Krista G. asked a good question in comments yesterday: How do you know when you're ready for beta readers, and how many of those drafts did you go through before you reached that point?
I realized Beta isn't talked about in too much detail, so I thought I'd use my long-winded skills to cover everything I can possibly think of about this thing called Beta. Because really, Beta isn't exactly the easiest thing. It can be a very trying period for a writer.
Definition according to me: Beta is when a writer sends his or her work to readers for feedback, and then takes that feedback to improve their work.
Simple, right? Yeah...not really.
First, you have to get your manuscript to a place where you think it's "ready" for readers. I wouldn't say you have to think your MS is perfect—then what would be the point of Betas? But it should be something you'd feel comfortable showing someone. It should be your best effort.
For me, that point is usually when I'm thinking, "This is pretty good, but in my gut I know there are a few issues I'm missing. I don't know what they are, so I need help seeing them." Usually I'm on about my second or third draft when I'm ready for Beta readers. I do mine in several phases, as you'll see, so that might be early to some people. Everyone is different, and it's good to find a process that works for you. It took me a few books to figure out who was most helpful to me and when I should send things out.
Okay, so you've decided it's time for Beta! Who do you send it to?
Many of you know I'm a huge proponent of Alpha Readers. They aren't for everyone, but they are a huge help for me when I'm shaping my first draft. They are supportive, which helps me to move forward. Yet they are also honest, which helps me plan out my story and make it the best I can on the first round. I ask them for input first, and they help me shape the book pre-Beta.
Then I send it to my crit group. Don't have one? This is my guide for finding one. But here's the thing—I don't send it to all my gals at once. I pick two at a time.
Reason 1: Too many cooks in the kitchen can get overwhelming fast. You don't need 20 people to make you think differently about your book, and when you get that many betas who are you going to listen to?
Reason 2: Then I can save my other Betas for the next revision, instead of forcing them to read it again.
Reason 3: When I send it to the next round of Betas, I can easily see if I fixed the issues from last round. If they don't bring up "that one plot hole," then likely it's been fixed. Revision success!
Now, your Betas have sent you their feedback! You read their comments...and then you panic about how in the world you're going to fix your stupid book. Why did you ever write it in the first place? How did you not see that massive plot hole? The untrue character development? The pointlessness of that scene?
Wait...what? You guys don't panic about that stuff? Well, I do. Humor me here.
Yes, even with two Betas I get overwhelmed by all the things they bring up in my work. I have really good Betas, let me tell you. To curb the freak out, I plan. I think about what they said and why they said it. I decide if their suggestion merits a substantial change, or if I just wasn't clear and I need to tweak wording.
I do not, under any circumstances, touch the book.
It took me a while to figure this out, but I've learned Betas are for getting you to look at your book from a different viewpoint. You don't have to take their suggestions. Sometimes you shouldn't, even. But you should think about what you want to change to make things clearer. That takes a little bit of time. Stupid time, like we need to wait more, right? But I promise it's worth it.
Once I decide what I want to change, then I run it by my Betas to see if that would quell their concerns. Usually they approve, and if they don't they explain to me more of what they had issues with. And I think more.
Then I plan. This part curbs my panic a lot. Having a plan of attack makes the changes seem doable. I open up the Word doc, pull out my notebook, and make notes about what I want to change in each chapter. It looks a little like this, but, you know, not backwards:
I highlight the change once I've entered it, just so I feel like I'm making progress. Editing feels very stale to me in comparison to creating, so this helps me a lot in revisions. I even do it when line editing.
I don't look at my Betas' comments until after I've done the revision. Then I take another glance to see if there is anything else I want to apply.
After that, I pick two more Betas and repeat the process. And repeat and repeat.
I think the biggest thing I've learned about Beta is that it's not just one round. It's a long-term process of improvement. I would strongly recommend going through several rounds. Like at least three. I know it can get exciting to get your work out there to agents, but it's amazing what you can learn by spending time in Beta land and really thinking about your book.