To Be A Fantasy Beta Reader


brooks-wardsI wear a lot of fantasy hats.

All of them fit comfortably and happily cover my baldness, just so.

That said, some are more fun than others. One of my favorite roles is continuity editor for bestselling author Terry Brooks. Terry is no stranger in the fantasy genre. He has written more than 30 fantasy novels. While the Word/Void series is my favorite of his work, the Shannara series has grown complex over the years—so much to keep straight that it would be daunting for any author.

I read each Shannara novel at least three times. I do this to catch anything that does not fit with the canon that has already been established. Sometimes, I find little errors. I let Terry know of them and then he changes them.

In this way, as a fan, I get to read Terry’s work early in the process to satisfy my own love of his writing as well as give something to fans everywhere.

I am a beta-reader. It is great fun.

I’m not the only one who does this for fantasy writers. Most of them have a select, small group of early readers that offer ways to improve the book—whether fixing slow pacing or continuity mistakes.

I decided to ask those writers a simple question:

Do you use beta readers? If so, how did they get such a role and what have you instructed them to look for?

Here are their responses! Enjoy!

David Anthony Durham answers:

“Yes, I do use beta readers. I pick different people depending on the project. I ask if they’d be interested and have the time, and usually they are and do. Most of my beta readers have been former writing students. I have hundreds of those to pick from at this point! For the middle grade fantasy I’m working on now, I had my local librarian read early pages, and had a few friends take a look. I’ve also had fellow writers read material on occasion. All that said, my wife and – for the middle grade stuff – my kids are my very first readers. They’re always helpful.

In terms of what I want them to look for… Well, that’s up to them. I don’t want to direct them toward any one thing, since they might not mention something else that I need to hear. I just ask for whatever occurs to them, what works particularly well and what doesn’t work so well. The great thing is that they all pick up on different things. When a comment they make rings true, I act on it. And my writing is stronger for it.”

Kevin Hearne answers:

I use an Alpha reader and don’t have Beta readers at the moment.

My Alpha reader takes a look at each chapter as I read it. He looks for inconsistencies and comments on character development. Since he’s much better versed in math and science than I am, he’s excellent at catching my boo-boos there. He’s also very well read in fantasy and I value his opinion. We’ve been friends for years so I trust him.

Robert V. S. Redick answers:

Without beta readers I’d be roasting in hell. They’re absolutely essential to me. They’re also hard to choose, because you need someone who has no agenda but honesty, who can articulate their own honest and spontaneous reaction (not what they think they think it should be, or worse, what they think you’d want it to be). I ask them to try for this state of grace. I thank them on my knees for trying.

Mark Lawrence answers:

My answer it unhelpfully complex. First off I use beta readers as encouragement rather than critique because I never change anything – all my work is first draft. With Prince of Thorns I posted the chapters to the writing group I run as I wrote them and had a sizable and floating population of beta readers. Because I don’t redraft they were also alpha readers as it happens. With King of Thorns I had just the one reader as I didn’t feel safe giving wider access to the text. And that beta reader was an old writing friend from the group. My current non-Thorns WIP was born from a collection of short stories and I plan to finish it tonight. This one actually will need redrafting because of the way it came together and I will try to find some trusted beta readers. Not sure how yet.

Todd Lockwood answers:

I do use beta readers. They’re all trusted friends with at least one foot in the publishing industry, and I instruct them not at all, other than to give me honest feedback on anything that they like or don’t like, that works or doesn’t work.

When I paint, I use a mirror to look at my painting frequently backwards. When I paint digitally, in both Painter and Photoshop the F1 key is “flip horizontal” for the same purpose. But when I write a mirror doesn’t work quite the same way (Leonardo DaVinci I am not). Beta readers are the mirror that let you see what you’ve blinded yourself to.

Carrie Vaughn answers:

I do use beta readers. Sometimes, I’ll need an “expert witness” to read a manuscript to make sure that I’ve written at least somewhat accurately about a specific topic that I’ve researched. For example, for Kitty Goes to War I recruited a friend who served in Iraq to read and offer suggestions about my Army vet characters. I have a police officer friend who’s read books for me, and she’s been a big help. For stylistic/narrative help, I have a couple of friends who are also pro writers. We exchange pretty much all our novel manuscripts at this point, and the instruction is “tell me what sucks and what needs fixing.” I’m dependent on that extra set of eyes, because usually after spending six months and a couple of revisions on a manuscript, I have no objectivity and can’t actually see what a reader coming to it cold will see. A fresh set of eyes can tell me where I went wrong, where the problems are, or even just where the rough patches are. At this point, my writer beta readers and I are solidly competent writers who can find someone to publish just about everything we write. But we’re very much looking to make our work not just competent, but *good,* or even *great,* and that’s our goal in critiquing each other’s works. To help our generally decent manuscripts reach for greatness.

