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Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Books have bugs. Like all consumer products, they aren’t perfect from the get-go. They take work: writing, tweaking, reworking, and all the other things that make good products even better. One way to help improve a novel is beta reading.
If you haven’t heard the phrase ‘beta testing’, here is a brief primer. Before a product (cosmetics, video games, what have you) goes to the final stage and is rolled out to the public, it is tested. This is called beta testing. A small sampling of the product’s target market are picked to test out the product, then give feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Does the perfume really smell like roses? Is it too light? Too cloying? Are the area bosses in the video game too difficult to defeat or too easy? All sorts of questions are answered, then the makers take the responses and tailor the final product to meet the answers.
Hollywood does this with movies. It’s called test screening, and movies will be changed depending on audience reaction. Darren Afronosky’s Noah is the latest controversy about test screening. Paramount Pictures tested several versions of the film to see which one played best. In the film Deep Blue Sea, the ending was changed after audiences hated the fact that the main scientist, responsible for turning the sharks into killing machines, lived. The final sequence was reshot so the character was killed.
Beta reading is just that: reading (i.e. testing) for books. After an author has written several drafts and worked out as many kinks as he can, but before he sends it to the editor, it is given to beta readers for a run through. Readers aren’t just looking for grammar or technical mistakes; they can point out unbelievable characters, ridiculous situations, and plot holes you can fly the Enterprise through.
But isn’t that what editors are for? Yes. But it is better to give a book to beta readers before handing it to the editor. Editors are looking at the book from a writing standpoint, technically and creatively. But beta readers are readers. They are looking at it as the book-buying audience. They are looking at the characters and the story. They may not care about three-act structure and scene transitions. They want to be entertained when they read. By giving the book to beta readers, the writer is giving the editor a better product to go through. The more it has been vetted, the fewer mistakes the novel will have and that is less time the editor has to spend on it, allowing them to continue on to the next book in their pile.
Getting beta readers might be difficult at first. You should have around three to five trusted readers. For me, I ask four times as many readers as I need. You may have fifteen friends who say they would love to read your book but how many will actually do it, then give feedback? I figure only a quarter will. I sent Zero Sum Game (formerly titled The Super School Uniform) to ten people. I gave them a deadline of March 31, a month from when I sent it, to give me feedback. I expected three or four people to finish by the 31st. If you’re lucky, and a somewhat consistent or prolific writer, you may be able to build up a circle of trusted readers. These will be people who will read and give feedback on a regular basis.
Who should be beta readers? There is a lot of debate on this subject. To me, the most important is people who will actually do it. I think it should be a mixture of authors and readers, and one should be in, or enjoy, the genre your book is targeted to. If you’re a SF writer, have one SF fan/author read it. They will have knowledge of the tropes, cliches, and expectations of the genre. They can point out things you will miss.
As the author, you are perfectly free to ignore the feedback of the readers. But if all of them are commenting on the same thing, you might want to take notice. And does everybody need to send a book out to be beta read? No, of course not. But I think it is a great service and only helps make the story better. After spending weeks or months on a single product, you need a fresh pair (or three) of eyes to see what you can’t.