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 Forums – sfsignal, 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.