Have you written a book and are wondering if there is anything left to do before sending it off to an editor? If so, congratulations! You have hit a point many writers aspire to reach but few do. Take a moment to enjoy that, but once you are done, it is time to ask yourself a few questions. Do you know if you have added all of the details that make the story feel real? How can you be sure you have not left any plot holes or unanswered questions?
Just like how you need to understand the mechanics of a language to write a sentence, self-publishing has its own pesky little set of things you should know. One of them is the necessity of beta readers.
Beta Readers are worth their weight in gold.
No matter how top notch your writing skills are, every book needs beta readers. Beta readers objectively look at your story and actively seek problems. Beta readers do not read for personal pleasure; they read to find flaws. A flaw could be as obvious as forgetting to include something that proves the butler was the murder, to not giving enough information to show a connection between characters and thus failing to convince the reader of a special intimacy.
Beta readers read for:
Character – Are your characters believable? Do they consistently act in ways that suit their personality, or do they ever act uncharacteristically without good reason?
Story – How does the story hold up? Is it strong? Interesting? Beta readers do not only tell you if they liked the story, they will tell you if anything is missing, if there are any weak spots, or if area needs more details.
Flow – Does the story flow well? Is the pace too fast? Too slow? Does the story slip off in tangents? Does a minor story line detract from the main one?
Plausibility in story – Sure, the story makes sense to you, but you wrote it, and you know what you think you conveyed. Do readers find the story realistic? Does something need to be added or subtracted so the story will make more sense?
Plausibility in character – Some of the things that need to be examined, like how well characters perform at their jobs, should be surveyed by people in those professions. In my Forbidden Flower books, Lily is a pastry chef with her own bakery. Writing her culinary background was easy for me, because I went to pastry school and have managed a small-scale bakery. However, I have read books with characters who are supposedly skilled in the culinary arts, yet mention using yeast in sourdough bread, which goes against its nature. Since I know nothing about psychology, when I wrote a character that is a psychologist, I found a beta reader with a background in that field. She also helped ensure that the patients behaved appropriately for their diagnoses. While you can find basic information online, there is no substitute for experience. To learn about a profession online is like interpreting someone else’s reality, and you may not properly translate the basics.
Also, a beta reader will notice what you think you wrote. In Time’s Forbidden Flower a beta reader found that I accidentally omitted a key part of a scene. If she had not read the book, all of my readers would have been confused. (Can you imagine the reviews?) Needless to say, that would have been bad.
Beta readers do not read for:
Beta readers are not editors of any type. While beta readers will often point out the occasional typo or sections that need work, they do not make changes nor are they masters of grammar. However, you need to respect your beta readers. Unless you have a conversation that reflects you are both okay with proceeding, never give your beta reader a manuscript that you do not think is ready for an editor. Clean as many errors as you can before handing off your story, and then walk away until your reader is ready to discuss the manuscript. Do not make changes to a story while it is in beta. No beta reader wants to hear an author say, “Oh, I already changed that. It’s different now.”
What changes do you make?
You should always consider any advice given regarding your story. Notice the word consider. You never have to take anyone’s advice, but remember there was a reason you asked for it. If two out of three beta readers suggest making a specific change, you should probably listen. (Three is a golden number, as it allows you to gather a consensus. More than three opinions can become overwhelming.) If only one makes a specific suggestion, think heavily before deciding. If you are unsure, ask your other beta readers what they think. Beta readers make suggestions based on what makes sense to them; however, others may not agree. In the end, you are the author, and if you self-publish, the final calls are always up to you.