You've just typed the words “The End”. Your masterpiece—weeks, months, sometimes even years in the making—is finally finished. Sure, it might not be the next Great American Novel, and it may never win any awards, or make it to the number one spot on the New York Times' Best Seller List. But you're enamored of it and you think it has potential.
So what do you do next? Send it out to agents and editors at one of the big five publishing houses? Upload it to Amazon or CreateSpace? Shell out some cash to Lulu or BookBaby?
Nope, nope, and nope.
The next step is to corral some friends—bribe them with chocolate cake or brown butter cookies or a really nice chicken tagine with lots of harissa, if you need to—and offer them the chance to help make history, to become so important that their opinion will alter the course of the world. Ask them to become Beta Readers!
What's a beta reader, you may be asking. A beta reader is an author's bestest, most important friend in the publishing game. Even more important than an agent, an editor, and yes, even more important than the guy who fixes computers. A few good beta readers are the difference between life and death to your book.
You see, they see the manuscript in its rawest form. They see your book naked, in front of one of those dressing room mirrors with that awful lighting that exposes each little flaw, each little bump and curve and divot, and they help decide which parts need liposuction and which parts are perfect just the way The Maker created them.
But how do you find the sort of beta readers who will be honest with you, who are capable of giving you in-depth insight, who can say more than, “I liked it. It was good.” That, my friends, is what I'm here to tell you. I'll share with you the secrets of finding the perfect beta reader.
- Ask friends who are writers. Most writers are capable of a certain level of deep critique; they know what they like, they know what works and what doesn't, and they're able to express those opinions in a way that is constructive.
- Ask friends who are heavy readers. I'm talking about that one friend who reads like three or four books a week. They are clearly intelligent people, capable of thought, and probably know whether your protagonist is a rip-off of Jefferson Nighthawk, or if your antagonist is too perfectly evil to be sympathetic with your readers.
Once you've assembled your group of five to seven readers, hand over the manuscript. But don't just give it to them, pat them on their head, and send them off. That's a big mistake. Tell them what you need. If you're looking for help making sure your plot is air-tight, tell them that. If you're looking for ways to ensure your female characters pass the Bechdel test, tell them that, too. Admit to them which parts of your book are weak and ask them how to shore them up. Ask them to tell you which were their favorite characters and the ones that can die in a fire. Ask them to go over your baby with a fine-toothed comb and pick out the nits. And then give them this list of seven questions, designed to sharpen their focus. Feel free to add or take away your own questions, based on your own needs.
Then sit back and relax. Your beta readers have got this. Enjoy the feeling of knowing that you're well on your way to becoming a published author and that you're doing everything you can to ensure your story is the best it can be.
And try not to stress out about finding the perfect editor.