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A Brief Word About Beta Readers

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked the difference between a beta reader and an editor, and the cost one might expect to pay for the services of either. When I said that one should not pay for beta readers, there was disagreement. However, I still maintain that one need not pay for beta readers.

Consider them your product testers. They’re the focus group who tries out the new invention, samples a new product, gives feedback on an upcoming ad campaign, views an early cut of a movie, or tests a new video game to see if it plays as it should.

If you (or a close, trusted individual) are the alpha reader of your manuscript, then beta readers are the folks who see the final, pre-publication draft. That version can still be a manuscript, or it can take the form of a galley or proof copy of the book.*

In return for their effort on your behalf, give beta readers a signed copy of the published book, or offer to read or test something they’ve created.

But don’t hire beta readers as you would hire an editor. And while editors can provide a similar service in the form of a manuscript critique,** there’s nothing like getting feedback directly from readers — who are, of course, a writer’s intended audience.


UPDATE (8-7-16): The paragraphs below are from a reader’s comments in a Facebook discussion sparked by this blog post. They expand upon and better explain what I attempted above.

A beta tester for a video game or other piece of software enters into an agreement wherein he receives a free or discounted early release of the software to use, and in return, the tester will tell the company what he thinks about the software — what does or doesn’t work, what is or isn’t intuitive, what he would like to see changed or further developed, etc. The beta tester is not paid for his work. He is asked, as an average user, to give the company his average-user opinion of the product. At best, he gets a free copy of the software, but it is both understood and accepted (and generally stated in some Terms and Conditions document somewhere, for legal reasons) in the IT community that beta testers are not compensated.

Testers who are hired on for their services are not hired to come at the software from the average user’s perspective; they are hired to make sure that the software functions appropriately (e.g. program doesn’t crash on loading, save function actually functions, etc.). They are hired to seek out and fix problems with the software, not to provide the average user’s perspective. These testers are not referred to as beta testers, because that’s not the job they do.

A beta reader receives a free or discounted early release of a book to read, and in exchange, the reader will tell the author what he thinks of the book — what does or doesn’t seem to fit or flow well in the story, what does or doesn’t make sense, what he would like to see further explained or developed, etc. This makes a beta reader the exact literary equivalent to a software beta tester. Traditionally, beta readers are treated the same as beta testers — that is, they are not paid for their services. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For clarification, if any reader, compensated or otherwise, provides any services outside what I listed above (other services include but are not limited to any form of editing, proofreading, etc.), then he has ceased to be a beta reader and strayed into editor/manuscript critic territory.


* It’s best if beta readers are honest with you about what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t like, and are willing to give specific feedback (not merely generic “I hate it” or “I like it” statements, but detailed responses).

Prepare a list of questions for them to answer, so they know what kind of feedback you need. Example: “In the scene where Tara is driving Sven to the airport and they encounter an overturned ambulance, is the dialogue and action believable? Why or why not?”

Keep the questions simple and straightforward, and keep the list short. Try not to make the readers feel they’re doing homework, but make it easy for them to help you.

Also provide readers with a simple way of reporting any typos or grammar issues they find. It’s handy when they provide you a page number, and maybe even a paragraph and a line number — “page 35, paragraph 3, line 7” — as well as a description of what’s wrong (“dipsolve” should be “dissolve”). 

** Manuscript critiques may cover such issues as continuity, characterization, worldbuilding, etc. Regular editing may also touch on those issues, but will also focus on the writing itself.

 

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Fake Elvis, the Zombie Hunter

Fake Elvis, the Zombie Hunter

I enjoy impromptu writing exercises, and when they’re part of writers meetings, they can be especially fun.

At the most recent such meeting, our prompt came from an excellent, often hilariously funny resource: The Amazing Story Generator by Jason Sacher. For about fifteen minutes of furious writing, we all composed vastly different stories, each expanding on “Forced to join the family business, an Elvis impersonator leads the charge against a zombie army.”

Two writers created funny, tight, complete stories, while the rest of us merely composed beginnings.

My offering is nowhere near the cleverest or funniest, but it might be useful for a minutes’ entertainment.

_______________________

“Aint’ nothin’ but a–”

I interrupted checking my pompadour in the glass of the turret to aim the cannon at a lone zombie lurching out of the dust. The brain-eater disintegrated into ash and bone.

I radioed to the rest of the squadron. We backed our machines into a ragged circle, cannon pointing out, and let the billowing brown-orange dust clouds blow away.

I flicked a handkerchief over the rhinestones on my fringed jacket. No white jumpsuits for battle, but black leather made one look cool and Presley-ish at once. I curled my lip at my reflection. Even though Dad had hidden all my costumes and told the event managers I lip-synced all the songs, forcing me to join the family monster-slaying enterprise, I need to stay in practice for my return to the stage.

