Receiving Negative Feedback

critiqueA few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence.  Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic.  In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.

Not quite.  One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back.  He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy.  Lazy.  But thank goodness he told me.  After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.

Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it.  We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves.  Rest assured, it’s not.  As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.

When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story.  Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document.  Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high.  Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever.  Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.

Still, favor or not, it stings a bit.  Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.

Don’t argue.  Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor.  Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it.  Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion.  Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).

Listen carefully.  Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing.  I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes.  We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point.  It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out.  So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves.  Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.

Trust yourself.  Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world.  If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it.  Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers.  Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them.  Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision.  Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.

Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise.  Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective.  Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym.  You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be.  If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.

How about you, lovely readers?  What do you do when you get negative feedback?  Any tips for the rest of us?

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Giving Negative Feedback

feedbackI beta read a lot.  In fact, I probably beta read almost as much as I read published books and stories.  A lot of the stuff I read is really good- some of it fantastic.  But some of it is also merely decent, and some of it downright dismal.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to give or receive negative feedback, but you will do both throughout your career (and your life), and it’s best to learn to do them gracefully.  This week, I’d like to write about giving negative feedback, and next week about receiving it.

This post outlines my personal style of giving feedback.  Yours may be different, and mine probably isn’t ideal.  (I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section at the end!  Pretty please!)  But this is the practice I’ve developed over the years and I think it’s served me pretty well.

When beta reading, I tend to return feedback in a fairly standard set of sections, whether my reaction was positive or negative.  When I didn’t enjoy the manuscript so much, I find that the standard format helps me to draw my own attention back from all the stuff that I hated and look at the document more objectively; more professionally, if you will.  Depending on the document, there are usually between four and seven sections, but they mainly focus on the following three aspects:

Writing Class Stuff  This area helps me pull my attention from all the stinky stuff because of its relative objectivity.  Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable?  Did I find the worldbuilding believable?  There’s usually a fairly clear answer.  I’m pretty passionate about books (I have been known to fly into the occasion book-throwing, arm-waving, ranting fit that sends my husband fleeing for the door…), so having dispassionate things to write about first clears my head a bit.

Nitpicks  This is where I put the complaints that didn’t come up in the first section(s).  After calming myself down, this is easier to address in a way that won’t break someone’s heart and make them swear off writing (and me) forever.  In documents that need a lot of work, it’s not helpful to point out every single teeny weenie error and pet peeve; it’s hurtful.  Just pick the biggest problems- the things that bothered you the most, the things that messed up the story the most- and focus your attention there.  Remember, we beta to help writers make their stories the best they can be.  Railing on absolutely everything wrong discourages and overwhelms authors.  Not quite what we’re going for here.

Positive Aspects  This is where I put all the stuff that I liked about the story.  I always end reviews on an encouraging note.  Who among us doesn’t need a little encouragement?  Plus, knowing what they’re doing right helps a writer to know their strengths, which they can then extrapolate out into the rest of the story.  Try to note as many positive aspects as you can, but for pity’s sake, don’t lie and say you liked something unless you honestly did.

And then I close with an invitation for further conversation.  My reviews tend to be fairly long and in-depth, but it’s preeeeetty rare that an author doesn’t take me up on the offer.

I don’t always use this format.  If a manuscript is pretty polished and I have little broad commentary to make (or if it’s a short story), I return feedback as line-by-line notes.  And of course, if a writer sends along a list of questions with the manuscript, I answer them.  (Beta readers should always respect the author’s wishes.  If you’ve been asked to focus on story and character development, but instead you focus on spelling and grammar, you’re not helping.)

No matter how you format your review, always keep these things to keep in mind:

Be positive!  Even when you’re saying technically negative things, try to put it in a positive light.  This manuscript is someone’s baby and they put a lot of work into it.  Nobody’s work is perfect, and if it was, they wouldn’t be asking you for help.  Take pride in the opportunity to take something very important to someone, and help make it better!

Be honest!  These authors want to be professionals, so have the courtesy to treat them that way.  As important as it is to be positive, don’t ever lie in your review.  Misleading an author about the enjoyability or marketability or whateverability of their manuscript will only lead to more heartache further down the road.  Honest feedback is more important than warm fuzzies.