Jacqueline Carey answers:

No beta readers for me, sorry!

Tad Williams answers:

Tad’s writing process at the moment is, he completes and first draft & then it’s read by me (Tad’s wife), his agent and his editors. Then there’s a 2nd draft and that’s it, apart from the polishing that comes with copy editing & proofing.

Lev Grossman answers:

I do use beta readers. About 20 of them at this point. They’re a mix of friends, family, fans and just interested, interesting acquaintances. Some of them I’ve never even met in person. Most of them aren’t professional writers, just enthusiastic readers. I try not to boss them around too much — I like them to react in a fresh, spontaneous, unselfconscious way, though after I get their basic take I’ll often quiz them, usually about the pacing and the characters.

Jennifer Bosworth answers:

I’m part of a critique group that meets every other week, but I try not to submit anything until I’ve finished a first draft. I always tell them what I’m looking for as far as critique goes. If it’s an early draft, I ask them to focus on the big issues and not to nitpick. If it’s a second draft, I usually have specific questions about each scene. Third draft, I tell them to nitpick to their heart’s content. We’ve been together as a group for a few years now, so we’ve gotten to the point where we trust each other, but we don’t always take each other’s advice. A good rule of thumb is, if everyone agrees that there’s a problem, there is most likely a problem.

Terry Brooks answers:

What the hell is a beta reader? Asks the Stone Age Luddite author who works with a red pencil and a Web Druid.

Peter Orullian answers:

My beta readers are people I know and trust. They know how to give honest, constructive feedback. And for the most part, I’m asking them to approach the book as a reader. For that reason, many of my beta-readers are not writers. So, initially, I don’t prescribe a lot for them in terms of what to look for. After they’ve finished, I’ll have a few general questions—were there places that were confusing, seemed slow, etc.—and then a few specific questions, too.

And overall, I follow King’s rule, which is that if all the readers have entirely different sets of feedback, then I’m simply hitting their individual tastes, and don’t have to sweat it much. If many or all of them key in on some of the same things, then I’ll take a look to see what’s going on there.

Patrick Rothfuss answers:

I use a lot of beta readers. Many, many, beta readers.

Before I was published, I never used to think of them like that. They were just readers back then. Volunteers. They’d read my book and give me feedback. Then I’d use that feedback to make improvements/changes to the book. Lather, rinse, repeat.

These days I have to pick my betas a little more carefully, as I don’t want people spilling secrets about my books online before they’re released, or leaving a copy on the bus so someone can find it and post it up online.

I don’t ask my betas to give any specific sort of feedback, just that they read the book and write their thoughts and comments in the margins. I want them to read the book from their own perspective, just like anyone would if they picked a book up off the shelf.

After they read the book, I might ask them some questions. But I always do that after the fact. I don’t want to bias how they read the book.

Daniel Abraham answers:

I have a couple beta readers. They got the role by 1) being someone whose taste I’ve come to trust, and 2) were willing to take on the chore. Some of them are other writers who I can then trade services with.

RA Salvatore answers:

I do – two, in fact. From one, I’m simply looking for a reaction to the meta-story. Did he like it? More importantly, is he talking to me about it? Is he asking for more? I give him no instructions and don’t even ask for feedback – whether or not he gives me any tells me a lot about how much the book grabbed him.

The other reader is for continuity more than anything else. I’m well over 20 books into this series, and need as many eyes on a work as possible in terms of continuity. This lucky guy then gets the book a second time for a copyedit.

Blake Charlton answers:

A good beta reader assesses a manuscript with both a subjective and objective eye. They can describe three different, but often conflated, qualities of a draft: 1) What they disliked, 2) Technical flaws, 3) How they would improve the manuscript. In my experience, beta readers who do not separate these qualities are not helpful and may even be deleterious. Good beta-readers, however, are invaluable. I am always on the lookout for of them, and I make sure to keep my current readers happy. I suggest offering your best betas frank bribery in the form of cookies, alcohol, reciprocal beta-reading, chocolate, or all of the the above.

Peter V. Brett answers:

I use beta readers, but at this stage they are only very close personal friends and family (plus my editors and agents, of course). Everyone reads differently, so I don’t usually instruct people on what feedback to give, though the ones who have remained on the list are the ones not afraid to speak their mind, even on things they think I might not want to hear.

As you can see, there is more that goes into a book than just the initial writing of it. Writers fret over their work. They want the best possible story to be published. Beta readers help make that a reality.

More about the craft of writing in months to come!

Hope you become a beta reader!