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February 12, 2020

NOTE: This was another one of my original articles from when I started this blog site in 2011. Yup, seems I’ve thought of just about everything in nine years, even beta readers. This very subject has come up on the Facebook forums of late and inspired me to dig in the archives rather than just repeat myself willy nilly without checking first. I know, because before I had a publisher, I was still seeking agents and publishers. Beta readers, even from day one, have always been key to seeing if what I wrote is what I intended. Another related article I wrote in 2011, Forest Through The Trees, covers the same thing, but on a more immediate level, addressing the day-to-day chapters and scenes.
Now, off to the races.
You’ve found a decent writers group. It’s been a year or more, and you’ve been able to read almost every week. You’ve gone through your entire manuscript and you’re getting the feeling you have a top-notch novel ready to submit to the world.
The problem that you now face is that though you may have some great individual chapters and your writing has improved tenfold, there’s still one important element missing from the equation. The big picture.
Your group has heard your novel over the span of a year. Some may have heard all of it by now, while others have only heard bits. During that time, they may have given opinions and advice that are a bit myopic. They may have said that one character should have done this or done that, while you defended some action as justified because this or that happened, or because something is going to happen later in the book. You forget to check up on one detail and before you know it, the logic of why your character did something or why something happens gets lost in the shuffle.
For instance, during one critique of a critical chapter, you may use a certain dialogue tag that bugs one member and your critique time is taken up with a discussion on that aspect of dialogue tags, while an important plot point that you should’ve been called on is missed.
This is where you need to cultivate friendships with other members of your group. You need a few trusted friends that are willing to be beta readers. A beta reader is someone willing to read the entire manuscript from start to finish. This someone must be willing to read it as a whole and critique it as if they were reading it for the first time. Remember, screen out those “brutal” types! You don’t need any of that grief, yet you need someone that can be honest. A little tough love wouldn’t hurt as long as it isn’t destructive.
A good beta reader is someone that will read the entire MS (that’s short for manuscript), look for the plot holes and other flaws, and let you know what’s wrong with the big picture. They may also look for superficial grammar problems if you want (called line editing), depending on the person, but that’s not necessary. The idea is to get someone to look for the plot holes, flow and consistency, issues that can make your story come to a screeching halt. These are the things an agent or editor will zero in on. These problems can kill your chances when you submit. A plot with a fatal flaw is no plot at all.
Remember that second set of eyes? This is where it really counts. Your best bet is to find several beta readers. I have two and sometimes three trusted people that I trade MSs with. We read each other’s work and perform the “stink test.” It can save some embarrassing moments. As writers, we’re all in this together, so find those few you can trust to tell you straight and trade favors. It’s well worth it!
Since I wrote this in 2011, not much has changed. My beta reader pool has changed due to life circumstances, but that’s inevitable. I still use the same rules but they’re maybe more sophisticated. I go for not only plot holes, but overall vibe. Did the reader see plot holes? Did stuff make sense? Did they see too much fluff? Did they enjoy the story? Most important, were they able to close the book with a smile on their face?
Keep in mind that not all beta readers will necessarily enjoy your book. That’s a bonus, but there are caveats. When the reader normally enjoys your work and all of a sudden doesn’t? That may be a red flag. When they normally don’t and do this time? That could be a plus.
Things to think about. Beta readers may seem like a luxury to some of you, but what you have to do is not be shy and ask people. If you think this is difficult, just wait until after you get published and into marketing!
Happy writing!

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