Thursday, March 5, 2015

What is a Beta Team?

Beta Team – (noun), named after the second letter in the Greek alphabet, and stolen from software testing lingo, a beta team is used by writers similarly to the way software designers will enlist aid to test and locate issues/bugs.  Beta teams tend to volunteer or be blackmailed into reading, although some charge (and should probably be avoided).

Why yes, that's my Beta Team.  Why?
Find two or three people that you trust to give you an unvarnished, unwashed, uninhibited opinion of your book.  This is the key.  They must be willing to tell you the truth, the whole truth and the brutal, soul-crushing, heart-breaking truth about your work.  If it works for you, you can provide the manuscript chapter by chapter, although this will have a more involved impact on your writing process. Make certain you get a solid commitment from those you select to read each chapter and provide you with their opinion of the writing, characters, plot, etc.  Commit to them that you will accept all feedback with as open a mind as possible, and understanding that the Beta team is trying to make the work better, not beat you into the ground.

Your family/friends tend to be very positive—too positive. They tend to overlook the mistakes and issues in your work because they either love you, or they don’t want Thanksgiving to be even more awkward.  In general, they won't tell you that something didn't work for them, or that it was plain bad. They love you, so they want to support you. My beta team is brutal. If they don't like something, they drop it on me like a ton of bricks. I appreciate it (although not the concussion), because I want to tell a good story well—not be told I'm a good writer.

I said, your characters are TOO cliche!
Limit your team to begin. I have two primary beta readers. They're my core. They like it, I keep moving forward. They are a wonderful part of my writing process. Once the manuscript is done, then a second level of readers.

Find individuals whose opinion you trust, and who are willing to put in the time. It is a lot of time.  A lot.  Too often I hear about a writer who passed a whole manuscript to a beta reader and got nothing back—ever. You need the hard opinion and you need the firm commitment. A friend who is an avid reader or writer is a good choice. But speak directly to them, tell them what you want, when you want it, and see if they're willing to participate in your process.

Forums are no good as a faux Beta team. Too many people—too many cooks in the kitchen. All those opinions and styles are going to come out, and it will seem that you’ve done nothing right.  They’ll also, in the most friendly way, rewrite everything, and offer eighteen new directions for your story to go. It's going to feel overly negative, like you’re no good as a writer or even a human being, even though everyone is trying to help.

My team consists of another writer, but from a different genre (political/memoir) and an avid reader. I also have a secondary team of reviewers who read the entire book and provide input, but they have less influence on the writing process.

Then that's it. I don't go further in reviewing and you shouldn’t either.  You can over-engineer a book to the point that it becomes bland and meaningless.  Two layers of review are plenty.  When you’ve sold the book, your publisher or agent will provide their own review. Start shopping the manuscript out, and start writing the next book.