Monday, May 11, 2009

I Beg To Differ

Bubble gum, bubble gum in a reed,
How many Betas should you heed?

Okay, that was totally lame, but I just don't have the brainpower to come up with anything clever.

My question is coming at the beginning of this post: How many Beta readers do you need?

I'm really interested in knowing. I've been reading about how people have betas in the double digits. Of course, this terrifies me a bit. Then I start to do this: Do I need that many? What if just one more person points out something that could be fatal to my MS? What if s/he says the same thing as Beta C or Beta D? What if this? What if that?

The "What If?" game is only effective in writing. Not in anything else, trust me.

I sent my WiP to 7 Betas. They were awesome. Pointed out great things, some things were suggested multiple times by different people. I did revisions and actually asked a couple of them to reread those parts.

Do I think I needed more Betas? Absolutely not.

And here's why.

Sometimes you can have too many cooks in the kitchen, yanno? Then it isn't helpful, it becomes a blood bath. People pointing out all different things. You frantically trying to revise everything, instead of the places that really need it. For me, this causes major freakage. And frankly, I don't have time for that. Of course I want my MS to be the best it can be before querying. But I believe that this can be done with a handful of trusted, honest, wise Beta readers. More is not always better. In fact, it's all in WHO is reading your novel, not HOW MANY.

For example, lets take a look at the pantheon judges--which your Betas should be. That's why I have it capitalized. They are that important to me. They are my pantheon judges. And that means that you don't need billions of them. And going through all their comments? That can take weeks just by itself. I think it's best to have only a few people that you trust explicitly so that you can best use your time to get your MS ready.

So onto the pantheon judges.

American Idol: 4 judges. Used to only be three. And if you've ever seen the show, you know they don't always agree. They have different things to say. Just like your Betas.

Best Food Network Star (starts soon!): 2 executives, usually a chef judge, sometimes an additional celebrity judge for a total of 4. Again, too many cooks....

Survivor: A jury of 7 individuals who've played the game. This is perfect for your MS.

Heck, the Supreme Court of this country only has 9 people making the decisions. Life and death ones. New laws, unconstitutional stuff. In my opinion, I definitely don't need more than that reading my novel. Especially if they are of the caliber of Supreme Court justices. And mine are.

So maybe that's where you should start. Are your Betas Betas with a capital B? Or are they fish? Are they honest, trustworthy, well-read in the genre, knowledgeable about the publishing industry, writers themselves?

What do you think? Have you benefited from having dozens and dozens of readers? How many do you usually choose to read your novel before submitting it? Why do you choose that many? How has it worked for you?

I'm so interested in this. Let me know! I feel some chartage coming on....


Michelle McLean said...

I have 7 'regulars,' and 8th I sometimes but not always send to (depending on schedules) and a possible 9th I may be adding soon....again, it depends on their schedules and what is going on (and what it is I'm sending). I have 2 people that I always send everything to. But I'd say, in general, I send my stuff to 7 people.

Anonymous said...

I have four trusted Betas (with a capital B) that I send my stuff too. And one or two that help me along the way - before the novel or short story is complete. I may send my stuff to a few others - but I can't imagine more than five or six...too many chefs for me to handle!

Nice post!

Robyn Campbell said...

I've tried it with a lot of readers. It makes my head spin to have all of those differing viewpoints. I can't deal with it. Three is a good number, I think. You can have TOO many crits. I'm trying to be my own Beta, too.

Super post! Enjoyed reading it.:)

PurpleClover said...

Okay I hate to throw a wrench in the mix because I have NO beta readers (so who am I to judge?). But I would be really concerned to have that many beta readers (unless I knew they were all SUPERBETAS).

I have noticed the few times I used a critique thread forum (I'm sure that isn't as great as a critique group) I've found so many far-fetched things I had to pick and choose what advice I would keep.

Personally I think it would be better to find a select few (maybe 5 people) that you KNOW are extremely proficient at critiquing and you have seen their work and know they are incredibly helpful to be a beta reader.

That may sound snobby, but I think it is better to not just pass out your work to whomever asks or offers. I think you need to be discreet and choosy. Sometimes those that think they are being a "beta" reader are in fact "alpha" readers. Still useful but depending where you are in the process it may not move you forward.

But what do I know?? I have yet to join those ranks. I do have an idea of who I would ask though...I'm keeping them in my back pocket for when "I'm there".

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

What a fantastic post, Elana.

I have loads of betas. Since I teach teens, I have betas in my targeted reader age. I only have 2 adult beta readers and I have them only to get the adult perspective. (ie: "I would not let my daughter read this." or "My son would love this.") I think some YA writers only use adults and other writers as their beta readers, which really makes the process less useful, IMO.

I send the ms to 4 teens and ask them to read it and pass it to someone I don't know after they read it. Those 4 strangers send it to their friends. I do this through 4 cycles so that I've had 16 or so readings, 12 of them by strangers in my target audience range. (I send hard copies to avoid the obvious issues with distributing unpublished materials.)

When they receive the ms, it has a cover letter asking them to look for things and take notes on things that sound "wrong." Things that are not "teen."

I meet with all of them at a coffee shop in groups of 4-8 and jam about the book.

My betas are never asked to critique...only react to the believability and find the "adult" errors.

Thanks for sharing your process, Elana. As always, I love you blog.

Scott said...

I have two regulars, and three alternates. I normally try to get someone who doesn't read the genre to read the MS to get an idea of how well the MS might do on a broader basis.

