Wednesday, April 29, 2015

An Author’s Opinion on Employing Beta-Readers

I've mentioned before at great length how important it can be to find yourself some decent beta readers to help you with your writing process. Today I thought it might be nice to see this advice put to use by a fellow writer and soon-to-be published author. It’s all very well to explore these techniques in theory – but how effectively do they translate in practice? And how can they put your writing a cut above the rest?

Caitlyn E. Mitchell (who stands in the ranks of a select group I possessively call “MY Authors”) is a writer of young adult novels whose works I have been editing for the better part of a decade. In the past few years she has been exploring the combination of re-told fairy tales and historical fiction, casting the magical stories that we all know and love into realistic and concrete sections of world history. Two books into the process, Caitlyn has entered into contract with a literary agent and is well on her way to seeing the finished pieces in print. You can read her bio and access her own blog on my Authors page.

Tell us about your writing process and where the beta readers come into it.

Well, my writing process can be rather fluid. Generally, though, I come up with an idea and do all of my research at the front. A lot of brainstorming happens during this time with my editor. I’ll throw ideas around, we’ll discuss plausibility and whether or not something is too far-fetched, and eventually I’ll have between 20 and 30 pages of strict resources and randomly generated thoughts. For the most part I don’t outline extensively. I have a formula that I use for the number and size of my chapters to help me reach and then stay within my page/word counts. I jot down a paragraph or some bullet points of what needs to happen in each chapter, if I know, and then I start writing.

I have two beta-readers who read each chapter as it is finished in its full, messy, first draft goodness. They don’t edit for style, grammar, or functionality, unless there is something seriously egregious that I let slip by. Mostly they ask questions, verify that they understand the story correctly, and provide feedback, maybe a few thoughts if something isn’t very clear. They keep me honest about my goals (where’s the next chapter, eh?!) and they also help nudge me along if I seem to be straying from the path.

After the book is written, my editor will do a complete read of the raw draft. At this time the grammatical and stylistic errors will be notated and corrected, and any last tweaks to the flow of the story will be suggested. By this time, though, most of the major story flaws have already been noticed by the chapter-by-chapter beta readers. The goal is to send as clean and correct a manuscript to the editor as possible; extensive rewrites should occur during the writing process beforehand. If I did my job correctly, editing should always just be editing.

What are some concrete benefits that you have experienced by having beta readers?

No one lives in a vacuum. And even if you think it, you don’t always have the best ideas. Sometimes you can stagnate with no real resources for how to get out of this plot hole you’ve created. Sometimes you just don’t like a character, and a beta reader can tell you that character is their favorite and you’d better not touch anything—or their least favorite and yes, you do need to change it. Basically, beta readers help get you out of your own skull and to see things from a fresh perspective. Your readers are going to be forming opinions on your book anyway—what author wouldn’t want to know what some of those thoughts might be as they’re going along?

A beta reader may have a good suggestion, or they may say just the right thing, turning on that light bulb and getting you working again. Beta readers also, as I said before, keep you honest. You can’t do much dithering if you know your readers are waiting at the end of the line for that next chapter you promised them. Procrastination is a writer’s worst enemy. In my own experience, writer’s block, lack of inspiration, plot holes, anything that causes a delay in writing has nothing at all to do with the book. It’s all a hidden form of procrastination that then ends up in twenty games of lost Solitaire. Writers may not write every day; they may not write every week. What they write may not be good, it may be amazing. But writers do write, and beta readers help me get that writing on the page, good or bad. Rough drafts are allowed to stink. But you can’t finish a book if you don’t just giddy up and write it.

Another benefit is that, personally, I have the tendency to over-rewrite. If I could, I’d edit forever and end up getting nowhere. Beta readers have allowed me to throw that perfectionism to the winds—and as a result, my production timeline has gone through the roof. I wrote three books in the last two years and I have another planned to begin later this summer. And it’s the best writing I’ve ever done.

