If you ask authors at a panel how they make sure a world or a character is believable, the answer is usually “beta readers”. You’ll see ‘thank you’s to beta readers in acknowledgements or afterwords in books.
How do you find a beta reader?
This was one of the questions asked of me at an author question and answer panel at a recent convention. I had to stop and think about this from a new author point of view since some things have changed since I first started trying to find someone willing to read my stories and give me helpful criticism. And some things haven’t changed.
As a young writer starting off at age 14, my first beta reader was my mother. Not precisely the best choice, as she didn't read science fiction, but I didn't feel confident enough to ask my father, who was the other science fiction reader in my family. But after getting feedback of “it was so sad when she left home” when the story was supposed to be on how happy the character was to leave Earth, I moved on to other beta readers. My English teachers approved of the symbolism in my first book (which surprised me since I hadn't put any in), and that was the last time I asked them. I did find a few friends in high school that read fantasy and science fiction and who could be counted on to give good feedback. Nowadays I have friends I've met at conventions, fellow writers, and people who have read and enjoyed my work (and like getting an early look) who I can ask to beta read.
The person asking the question didn't have any local friends who read the genre he was writing. I've got one friend in my town that I can ask to beta read, but the other friends I can ask, depending on their schedules, are all at a distance. Which is not much of a problem in the days of email. The questioner, however, didn't have any writing friends or friends who read in his genre either local or online that he could ask.
So the next question to him was, was he a member of a writing group or organization? I'm a member of both Broad Universe and EPIC, and I've seen the occasional call out in the email and Facebook groups for those writing organizations for a beta reader on a particular genre or topic. There's usually someone willing to give feedback in return for critical comments on their own stories. He decided to check with some of the fan group tables at the convention.
I've even seen the call out on an author's Facebook page for an occasional beta reader or proof reader.
Of course, what do you do once you've found a potential beta reader? If all you get back is “It was good”, then you need to ask detailed questions (and maybe find another beta reader). Jodie Renner had some excellent suggestions recently in “15 Questions for Your Beta Readers”. (She also has some suggestions for finding YA beta readers.) I tend to ask more vague questions like "Did what the character do make sense?"
Take some time to absorb the comments you get back. Sometimes you can see right away how to revise the story and sometimes you’re not actually ready to accept what you hear.
It also helps to have more than one beta reader. If both readers comment on the same thing, then it definitely needs fixing. You might also have a beta reader who just focuses on the technical details or language rather than the overall story.
How have you found your beta readers? Are you a beta reader for another author?