Friday, July 23, 2010

Decoding Beta Readers

Yesterday I posted about my trials as a beta reader. Authors talk about beta readers as though they want the same thing out of their beta readers as the next guy, but this simply isn’t true.

I love to beta read, and think it’s a great way for me personally to improve my writing. I have been beta reading for years, and I noticed that certain phrases don’t always mean what I think they do.

For example, when someone tells me they want “brutal honesty” this usually means “please tell me I am the next Dan Brown/Stephanie Meyers/J.K. Rowling”.

(Just like The Da Vinci Code. Only better.)

Here are some other phrases I have decoded the double meanings of. Don’t thank me, just send chocolate:

“I have edited this manuscript extensively” really means “I ran MS Word Spell Check.”

“This is my seventh finished novel” really means “The other six novels were only 10,000 words long Star Trek-Harry Potter slash fanfiction. But each “novel” had a different vastly inappropriate character pairing.”

“Tell me if these characters are working or not” really means “These characters aren’t working at all.”

“Tell me if the plot feels too unoriginal or cliché” Really means “this plot is really unoriginal or cliché.”

Seriously though, I am kidding. I swear, please, just kidding. A couple of people who I beta read for actually read my blog, so please for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t think I was talking about you. I was just making a vain attempt at being funny. I know, I know. I realize I should never try to be funny, and I have learned my lesson.

(I am not the funny one in the family. That's my twin brother's job. He never has to wear the Not Funny At All Hat.)

I am cracking wise about beta reading because I recently had an…incident with a person I beta read for in real life. I dubbed her Jane in yesterday’s post, and taking the wonderful advice of Charity Bradford (you should read her blog, she’s funny and sweet) and Joseph Selby (you should read his LifeJournal, he’s funny and witty), I told her how I felt about her book.

Nicely, of course. But I told her I thought she needed to take a step back from her novel to try to figure out what wasn’t working. She’s written four of them in three years, and they all have the same feel of good-but-not-quite there. I also told her all of the strengths of the book, and pointed out specific examples of what was working. But I also think her writing still feels too green and fresh.

There comes a point where I think you need to take a step back and think, “Maybe the answer isn’t write novel after novel, and hope someday to get published.” In Jane’s case at least, I think she needed to edit her novels better. Get into those manuscripts and just roll around in her prose, and pull it apart. She’s not planning on publishing the first one, so there’s no worrying about “ruining” or “breaking” the novel from over editing. But editing means more than just checking the spelling, grammar, and continuity of the novel (you know, when Sam has a glass of Coke in his hand in Scene A, but a glass of Pepsi in Scene B. Not to mention that Sam would never, ever drink Pepsi to begin with).

It’s not like I expect Jane to do as I say, not as I do. I am tearing the last novel I wrote apart. Literally. It’s not pretty. There’s all sorts of notes and red pen markings and notebook pages of character changes. I feel like a surgeon who’s opened up a patient for a routine gallbladder-ectomy (I am aware that’s not a real word) and discovered the patient riddled with…something. Cancer maybe. Or all of the organs were replaced with kitchen appliances. Either way, that surgeon shakes his head and says, “This isn’t good.”

(Not good at all.)

And of course, what I think personally about Jane’s prose still remains at the end of the day, my humble, unpublished opinion. But she didn’t react to my gentle, sweeten-to-make-the-bad-medicine-go-down opinions very well. She made some thinly veiled comments about how I wasn’t published yet either, and she’d taken into consideration what I thought.

To be Frank (you can be Jeannette), it hurt my feelings. I really wasn’t trying to be mean, I swear. It’s hard to hear criticism, no matter how nice the person is trying to be. I have been on the other end of that relationship, and it always stings. But what good am I as a beta reader if I don’t tell her what I really think? I was hoping maybe she’d get inspired by my gentle criticisms, and this might be the event that turns her writing career around.

It’s also my policy as a beta reader to offer as many suggestions or fixes to any problems I think exist. I also explain in detail WHY I think something isn’t working, so the writer can make their own decisions. It’s not like every suggestion I make the writer should follow or he’s clearly mental. Deciding what works and what doesn’t is a process you as a writer must face alone; beta readers are just other people’s opinions after all. If I say I think Scene A has too much gratuitous violence (hard to imagine, I know), and the author disagrees with me, but sees why I remarked on the violence, maybe they will get an idea for revision that doesn’t change their vision for the book, but addresses possible concerns.
Then the author still gets something useful out of the Author-Beta reader exchange, even if they ultimately decides to not make a change you suggested.

