It always makes me cringe when authors, especially in their early stages, are so paranoid about book thieves they refuse help that could really make a difference to their work. Although I've heard a lot about author paranoia I have never heard about a beta reader stealing somebody's work. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but it shouldn't be your first concern - and if you are really concerned you can copyright your work and protect it before you send it on.
Being overly protective, even sensitive can prevent a lot of authors from approaching outsiders but this is an essential step for every budding writer and is a perfect way of easing authors into the big, sometimes scary, world of writing.
So what is a beta reader? Well that's an easy one. A beta reader is someone who is going to read your work and try to help you make the best of it. Every beta reader is different and the help they can offer is different too, which is why it's important to approach several and cover every angle.
Some betas will just give you an overview of the story - these are the ones that tend to read your story like your audience will and they will give vital feedback. Others (like me) will pick apart each sentence. And this latter group are far more tedious but will make a good book a great book.
Betas will test your book and they will report back to you constructively. It is very rare you will get aggressive or despondent feedback. But be warned they will be honest. If you've made a mistake or if they don't like something you will be told so prepare yourself for difficult comments and remember these readers are doing you a favour - their advice is essential.
"But my friends said my book is great, I don't need beta reads." Wrong! Your friends know you, they're part of your clique. When you talk nonsense they probably know what you are talking about. They also might be aware of your sensitive nature, or not take your work seriously. Betas are passionate about books, they read more than most and they will make your work accessible world wide.
So what type of feedback do they give? First off they'll pull you up on major issues. If the book is unreadable, poorly written or badly punctuated they'll let you know where you are going wrong. Then it's back to the drawing board. If you pass that first test it's then down to the plot, the characters, if it's an enjoyable read - remember each reader will be different so you can take their advice selectively. If all but one of your readers love your characters you can assume you don't need to make changes, but if you all of your readers but one hate your characters then go back and work on these.
At what stage you give your work out for beta reading is entirely up to you. I prefer total and utter completion myself. I will proof it personally and hand them what I think should be the finished article (only to turn around and be told I need to make changes). Some of you may want to get feedback on plot or characters earlier and as long as you let your readers know that's what you're after they'll direct their attention in the right place.
This invaluable help is usually free, so bear in mind it takes time. And most importantly these readers are going out of their way to help you - so bloody appreciate them.
Now, what have beta readers done for me? Okay so here are a few things that wouldn't have happened if I didn't have my precious betas:
- My entire opening chapter of The Running Game would be written in the wrong tense.
- My book would be littered with little annoying typos
- Rachel, my leading lady, would have got into the boot of the car with her hands tied behind her back and magically got out of the car with them tied at the front.
- I would have used the word gormless and alienated my non-UK readers (meaning lacking sense, or foolish).
But the most important thing beta readers do for you is give you confidence. You see they give pick up your errors but they also pick up your strengths. Getting emails from them telling me they loved my book (and each loved different aspects) gave me the confidence to really push The Running Game a lot more than I ever have with other books. After their words and support I feel incredibly proud of my work and I am fueled to write more....
Which is why we're here. Book 2 is with them now and this brings us nicely into the next topic - dealing with criticism and who knows maybe I will have pages of examples for you by the time the week is out.