Be specific!  We’re not here to tell the author what to do or how to do it, but we are here to point out problems.  Even broad problems such as a meandering plot can be addressed using specific plot points.  Point out the problem and trust the author to find their own solution.

Be open!  Open yourself up to conversation.  Authors love to talk about their stories and explain their ideas, and it will give you further opportunity to elaborate on your notes- especially important if you had to do a lot of truncating in the name of staying positive.  Offering to continue the conversation helps the author feel their story is valued, and allows you to continue to help fine tune in a less formal (read: less intimidating) format.

Giving negative feedback is scary business, but everybody knows its value.  Negative feedback is what helps writers to fix the problems that we can’t see.  It shows us our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them, and helps us see where our stories need work- which is super valuable when we’ve already read it twelve times ourselves and just want the work to be done.  As un-fun as giving negative feedback can be, it is probably the kindest gift a beta reader can give a budding author.  Give it thoughtfully and truthfully, and your authors will thank you.

So what about you, readers?   How do you give useful, encouraging feedback on manuscripts that need a lot of work?  Let me know in the comments!

Immersive Writing

SensesMy current project is a rewrite of the second book of my epic-fantasy YA. I had high hopes for this one… and then got back my beta notes. Haha, suffice it to say that they were exactly the punch in the nose that I needed. This story was nowhere near ready. (And thanks again to my awesome beta readers for keeping me from embarrassing myself in public!)

One of the biggest complaints I got was that I had too many layers of psychic distance between the POV and the reader. (To read more about psychic distance, among other things, see my post Getting Your Ducks in a Row!) And those complaints were spot on. There was far too much “she felt” and “she heard” and “she thought” going on, and far too little feeling and hearing and experiencing.

As I set about righting this terrible wrong, I figured I could simply clip out the offending sentence intro. Unfortunately, my problems were deeper than that. Even after I axed every “she felt like” I could find, I still wasn’t getting deep enough into the characters’ heads.

So what was I missing?

As I dug further into the problem, it became clear that, although my characters were thinking and feeling and talking and doing, they weren’t sensing, at least not in a way the reader could pick up on. They were moving through the world, but not really in it. Rather, the imagery in the story came in large chunks plopped in at the opening of a scene or a lull in the conversation, like I’d paused the story to read from an encyclopedia about the geographic formations they were hiking through. And by and large, they were sights with the occasional sound- very few scents or feels, and almost never a taste.

After a lot of thought and reading and editing, I’ve come up with these four rules for imagery.

  1. Keep it short. Little snippets, sprinkled throughout the entire scene, are best. (To steal and modify one of my husband’s favorites: [Description] is like manure. Spread it around and it makes the grass grow. Lump it all together and it stinks.)
  2. Keep it active. Avoid freestanding imagery. Instead, incorporate your descriptions into the action. Really want to mention your character’s super-cool Metallica concert tee? Mention it when he’s putting it on. Or when his rival tears it in a fistfight. Use descriptive verbs- screaming, thrashing, cackling, ripping.
  3. Keep it realistic. Would you be thinking about the color of a flower as you’re running from a bear?  No. And neither would your character. Only mention the things she would actually notice in that moment.
  4. Keep it varied. Don’t use the same sense over and over again. We’re sensory creatures, constantly receiving input from our world, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it. So use all the senses. Let your character wake up smelling cinnamon, then walk on bare feet across the cold floorboards toward the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Let your character see Mom pulling the cinnamon rolls out of the oven, and then finally, taste that first bite of warm, gooey sweetness.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we have more than those five senses. These others (temperature, balance, etc) often get lumped under “feeling”, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Is your character accelerating? He would notice that! Not sure what these other senses are? Behold!

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

Iconograph shared by infolicious (https://visual.ly/users/infolicious)

But maybe not this one…

SpideySense

Anyway! Those are my new sensory rules! Do you have any others that you use? Like I said, I’m still working through a new draft, and I’d be glad of any tips you were willing to share. Let me know in the comments! Thanks, and happy writing!

A Year of Rockin’ It

rockOkay, okay, “rockin’ it” might be an exaggeration. You may recall from one year ago that I had a few vague writing resolutions that rapidly morphed into several specific writing resolutions. I wanted to finish a book during each of the three NaNo months, as well as the third Star Daughter book on the side. I also wanted to send out at least two queries and two short story submissions per month.

