"Hi Ksenia. I need your advice on finding BETA readers: 1) How/where did you find reliable ones? 2) Which draft do they get to read?"
Awesome question, Zandile. I wrote a couple posts about beta readers, one about adapting your novel to beta readers' feedback and another about luring them with cookies, but it's time I write a new one as I've learned a bunch of new things since then. So if you have decided to start looking for beta readers, here is what I suggest you do.
1. Do you really need feedback?
Ask yourself if it will help you or hinder you. Sometimes when you're just starting out, negative feedback can cut you pretty deep, so deep, you might want to stop working on your book or quit it altogether. It happened to me a couple times. I was open to the point of turning my guts inside out and shlepping it all online for everyone to see. I'm a pretty tough cookie and can handle criticism well, but in a couple instances it got under my skin. Ask yourself, "Am I ready for someone to tell me my writing is shit without an explanation?" If not, then don't do it. Write in a vacuum until you think you'll be able to handle it and not pay it much attention, still writing the way YOU write and still forging forward regardless of what people tell you.
2. Okay, you need feedback. Why?
If you have decided to go for it, think about what you want to gain from feedback. You might not realize it, but the only reason you're seeking it might be reassurance. You're not sure of your writing and you need to hear others say it's great. In this instance beta readers will not help at all. You'd be better off showing your writing to close friends who will support you regardless of how brilliant or horrendous your draft is, and most first drafts are pretty terrible. Which leads me to the next point.
3. Most beta readers don't know what you want.
A lot of people might want to help you out, but most of them don't fully understand what beta reading is. For example, you send them your first draft asking their thoughts on the story development, and they'll send you a file back with spelling and punctuation fixed, pointing out that you often forget commas. That's not what you asked for, and yet you get it because most people think that what you send them is the final product as they have no concept of the writing process. Same stuff happens to all artists. Just ask anyone who ever worked with a client or has shown people work in progress. People immediately start picking it apart as though it's done or giving you direction that you can't use because they don't see what the final product will be or where you're going. This brings me the next question.
4. What draft beta readers get to see is up to you.
You decide. I would say, wait until you feel like you need another pair of eyes. When it's going to happen, you will have to determine by experience. Not many people will understand or be able to suffer through your first draft unless they're writers themselves and get the process.
5. Where do you find beta readers? Anywhere, really.
If you're after writers then join local writing groups. You can find them on Meetup or through local libraries where they often meet, or by finding local offices of writing organizations like SFWA. Here is a list of them. You can also go to SciFi/Fantasy conventions and talk to writers there. Or you can find people online. If you're after generic feedback from potential readers—and that means you've already gone through several drafts yourself and feel like you've got the story down—then you'll have to cultivate your tribe before asking it for feedback. You're asking people to spend their time on reading your unfinished product. Why would they do that? They have to be invested in you and want to help you. So go ahead and share your process everyday on Twitter and other places, and when the time comes, ask people.
6. If 8 out of 10 people say the same thing, it's a red flag.
Now that you have found folks who're willing to help, filter out what they say and decide what to change and what to keep. Most of the feedback won't be useful to you, especially from people who will tell you they know exactly what you need to change. Steer clear of that advice. They can't know. They're not YOU. Listen to those who're unsure. They usually sense that things are wrong but can't pinpoint it. YOU can. And, another thing. If 8 out of 10 people tell you that your lovely character Mindy the Pig really needs to have a red umbrella instead of the blue one, then you might consider following their advice. Or at least give it consideration.
7. Ask specific questions.
You'll benefit greatly from beta readers's feedback if you have something specific you need help with. Like submarine research: maybe you have your Mindy the Pig go on a submarine adventure. Or on a hot air balloon. Is it realistic enough? Believable enough? Or maybe your pig speaks German and you're not sure if you got it right. Or maybe your whole novel happens on a baobab tree and you need baobab tree experts to confirm your literary exertions as true and sound. Whatever the thing you're struggling with is, ask beta reader to focus on that, otherwise they'll send you want they think you should fix, not what you think you should fix.
8. People are busy.
Another thing you need to be aware of is your schedule. If you think that by sending your draft to beta readers and asking them to read it over the weekend you'll get it back on Monday, you're wrong. Out of all people who will volunteer about half will fall off. Of those who remain another half will only get to read through maybe the first 50 pages. A very small number will actually do what you ask them to do and return it to you on time. So unless you can wait a few weeks and prod people every couple days, don't send it out. You're better off showing it to one trusted friend who will send you feedback exactly when you need it.
9. Your need for beta readers will diminish as you mature.
I used to send out my drafts to beta readers and scream about their feedback on every corner. Not anymore. I still post all drafts here for people to peruse, but mostly it's for getting some early quotes to put on the backs of my books when published and for some crucial feedback in case anyone has any feedback, or for those who can't wait for the final product and don't care if it's a draft. It's because I'm not afraid anymore and don't doubt myself as much as I used to. You will get to this point too, Zandile. Just keep writing, and your confidence will grow.
10. In the end, it's your story.
Don't get too hung up on what beta readers tell you. It's up to you how to write your story. People will always have opinions about things if you ask them about. They can't help it. It's useful to remember that those are just that—opinions. How you want to write your book is up to you. If you feel like you can be easily swayed by others, I would refer you to point one. Ask yourself, "Do I really need feedback?" Yes, it's scary to do this on your own. Yes, you're afraid you're doing it wrong. Yes, you think you might benefit from what others will suggest to you. But it's your job to be alone and dig deep inside yourself. What other people think doesn't matter.
Anything else anyone wants to add? Go for it. That's about it for me. Hopefully this will help you, Zandile. You can do it. I believe in you. Never quit writing no matter what anyone says.