Trouble with beta readers?

Ah, writers … and their fragile effing eggshell egos.

We, every one of us, goes around with our little pencils and our little notepads and our little thoughts and we scribble and giggle and think ourselves so goddamn clever.

And then we beg our wives and husbands, aunts, uncles cousins, the mailman and milkman, bosses and best friends to take a peek at our work and tell us what geniuses we are.

Actual conversation between writer and potential reader:

R: So, whatcha been up to?

W: Oh man! I just finished the first draft of my new book.

R: Cool. So, how about those Mets?

W: Why, sure, I’ll tell you all about it. My story is about a bisexual space lizard who learns she’s actually a descendant from an ancient order of necromancing chipmunks.

R: Um, OK.

W: It’s quite transgressive.

R: . . .

W: My therapist found it very avant-garde. I’m going to turn it into a 12-book series.

R: I gotta go.

W: Here’s the first thousand pages. I’ll expect a response by Thursday.

Of course, when Thursday comes and the writer lucks out and the reader has actually read some of the material, that’s when shit gets real.

Really real.

Really really real.

Well, sometimes.

Often, family members and friends—either out of love or fear—are only going to tell you what they liked about your manuscript. That’s assuming they actually read more than the first couple lines or pages.

If you get vague responses like “boy, you sure can grammar” or “exclamation points, am I right?” then it’s probably safe to say they either didn’t read it or thought it was crap—which more often than not it is.

Occasionally, you’ll run into that magical someone who both read your work and has opinions on it.

Of course, if this reader is at all competent, they’re gonna offer you a number of criticisms regarding style, voice, plot, character development—that super obvious portrayal of your middle-school bully as a set of talking goat testicles.

Reader feedback is where the writer’s carefully maintained glycerin sphere of vanilla-scented delusion generally disintegrates into a puddle of cat piss at their feet.

Nothing stings like being told that, no, you’re not quite as clever as you thought you were. And, no, those metaphors about birth and death were not original for about three thousand years. And, yes, your characters each have the personality of, say, a baked potato … without sour cream.

I’ve played first reader for a number of new writers. And anyone who’s sought my opinion can tell you I’m no coddler.

However, I am respectful and purposeful in my criticism. That my intentions are only to help the person get better at the craft never seems to soften the red pencil’s lash.

There have been a number of times where the critique—on which I spent a fair amount of valuable time and energy—led to unpleasant conversations sprinkled with accusations of sabotage and meanness.

I get it, no stage mom likes being told their baby has body odor, buck teeth and a receding hairline. But it’s difficult to impossible to get any better without coaching.

Problem here is writers who don’t respond appropriately to even constructive criticism may scare away good beta readers from ever wanting to help again; and, you have new writers acting as beta readers who refuse to be honest with each other because they’re afraid they’ll be shunned for telling others in the writing community that their work sucks.

Other issues include beta readers who either aren’t right for the project or who aren’t really readers at all but were pressured into doing a favor.

And, yeah, some people are just toxic and interested only in making the writer feel bad with a scathing review.

Finding reliable and honest beta readers for my own work has been a challenge.

My friends and family (barring one brother who is super supportive) just aren’t interested in reading my work. Which is fine. They have lives and commitments of their own.

Becoming a reader for any writer—regardless of where they’re at in their career—is no small thing.

Luckily, a couple years ago, I found a service that provides beta reads, editing, etc.

I understand not everyone can afford that, though Frostbite Publishing’s prices are far lower and quality higher than other services I considered.

For those of you looking for volunteers, there are some things you should know.

In Ryan J. Pelton’s great article on getting the most out of your manuscript readers, he says your first readers should not be writers. I agree with his sentiment one hundred percent:

We love you writers but stay away from reading our work. Writers have been ruined by writing, and have a hard time just reading, for fun and sake of story.

In Belinda Pollard’s article The brutal truth about beta readers she says the following:

It takes time and effort to find good beta readers, and set up an effective and enduring relationship. Like everything in this writing and publishing biz, it’s hard work. But the effort is worth it.

In Lauren Sapala’s article How Writers Can Recover From A Bad Beta Reader she states:

DON’T try to talk your beta reader out of their reaction. Even if you do it through gritted teeth, thank them for their time and let them go on their way. You don’t need to waste your precious creative energy trying to change their point of view.

In the end, it really is a crap shoot.

You can vet potential readers and still end up with bad or useless feedback.

But, by making a list of what you expect from the reader, and chatting with them upfront to get a feel for what they generally read and how serious they seem, you can probably mitigate future unpleasantness and hopefully gain valuable insight to help you make your space lizard epic the best it can be.