Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hunting Beta Readers: Shhh . . . Be Vewry, Vewry Quiet!

I love the cartoon character, Elmer Fudd. His antics while “hunting wabbit” provide good advice for writers in search of beta readers. "Oh come on," you think. How can a silly cartoon help me find good beta readers? Well, it’s all about stalking and snaring the prey (beta readers), and it begins with stealth.

You’re probably cringing at my use of words like “stalking”, “snaring” and “stealth.” Calm down. I’m not advocating nutty behavior or abuse of unwary literary assistants. Quite the contrary. Good beta readers help writers polish stories to make them marketable to literary agents and publishers. These coveted pre-publication readers bring objectivity to their critiques and often discover problems, or even expanded plot possibilities, that our writer-bias prevents us from seeing.

So, how do writers hunt down good beta readers? And, how do we get them to commit to the demanding task of providing feedback?

First, we need to know our prey before we start hunting. Here’s my outline of the traits I want in a good beta reader. I don’t claim my list works for everyone, but it works for me and is a good place to start. You should develop your own list. Here's mine, in order of importance:

1.  Love of the genre,
2.  Must be well-read within my genre so comparisons are meaningful,
3.  Agree to offer honest, objective feedback, no matter how potentially hurtful,
4.  Have sufficient articulation skills to provide clear critique, and
5.  Understand some basics of writing; plot, character development, pace, plot holes, hooks, et cetera.

Second, plagiarism potential exists when you give a “stranger” unlimited access to your creative genius. Sucks, but it does happen. How can we minimize that risk? Begins by being a good judge of character. Don’t be in a hurry. Get to know potential beta-readers before making a leap of faith. Is the person you’re considering also a writer? That might spell problems. Ask yourself, can another writer set aside his or her writing-style bias to give objective feedback? What about teachers or editors? Nope. They often focus so much on SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation & Grammar) or every little plot hole, that they don’t “invest” emotionally in the story like a typical fan would. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and when you find a highly skilled person who can also remain objective, you have a diamond to be cherished.

The single most important opinion a beta reader offers is whether or not they “like” the story. Then, they will tell what things they like, or don’t like, about the story. Good beta readers compare your manuscript to the competition. Such input can make all the difference in crafting a successful story. Petty crap like typos, misplaced commas, small plot holes, or run-on sentences can be handled by copy-editors who spend their lives tracking down evil dangling participles or misapplied em-dashes. But, the grist of the story--the characters, tension, climax and denouement that keep readers reading--if you get those right, then you have a great story That’s what beta readers do for you.

Where do we find these highly prized test readers? The simple answer is, if you plan to hunt bears, you must go into the forest where the bears live. (Okay, okay, I know you’re getting tired of my silly metaphors, so I’ll stop.) If you write murder mysteries, go where fans of your genre hang out. Join websites of major murder mystery authors. Participate in their talk-forums or “Comments” sections where fans share thoughts. You’ll meet lots of genre-specific, dedicated readers.

Writing sites like AbsoluteWrite ( or Writers Digest forum ( offer genre-specific discussion “rooms” where you’ll find lots of dedicated fans. Get to know these people until you feel there are some who meet all the necessary requirements on your beta-reader qualification list. Even after you find a couple folks who seem to fit the bill, don’t send them your manuscript. Try sending them one chapter with a specific question like, “Does this hook catch your interest?” or “My villain traps the protagonist’s daughter in this scene. Is it too violent?” See what happens. Over time, relationships will grow and a few reliable beta readers will develop. What do THEY get for the effort? Signed copies of your book, or mention in the book’s acknowledgments or introductions during book signings and other public appearances. Sometimes a simple, "Thank you" will do. Beta readers often become your best fans.

I hope these suggestions help to build some great writer/beta reader relationships. Also, I do not claim to be an “expert” in such matters. If you have ideas that might help others find and cultivate good beta readers, then please add your comments. I welcome them, and I know my fellow writers will, too. Now, back to my Looney Toons. Elmer traps Bugs Bunny in a hollowed out tree! He exclaims, "I have you now silly wabbit. You will be my new beta-weeder . . . or else!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hide! They’re Coming!

Black hair, blond hair, brunettes . . . even a few redheads . . . all different, yet, all the same. Precocious literary engines that spell trouble for contemporary authors may soon be earning those coveted few writing contracts available each year. Most of them show no outward signs of the threat that lurks beneath their cheerful, grade-school camouflage. But, I warn you, do not let their humble facades and freckled dimples trick you into complacency. They are here--and, they will be threatening your publishing contracts before you know it!

Who are these up-and-coming apex predators of the literary world? I’ve seen them. I’ve looked into their intense eyes. I’ve walked among them, but, most importantly, I have read their writing. We are doomed.

Why the alarm?

Two weeks ago, I participated in a little kick-off talk with fourth and sixth grade students at the Loomis Basin Charter School. It started out innocently. They and their teachers planned to participate in the NaNoWriMo concept of writing a novel in a month. Sounded like fun. Lots of questions pertaining to the process of writing made my job easy. I had a good time and agreed to weekly visits to mentor the kids in their effort. I had no idea of the lurking menace.

