I think it is important to find the right people to be your readers especially if you want them to read an entire novel. That’s a lot of work and time for a person to give to you, and if they aren’t helpful, then you’ve only wasted theirs and your time. And I’m not saying that you need to find someone who only showers you with praise or only makes suggestions you agree with or that you are obligated to use all of their advice, only that you need to find someone who understands what kind of story you are trying to tell and can see where it is and isn’t working.
Here are a few things to look for in a critique partner
1. Someone who is your target audience. This is really important because if the critiquer doesn’t even like the genre you’re writing or understand it, they may be giving you the wrong advice. They may not understand the conventions of the genre or try to push your story in a direction that it shouldn’t go. You need someone who would very likely pick up your book in the bookstore.
2. Someone who reads. Sheena did a post on that mythical creature, a writer who doesn’t read, which was hilarious, and I am sure there are some shiny exceptions, but I think it is safe to say that someone who doesn’t read wouldn’t make a good critiquer. Movies and novels do have a lot of story-telling similarities, but there are a lot of differences too. You are better off with someone who knows how novels work.
3.Someone who is honest even when it hurts. Honesty really is the best policy. I don’t think I need to say more.
4. Someone who is encouraging. Yes it is great to have someone so insightful that they can tear your story to shreds and give you amazing ideas to rebuild it, but if they don’t send you home with a lollipop or two to help nurse those wounds, I think they can discourage you from continuing on. I’m not asking for someone to just sing praises, but they should be able and willing to point out the good along with the bad.
So how do you find a beta reader who fits all of these requirements?
This is how I found my amazing critiquers.
1. Become a fan of an aspiring writer. I’ve spent a lot of time reading snippets of writing on the writing forum Hatrack River. There were several writers who always impressed me. I always found myself wanting to read more of what they wrote. I kept my eye on these writers, and whenever they asked for a critique, I’d volunteer. I know there was a selfish, self-serving motive behind it even though I really did want to read their stories. I did hope that at some point they would be willing to swap manuscripts with me. My thinking was that if I was their intended audience then they might be mine. And it worked. I managed to get Sheena to be my first official beta reader (or maybe she was an alpha), and she was an awesome critiquer, and her insights were invaluable. So Sheena, I may be your first official fan/stalker. Online only. :)
2. Go fishing in a critique group (online or in person). I joined an online critique group on Absolute Write. It is still going strong today even though I’m no longer participating. It was a lot of work, but way worth it. I just don’t have that time to put into it anymore. But it was a great place to test out beta readers. I got to read a little sampling of what they wrote and how they critiqued, and then I sent out encouraging e-mails just to test the waters to see if they were receptive. And that is how I found Sarah. :) She gave my submission a very thorough and insightful critique, and then blew me away with her submission. But I’m not sure if I’m Sarah’s first official fan because everyone in that crit group loved her writing, but I’m going to name myself the president.
3.Just get involved and have fun. Hatrack River is a great forum. They have lots of contests (opening hooks, short stories, novel openings, etc). If you get involved, you can get to know the other aspiring writers and their writing. It is a great way to find writers to stalk, I mean admire. I’ve got a couple future potential beta’s in my crosshairs from this. You know who you are, well, at least some of you do.
4. Don’t forget to look close to home. I’ve heard the advice of not using your friends and family as beta readers because they will only praise you. Well, that is not always the case. I have some pretty smart and well-read sisters who aren’t afraid to be honest with me as well as an amazing husband. In some ways, they are tougher on me than any “stranger” has been. So if there are people in your personal life that like to read the kind of books that you are writing, it may not hurt to ask them to beta for you.
I feel a little evil and self-serving in the post. Yes, Melanie, that is how I can write villains (I’m half-evil). I really think you should just relax and get involved in writers’ forums and don’t worry about finding a beta. You can learn a ton and have a lot of fun. But if you keep your eyes open, you may be as lucky as I was, and get a few amazing beta readers while you’re at it.
Thanks guys for everything. You really are the best. :)