If you don’t have someone commenting on your stories before you publish them into the wild, you need to get one (preferably more). You’re not sharing your work in a bubble, so don’t write in one. This may seem obvious to some, but I’ve seen enough examples where it doesn’t happen (I have to assume, anyway) that it’s worth repeating and re-stressing.
A beta reader (or beta, from here on out) shouldn’t be confused with an editor, or even a creative partner to brainstorm a story concept with, so let’s be clear on that point. While the grammar and editing skills are handy for a beta, their primary purpose is to give you the reader’s perspective on the story, something that’s not always obvious to the author.
I write when I can write, which means I write in short, fragmented bursts. For the most part, this technique has worked out. I’ve been able to reclaim hours of creative time in an already jam-packed life. One challenge I have, though, is pacing and balance. It’s hard to get a feel for these things when the creative process is all chopped up. This is what I look for in my betas. But the challenges are different for every writer. In a conversation I had with Jake Marlow, he said:
The biggest help I get from having people preread is to tell me when something isn’t working, whether it’s a plot piece, a section of the story, or god-forbid a character … And since I write in chunks like you do, I need the help with flow, consistency and continuity.
Identify what your weaknesses are and the areas that you struggle at, and have them focus there.
What doesn’t really change are the qualities that you need to look for in your reader. Not just anyone off the street (err, internet?) will do. Obviously, someone who just tells you that everything you write is great isn’t going to help you grow, but a good beta should go beyond that. You need someone whose opinion you trust. If the person gives you feedback that you instantly discount, that’s not going to be a big help, either. I guess credibility is the word I’m looking for—or maybe authenticity? They don’t need to be fellow writers (this can come with its own set of problems, see below) and you certainly shouldn’t do everything they tell you to do, but you need to value their opinions enough that you give the feedback some serious thought.
An important distinction: a good beta is not someone who’s going to tell you how he or she would have written it. This is the danger that can come with fellow writers acting as readers (I’m fortunate enough to have two such writers with whom I trust). Obviously, you’ve got a story to tell and you’re going to tell it the way you’d like. Does it work? Do the actions of the characters feel real? Is the weight of the story in the wrong place? They’re course-correcting, not picking a new destination. As author Lucy V. Morgan says:
A beta reader is someone who roots for you. They have to enjoy your work. There’s a magic about finding a good beta reader, but the most important thing is that they need an appetite for your particular brand of fiction in order to understand it.
And finally, as Lucy says, your beta reader(s—hopefully, you’ve got more than one) are there to root for you. They’re there to tell you when you were awesome. I’ve worked with creatives for the past fifteen years. We’re a kooky bunch. We like positive feedback, and while it’s not the thing that motivates us to keep creating (nor should it be), it certainly helps.
So thanks to the best beta readers and creative partners a writer of smut can have: Lucy, Jake, and of course my wife. I couldn’t do what I do without you. You guys rock!