In my first mentoring session (last week), I spent a couple hours with child-writers discussing their stories. Oh my God! Exciting plots, vivid imaginations and pretty darn good writing skills poured out. Limits on imagination do not exist with these kids. I could easily envision half their story ideas evolving into full-blown novels, complete with intriguing plots, fascinating characters and great hooks to capture reader interest. The future of creative writing looks healthy. So much so, that I’m afraid they could displace many present-day writers.

Should we writers fear them? Should we sabotage their growth by crushing imagination under piles of academic “truths” in high school and college? I hope not. It should be our mission to nurture such minds, helping them become the best they can be. If these future Hemingways and Asimovs eat into the limited pool of publishing contracts, so be it. The bright side is that new ideas and innocent testing of literary status quo may inspire new readers. With luck, they won’t need to steal away our fans, because they will bring an entire new generation into a love of reading.

These kids represent the future of our great nation’s literary talent. From what I’ve seen, we may be teetering on the brink of a modern day Renaissance. I wish all writers could spend a day with kids like these. They bring fresh faces to the table of ideas in literature. I can’t wait for my next meeting to see how much more they have added to their stories.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beta Readers: Is My Story Any Good?

Every writer dreams about happy readers. They’re called “fans.” Those wonderful supporters provide the motivation for all fiction writing. We writers crave approval and fans feed our egos. They put money in our pockets, so we can continue writing (even if we live on Top Ramen and string cheese). Fans also help us sell books as they spread the word.

My biggest concern when I am writing a book is simple. Will fans like my story?

It’s a scary thought that I might toil for months, putting together hundreds of pages detailing a fantasy world, only to discover that nobody wants to read it. Fortunately, wonderful folks called “Beta Readers” give me essential feedback along the way. I capitalized the term on purpose, because these people are that important to me.

Beta Readers (called “BRs” from this point forward) are hard to find. Good BRs possess unique characteristics; understanding fundamentals of writing, love of literature, brutal honesty, genre specific knowledge and they willingly invest their time to help me improve my story. Are they family? With one exception, family usually struggle with bias for, or sometimes against, the writer-dad/spouse/child/etc. Fortunately, my wife has never hesitated to point out my flaws, and she’s an avid reader, so she makes a great BR.

What about fellow writers? Most of my BRs are not writers. Writer friends have good intentions, but they struggle with a tendency to inject their personal writing styles into their opinions. Yes, I am guilty of that when trying to help fellow writers. It’s tough to suppress.

Is there a formula for good Beta Readers?

You bet! I look for avid readers in my target genre who agree to be completely honest with me. If something sucks, I want to know why it sucks and if it’s worth fixing. They also know my competition and will often "rate" my story against future competition.

One big mistake writers make with BRs is having them search for SPAG errors. To tell the truth, the single best feedback a Beta Reader can provide is their impression of plot and characters. Did the book catch their interest right away? Were there slow parts? Did they like the ebb and flow of action (pace)? Did they connect with the characters? Are they excited about a sequel? Those elements make for a good story. The mundane SPAG errors will be corrected by some anal-retentive copy editor whose boring existence comes down to proper placement of a comma or formatting ending quotation marks. Leave the “periods” to the copy-editors and build an exciting world with dynamic characters. The rest will take care of itself.

Tom Clancy said it best in a Writers Digest interview I read. He was asked about the most important skill in writing. He didn’t say punctuation, spelling or grammar. He said it was the ability to tell a good old-fashioned story. I want my Beta Readers to tell me if my story meets Tom Clancy’s test. Does it capture and hold their interest? Do they want the sequel? If my Beta Readers help me achieve those goals, then fans will love the story, even if a few typos make it into print! Thank you to my Beta Readers. You know who you are.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kids and Writing – Pass it on.

It’s November and that means NaNoWriMo is off and running. What is NaNoWriMo?  It’s an organization that promotes writing a novel of 50,000 words or more in one month. Last year (2010), over 200,000 people signed up for the challenge and more than 37,000 succeeded.

Today, I had the great pleasure of visiting the 4th and 6th grade kids at Loomis Basin Charter School to talk about writing. Their classes accepted the challenge to write-a-novel-in-a-month and seem eager to experience the process. That’s a tall order for first-time novel writers.

Let me tell you, these kids were wonderful! Bright. Inquisitive. Motivated. Every one of them had that special twinkle in the eye that comes from a love of learning and enthusiasm for challenges. It will be fun over the next few weeks to read their ideas and help them grow as writers. On one hand, I would love to encourage a future Hemingway or Mark Twain, but, to tell the truth, I’d be just as happy to have every child achieve a personal “best” and enjoy the creativity that writing evokes.

For me, writing is a passion that stimulates the mind, challenges the spirit and results in immeasurable satisfaction when a “project” reaches completion. That said, nothing could be more fun and rewarding than to cultivate that same love for writing in eager young minds. Thanks to Justin VonSprekelsen for asking me to visit his school. And, thank you to the 4th and 6th students at Loomis Basin Charter School. It was fun talking about the writing process. See you in a week or two!

edit:  Shame on me! In my blog, I forgot to recognize the initiative and hard work of the 4th and 6th grade teachers in providing this wonderful, creative opportunity to their students. Kudos to the teachers for this decision and taking elementary school education to a higher folks are great!