Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Five Types of Beta Readers Every Writer Should Have

Writing a story is a lot like giving birth; it's uncomfortable, sweaty, causes a strain, keeps you up nights, makes you want heavy drugs to kill the pain, and in the end you're so exhausted and proud of yourself you don't know what to do. Your first urge is to show everyone the thing you've accomplished, blind to the fact that your story is covered in shit and squalling at the top of its voice.

That's what beta readers are for. They pat you on the back, tell you what a good job you did, and start pointing out all the places you really need to clean up before you offer your latest accomplishment for a "best baby of the year" competition. In short it's their job to make sure that you don't get so stuck on how perfect your child is that you overlook its hanging indents, weeping plot holes, and bastardized concept.

Here is a picture of your ideal beta reading team, though you can add more if you need to. Your team consists of:

The English Teacher

"There were ducks," not "Their were ducks." How many times do I have to tell you?
The front line enforcer of homophones and proper contractions, the English Teacher is an author's best friend. Blunt and occasionally harsh, the Teacher tends to ignore plot and language in favor of checking to be sure your grammar and spelling are correct and acceptable. If the Teacher doesn't remark on the story, character development, or other stylistic choices then you can usually assume they're fine. I recommend starting with the Teacher because it's important to let the air out of your ego early in order to make your story the best it can possibly be.

The Librarian

Dude, you can't call it a Hitler-stache. Why? Your story's set in 1879, for starters...
Nothing is more embarrassing than writing an entire novel, just to find out your facts are wrong. Contrary to popular belief being an author doesn't make you an expert on martial arts, firearms, explosives, murder, tax accounting or any other dangerous activities your characters may participate in (though you can learn how to get rid of a body right here!). Every now and again you're going to screw up, and when you do the Librarian is there to catch you. Whether it's informing you of the proper breed of horse used for Civil War cavalry, correcting the caliber of the weapon your soldier is using in the European theater in World War II, or pointing out that the poison your killer used is a highly controlled and very easy to track substance, the Librarian gives you the facts and just the facts. Even if no one other than you and the Librarian would ever know you screwed up, are you willing to take the chance that you'll be known as the author who doesn't do enough research?

The Genre Lover

A dismembered body under the bridge? Oh, Horror, you shouldn't have!
Every story has a genre, and every genre has dedicated lovers. Chances are pretty good you have that one friend who loves your genre just a little more than the others. You know, the one with photoshopped pictures of themselves making out with the genre in the bookstore? The one with whole shelves dedicated to it, who can name off every trope the way Rainman could name the cards left in a deck? Yeah, that one. That's the Genre Lover, and if you can satisfy the big G.L.'s very high standards as someone who's seen it all and done in all in that genre of choice then you have a solid piece of work on your hands, my friend.

The Non-Genre Reader

Ugh, the leads are kissing? If I wanted to read a smut book that's what I would have bought.
Good books have fans from a genre that love it; great books can reach across the aisle and include everyone in their narratives. Frankenstein is science fiction and horror, but it also speaks to those who love human drama and elements of high adventure. The appeal of the creature's struggle, and Victor's attempts to reconcile his life with his one terrible achievement are usually enough to appeal to any reader.


There are still people who will turn up their noses at a book that has even the barest whiff of a certain genre about it. If there's a mention of magic, a suggestion of romantic undertones, or if a murder scene is presented in a way that's a little too heavy on squick, these are the readers who will shut the cover and walk away. Not to be confused with the Literary Reader (a pretentious and dismissive breed in its own right), the Non-Genre Reader is your toughest competition. If you can make a Non-Genre Reader care about your story, then you've got something powerful.

The Dreamer

Yeah, but wouldn't it be cool if...
Authors wade out into the pool of imagination, dip themselves down and let the quicksilver spray of inspiration wash over their skin and bleed their stories out of them. It's a kind of immersion that isn't for everyone, and every author has a little area of the pool they prefer to soak in. Dreamers, by and large, are kindred spirits. Some of them are authors in their own right, but some of them just come down to the water's edge and dip their feet in. The Dreamer is the polar opposite of the English Teacher, often ignoring the finer points of language to focus completely on the story. Many times they'll provide plot hole patches that are completely seamless, or build upon your initial ideas to take the story in places even you never thought it would go. Invaluable for their insights on concepts and ideas, as well as archetypes and possibilities, Dreamers shouldn't be ignored just because they're a bit ephemeral at times.

Different Stories, Different Betas

It should be noted that some beta readers can fulfill multiple roles at once. Some Genre Lovers also possess the encyclopedic knowledge of Librarians, and some English Teachers may be Non-Genre Readers as well. Sometimes you'll need multiple betas in the same role, particularly if you need to call on the expertise of half a dozen different kinds of Librarian to get your facts straight. Generally speaking the more eyes that crawl over your story before you submit it, the cleaner and smoother it will be when you hand it to a publisher. Or try to sell it to the masses, whatever your preference happens to be.

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