I am proud to say that I knocked out four ugly (as in mega-ultra-ugly) duckling drafts: Crown of Shadows [SD3]; The Sad, Sad Tale of Dead Timmy [which I adore- def my favorite of the year]; Love Notes [which I am sadly dropping, but it was fun while it lasted]; and Blood and Ebony [still deciding what I think about this one]. Boy do they all need work, haha. Still, I feel pretty good about four first drafts. I knew it was ambitious at the start, especially with the baby on board, but I managed to pop ‘em out. I am a little less proud to admit that I only sent out about half the queries I intended to and about a third of the short story submissions. But both were still improvements on previous years, though, so win!

This year, I’m approaching things a little differently. I find myself with an abundance of unsightly first drafts cluttering up my laptop. None of them are fit to be seen and that’s a problem. So next year, I intend to switch my focus over from drafting to editing. Rather than writing four new books this year, I’d like to polish up three to four and draft only one. (Hopefully, the year after that I can settle into a nice 2/2 ratio.)

The second Star Daughter book, Goddess Forsaken, can probably stand to just be picked at, as far as editing goes, which will eat up most of my early year, I imagine. Crown of Shadows, however, needs to be rebuilt completely and so April NaNo will be devoted to a full rewrite, with further clean up bleeding out into June. Likewise, July NaNo will go to bulldozing another draft, although I haven’t decided which one yet. (Likely Blood and Ebony, but we’ll see.) The next three months will be given to polishing either Dead Timmy or BCS (both of which definitely merit some polish), or maybe Blood and Ebony if I can still stand to look at it. November will be spent on a completely new book (and what a relief that’ll be!), possibly the next Star Daughter book, or maybe even another stand alone- I have a contemporary fantasy idea I’ve been toying with as well. December will just be general wrap-up for the projects.

I know all my ultra-classy beta readers were probably SUPER BORED without all my doofy stuff to read through this last year, so start warming up those red pens now.

As far as querying goes, I’m considering a different approach. I think I’ll let City of the Dead rest for a while and start querying either BCS or Dead Timmy once they get a little cleaned up, which means I probably won’t be querying steadily for the first half of the year. Also, instead of submitting two short stories every month, I think I’ll do either that OR write and edit a new short story each month. I think the drafting of shorts will help me stay sane with all this editing business going on. ‘Cause I loves me some drafting, and darling husband got me a shiny new license for Write or Die 2, which I am super stoked to take for a ride.

So! That’s what I’ve been up to / will be up to! How about you? Did you have any writing resolutions from last year? Any new ones you’d like to share?

Usin’ and Abusin’

I have long and loud lauded the glories and contributions of beta readers. Beta readers get a sneak peak at our baby before it’s left on some agent’s front porch, and they tell us what makes it a lovely and/or ugly little baby. Then we can beautify our babe a bit more in the hope that someone will pick that little darling up and take it in out of the cold.

But for some of us, that’s not enough. We need even more hand-holding than that. And those long suffering hand-holders are more like our doulas, helping us push that ugly newborn out in the first place.

That’s right, I’m talking about alpha readers. Not every writer needs them. But for those of us who do, they are an absolute god-send. My half-formed protolizard fetal story ideas would probably never make it into first draft form without my alpha reader. (She also is my best friend and we constantly make each other’s husbands jealous. My cousin thinks we are secretly lesbian lovers. This relationship has all sorts of benefits.)

Alpha readers are different from beta readers in that they get the blow-by-blow of the writing process. Alpha readers hang with their writers every step of the way, offering suggestions, asking insightful questions, and kicking your rear into gear when you slack off. And then when you’re all done with that first draft, they usually double up as a beta reader, too. All alpha readers have their own style, but here are the uses I make of my literary slave best buddy who I’d never ever abuse.

Brainstorming There is something about pinging ideas off of a like-minded buddy that just gets my creative juices flowing. She’s pretty much my muse. I usually come into these sessions with something I’m excited about. If I can get her excited about it, too, I know we may be onto something.