Meantime, the gang and I needed to obliterate these mountain zombies before dark. Otherwise, they’d shuffle off to their caves and we’d be stuck here for another week, picking ’em off one at a time.

The thing about zombies, though, is they’re still aware enough to avoid charging our cannon en masse. Someone needed to volunteer as a human lure, but I wasn’t about to risk the hair.

c2016, KB

_______________________

If you’re in need of a story idea or simply a good laugh — “Longing for a simpler life, a sassy nun steals a baby” or “Vowing not to bathe for an entire year, a North Korean scientist meets the ghost of Ernest Hemingway” — grab a copy of Sacher’s book. You won’t be disappointed.🙂

 

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Character Shapes Story

Recently finished viewing an Asian 21-ep revenge series, hoping for something more like The Count of Monte Cristo or City Hunter, but ending up with Shakespearean soap-opera. I nearly didn’t finish it. However, I wanted to see if the story would remain true to itself, and it mostly did. The fatal flaws necessary for a tragedy were present in most of the characters, and justice — of a kind — was meted out.

Shown but never stated: All the evil could have been avoided if the abusive father/husband had been in better control of his words and actions and had loved his wife.

Even though he was falsely accused of murdering an employee, the abusive character set in motion events that would boomerang thirty years later.

Below are the order of events (although not the order of revelation in the story):

1) although innocent of the alleged crimes, the husband was abusive and distrusting;
2) while she was kicked out of the house, the wife sought solace elsewhere and had a secret son she never acknowledged, but who grew up to take his revenge on her;
3) she tries to cover the truth by harming an employee, and he and his wife die;
4) the dead employee’s eldest daughter grows up in hardship and seeks revenge;
5) as adults, the secret son and the vengeful daughter meet and plot against the abusive man’s family;
6) amid their plotting, they become lovers, and yet the secret son allows the vengeful daughter to marry his innocent, unwitting half-brother — and that’s not yet the full measure of twistedness, because there’s more conning and thieving and murderousness to come.

Viewers had to suspend a great deal of reality, too, because the half-brother — thought to be killed in a fire (started by his wife) — comes back after extensive plastic surgery and sets himself up as a prosperous Korean-American businessman so he can revenge himself on her and take back the businesses and the properties she has finagled away from his family. (Oh, the soap opera!)

But what sorta saved this story is the ending: Although there was much back-and-forth one-upmanship regarding secrets and evidence of crimes, eventually the characters came to see the full measure of what their revenge and lies had wrought.

Had the father not been abusive, had the mother simply told the truth, had the young victims gone to the police rather than trying to solve it themselves…

In the end, watching from a distance as his half-brother (now accepted into the family) places flowers on the grave of the vengeful daughter, her husband — no longer unwitting or innocent — muses on what would have happened if everyone had stopped striving, had stopped hitting back, and had let God handle the matter of justice.

If they had been wiser, more patient, more forgiving, kinder, stronger, there would have been no story.

At least not that story.

Instead, it might have been about how a woman and her son survive and thrive away from the abuser. It might have been how a husband and wife come to terms with their wrongdoings and make amends or learn how to live with a new normal. It could have been about a son who grows up so fearful of becoming like his father that he never stands up for himself lest be become an abuser, and must learn there is a proper time to fight back. It could have been the redemptive story of a man who hits rock-bottom, losing everyone and everything he loved because he wouldn’t control his words or his fists, but then realizing he was the maker of his own darkness and climbing back toward the light.

It could have been any kind of story but revenge.

But character shapes story.

What kind of life are you writing? What choices are you making? What motivates you? What — and whom — do you love, fear, hate? Where, ultimately, will your story end?


The television series referenced above, in case you would like to watch it despite the spoilers:

Temptation of an Angel (2009 series)

Temptation of an Angel (2009)

 

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Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Working, Writing: Parallel Pursuits

Fellow writers whose royalties are not yet sufficient to pay the bills, or other folk who spend waaaaay too much time at the computer and not enough time actually moving (we’re artists, and we exercise our brains; that’s enough right?😉 ) here’s a great way to get in shape:

1) Invest in a good pair of gloves, good shoes, and your favorite OTC pain reliever. (You’ll need less of the pain reliever as time passes.)

2) Apply to work part-time at a large store, one with lots of inventory that must be moved and stocked pronto; or work on a construction site, at a repair garage, or anyplace else that might be considered blue-collar and non-intellectual. (As kids, my brother and I worked with Dad in his construction and remodel business. I learned more good work ethics and life skills there than any job since has taught me.)