With the current project out to query, I sent the MS to someone who knew my sister, but that I'd never met. His insights were great and really helped me refine a few troubled spots.

I have one friend I bounce ideas off, and who always gets the rough draft of any project I am working on. Normally, I wait until I've gone through at least 3 edits by myself before I send it out to the Betas.

lisa and laura said...

This is such a good question because I think that every writer has struggled with this at one point or another. The eternal question is how do you know when it's ready??? I think it's like so many other things in that it's something of a leap of faith. For us, we had 3 beta readers total. I'm not sure we'd want or need any more than that because the 3 people who we work with we trust implicitly, so if they say there's a problem, we address it. Or we try to at least.

My big question is: Do you still use beta readers once you have an agent??

I'm leaning towards yes, but I think there's probably only one person we'd ask (and you know who you are!).

Michelle D. Argyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie D. said...

Does anyone know how many betas the "big name" authors use? I've always thought just one or two Betas would be better than myriads, simply for the reasons you stated above. But I can't really comment yet, since I've never sent work to a "Beta" before (haven't submitted either - working on it).

M. Dunham said...

I agree completely. I think anything over 8 is too much, and any over 6 is pushing it.

I have to find some beta readers when the time comes, but for now I'm focusing on getting something I can give to a beta reader. :)

Stacy Nyikos said...

Love this post! How many betas until you get to the center of that perfect piece where everything hums in unison?? It's like that commercial for the tootsie roll lolly pop. How many is enough? Or just right? It's all of manner of feeling it out, isn't it?

Windy said...

Very insightful. Good to know, as I currently have ... ummm, 2. I've been working on "growing" the group. Your thoughts on this definitely help me get a good handle on how much growing to do.

Jessica Nelson said...

Very interesting post! I hadn't thought about having a whole bunch before.
So far there have been two writers who have read a complete manuscript or more.
Then I've just asked on writer's loops if anyone would be interested in reading my manuscript, and I'd reciprocate. But I've never done double digits. Never even had seven.
I completely agree with the cooks analogy. :-)

Elana Johnson said...

Just for the record, I don't think there is a magic number, and I'm certainly not judging anyone for the number of readers they use. What works for some doesn't work for others. I just love the discussion! Thanks guys! This has been such an interesting topic for me to pontificate on and I'm glad there are some people who agree and those who don't, your experiences and insight are valuable and intriguing too. :D

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

Great post. I've had four. All of their tips have been fantastic.

It's so important for writers to know which advice to heed and which to cast aside. Too many cooks in the kitchen definitely makes that more difficult to discern.

Jody Hedlund said...

Great questions! I've only had two people read my MS so far. And I've wondered if I need to get more people involved. But readers are subjective. Even if my book was published and thousands read it, I'm sure I would get a thousand different reviews (hopefully most good!).

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I think when it comes to beta readers, for me, quality is much better than quantity.

Also, your American Idol example is perfect, because I think the addition of the fourth judge this year was terrible. The only thing she adds is more minutes to the show that in turn causes it to go spilling over it's time and completely foils my DVR'ing.

Danyelle L. said...

I agree with you, Elana. I've had three betas, and they were ginormously helpful. Well, 3.5. :D I think that too many betas can blur things out of focus.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I have a ton of critique partners, but I only need one trusty beta reader. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Elana, sorry if my comment sounded snippy and snarky. I'd had a rough morning and just stuck my foot in my mouth. I know you're not judging anybody, and 7 does sound like a great number that might work really well. It's great that you know that. I'm hoping that I can figure out what works best for me without going through too much headache. Thanks for a great post and discussion!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Though I use 16 betas in four different waves for my YA stuff, I use only three plus two crit partners for my adult projects, which don't hold the same generational pitfalls as the YA projects. Teens think and speak differently than I do, and all those eyes help me keep my characters sounding and acting young. :)

The coolest thing about having a large number like I use is when they get together, they talk about my book like I'm not there. I don't even say a word past the first "So, what was wrong, what was right, and what would you like to see in the next book in the series."

I don't have the too-many-cooks problem because they work stuff out and actually come to agreements as to solutions for minor problems during these discussions. They do my work for me--like identify that I'm using the wrong kind of texting or the wrong slang. I like the jam sessions as much as any part of the process.

Elana Johnson said...

Lady G, not snarky or snippy at all. This is something I've been thinking about since your post on all the feedback you were getting. So while you did inspire my thinkage on it, I wasn't thinking of you specifically when I wrote it.

Mary, I think your process is so cool! I'm a delicate shade of green right now.

Traci said...

I'm thinking...less is more! ;-) Too many cooks in the kitchen is right! I also think you should choose carefully. That's just my two cents.

Unknown said...

Quality over quantity is definitely a good thing. I have two, but I'm really just beginning. I'm sure a one or two more would be beneficial, but so would finishing my MS. One thing at a time...

B.J. Anderson said...

I have two that I rely on because I trust them so much to give me the feedback I need without being intrusive. Then I have one or two more that I can send to in case I need an extra set of eyes. :)

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Hey, Lady G! Don't worry about ruffling Elana. She deals with ME on a daily basis, which is like rubbing up against sandpaper. She's the least flappable person I know--that, or she's just immune to my abrasion. :)

Love ya, Elana!

Eric said...

Although I haven't had any betas read my stuff much yet, I would say three is plenty. In the end, you have to trust your own voice. It's okay to have a different perspective, a second set of eyes to catch the spelling mistakes, grammar flaws, etc. But beyond that, you need to just tell your story as best as you can.

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