Outlining/Story-boarding Or however you do it. I tend to write out a long-winded list of points that my alpha reader then tears into like a shark into a tuna. This is where having an alpha reader is most beneficial for me. She chews that outline to bits and then spits it back at me, demanding more. She wants the details. And heaven help me, I don’t have them. So I’d better get them. Before my fingers ever touch the keyboard, she makes me think through every subplot, every relationship, every side character, and every motivation and reaction. Which saves me huge amounts of fuss and worry later on when I start writing.

Researching I have seriously dragged my alpha reader out into the woods with me in full elfy-garb to cook slabs of raw meat over an open fire that we built without the benefit of a hatchet. I also made her slap me. Not all alpha readers will spend the night shivering with you in your bishop’s tree house. But my alpha reader is pretty much the cat’s meow.

Writing Alpha reader involvement varies from person to person. My alpha is with me every step of the way. We write together daily (or mostly daily, anyway- I have a really pathetic internet connection) and so we know exactly what the other is working on at all times. That really keeps my nose to the grindstone. If I’m bored writing, I know my alpha reader is bored hearing about it. And my beta readers will be bored reading about it. And agents won’t get past the first sentence.

Fixing the Cheesy/Boring/Cliche/Etc. Poop You’ve Just Written Just because you’ve written it doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. Or even that you can recognize it. Probably about every week, if not more, my poor alpha reader gets some whiny message about how So-and-so’s golden hair sparkling in the sunshine just isn’t working out and I don’t know why, and then she has to pull my butt out of the emo chair and help me shovel the poo. (Actually, my issues are more along the lines of “Should I KILL So-and-so in such-and-such a way, or some other way?” Because So-and-so must die.) This isn’t usually something that happens in the end. This is a boots-on-the-ground emergency clean-up crew. Whatever I wrote yesterday was plain garbage, so it’s the alpha reader’s job to talk me through the fixin’s today. I don’t know how many emails I’ve sent my beta reader titled “Is this weird?” Or stupid. Or boring. Or whatever the adjective of the day is. And I can always count on her giving me her honest reaction.

Then and only then do my beta readers get a steaming hot mess shoveled out into their inboxes. (Now all my beta readers are wondering what the heck my poor alpha reader has to put up with.)

So how does one pick up a suitable alpha reader? Just poke around! Make friends on the internet. Meet other writers in your community. Join a critique group and sort through the pickin’s there. I found my alpha reader at church. It’s important to have an alpha reader that you can be completely honest with (because things will get messy) and who can be completely honest with you (because things will get messy).

Once you have a solid working relationship with your alpha reader, it’s like having a second brain rattling around your skull. And, I don’t care what the doctors say, that can only be a good thing.

Digesting Feedback

Jean-Honore Fragonard, painted 1770 Aaaaaaaah, feedback. So delicious. So painful.

Last month being our unofficial Beta Appreciation Month (and extra love to everyone who helped with the posts!), it seemed appropriate to now discuss what to do with all that yummy feedback your betas have given you. Particularly when it’s not what you expected, or particularly yummy.

Betas all approach manuscripts differently. Some blow through it within a week, others (ahem) could leave you waiting in the silence for months. Some give a general overview of the entire book, a simple assessment of whether or not they enjoyed it. Some go into exhaustive detail about absolutely everything, flagging every dangling participle and missing Oxford comma, and whining that so-and-so’s beard is two shades lighter in chapter twelve than it was in chapter one. Most beta readers fall somewhere between these extremes. They often cite specific examples in the text for their comments, talking about what was good, what was bad, and what could be improved. A good beta reader will both praise and criticize, but will always be constructive. And most beta readers understand that you are waiting in agony for their response. (While you, of course, understand that this is a free kindness from a person with a job, a family, etc, a life, much like your own.)

It’s easy enough to know what to do with your notes when they are brilliant and sparkling with praise and insight. But sometimes the notes are not what you thought they would be. Sometimes, they are disappointing, even vaguely insulting. Whatever the case, do not take them personally. Whether your readers are singing praises or throwing tomatoes, remember that they are not there to assess you. Betas are assessing your manuscript and, unless they’re completely self-absorbed, they want you to succeed as an author. Before anything else, be grateful- even if you didn’t like what they had to say, express your thanks for their willingness to read your work. They took the time to do you a favor and you should acknowledge that.