3) At first, whenever arriving home from your assigned shift, you may be too tired to write or think or even wiggle. You may curse your age, your out-of-shape-ness, your alarm clock, your creaky joints, etc. Let it all out.😉 Your days off may be spent sleeping rather than writing. Let it happen.

4) One day, not too long after you’ve begun this new, body-pummeling endeavor, you’ll realize your brain is awake with new ideas. You’ve mingled a bit with real people. You might even have made new friends. The sunlight is your friend, not your enemy. Your food choices or cravings will change: more water, less coffee, and more meat and veggies, fewer instant noodles. Your clothes are now too big, but your posture and stamina at the writing desk have improved.* Your fingers, once so nimble on the keyboard, are thicker now due to hard work, but give them a minute or two to limber up, and they remember how to type.

For months, until finances reached a crisis, I resisted returning to ‘real’ job, because 1) it felt like selling out, 2) I didn’t want another full-time job to overwhelm my mind and my time to the point that I couldn’t write, and 3) I didn’t want to be among people. Mingling with my characters and taking the occasional trip to writers meetings were all the socializing I needed.

And I was afraid of the pain. After injuring and re-injuring the same set of muscles and joints (car accident, a fall from a step ladder, and a few other falls), I didn’t want to aggravate the site and invite more debilitating pain. However, although there have been days like today when the pain of last night’s work leaves my shoulder stiff and unwilling, the aggressive activity has been therapy, forcing muscles and joints to work at full capacity and in their proper function. Chiropractic issues are resolving themselves as muscles gain strength to keep bones in alignment.

The doctor told me once that, if I refused the physical therapy exercises, my shoulder would freeze. I’d have no mobility unless I faced the pain. I kinda sorta followed his instructions, and at home I used the chart and performed most of the necessary exercises. But with no one else to  me, to encourage me through the pain, I didn’t do the hardest ones.

The part-time job as a stocker has solved that issue. Sure, I’m typing this in pain, but I’m typing. The pain is merely at a discomfort threshold, far from the Oh-God-make-it-stop level it was after the car accident and the fall from the ladder. Both left me breathless, staring out the windshield or at the wall and wondering if I’d damaged myself this time to the point of no recovery.

We writers, our dream may be to shut out the world and tell our tales, but we need pain, I think, in order to write pain. We need troubles in order to write troubles. Those we write may not be the same as those we experience, but we know the emotions: the worry, the fear, the grief, the despair, the agony, the recovery, the planning for a new future, the hope.

I won’t be a stocker forever. I know this. Just as in nature, life has seasons, and this is merely one of them. For now, though, as strange as it may seem, keeping the shelves stocked with canned veggies, with dog food, with hairspray, with toilet paper, is also keeping me fit for writing.

Working or writing: We don’t have to choose one or the other. There are times when the writing lags, or when the day job must be abandoned, but those are mere seasons, and the two pursuits need not be anathema to one another. Just as winter’s snows feed summer’s streams, and sping’s buds lead to autumn’s leaves, so too does work inform writing and writing lighten work.


* Bought a new, smaller pair of jeans for work, washed ’em, wore a few days later, and they were already too big. Working in the stock room is better than going to the gym — and I get paid!😉


Just for kicks, April 29-May 6, 2016, there’s a Countdown deal for the Kindle version of Dragon’s Rook. Today it’s .99, but the price will increase incrementally until it returns to it’s usual $4.99.

 

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Vivacious

Some colors in nature are almost too vibrant to be captured by a lens. These tulips clustered under a tree on a windy day, and I’d hoped the shade would temper the almost-too-vivid nature of the orange. Still, it’s hard not to smile back at these happy faces, eh? As they were tossed by the wind, I was reminded of children running.

IMG_3722^cropped

 

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Downtown

A blackbird in a barren tree in early spring — notice the red Christmas lights still twining the branches?😉

at Myriad Botanical Gardens (c2016, KB)

at Myriad Botanical Gardens (c2016, KB)

 

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Poetry Giveaway

poetry-anthology-coversalt-flats-and-moon

It’s a short volume — less than seventy pages — but it spans two or three decades’ worth of poems inspired by the author’s life, relationships, troubles, daydreams, and family.

And she’s giving away signed paperback copies to five winners of a Goodreads giveaway:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Laughing at the Moon by Elizabeth Easter

Laughing at the Moon

by Elizabeth Easter

Giveaway ends March 31, 2016.

 

 

UPDATE (April 5, 2016):
The giveaway is ended, and the winners are chosen! They are from Italy, Ireland, England, and the United States. Congratulations to all!

 

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