Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Wonders of Beta Readers

I have two correspondents that I consider beta readers. We share and comment on each others' work, and I know that I've gotten a significant benefit from it. I hope they have received at least some benefit in compensation.

Hopefully, a writer eventually gets to the point of thinking "Okay, this draft is it!" We've reached the whole "Ok, I'm gonna send this ms off... to other people! Not me." place in our novel's life. I faced that part early on, and I'm mostly ok with it now. The upside is a comment like:
The scene where Rebecca is trying to explain to her mom and dad why she has to do what she is doing actually, and really, brought a tear to my eye... When you get to editing, treat this passage with respect, please.
 Of course, there are far more of these comments: "This is a little confusing." "This is a statement that confuses me." "Who is this girl?" "I don't see any point to the parts in blue." (The parts in blue comprised 60% of the preceding paragraph!) "Does this impart vital information?  All of this is irrelevant to the story at this point in time." Perhaps you can see a common thread; I surely can.

While the upside comments are welcome beyond belief, the other ones are the ones I live for. Live for, but don't particularly enjoy, since they point out likely mistakes. They tell me where I've gone astray in communicating with the reader, and may also give me a direction to follow. But that last, while helpful, isn't the goal. The goal is to see where I went in one direction without giving the reader sufficient information to follow, at least without backing up and saying to him- or herself, "What? Where'd that come from? 'Who is this girl?'"

I am grateful to have two people I trust for this help. Each of them see different things while having a remarkably coherent view of the story. I think having one more would benefit me, and I'm working on that. I hasten to add: in addition to, not in place of, the two I have now.

Perhaps you already have readers, no matter what you call them, that you trust to  point out the blemishes in your story. If not, I can't recommend finding one or two highly enough. I think they need to be someone you can go back and forth with, not always agreeing (because disagreement is the root of all that's good and wonderful, especially after resolution is reached), but always respectful of one another and as important, respectful of the story and the need you as author have to tell the story you want to tell. On the other side is your responsibility to consider suggestions seriously.

Trust me, if you truly believe you've written the perfect novel, you won't find beta readers helpful.

Trust me also that when you read a comment like "I also wondered, last night actually, if Cari's travelogue story was in fact there only to introduce Jean-Luc," and realize that the implication of that being correct is that 20000 hard written words are going to be recycled because we don't yet need to introduce Jean-Luc, and so that whole arc doesn't bear on the story at all, it gives you a queasy feeling in the tummy. (Now there's a wonderfully run-on sentence!) Maybe I shouldn't be so much of a pantser after all! However, I would never have realized that plot arc didn't belong without someone to say, "Look at this, will ya." Maybe you are different, but I get invested in my words and little plot elements, and without intervention, it's hard to look at one or more of them with an eye toward eliminating or reducing. I hope that will come as I gain experience, but right now, my beta readers ask the hard questions and deserve the good answers.

One thing I have to be careful of, at least in my mind, is a tendency to justify my past (plotting, word choice, whatever) decisions rather than give a hard look at suggestions. I think I'm doing better at this; I managed to avoid it in business after all. However, there there was not quite the emotional connection to the decision that there is in writing. Do your best to be honest with yourself when you read a suggestion, or critique, or review. With few generally easily detected exceptions, the author of the suggestion is stating an opinion that they believe will improve the work. My experience is - and this may reflect my lack of skill as a writer - many of these do improve the package.

Conversely, you are under no obligation to use all, or even any, of the suggestions you receive. With that in mind, I offer a suggestion: Be honest with yourself about the comments you receive. Use them when you think they improve the story; don't reject them out of hand. Don't reject them until you've made a rational decision that another option - including leaving the piece as is - is actually better. But I think that requires an honest evaluation, not one colored by 'how could he/she mean that? It changes everything!' feelings of doubt and betrayal. It may change everything (but likely not).  Sometimes, it may change everything. Perhaps that will be a better solution. Also, treat the reader supplying feedback with respect and, yes, wonder that they are willing to invest their time and energy in your work. Maybe even love them a little.

Alright, then. This has been a long-winded thank-you to my beta readers, with a discourse on the benefits I've seen which I hope you might find beneficial as you pound out those words and then lovingly shape them into a finished product.

Your thoughts and experience are more than welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment