Beta-Readers 1 – What are they?

Previously on the blog, I spoke a bit about my decision to quit my job before becoming a successful writer, and not the other way around, like everyone tells you to. In short – no real choice for me, and it always helps to have a sugar-mama.  I also complained about not having the time I had thought I would due to a number of factors, only many of which being out of my control.

This time, I’ll talk a bit about what’s going on in my life as a writer right now.

I’m testing out beta-readers, oh boy!

So, you might be asking yourself, “Matt, what is a beta-reader?”  It’s a concept that I have been familiar with for a long time, but it occurs to me that people who don’t live and breathe the details of a writer’s life may not be familiar with it.

Also, what, pray tell, is the difference between a beta-reader and an alpha-reader?  Or an alpha-male for that matter?  Well, alpha-males are more of a behavioral ecology or psychology sort of thing, so we won’t get into that here.  Today.

As for beta-readers, quite simply put, it’s the people you ask to read your stuff before you think it’s ready enough to ask someone to pay money for it.

When writers write, there’s times that they can lose track of some details about a character (like eye color being mentioned as the endless dreamy blue of a crisp October day over the ocean in chapter 3, but the hard unyielding brown of desiccated soil at the base of a withered and dead tomato plant – see?  blue vs brown.  oops!), or even make characters do completely unbelievable things.  They can leave gaping plot holes in their stories, or lose track of plot threads altogether.  Also, writers tend to know their stories inside and out, so we may accidentally leave out some bit of information that is crucial for understanding the oompf or point of a given story, but we might not notice it, since we already know the detail, and didn’t notice that it wasn’t on the page.

Beta-readers are the people you give your story and say, “Where did I screw up? I’d rather that you found it and pointed it out to me than the editor (who I am trying to convince of my effortless abilities as a marvelous writer!).”

They are crucial, important, and vital tools in a writer’s toolbox.  But they’re also thinking feeling independent people that need to be trained, wrangled, and hounded to get things done right. (j/k, they’re a delight, and it’s an honor and a privilege to have friends like that)

Some writers may enlist both alpha and beta readers.  This is two levels of help.  The first (alpha) typically being on a broad general level, perhaps even before the meat of a story is written.  These are the people you ask things like, ‘if my hero is a shy, sheltered, battered and broken shell of a man, would he jump on the lead horse in the calvary charge and shout, “For honor!  For Country!  For Judith!  Hiya!” while galloping into enemy fire?’, or ‘If I start off my space-prison-transport-ship overrun by zombies story with a love triangle between three brooding teens, it’s OK if I kill all three of them off partway through, and end the story with the power struggle between the only surviving crew member and the escaped alpha-male de facto leader of the convicts, right?’

Alpha readers are there to help you with major structural problems.

Beta-readers are there to help you more with fine tuning.

You remember those weight-scales that used to be in every pediatrician and elementary school nurses’ office, where you stood on the black rubber and stainless steel square, while at eye-level, the doctor or nurse moved the large clunky black iron squares across 50lb chunks, and then slid the smaller weight across the marked quarter pound increments?  Same thing.  Large scale vs fine scale tuning.  Alpha readers are the clunky windowed iron blocks, while your beta readers are the sliders.  If you have a good enough impression of where your story lies (lays?  lay?  My #1 grammar nemesis*), then you can forego the alpha readers.  But the beta readers can be one of the most helpful and enlightening tools in the writer’s box.

As such, I have recently put out a request among friends and family asking for volunteers, people who might want to, and would be willing to beta read for me.  Next time, I’ll ramble on a bit about how that process is going.

Here I Go,

Matt

*An important part of  trying to turn myself into a publishable author is flexing my writing muscles.  Improving my instincts.  But, just as important is making sure that the tools in my toolbox are in good clean sharp working order.  This includes my beta readers.  Absolutely.  It also includes my understanding of grammar, which** is in good working order, but needs to be honed just a touch more.

**grammar nemesis #2 – That vs. Which.  I have at least 3 different explanations of this concept on my computer.  And every time I read them, I’ve forgotten again by the time I look away.  Pretty sure I used it right this time.  I think.  maybe…

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About Matthew Shean

Matthew Shean is the author of several forthcoming novels and myriad short stories. He received his Ph.D. from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York, NY, and spent 20 years as a research scientist throughout the northeastern United States. He now lives in Long Island (against his will), with his loving family and disdainful cats.
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