By Helen Mitternight
They say that finding an agent is like finding a spouse; the match has to create the same combination of mutual benefit and magic. But, if finding an agent is like matrimony, then finding the ideal beta reader is like finding someone who will be your BFF – best friend forever. Or maybe it’s your BRF – your beta reader forever.
You’re going to want the same level of honesty and kindness you would expect from a best friend. Your best friend will tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, or that last haircut makes you look like a poodle. A good beta reader will tell you when your plot lags, or your character becomes cardboard.
But it gets complicated when your BRF isn’t just pointing out the spinach in your teeth, they’re telling you that your baby is ugly.
Because our manuscript is our precious offspring; the labor is often just as grueling and the gestation took a hell of a lot longer than nine months. And just like every child is “gifted and talented,” sometimes we really want to hear only good things about our darling.
Of course, if you’re a real writer – one who expects to be read – you get over that initial protective instinct. But it can still be tricky to find exactly the right beta readers.
Do you want to find other writers, people who will understand that every word reflects blood, sweat and tears? The risk is that writers are busy with their own blood, sweat and tears and they may not have time for yours. I once asked a friend and writer to help and she recused herself, saying she didn’t want to unconsciously steal ideas for her television pilot, which had a similar theme. Plus she was on deadline for her own writing.
Some people will tell you that you need to find someone familiar with your genre. If you’re writing a historical piece, it rankles to have someone tell you to make the dialogue more colloquial. If you’re writing a romance, nothing will make you turn from a lover to a fighter faster than having someone recommend the addition of gunfights and car chases.
Maybe the best solution is one a friend proposed: find readers. Readers who are passionate about books are ambassadors when yours finally gets published. Just be sure to offer specific guidance. Here are some guidelines I’ve offered my BRFs:
–Please don’t share my manuscript with anyone. I want only your opinions and I’m a little sensitive about sharing something just in draft form.
–I’m not looking for line edits, but thanks.
–I want to know if the characters come to life for you and why/why not.
–I want to know if you believe the action or if my plot seems preposterous.
–I want to know if you’d buy this if you didn’t know me.
What guidance do you offer your beta readers and how did you find yours?
Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. Her work has appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier, Charleston Living, and Charleston Inside Out Magazine. She is also the relationship and sex blogger for Charleston Grit, and her lifestyle blog, “Stilettos Not Required,” can be found at helenmitternight.com. She has a romantic comedy with an agent and a mystery with another agent.