-time administrator and a full-time writer, which means she is very much interested in speaking to anyone who comes up with any form of functional time-travel devices or practical cloning methods. Meanwhile, she spends her most of her time alternating between organizing and typing.

She is a devoted comic book geek and Marvel movie enthusiast. She spends far too much of her precious free time watching TV, especially police procedural dramas. Her enthusiasm outstrips her talent in karaoke, cross-stitch and jigsaw puzzles. She is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction and always enjoys seeking out new suggestions.

About the Book

by Jennifer Carole Lewis
Publication date: January 30th 2015
Genres: New Adult, Paranormal Romance

For millennia, the lalassu have existed at the fringes of society, hiding in the shadows. But someone is determined to drag them into the light.

Dani has spent years fighting against her family’s urges to take on the mantle of High Priestess for the lalassu. Stronger and faster than any ordinary human, she has no interest in being a guide for her people. She likes being independent and enjoys her night-job as a burlesque dancer. But a darker secret lurks inside of her, one which threatens everyone around her.

Isolated and idealistic, Michael works as a developmental therapist for children, using his psychometric gifts to discover the secrets they can’t share with anyone else. When one of his clients is kidnapped, he will do almost anything to rescue her. The investigation leads him to a seedy little performance club where he is shocked and thrilled to discover a genuine live superhero.

Michael and Dani must join forces to save those they care about from becoming the latest victims of a decades-long hunt. But the fiery chemistry between them threatens to unlock a millennia-old secret which could devour them both.

The clock is ticking and they will be faced with the ultimate hero’s choice: save the world or save each other?

Get it here

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