So, at the end of my long ramble, are a few points:

a) Know exactly what you want out of a beta reader. Do you want them to pay attention to spelling and grammar or just the plot-character-theme stuff? You should clearly state what you want from the beta reader, and what type of feedback you are comfortable with. I have never, ever heard someone tell me “go gentle, I am sensitive to criticism”, but this is the case many times. If you know you are sensitive to criticism, there are a few things to do about this:
1. Let your mom read your book first. Or your spouse, or brother, or whoever is going to tell you how wonderful you are. Don’t be ashamed; there’s nothing wrong with a little ego inflation now and then.
2. If you decide to embark on the wonder and despair that which is beta readers, make sure you tell them. It’s so much better to know someone is a little sensitive in the beginning, than finding out later (case in point: my recent experience with Jane).
3. DO NOT ask questions you can’t handle the answer to. This seems really, really simple, but my goodness, is this a doosy. Not just in writing, but in your real life too. Remember when you were in high school, and you really like that guy/girl? And you didn’t know if they liked you back? And you imagined all the dates and the wonderful times together? And then you found out they thought you smelled like cats and old tires? Crushing, wasn’t it? So yes, before you ask beta readers questions, or even submit the book at all, make sure you’re ready to cope with hearing about all of your mistakes.
4. Try as best as you can to cope with it. Criticism will always be there, and it’s best to start trying to put up with it now. Also, try not to get bitter about criticism and publishing in general. I have meet people my age who are like shriveled, bitter old people, always cackling about how no one understands their magnificent prose, and those darn kids on their lawn. It’s not pretty.

b) What do you personally want from a beta reader? I am very curious as to what other people have to say on the matter. Even those of us who haven’t been published can still relate to the beta reading matter. What qualities do you like for, if any? What do you tell them ahead of time, if anything? Do you feel like it’s mostly helpful or useless?

c) What about the flip side? What do you like about beta reading for other people? What don’t you like? What do you wish you knew now about beta reading that you didn’t know earlier?

Ultimately, I think beta reading can be a vital tool for a writer. It improves your writing whether you’re the one doing the reading or the writing. As the reader, you can clearly spot common mistakes that people make, or what the author is doing in the story that isn’t working. You can then apply this to your own writing. As the writer, having someone read your story is a God-send. They have a fresh set of eyes, and help me see what on the page, and not what I think is on the page.


  1. Say it with me, Jane is dead to us.

    Seriously, beta reading for someone is a serious investment of your own time (away from your own writing) and if she can't be gracious enough to say thank you, then you don't need to spend any more of your time. Sure not every beta reader is good, but you don't get all up in their grill (it smells like hamburgers). You say thank you and you move on your way. Try to find the value in the work that was done, if it can be found, and find someone you feel better understands your work. It is possible for a beta reader to not be that good. I've seen them (and not even on my own work, I've seen how they beta read others and it wasn't good).

    NOW, the matter at hand. Elizabeth Poole is a damn fine beta reader. I know this first hand. Jane = dead -> me.

    (I also laughed at your jokes in your post, so don't think your brother got all the funny.)

    You know where I learned a lot about writing? Listening to Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Toby Ziegler (Robert Schriff) talk about writing on "The West Wing." It didn't necessarily give me any new ideas, but it specified techniques that I had been doing without knowing what I was doing. The importance of cadence and rhythm and word choice. It can make one sentence greater than a thousand sentences if done well.

    So we will now ignore Jane. She is unworthy of our Elizabeth. We will instead turn to one of my favorite topics. Me. Why is Charity funny and sweet and I'm funny and witty? I'm not sweet? Damn! :P

    (I am 1/4 to 1/3 of the way finished with THE TRIAD SOCIETY. I would very much appreciate your input once it is finished and revised.)

  2. I won’t be beta reading for Jane anymore. We both agreed the match isn’t good.

    And of course you are sweet, Joe. I was going to say sweet, but I thought you might find it emasculating. I was trying to think of a more manly adjective for sweet but I couldn’t think of one. So yes, you are indeed sweet. Especially after telling me I am funny.

    And I will definitely look over Triad Society for you when you’re done.