Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beta-reading = what the story wants

This is one of my favourite sites. Not only does it have helpful advise for revising your own work, but I have found it invaluable as a beta-reader.

Right now I am 3/4 through a first-draft manuscript for someone who has never written a full-length novel before. I also know that I am the first non-friend/family member who will have read/commented on it...

As you can imagine, there are a lot of problems. Most of them are typical for a new writer's first manuscript.

Which is why that site is so awesome. Along with my comments, I can link to a bunch of helpful articles that hopefully this writer will read and will learn something new that will not only help them write better, but help their read their own work with a more critical eye. Over the last 6 or 7 years, I've (conservatively) read more than a dozen full-lenth manuscripts, an uncountable number of single chapters and many, many first chapters of new work or short stories.

Beta reading is hard. As a reader, I know what I do like and what I don't like, but beta-reading is not about that. I can comfortably say that out of every story or partial that I have ever read, maybe only one or two of those would fall into the category of books I would pick up in a bookstore to read for my own personal pleasure, so if I was commenting based on like/dislike... I certainly wouldn't be a very good beta-reader.

When I have agreed to read something far, far outside my *preferred* genre (and believe me, that's happened... <cough, cough> 280,000 word epic fantasy/sci-fi combination... <cough>), I always let the writer know in advance, but I don't think it impacts my ability to give a thorough read-through and list my comments. In fact, I find that when I read something in my preferred genre, I have a much harder time being objective because I am more emotionally involved in the story.

Objective? Is that even possible?

Okay, if you're sceptical about the notion of absolutes or the ability to be objective, believe me, I've been there and over-thought that.

So when I say *beta-read objectively*, this is what I mean:

I think any beta-reader has to constantly keep three things in mind.

1) what they, as a reader wants
2) what the author wants
3) what the story wants

...and I see this as a circular issue. What I, the reader, wants may not be what the author wants, but what the author wants may not be what the story wants AND what the story wants may not be what I, the reader, wants.



But I've had a lot of time (and reading) to think about it.

As a beta-reader, I have the duty to tell the writer what I, as a reader, wants from the story they have offered. I also have to understand what they want, because often the author knows what they want to say, it's just not coming across clearly. It's my duty as a beta-reader to always remember that this is not my story, and I think this is where most beta-readers get caught up. They get emotionally invested and can sometimes demand that the author re-write the story to their preferences. The beta-reader can think they know best and the author should listen to them.

That part of the problem is easy, right? It's the 'what the story wants' that's more complicated.

I know as a writer how easy it is to get bogged down in your own story and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes where you want to go with a story is not necessarily where you should go with it. Often, I think, writers play it too safe. When you like your own story, when you like your own characters, sometimes it's really hard to maim (or kill) that one character, delete a side character that you love, or even start (or end) the story in a completely different place. I think, as a beta-reader, it is my duty to point out places where limbs need to be hacked off, whole sections amputated and discarded, if I think it will make the entirely of the story better. Even if the writer doesn't want to hear it and doesn't agree.

Even if, as a reader, I love that particular character that I'm advising to cut, or I love that first scene with the awesome back-and-forth cutting dialogue that... that really should be cut.

It doesn't matter what kind of story, I always take it seriously if I've committed to being a beta-reader. Sometimes it's complicated, or I'm gritting my teeth (hating myself) while writing out my comments, but I always try to do what works best for the reader, the writer, and the story.

What are your thoughts on beta-reading, both as a reader, or a receiver of those comments? Are there places in the commentary that fall short of your expectations? What areas could you improve on, as a beta-reader, and what areas do you wish your beta-readers would improve the feedback they give, or the way they give it?

Sometimes all it takes is writing out a list of things you want looked at...

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