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 (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php) or Writers Digest forum (http://www.writersdigest.com/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!"