All Praise To The Attack Fish!

Writing is a solitary venture...writers live in their heads...blah blah blah.

That's a bunch of shit. Yes, you write the book, but no author is an island. Well, you might be an island...a little recluse talking to your pet volleyball and performing your own dental work with a pair of ice skates. However, even on the coast of that little island, there are fish. Tasty, savory, elusive little fish that flit about and add color to your lonely existence.

You need these fish, my friend. Just like the Tom Hanks needed fire in that one movie, you need someone to take your ideas, cook them--or in some cases destroy them--and regurgitate them back at you to show you what they're really made of. You need beta readers.

I know that most of the experience of writing a book is done in the closed space immediately between the author's ears. You conceive the idea, you flesh it out and it grows. The tiniest seed flourishes into a secret garden, locked away from prying eyes in the walls of your brain pan. You've got all these ideas, you know how this story is going to go, but writing it takes time. And you wouldn't want to give page 70 to someone and say, "Look how cool this is!" They'd look at you like you had lobsters coming out of your kneecaps because there's no context. Even if it's a great line or a terrific turn of phrase, there's still no emotional connection to the characters or material, so the reader will not get the full effect that you're hoping for.

Stephen King has said it and I have sworn by it for years: rough drafts are to be kept close to the chest. At least for me. Very very rarely do I share a work in progress before those golden words are etched on the last page. (Those golden words would be "The End", by the way.) You need that time alone to craft your story with your voice, your direction, your instincts and your skills. Think about it: if a caterpillar let everyone into its chrysalis how much metamorphosing would it actually do?

After the nascent period that is rough drafting, though, you need new eyes. You need people who will read your work and give unabashed, honest feedback. When I send my manuscripts to my betas, I say specifically that I want them to rip the book apart. It's not personal, it's a story and I want to know if it works or not. My exact words have been, "Rip me a new one like you would if you were reading Twilight." I'm serious, I don't want to have blogs devoted to tearing apart my work for things that would've been easily fixed if someone had brought them to my attention. (And let's face it, with some direction the shit people hate about the Twilight series could've been changed/tweaked and otherwise edited into something palatable.)

So, what should you look for in a Beta Reader? Your needs may vary from project to project and you may find certain people that don't fit the mold, but here's what I generally look for.

  • Someone trustworthy. If I don't trust you to keep my book under your hat for a while, to be honest with me about what you read, then I have no reason to send you the file in the first place. Would I let you babysit my kid? I'd probably let you read a rough draft.
  • Someone I know can put our friendship aside for a few minutes. I know that a lot of people will tell you not to use friends as Betas. For me, though, that's just not an option. See above. If I trust you, you're a friend. That's just the way I roll. What I can do, however, is select people that I know can compartmentalize. Our friendship lives over here. My book doesn't live there. My book lives in this odd world of business, pleasure, art and insanity. The people I choose as Betas understand that and know that any comments they make will not be taken personally. If they don't like my book, they're still invited over for dinner, dig?
  • Someone who reads. I need a bookavore, someone who gobbles up stories. Why? Because they know what works and what doesn't. Sure, not everyone who picks up a book can say, "Well, this didn't work because the character's motivation is weak and everything happens because the plot needs it to, not because it develops organically out of the established events." You might not be able to articulate the why in terms of storycraft, but you--as an audience--know when something just doesn't work. You know when a movie or book sucks. You know when there's a wrong note in a song. That sense is integral and I need readers who have exercised that sense to the point it is ripped like Arnold.
  • Someone who writes. Misery loves company. Seriously, though, it's nice to have someone who knows the native language and what goes into writing. That kind of understanding is good to have. Plus, the common vocabulary is helpful for figuring out roadblocks, how to clear them and move on.
This is the meat of what I need. Everything else is sauce. Sometimes I choose Betas based on demographic needs: age, gender. I try to get an even split to see if opinions vary down those lines. Sometimes I pick one person that I know does not read my genre as a scientific control of sorts. But those four points up there are the most important ingredients in a Beta Reader (for me).
Not all Betas are created equal. Some give tremendous, detailed feedback in terms of line edits. Some give story critique on plot but very little in the way of word choice. Some just give a big picture review, a thumbs up or down. All of them are valuable resources. The more eyes you have on a piece, the more chances you have to improve your work and grow as a storyteller.
My Beta Readers--affectionately referred to as the Attack Fish--kick my ass up one side and down the other. They call me on bullshit, let me know if a line is cliche, trite or otherwise absolute shit. They tell me when things are good. They growl at me when I leave cliffhangers or dangle plot threads and they bounce with me when I get good news. They treat me like an author. I love my Betas because they have made me a better writer. They hold me up to some pretty high standards and that makes me reach higher, work harder. My Attack Fish are amazing. And they're all different.
One of them leaves me the same note in the margins when I make a very obvious, stupid typo. It just says, "Hi :)". I dread it. I love it. I can't wait to do it to her when she sends me her rough draft.
One of them has given me very in depth feedback on the characters because that's what stands out to her. She has shown me where I need to improve, but also where I've knocked it out of the park.
They know. Don't make Banner angry.
A couple of them are sounding boards. They know the spoilers, the direction I'm going with the whole series. I've given them the bigger picture and they have helped me map out future books or work out kinks in an outline before I even set pen to paper. Those sessions are priceless.
These people make me better.
I know that as artists a lot of us have this idea that we have to toil away alone or else it's not our idea anymore. Maybe we think we're cheating? Maybe we're afraid people will think we've stolen something? Maybe we've all just got a huge fraud complex and this need to bang at it alone is a manifestation of that. But it's not true, guys. We do need other people. Because in our heads, the story is great. We know all the angles, we know the world. But it's not going to live in our heads. Someday that story is going to get out, because that's what stories do. They're made to be told.

So tell them.