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.