Thursday, May 5, 2011

Choose Your Beta Readers Carefully

When the St. Paul Pioneer Press refused to pay for her little red convertible that was fire bombed while she covered a riot, Judith Yates Borger decided it was time to get a new gig. She began writing fiction and hasn't looked back.

Borger draws on her 30 years experience as a journalist to chronicle the escapades of her protagonist Skeeter Hughes, wife, mom and reporter.
In real life, Borger is passionate about her work, her children, her grandchildren, and her marriage. In her reporting days she would never have taken the risks that come naturally to protagonist Skeeter. She lives with her husband, John, and her dog, Honey, in downtown Minneapolis on the Mississippi River, where she rows crew with the Minneapolis Rowing Club.

Her short story, Hunter's Lodge, is included in Resort to Murder, Thirteen More Tales of Mystery by Minnesota's Premier Writers. Where's Billie? is her first novel published by Nodin Press, which will publish The Skeeter Hughes sequel, Whose Hand? in fall 2011. Both are available on Kindle and Nook for under $3.

Judy's website

Website written by protagonist Skeeter Hughes

Please join me in welcoming Judith Yates Borger to Suspense Novelist.

Choose your beta readers carefully

Before I wrote my first book I asked Larry Millett, who had about a dozen Sherlock Holmes books to his credit, for advice. "Be careful whose advice you seek," he said. It was probably the best advice I've gotten so far. But choosing your advisors is difficult business. I've made a few mistakes along the way. Mistakes I'd like to spare you. So here's my advice when it come to choosing advisors.

1. Choose people who know your genre.
Everybody's got an opinion on how to write a book. You just sit down and type, right? Most people think they "have a book inside" just waiting to burst out when the moment is right like a chrysalis waiting to be a monarch butterfly. Eliminate from consideration people who say anything even remotely like this. They're clueless.

Instead, look for people who enjoy reading the type of book what you want to do, or something similar. Get to know them. Find out why they care about, what scares them, what makes them happy. If you're a mystery writer don't get a beta reader who only likes nonfiction.

2. Choose somebody who has time.
This is tricky. More than once I have given a manuscript to people who never got around to reading it. Very frustrating, and, frankly, a waste of paper. Choose somebody who really wants to read your work, not someone who thinks it's just cool to be able to say they did after it's published.

3. Get investment from your beta readers.
I find that the best way to do that is promise to include your beta readers in the acknowledgement, with some title, like Queen of Commas, or Forward Fashionista. Then chat them up after they're done. If they tell their friends about your book you've made some advanced sales.

4. Rotate beta readers.
This is probably the toughest part, especially after you've gone to all that trouble to choose the right readers, but I think it's important, especially if you're writing a series. You want someone with fresh eyes to comment on your work.

5. Apply a skin-thickener liberally.
Comments are made with the idea of improving your work. You're beta readers aren't going to circle the entire book and shout "Brilliant." Remember that in the end, it's your book. You don't have to change anything a beta reader recommends. I have an author friend who listens to the first comment about a particular passage, takes note when a second person mentions the same thing, then changes the suspect passage when she hears about it the third time. I think that's good advice.

CR: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.

It's all better with friends.


  1. I also try to rotate in at least one new beta reader for each book, choosing someone who's never read anything by me. It's the only way to keep it real. But I send every first chapter to my graphic designer (and dear friend) to see if she likes it. I trust her to be honest and to represent my readers.

  2. All good advice, Judith--I like LJ's rotate a new one in tip, too--and your book sounds wonderful based on Peg's description. I will check it out!

    I think that learning which opinions to take and which not to is one of the writer's biggest challenges. To my mind there are three categories:

    Comments we recoil from because they're wrong
    Comments we recoil from because they're right
    Comments that resonate and make us thankful the #$$@! thing didn't get published before this person read it.

  3. My prime rule is, "Never ask a relative to read your manuscript." I've found they have their own agendas--either to encourage or discourage.