The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.

It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*

But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?

Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.

No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.

What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.

But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:

1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.

2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.

3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.

4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.

After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.

Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.

Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?

*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.

**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.

***Actually, this is a good question: can you?


The Rabid Badger of Defensiveness

"Gathering the Light" from the Taois...

So not me. My mustache isn’t nearly this rockin’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because of how I talk about dealing with rejection, writer’s block, and the other pitfalls of writing life, some of you may be under the impression that I deal with this shit well. That I have, through the judicious application of tea and profanity, achieved a writer zen-state where none of it bothers me. Or, if it does, I can take the healthy point of view that this adversity is making me better. And some days, that’s true.

Other days I react with all the well-considered poise of a rabid badger poked with a stick.

Sorry to shatter your illusions. I hope you can recover.

My particular catalyst for transformation into the Rabid Badger of Defensiveness is criticism. Not all criticism; I deal with most types well enough. Written is preferable—I absorb information better in a written form. I’d always rather read an article than watch a video. But even spoken criticism I can deal with most of the time. And haters? Boy, give me haters any day of the week. I fucking love haters. They give me a chance to try new curse words, a gift that should not be wasted.

But if there are nine times when I take criticism in a well-considered and measured way, then the tenth time…the tenth time is a crap shoot.

Friday was one of those tenth times. Here’s how the conversation went:

Krys: Hey, Steph’s new blog post is great! I should point out that typo to her so she can fix it, because no one likes typos out there in the world, right? I’m being a good friend! (Raises voice) Hey, Steph, you typed ‘with’ instead of ‘will’ on that line.


Krys: O_o

(Proceed to chase Krys around the house, pelting her with chickens and smashing the furniture.)*

So that was my Friday: blog post, criticism, Hulk, chicken hurling. Later I apologized for being an unmitigated cock and there was beer.

“But, Steph,” I hear you say.** “I thought you were writing about dealing with this crap! I thought you were better than that.”

Sorry, kids. I fuck up. And Friday I did. I let an emotional, knee-jerk reaction of SOMEONE IS ATTACKING ME I MUST ATTACK THEM prevent me from hearing something helpful. More importantly, I let it prevent me from using that criticism to make the post better.***

Writers need to be able to take criticism. Not hatin’, mind you. But genuine, helpful criticism is something that will make you better. And you always need to be better. And so do I.

So learn from my mistakes: stifle that first reaction and listen. Because, if it’s someone you trust and someone you respect, chances are they’re trying to tell you something helpful. And, if you decide it’s not for you, then don’t do it. But listen, think, and learn first.

Because if you can’t, at least most of the time, then writing is not for you.

*No, this isn’t an exaggeration. Why do you ask?
**I do, you know. I hear all.
***For a while. I fixed it later. Because I’m not that stupid.