And then don’t despair. Roll your sleeves back and toughen up, kitty. This game ain’t for sissies.

Read any notes you received carefully. Check them against the manuscript itself so you know exactly what the reader is talking about. (Even though you probably have your entire manuscript memorized by now.) And unless it’s obviously, patently wrong, don’t change anything just yet. Think on it. Mull it over. You are the author and nobody knows your book or your characters like you do. Just because one of your betas didn’t like whatever passage doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be mutilated or cut.

If you find you disagree with a reader, compare the complaints with notes from other readers, too. (Or ask them! Betas love to chatter about the books they’ve read. Picking author brains is a rare treat!) If something is a problem for a sizable chunk of your current readers, it’s probably going to be a problem for a sizable chunk of your future readers, too (including agents, editors, book reviewers, and, eventually, paying customers). But if your other readers didn’t have any problems (or loved it), you may be able to chock it up to a difference in taste. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Sometimes the problems aren’t just a specific scene, though. Sometimes your world building is too vague, your character two-dimensional, your pacing off, or some other major issue that will require a massive overhaul of the entire manuscript. This can be exceedingly daunting. Don’t. Be. Sad. Be happy that this came up before you threw a lame manuscript at your dream agent like a noob. Just understand that your rewrite is going to take more work than you initially thought, and rejoice that your manuscript will be that much better when you’re done.

And smile! Your notes won’t be filled completely with darkness and woe! Even if there is a giant barren patch in the notes, don’t despair. In this situation, no news is usually good news and this can be taken as indirect praise. If your beta isn’t leaving notes, odds are there’s nothing to worry over. It’s when the writing is poor or the story is dragging, even if nothing is overtly wrong, that beta readers tend to be at their most nitpicky. Lack of nitpicks is a good thing.

Also remember to take heed of the positive notes. This is the tastiest part of your feedback! This means that things were just too awesome to pass without comment. These are shining examples of things that you are doing right. When getting a manuscript ready for publication, it’s just as important to know what is working as it is to know what isn’t working. After all, if you don’t know what the readers like and want, you won’t be able to give it to them.

Finally, keep dialogue open with your beta readers. As mentioned earlier, they are usually willing (and eager) to answer questions, as well as ask you a few of their own. Ask them what they thought of a particular passage. Ask them to read a scene you rewrote that they might like better (or worse- you need to know either way). And be sure to jot down any questions they had that they forgot to put in their notes. Talk back and forth about it. Beta readers tend to want to stay involved in the writing process and you would be wise to include them.

Once you have all these little duckies in a row, that’s when you start beautifying your manuscript. Don’t change things until you’re sure they need to be changed. But once you’re sure, don’t hesitate. Editing is a painful process, but a necessary one. With someone else to help you know what needs a little love, it makes your job that much easier.

A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader!

Our guest this week goes by many names. To some of us, he is Nanopals, pitiless sovereign of sprints. To others, he masquerades as a lord of the lilliputian lizard, Tiny Pterosaur. And to the readers of his fantastic epic Leylined, he is the inestimable August Samuel Evrard. Without further ado, the Maestro of Michigan, that guy!

If you’re reading this, chances are you have some friends on the internet that you haven’t met in real life. Maybe I’m one of them! And chances are, reading this, that you’re a writer. An excellent choice of profession, I must say. And I’m going to make a third assumption here, and hopefully that will be the last. If you’re reading this, you’re probably still starting out on the road to authorship, at least on the road to that movie adaption. And, being a starting writer, you may have some anxiety over showing your manuscript to another human being, even if/especially because you haven’t met that human being in “real life.”

Now is the time to get over that hump. Now is the time to hand out your MS to your alpha or beta-readers. You’ve written “The End” (or not, why maintain the status quo?) but you’re looking over it and you know it could be better and you know it’s not really done, it’s not the end and-

Just stop. If you’re thinking like that, it’s time for a fresh set of eyes. It’s time for you to read something and get a read back. I promise it won’t hurt. Well, actually, I don’t promise that, but I promise it will be good for you.