When you have a beta reader, there’s no time to agonize over perfecting the book the first time. Do your job and let them do theirs. Once that chapter is finished, don’t reread it, don’t edit it, don’t even look at it. Just send it along. They’ll let you know what’s what, and then you can go back and make tweaks. But at the same time, you have to keep pushing forward. They’re waiting for that next chapter.

Have you encountered any downsides to the process?

The only downside I’d say exists is less of a downside and more of a job hazard. Your beta readers have opinions. That is, after all, what you’re asking them to give you. They’re going to tell you what they like and don’t like.

It’s the author’s job to read all of those edits and opinions openly and without any intention of offense. Because in the end, you’re holding the pen. If you don’t agree with a beta reader’s suggestion—then you’re free to disagree and move on. At the same time, are you disagreeing because of some valid reason? Or just because you feel like it? Because you say so and it has to be that way? You have to throw aside all touchiness (and I know, it can be hard—this is your brain baby after all) and evaluate each thought and suggestion as a crucial building block. What are the merits, or the flaws in the idea, either yours or the reader’s? If they made a comment, they made it for a reason—so if you don’t take their suggestion, is there another way you could clarify it to reach a middle ground?

Your beta readers aren’t going to have all the answers, but their role is to make you think and work for your result, rather than coasting it in because you’re the writer and you say so. You don’t have to take all their suggestions as gospel, but you should take all their suggestions as flags to point out that something isn’t quite right yet. That can be hard on an ego (and all authors have that in quantities, whether it’s obvious or hidden—it’s what allows us to do our job, because if we didn’t think our writing was worth reading, we wouldn’t do it). But you have to put ego aside and work for your art.

How did you pick your beta readers?

I’d say there’s no strict way to pick beta readers. Some people would want a blank honest opinion from a forum or someone they don’t know. Some people would want friends and family members they can trust to be honest. Both options have their flaws and potential pitfalls (someone on a blank forum may not have the time to really commit to you or may cause latent trust issues with where your content is really going; whereas a family member might just tell you what you want to hear, or they may be your worst nightmare, constantly dredging up every detail at every social event or nitpicking you mercilessly with no real effort at engaging in artful discussion).

I picked my beta readers from people I knew I could trust, who would be utterly honest with me while also staying within the realm of constructive criticism and who also enjoy the genre in which I write. If I’m writing fantasy, I don’t need someone saying I need more robots and laser beams (unless I’m trying to be like Piers Anthony). If I’m writing romance, now is probably not the time for zombies (Pride and Prejudice with Zombies already covered that).

You need people who will push you to be your best, but who are also ultimately on your side. You need people who are as invested in your work as you are. Because if they’re just doing it as a one-off favor, you’ll probably get partial suggestions and distracted reads. If they know nothing about your genre, they won’t really be able to make insightful comments on the characters or the way the story is going. Now, that last bit can be excepted if they’re just overall well read or enthusiastic book lovers. You don’t necessarily have to be a huge fan of historical fiction to make an honest and informed comment on it. But it does help.

What do you have to say about the assertion that friends and family do not make the best beta readers?

I think it really depends on the friend or family member. Someone who is just going to gush over you constantly is not who you need. Someone who is going to nitpick every single word is also not who you need. Leave that to the editor.

You need someone who will praise you when you deserve it and push you when you do not deserve praise. In my experience, friends and family members have been the best beta readers because they’re invested in me, my work, and can also be brutally honest if necessary. They get what I’m going for, and if I’m feeling glum, they can remind me that what I’m doing is worthwhile. Beta readers are your cheerleaders, your first-draft editors, your firing squad, your drawing board, your crack-the-whip taskmasters. In the end, be they friend, family, or complete stranger, you need someone who is going to be by your side for the long haul.


In other news, stay tuned next week for a potential post on my foray into the world of submissions! Final revisions to my current project continue to proceed at a slower pace than they started (crumbs!) but we'll get there sooner rather than later. And then the real fun begins. 

Keep writing! Keep reading! We'll catch up next week.

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