Sunday, July 17, 2016

Beta Reading

This week has been all about beta reading.

My writing group partner has gotten back to me with her notes for project 2016, so I'm working my way through those.

I also decided--mostly on a whim--that I would beta read someone's novel. Normally, that's not something that I do for people that I don't know well, but I'm trying to build a network, and I figure the best way for me to do that is to prove myself willing to help out.

Beta reading is an interesting part of the writing process. Most of the writing work, for me at least, is done privately--no input from anyone other than my writing partner, and even that is relatively rare. I build the outline on my own, I sketch the scenes and characters in my personal notebooks, and I pound out the first draft on my laptop at my house with on one but my cats looking in. The beta reader (or beta readers, as the case sometimes is) is the first person to see the work aside from me and the person meant to be the first to tell me what's gone wrong.

It's an uncomfortable situation all around, even when the readers are the same people each time. And it's uncomfortable on both sides. I, as a writer, go into this with the understanding that my work isn't perfect and that I will have made mistakes. I, as a human being, though, am not always excited for those mistakes to be pointed out. It's necessary, and in the end I'm always grateful, but it's still a rough ride for my ego (and, even with my imposter syndrome, I definitely have an ego).

The position for the reader isn't a whole lot better--and it's especially awkward when the reader doesn't know the writer that well (this, incidentally, is the position that my aforementioned whim has put me in). The reader has to make a sizable time commitment to go through hundreds of pages of prose to point out the lumps and flaws to a writer who may or may not be receptive.

There aren't really hard and fast rules for either side of the process. But, in the times that I've been on both sides, I've come up with a few guidelines that I make use of.

For the writer:
  • Ask for more readers than you need. Look, people are busy. Everyone is busy. If you say you have a novel draft that you want people to read, you're going to have friends and family and maybe strangers saying that they want to read for you, and they'll say it with enthusiasm. But then you'll send a 300-page manuscript draft, and they'll realize how much work it's actually going to be. Some of the folks you send it to will muscle through and send you thorough feedback. And some of them will never get back to you. It happens. It's no reflection on you or on them--but you still need feedback, so ask for more than you need. 
  • Find honest readers. It's nice to hear gushing praise of your work. But it's not really helpful. If you've decided to find beta readers, then you know that your work isn't perfect. Find people who are going to tell you what you need to fix. Relatedly, don't limit yourself to people with degrees in English or to people who read and/or write your genre. Their input is valuable, and if you can find an English major or a fellow genre writer to be a reader that's great, but most of your readers aren't going to have that background. Get a mix of honest readers.
  •  Don't shut down in the face of criticism. At some point or another, someone is going to give a critique that you don't like. They'll suggest altering a plot point that you were excited about. Or they'll think a bit of dialogue that you love is hokey or cliche. Or they'll say that you should really drop that 5,000+ word prologue that was the first bit you wrote of this story and the reason that you fell in love with the world of the novel because it's not really a strong start to your novel. (Yes, that happened to me, and yes, I was devastated). The thing is, unless you've chosen really awful readers--and you probably haven't--these critiques aren't mean spirited. Your readers are trying to help you make your work better. You may not like the things they point out, but don't dismiss them. That prologue that I loved so much? The reader was right. It did need to go. And the finished product of that piece is so much better.
  • Just because someone says it, doesn't mean you have to change it. By the same token, you have to use your own judgement. Don't dismiss criticism out of hand, but don't change something if you feel strongly about it. If you try the edit, and it doesn't feel right (and I know how nebulous that sounds, but a lot of writing is like that), then don't make the change. Your reader won't hold it against you.
  • Find something to distract you while you wait. Waiting for feedback is terrible. You've sent your work, a little piece of you, out to be judged and now you have to wait to see what the reaction is. If you let it, the anxiety will tear you up. So don't let it. Find something else to do--start another project, take some time for a different hobby, anything. Step away for a while and let it stew. Not only will you be refreshed by the time the work gets back to you, you might have a clearer view of the project yourself. 
For the reader:
  • Be honest. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but just saying that you love the piece isn't really helping anyone. Your job as a beta reader is to point out when something doesn't work--when a piece of the puzzle is missing or a scene gets too confusing to follow or when the author is circling for a landing. If a writer sent you their work, they know there's room for improvement. They can more than likely take what you have to say--so long as you aren't a snot about it.
  • Say what you like. Just as important as saying what you don't like or don't think works is telling the author what you do like. For one thing, a little bit of praise makes the criticism easier to handle. For another, pointing out what the author is getting right helps them figure out where their strengths are. All my beta readers say they like a quiet character scene in chapter 3? I may make use of that in the next project. It also points out the things we ought to keep in the next draft. In my view, nothing from draft one is guaranteed to make the next draft--unless the readers latch onto it. If it hooked my betas, it stands a reason that it will hook the book's readers.
  • Be thorough. You just read 200-300 pages for someone. They want more feedback than a couple of sentences. Take notes while you read. Ask the writer what specific things they're concerned about with the draft you're reading. That will give you an idea of what to spend your time on and encourage the writer to consider where their weaknesses are. Good for everybody.
  • Be timely. From the moment the writer hits send on the email that contains their draft or puts the hard copy in your hands, they are going to be fretting. Waiting for feedback is nervy--especially when you're waiting for feedback on something that you've poured significant time and effort into. Don't make the writer suffer longer than they have to. Aside from that, the writer maybe on a deadline themselves, so your delays may translate to actual financial consequences for them. When a writer sets a deadline for a beta reading, do your best to honor it. If you're going to miss the deadline, let the writer know so that they can adjust.
These lists are by no means comprehensive or universal--everyone's got their preferences when it comes to beta reading, and the best thing to do is find people whose preferences are similar to yours. But these are definitely some things worth keeping in mind if you're a writer looking for a beta reader or a friend/acquaintance/whatever of a writer who has asked you to beta for them. They're certainly what I'm going to be making use of in the coming weeks.

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