I was at a convention this past weekend – Legendary ConFusion in Michigan, to be precise, and I was handing out my cards and letting people know about @Nanopals, and #wordsprints and #betabuddy, and almost all the response was positive. But there was a theme amongst those who said “nah.” The idea that your beta-reader had to be “good” or that beta-reading someone else’s manuscript, unless it’s Huge nom quality, is a waste of time.

Let me first address this idea that your MS is better than someone else’s MS. Maybe it’s true. Maybe your MS is so awesome that it’s going to catapault into the tops of the NYT bestseller list before it even comes out. Maybe compared to yours, all other MSes are absolute trash. If that’s so, congrats. But the fact is, you’re not going to know that until you give your book to someone else to read. You’re not going to know how good you are until you read other people’s work, until you’ve corrected someone’s work. I had one person scoff at the idea of reading other people’s work unless it was “very good” and I said to that person “If you’re not willing to read other people’s work in return for a critique of your own, you need to hire an editor, because nobody is going to stroke your ego for free.”

I have some beta-readers who have read my book and I haven’t read theirs, but they are fairly few and far between. I’m not Brandon Sanderson, I’m not Pat Rothfuss, or Margaret Weis. None of us are until we get there. And until we get there, we aren’t any better than anyone else. We need to learn, we need to teach. We need to learn how to do both of those things. We have to open our hearts and minds to the work and opinions of others, no matter who they are or what they think, because no matter what, you are going to learn something.

So, now that you’ve decided that you should search for beta-readers, or maybe even be one yourself, there’s the question of how to find them. Here’s my answers:

1. Twitter – The @nanopals account will try to refer a betareader to you, and list you on the blog, @thesprintshack is always willing to rustle up a few, the #betareader and #betabuddy hashtags will find you friends, and anywhere #wordsprint are had you will find people willing to read your book, even without reading theirs. Hell, just ask. I’ve gotten responses from just requesting readers on my personal acct.
2. Conventions – In person is the nuts! Your best chance to represent yourself and your work is almost always in person. Conventions are a great places to meet and greet and pass around your work. From people who will just read, to authors and editors who will recommend workshops or even take your work, there’s a million opportunities at conventions to meet, share and learn.
3. Writing Workshops – whether online or in what we so callously call “the real,” writing workshops are a great forum to meet people and improve your writing. There should always be critique as part of the program, and you will certainly learn whose work you appreciate and what you’re looking to improve.
4. Web Forumssfsignal, sffworld, nanowrimo.org, fantasy faction, there’s lots of web forums out there for you to lurk around in, sharing stories and getting tips. I’ve lurked around sffworld the longest, and it’s a great community with lots of positivity and helpful folks who are always willing to get in on an amateur (or pro!) anthology.
5. Friends – don’t deny it, you have them! At the very least, you have me. And don’t shake your head at friends. If you think the pros don’t send their work to their friends, you are dead wrong, and they aren’t always writer friends either. Here’s a little piece of advice from @neilhimself:

“If someone tells you something is wrong with your story, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

A reader is always right, but not always for the right reasons. Your friends are valuable sources of just plain readers. Writers have agendas when they read your work, they’re comparing their skills to yours, your story to theirs, efficiency of prose and all that. Which is all very good, but it’s not writers that are going to be buying your book (unless you’re writing about writing, ad nauseum), it’s readers. Maybe a lot of readers with aspirations of being writers, but there’s a difference. Until you start writing for yourself, you don’t have anything to compare those books to, so you’re still just enjoying them, if only through constant pangs of jealousy.

Don’t be afraid to approach anyone and everyone to read your book; the fact is, you’re only going to be alienating a small population of your potential readership if you ask everyone you know and meet to read it, and it’s terrible. Most of your buyers and readers you will never meet, and they’ll never meet anyone who read that awful first draft.

Guys, I know you’re worried. I know you’re scared, and anxious. If you’re not, well godzilla <oops!> you, how the <hey-o!> do you stay so <yikes!>ing calm all the time?? But let me tell you that it only gets easier, it only gets better. The more you give your writing out, the more you can be confident of your own opinion of your work. You’ll be better, know more, and be more confident. All because you forced some sucker – I mean got a good friend – to read your MS.